It started with a birthday wish. Daniel’s grandma was celebrating her 80th birthday and wanted to do a nature cruise in Akaroa. In the weeks leading up to it, we weren’t sure it would go ahead. Omicron had raised its ugly head and case numbers were skyrocketing. But we made it there, and I have to say, it was a pretty amazing trip.
We arrive in Christchurch and while Daniel’s parents are sorting out the rental car, Daniel, his sister and I take a seat nearby. We are chatting but then Daniel hears the word ‘upgrade’ come from the rental car guy and he is off, planting himself right between his parents ready to start negotiating the upgrade and get a ‘fancier car’. A few $$$ later and a hilarious incident of window wipers going flat out instead of the indicator (a European car where the levers are opposite to what we are used to) we are on the road making our way to what I hope will be sunny Akaroa.
I didn’t know a lot about Akaroa other than this; it is located in the South Island of Aotearoa, and a bit over an hour’s drive from Christchurch. Oh, and it was settled by the French and the street names are all in le français. Fortunately, this is an English speaking area (like the rest of New Zealand) as the extent of my French is Bonjour.
I have been there once before, about 9 years ago when Daniel and I spent 3 weeks exploring the South Island on our motorbike. But we only spent about an hour there so I was really looking forward to getting to know this place better.
It’s a rather winding road that goes up and over a hill to get there, but we finally get our first glimpse of Akaroa and it is beautiful. Made even better by the fact that it is basking in sunshine.
We arrive and head straight out to lunch, making our way to The Brasserie Kitchen & Wine Bar which has a lovely outdoor setting. I order the most French thing I can find on the menu, a crepe filled with cheese and roasted vegetables then followed by a macaron. They were both outstanding, one of the nicest macaron’s I have ever had and an excellent start to the trip. I am now wondering why I never went back to buy more macarons. A tip for next time.
Lunch is followed by a stroll along the promenade, stopping to browse in shops and take in the lovely sea views. The ocean is such a gorgeous colour. We head further round the bay to check out the lighthouse and then up a few steps to the Akaroa Lookout Point. It is probably the lowest lookout I have ever been to. Honestly, it was only about 10 steps up, but still a nice view point. The walk through the forest is noticeably cool, so nice in the midday heat. The cicadas are singing their happy tunes.
After checking in at our accommodation, we head over to the Beer Garden at the Madeira Hotel to enjoy the last of the afternoon sun, share stories over drinks and snacks and wait for the birthday girl and rest of the family to arrive. It’s a very relaxed afternoon and evening with lots of laughs.
One of my goals for the year is to watch some sunrises. I decide that Akaroa is the first place I am going to try this. It is on the east coast, but surrounded by hills. I know I won’t get to see the sun come up over the horizon, but I still think it will be worth watching.
Daniel enjoyed a lot of beverages the night before, so, being the good wife that I am, I leave him sleeping and head out about 6:30am. There is a wharf nearby so I walk along that and take a seat at the end to enjoy the show. It is so still and no one is around. It is quiet and peaceful. No car engines, no boat engines, just stillness. It’s a sleepy town and I get to watch it wake up. The sky is blushed with pink and gold tones. This moment is beautiful. It feels like a secret gift, just for me.
After about an hour of watching Akaroa come to life, I am called to breakfast by my rather loud rumbling tummy. It leads me to Rona’s cafe, where I find an almond croissant to eat at the waterfront. Gosh, I love having pastries for breakfast. It’s certainly not an everyday breakfast food (unless you are in Europe, then the rule doesn’t apply!) but it’s a lovely holiday treat.
The rest of the morning is slow and leisurely and at lunchtime we head down to the wharf for the main event of the weekend. A nature cruise with Akaroa Dolphins. I was delighted to discover that this is the company that has a 4 legged crew member. Albie the Spaniel was on board greeting all the guests as they arrived. Already kitted out in his life jacket, Albie is ready to spot some dolphins. Apparently dogs can hear dolphins talking to each other so Albie will be able to let guests know when they are near.
We head out into the harbour and our skipper shares some of the history of the area. It was here I learn that Akaroa was actually settled by the French and the English and that half the street names are French and half are English. We also learnt that Akaroa used to be a volcano that erupted millions of years ago. The eruption was so big that it created the harbour and a channel out to the Pacific Ocean. If you look at a terrain or satellite image of Akaroa, you can quite clearly see the mountain range forming a ring where the volcano would have been. We also learn about some of the Maori history of the area. It is super interesting. The captain is knowledgeable for sure, but also delivered it in an interesting and entertaining way.
It doesn’t take long before we spot our first dolphin. Their round, black ‘mickey mouse’ fin is very distinctive and their silver bodies flash in the water when near the surface. Hector’s dolphins are the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world. They grow to only 1.5 meters in length and are normally found in pods of 2-5. Our first sighting is a single dolphin that comes right up to the boat. It swims all around the boat giving spectators from all sides a great view. It hangs around for a while so the captain starts moving the boat going forward to see if it wants to play. It does! It zooms through the water at the bow at incredible speed, it has no issues keeping up with the boat. We watch it, darting along, popping up through the water and back under.
One of the crew then comes around offering complimentary drinks, including wine and beer. Ah, yes please, I will have a wine!
We carry on further, wine in hand, checking out the coastline and looking for more dolphins. It doesn’t take long before we find our next pod, and another, and another. There were so many dolphins, flashes of black and silver in every direction, putting on a spectacular show. I almost didn’t know where to look.
Some were in the distance jumping out of the water, some swimming at the boat in groups from different directions and others swimming alongside the boat. It was incredible. We stay with the dolphins for quite some time, totally in awe at the experience. It is such a privilege to not only see them, but to encounter so many.
After we have all had our dolphin fix, we head out further to see more dramatic coastline, a seal colony and head out to the Pacific Ocean. It gets pretty wild, the boat going up, up and then crashing down in the swells, it’s like an amusement ride at a theme park and I am loving it. If you are not great out at sea, this bit didn’t last very long at all. Some members of our group struggle with sea/motion sickness but said they were OK because it was over quickly and there was plenty of fresh air.
We then head back to the wharf buzzing. This has been an outstanding tour. I have loved every minute of it and cannot recommend it enough. Hector’s dolphins are beautiful creatures, fun and playful. This is an experience not to be missed.
The afternoon is spent with more drinks in the sun, enjoying the company of family. We then have pre dinner drinks followed by dinner at Ma Maison. It has beautiful views out across the harbour and the perfect setting for a birthday celebration dinner. Unfortunately our meals do take an incredibly long time to come out. They were quite understaffed, as were most of the places we visited on this trip. I believe this is an area that would normally rely on filling vacancies with backpackers and visitors who are working and exploring their way around our great country. Covid has certainly had an impact there.
But, despite the long wait, the food was really good, and the staff really friendly. It was certainly a place I would be happy to visit again.
Our last day in Akaroa starts with another treat from Rona’s cafe, eaten down on the waterfront. On the drive back to Christchurch, we stop at The Hilltop Tavern which has spectacular views out over Akaroa and the surrounding bays. It’s a perfect way to end the trip, looking out across the place we have spent the weekend exploring.