A Traveller's Guide To Akaroa & Banks Peninsula, New Zealand

Harbour cruise boat arriving in Akaroa
Harbour cruise boat arriving in Akaroa | © denisbin/Flickr
Thalita Alves

With two beautiful harbours, a collection of small bays and its charming historic villages, it’s easy to see why Banks Peninsula is loved by those exploring the eastern shores of New Zealand’s South Island. The township of Akaroa – and the mass assortment of wildlife that resides within its shores – is a strong asset, but the area’s appeal goes well beyond this.

The peninsula is composed of various ancient volcanoes. Over several million years, eruptions and erosion in the volcanic complex carved the picturesque valleys, tumbling hills, verdant pastures and punctuating bays that we see today.

Banks Peninsula, Canterbury, New Zealand

Interestingly, the peninsula’s ragged features famously led Captain James Cook to mistake the area for an entirely separate island. If you ever get the chance to see this majestic setting from up in the skies, you might understand the explorer’s oversight: the sprawling nature of its landmass is quite remarkable.

Satellite image of Akaroa and Banks Peninsula
The winding country roads of Banks Peninsula

Experienced cyclists can get a different perspective of the area’s natural features. A trip across the Little River Rail Trail – a long-distance track that begins in the Christchurch suburb of Hornby and ends just outside the Little River – passes through a series of lakes, quarries and rivers before reaching its final destination. The second to the last stretch of the journey, just outside Lake Elsmere, also provides some incredible views of the Southern Alps from a faraway distance.

View of the Southern Alps from Banks Peninsula

On that note, there are quite a few walking and hiking routes dotted around the Banks Peninsula. Those with an affinity for multi-day tramping might choose to explore the Te Ara Pātaka/Summit Walkway, which connects the Gebbies Pass in the Lyttelton crater to Hilltop in the Akaroa crater. From Hilltop you can also access the Pigeon Bay Walkway – a five-hour hike that will expose you to some of the most spectacular coastal vistas as well as a series of native trees and plant life.

Pigeon Bay Jetty, Canterbury, New Zealand

Beyond these stunning landscapes, it is the accessibility to native wildlife that brings the masses to Akaroa and Banks Peninsula. Cruises along Akaroa Harbour are regular summer features, and people are also wont to kayaking and sailing the oceans in order to catch a glimpse of the critters that call the area home. This is one of the best places to get up close to New Zealand’s endangered Hector’s dolphin, several penguin colonies as well as the native fur seals that sunbathe on the rocky shores.

New Zealand fur seal basking on the rocky shores of the Banks Peninsula

But the town of Akaroa is remarkable not just for its marine residents: it is also noteworthy for its compelling history and heritage. Akaroa is the Canterbury region’s oldest town and was founded in 1840 by French settlers. It is believed that French interest in the area propelled the English to speed up its annexation of New Zealand. By the time French settlers arrived, the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi has taken place, thus cementing the country’s place as a British colony. To this day, the British-French duality is evident throughout the township, as most of Akaroa’s streets still have French names, providing a contrast to the 19th-century colonial cottages that surround it.

Colonial cottage in Akaroa, New Zealand

It’s also worth noting that the peninsula offers plenty of wildlife encounters outside the Akaroa Harbour. For instance, you can find colonies of yellow-eyed and white-flippered penguins, as well as seals, sea birds, visiting orcas and dolphins around the Pohatu Marine Reserve. This is another popular spot in the Banks Peninsula for kayaking, though you can view these critters from drier ground too. The reserve is set among Flea Bay; you do need to drive along a steep, unsealed road to reach it, but it’s worth the effort just to immerse yourself in the dramatic landscapes that come to fore.

White-flippered penguins at the Pohatu Marine Reserve

The peninsula’s outer bays are also worth exploring. Okains Bay and Le Bons Bay are probably the best renowned. Both offer quite safe swimming conditions and have their fair share of campsites to accommodate their summer visitors. Okains Bay is also noteworthy for its historic affinities. The local museum is filled with interesting Maori treasures and relics from New Zealand’s colonial past.

Maori waka outside the Okains Bay Museum

Other sheltered bays you might want to visit include Governor’s Bay, the Diamond Harbour, French Farm, Takamatua and Duvauchelle. Each has its own distinct personality, so it’s up to you to decide which appeals the most.

At the end of the day, Akaroa and the wider Banks Peninsula offer something for every kind of nature lover out there – with a bit of historic charm thrown into the mix. That should be enough reason to want to delve into these horizons quite closely.

Harbour cruise boat arriving in Akaroa
landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Edit article