A Picture-perfect Peninsula!
If you’re not here for dolphins, then you’re here for the landscape formed by volcanoes, and if you’re not here for the stunning scenery then you’re here for the “French flavour” that is the pride of Akaroa. And if you’re not here for any of those, then this is awkward… In all seriousness, many backpackers find themselves in Christchurch during their travels in New Zealand but miss the incredible Banks Peninsula just next door. Transport to Akaroa is plentiful from Christchurch and is only a 1h20min drive so there is no excuse to miss this heritage village with some incredible wildlife encounters.
The harbour village has had its fair share of interest from a variety of cultures from the early Maori settlers, the British and the French who established the township. Some of the original French street names and cottages remain. Dolphins, penguins, seals and sea birds are also attracted to the harbour, which are all an easy boat or kayak journey to see in their natural environment. Meanwhile, on dry land, there are lots to explore from native forest on the hillsides to heritage trails complete with awesome views.
There’s usually one main reason why backpackers travel to this little area of New Zealand, and that’s to see the abundance of wildlife in Akaroa’s waters. Akaroa specialises in the “tiny” variety of wildlife, such as Hector’s dolphins and the little blue penguins.
Dolphins in Akaroa
The Hector’s dolphins grow no more than 1.5 metres, making them the smallest dolphins in the world (apart from their rare sub-species the Maui dolphins also found in New Zealand). About 900 dolphins hang about in Akaroa Harbour, surfing waves, doing acrobats and playing with seaweed. You can get close to these amazing creatures by boat tour, kayaking and even swimming with them with Black Cat Cruises. Akaroa is the only place in the world you can get in the water with Hector’s dolphins. Find out more at the 5 Best Places to Swim with Dolphins in New Zealand.
Little Blue Penguins in Akaroa
The largest mainland colony of white-flippered blue penguins is the Pohatu colony in the Banks Peninsula. Because the colony is on a highly sensitive conservation site, the only way to see the little blue penguins is with a tour. The best time to see them is from the end of August to January. Find out more in Where to Find Penguins in New Zealand.
More Wildlife in Akaroa
When taking a tour on the water, whether it’s by cruise, kayaking with Akaroa Guided Sea Kayaking Safaris, fishing or sailing in the stunning harbour, it’s not uncommon to see New Zealand fur seals, albatross and other sea birds. There has even been known to be southern right whales, which are up to 15 metres long.
Experience Culture in Akaroa
All of Akaroa’s early settlers left a pinch of their culture in the village. Of course, the earliest of which was the Maori, where you can appreciate their history at the Okains Bay Maori & Colonial Museum. Exhibits include artefacts dating back to the 1400s. Okains Bay is a 20-minute drive from Akaroa.
The French established Akaroa in 1840, which is evident from the street names such as the main street, Rue Lavaud. Some of the village-walks (see below for “Walking Tracks in Akaroa”) take you to various cemeteries and original cottages built by French settlers. During a weekend in October (specific dates vary year to year) Akaroa is host to a French Festival. Just to “French” things up a little bit more, you can go watch how cheese is made (October to May) at Barrys Bay Cheese.
Meanwhile, the British put their two cents in with the Britomart Monument to commemorate British sovereignty over the South Island.
For your final cultural dose, check out The Giants House on 68 Rue Balguerie. It is known as the “happiest garden on earth”. Just check it out for an entrance fee of around NZ$20 to see why…
Take a Hike in the Akaroa Countryside
The Akaroa countryside, also known as the Banks Peninsula, has no lack of walking and hiking tracks to make taking in the stunning harbour views all the more worth it. Hidden in its hills are crags, waterfalls, native forest and conservation projects. The great thing for backpackers without a car is that you can access these areas by foot if you are willing to extend your walk slightly. We’ve picked some highlights of the Banks Peninsula that we recommend exploring.
