At the end of a 90 minute scenic drive from Christchurch, nestled in the remnants of an old volcanic crater, lies Akaroa within the harbour of the same name. Banks Peninsula is the result of historical volcanic activity resulting in the creation of Lyttelton harbour and Akaroa harbour on opposing sides of the peninsula. It is a beautiful drive to reach Akaroa and my brother had plenty of opportunity to take in the Canterbury countryside as we wound our way first round then up and over the hillsides, past the many bays to reach the town. Originally settled by the French before the English claimed New Zealand, it does its best to retain a bit of French flair, with French street names and French flags. It is a great day or overnight trip from the Garden City and always a great place to take visitors.
Despite a cruise ship being in the harbour, it wasn’t as oppressively busy as it can be on cruise ship days and we’d arrived early enough to have little problem finding a park. We headed first away from the main pier and down to the little pier and round past the domain and recreation ground where a track led round a few bays to a picnic table. Returning back to town we passed remnants of the whaling days, and the town’s war memorial before following the sweeping bay round to where the main eateries are. Coming from Scotland, where fish suppers are notoriously good, it’s been hard to find a worthy contender in New Zealand. Thankfully, I’ve found a pretty good one near where I live, but Akaroa Fish & Chips is a reasonable place to go to, and I insisted to my brother that we ate there. The place is always busy and table space is at a premium, so even although it wasn’t quite the lunchtime rush yet, we still had to sit on the wall to enjoy it.
Loaded up with food, we cut down to the main pier to wander along past the cruise passengers who were busy loading on and off the transfer vessels that were ploughing back and forth across the harbour. The end of the pier is a good spot to look back onto the town from and admire the towering hillside that juts up behind the town. Further round the headland is a lighthouse and we hugged the roadside round the coast to reach it. It was a busy little place, and I’ve never really gone anywhere further round, but my brother wanted to keep wandering so we continued along the road until eventually a path took us up the hillside a little to the Britomart monument. From there, we headed back to town via a bush walk up past the cemetery.
Akaroa is one of the few places in New Zealand to see the rare Hector’s dolphin, the smallest dolphin in the world alongside its even rarer cousin the Maui dolphin. Averaging 1.4m in length, they are distinctive in having a round dorsal fin instead of the usual pointed one, and although occasionally seen close to the town, the best way to see them is on a harbour nature cruise. I’ve done this several times here, and usually take people that visit us out on this trip, but my brother wasn’t really fussed so we meandered back to the car and instead I drove him up Lighthouse Road which has a steep incline but also has a great viewpoint from an S-bend where there is a crude pull-in. There were sheep grazing just across the fence, the grass was green, the sky was blue, and a good expanse of Akaroa and the harbour lay below us.
Seeing as it was November, we still had many hours of daylight ahead of us, and with blue skies overhead, I drove us out of Akaroa and cut up to Summit Road to take the high road back home. The gorse was in full bloom creating a vast yellow wave across the hillside. Although it is introduced and classed as a pest species here, it certainly reminds me of my homeland and it added a dramatic edge to the landscape. Driving Summit Road, we got sneak peaks of the Pacific Ocean at times, but mainly the view was down over the harbour as we followed the curvature of the mountain. There were so many viewpoints to stop at, and whether my brother wanted to or not, I stopped at many of them before we eventually found ourselves back at the junction with the road to Little River.
Through the other side of Little River, when the turn-off came, I took the road to Gebbies Pass to cut across and join the Summit Road that overlooks Lyttelton harbour and the city of Christchurch. Again there are plenty of places to stop and admire the view, including the place where my best friend got married, near the Sign of the Bellbird. There was still plenty of scars from the bush fire that had swept across this area 9 months prior. The regeneration was very evident but it will take a long time for the bush to reach the level it was before. Eventually we snaked down Dyers Pass Road and back home.
The next day was more hazy than the previous ones, and giving him the options of walks in the area, my brother decided to go to Spencer Park where a walk leads up past wetlands to the mouth of the Waimakariri river. Although it was decidedly grey, it was a pleasant enough walk, and we managed to spot a spoonbill and a kingfisher amongst the usual ducks, herons and gulls that were frequenting the area. My partner joined us to begin with, but had to leave early to go to work, whereas my brother and I kept walking north for some time until we couldn’t be bothered going any further, at which point we turned around and headed back.
It was an easy drive from there to New Brighton beach where we had lunch at the Salt on the Pier cafe. Unfortunately, the pier was under repair at the time so we couldn’t walk far along it. Nearby though, a dune walk heads off across the dune tops towards the southern end of New Brighton beach. There were plenty of flowers in bloom offering a distraction from the sea view, but eventually we cut down to the beach itself and continued to walk down till it ends at the mouth of the estuary that receives the run out from the Avon and Heathcote rivers. The rock structure at the end of Sumner beach looked tantalisingly close being as it was around low tide, but the current of the estuary mouth was clearly very strong and any attempt to swim the gap would be foolish. As we cut back up we came across a dead fish that a black-backed gull very eagerly tucked into after we had passed by. It was the very definition of sushi.
In the time it had taken us to walk down the beach and then back again, there were a few windsurfers in the waves that hadn’t been there before. A couple of them were particularly acrobatic, leaping surprisingly high in the air as they zipped over and around the waves that rolled onto the beach. We watched them as we walked. New Brighton unfortunately suffered a lot in the 2011 earthquake and is in need of a good dose of investment, but the waterfront area around the pier was at least undergoing some much needed repair when we were there. Heading home, we had our road trip ahead of us the next day: a 10 day drive round the South Island’s highlights. I’m always eager for a road trip and always eager to explore my adopted homeland, so I was excited to get going.