It’s been busier than usual in once tranquil Akaroa. This pretty waterside village, a jewel of the Banks Peninsula on New Zealand’s South Island, found itself abruptly redefined as a major international cruise destination following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
Damage to the city and its port of Lyttelton forced tourism to focus on alternative destinations within the Canterbury region. Akaroa being only 75 kilometres south was soon bracing itself to cope with massive influx of visitors.
In the following months this tiny settlement managed to cope with the visit of 81 cruise ships carrying nearly 132,000 passengers, most of them keen to take shore tours and sample local delights. A further 86 cruise ships carrying 143,925 passengers visited Akaroa during the following 2012/13 cruise season.
This ongoing tourism tsunami has put great pressure on a local population of about 600. Most Akaroans I meet either rub their hands with glee at this boost to business or wring them in worry over the impact the tourist crunch is having on their tranquil lifestyle.
Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief Tim Hunter says so many cruise ships visiting Akaroa does pose distinct challenges but says there have been significant economic benefits. And Craig Harris, chairman of Cruise New Zealand, says cruise lines would have bypassed the region altogether if Akaroa hadn’t stepped up to cope with suddenly becoming the main port of call for visiting ships.
Most visitors are fascinated by Akaroa’s flavours and accents, unique in New Zealand. It’s where a French whaler, Captain Langlois, made land in the early 19th Century and where a French colony was to be founded. That never happened yet, to this day, Akaroa wears its French heritage with pride.
The most obvious signs are street names such as Rue Balguerie, Rue Jolie, Rue Lavaud and Rue Viard. There’s a bistro on the main street and other restaurants with French names. Akaroa’s French Fest is an annual bash sponsored by a prestigious Champagne house during which the tricolore is seen flapping in the breeze. The celebrations climax with a period costume ball in the village theatre.
Akaroa is tiny so easy to explore on foot, but be prepared to tackle steep slopes once you leave the main street. The Langlois-Eteveneaux cottage dating from the 1840s is now part of the local museum and around the village there are other enchanting colonial cottages with splendid gardens.
Out on the chilly waters of Akaroa harbour I willingly hop overboard in a wet suit to swim with rare Hector’s dolphins. These cute, playful, curious creatures, endemic to the South Island, are among the smallest of dolphins. They circle me then dart away, only to return for another look. By the time I get back to shore I’m ravenous and ready for my lesson at the Akaroa Cooking School.
# On World Oceans Day, June 8, part of Akaroa Harbour will become a marine reserve, recognising the environment as the “new frontier for conservation”. The 475-hectare reserve covers the south east corner of Akaroa Harbour and includes the area surrounding the spectacular Dan Rogers Bluff.