Newton’s Waterfall (10 Minutes Oneway)
Nestled in native forest above the Akaroa township in the Misty Parks Reserve is Newton’s Waterfall. You can walk or drive to it from Akaroa by taking Aylmers Valley Rd to Misty Parks Reserve car park (30-45 minutes if walking). From the car park take the easy walk to the waterfall.
Stony Bay Peak
There are a number of options for climbing to this prominent 800-metre high peak above Akaroa. You can take the easy route by driving to the top of Stony Bay Road and take a 1-hour return walk. On the other hand, you can make a day trip out of the experience by starting at the visitor centre in Akaroa and doing the 5-hour Skyline Circuit. Follow Rue Balguerie then Purple Peak Road. From there, follow the gravel road up to where you can take the easy way to the peak via the Paripai Track or the harder Stony Bay Peak climb. Either way, the summit gives awesome views of Akaroa Harbour, the Southern Alps, the Pacific and the Hinewai Reserve. Pick a clear day for the best views.
This reserve above Akaroa, which can also be an extension to the Stony Bay Peak hike if you take the Purple Saddle to the lower Hinewai Reserve entrance, is well worth exploring in its own right with a network of well-maintained trails throughout the restoring forest. You’ll stumble upon waterfalls and clear-as-day streams, while likely hearing some unusual bird calls from the native tui. Quick access to the reserve is along Long Bay Road.
The Banks Peninsula Track (2-4 Days)
To see all the peninsula has to offer, there is the Banks Peninsula Track over private land, which means there is a fee to access the 2-4 day tramp.
Walking Tracks in Akaroa
Don’t want to venture too far from the village? There’s plenty to explore while stretching your legs in and closely around the Akaroa township, mainly consisting of historic sights and taking in the town’s charm.
Children’s Bay Walkway (3-hour Loop)
Known by the local’s as “The Rhino Walk”, this walk can be accessed from walking distance from Akaroa. From the Akaroa Recreational Ground on the east side of town, follow the boardwalks to Children’s Bay where the Children’s Bay Walkway begins. Walk among bird-filled bush and see an array of sculptures along the way.
L’Aube Hill French Cemetery (45-minute Loop)
A cemetery walk might sound pretty depressing, but this walk is more about the location of the cemetery, which takes you through forest above Akaroa. That’s not to say any “French Cemetery” enthusiasts will have a blast here too.
Start the signposted track from Rue Pompallier before the gallery. Along the way take the track that branches off to the right to visit one of the oldest cemeteries in the South Island. After your visit, return on the same track and continue the loop by turning right at the junction. Go down Libeau Lane to Rue Grehan which has some old cottages built by French colonisers. To get back to the starting point, turn onto Rue Lavaud where you can cut through St Patrick’s Catholic Church grounds back to Rue Pompallier.
Britomart Monument (1-hour Loop)
Your starting point is your first photo opportunity with the Akaroa Lighthouse. Then you must walk through an Anglican Cemetery yes, Akaroa has a thing for deceased early settlers and cross the car park to a bush track. The track will emerge onto Onuku Road where you’ll see cliff-edge houses. Turn right onto Stanley Place, which leads to the Britomart Monument. A good time to visit is to watch the sunset over the harbour. Return to the lighthouse by following the waterfront.
Garden of Tarn
This park holds many tracks so you can let your feet go crazy! Walk amongst native trees and to various lookouts. You can even look at more gravestones if you like.
If You Have More Time in Akaroa…
- Take a jet boat ride into the caves off the shore of Akaroa!
- When making your way back to Christchurch from Akaroa, don’t miss the scenic Lyttelton area, such as Corsair Bay, Orton Bradley Park, Diamond Harbour and Purau Bay
- You can also visit the gateway to the peninsula, Little River, with its cool accommodation options like the silos, campgrounds and quirky backpacker hostel options
- Visit Little River – see 5 Fun Things to Do in Little River
- Check out more things in the 10 Things We Love About Akaroa.