Drive out of Christchurch and into the picturesque Banks Peninsula, and you’ll be welcomed by an array of attractions. Whether you’re spending the day exploring the township of Akaroa or venturing further out for the area’s outdoor pursuits, here are 10 local gems everyone visiting this stretch of New Zealand’s Canterbury region should experience for themselves.
A wildlife cruise of Akaroa Harbour
Getting a glimpse of rare Hector’s dolphins, penguins and native fur seals in their natural habitat is one of the key things that attract people to Akaroa Harbour. There are quite a few tour options to choose from here. Black Cat Cruises is the oldest operator in the area and offers regular trips around the harbour, as well as dolphin swim experiences; another company to check out is Akaroa Dolphins.
Kayaking in the Pohatu Marine Reserve
If you like to be more hands-on with your wildlife encounters, a kayak trip around the Pohatu Marine Reserve will be right up your alley. The reserve is located on Flea Bay, along the southeastern end of the Banks Peninsula, and is home to white-flippered penguins, a small fleet of yellow-eyed penguins and a seal colony. Hector’s dolphins and orcas are also known to visit. If you don’t have a kayak, Pohatu Penguins offer guided paddling tours around the reserve.
Walking and cycling
There are quite a few walking tracks around Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula, ranging from short bush walks to scenic day hikes and overnight treks. The Akaroa Head Scenic Reserve walk consists of a narrow road that can only be accessed by four-wheel-drive vehicles, but other than that, the 40-minute return loop is relatively simple. If you’re keen to do a bit of cycling, the Christchurch to Little River Rail Trail is relatively flat and will provide you with a different perspective of the pastures and river quarries that make up the Banks Peninsula. For a multi-day hiking expedition, take a look at Te Ara Pātaka/Summit Walkway. The backcountry path begins at Gebbies Pass and concludes at the Montgomery Reserve, crossing private farmland and various tussock-lined valleys in between.
The Giant’s House
The Giant’s House is a historic homestead that has been transformed into an arty escape. It is located just a few minutes’ walk from Akaroa’s town centre, and in its past life, it was the residence of the first bank manager in the area. These days, The Giant’s House features a B&B, a café, a contemporary art gallery and a terraced garden filled with beautiful adornments such as sculptures and mosaics.
Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum
The Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum sets out to offer a big-picture view of New Zealand’s past, from the country’s indigenous ancestry to its colonial settlement history. The museum is located in the Banks Peninsula, within a 30-minute drive from Akaroa, and originally started as a private collection of Māori treasures. Some of its key exhibits include a working blacksmith’s shop, a war canoe that dates back to 1867 and a rare Akaroa hei tiki pounamu necklace that made its way back from England after the museum’s founder managed to track it down and recover it. The museum reopens in October 2020.
Akaroa Museum Te Whare Taonga
If you want to learn about the history of the Banks Peninsula, look no further than the Akaroa Museum. Within these small premises lies an extensive collection of historical archives, photographs, artworks, textiles, treasured Maori artefacts (taonga), and technological relics of past centuries. The museum was established in 1964 and has since expanded to include four exhibition galleries and two heritage buildings: the Custom House and Akaroa Court House. The museum is open seven days a week, and admission is free.
The historic Akaroa Lighthouse is one of the town’s most iconic landmarks. While it currently resides on Cemetery Point, just a short walk from town, the lighthouse was originally erected on Akaroa Head in 1880, where it operated for more than a century. The lighthouse was shifted to its present location in the 1980s — after an automated light replaced it — and is currently preserved by a roster of local volunteers. There’s a small entry fee for entering the lighthouse (the funds are invested back into its upkeep), but seeing the historic relics up close and getting to immerse yourself in the surrounding views is well worth it.
Barrys Bay Traditional Cheese
Barrys Bay Traditional Cheese is the last surviving factory of the nine family-owned dairies that were scattered around the Banks Peninsula in the 1800s. To this day, the cheesemaker continues to use traditional recipes that have been passed on from generation to generation. During production season (October to May), visitors can watch the entire process for themselves. Head to the factory shop year-round to sample their signature cheeses as well as a selection of locally produced wines and preserves.
Akaroa’s weekend markets
If you happen to be exploring Akaroa during the weekend, spend some time browsing the regular local markets. First up, we’ve got the Akaroa Farmers’ Market, which operates from 9am to 1pm every Saturday from October until April and showcases all of the area’s finest produce, such as honey, cheese, olive oil, artisan baking and home-made preserves. The Akaroa Craft Market is held every weekend outside the Presbyterian Trinity Church.
Walk the hills of the Banks Peninsula and explore the native forest at the Hinewai Reserve. This ecological restoration project is privately owned and managed by the Maurice White Native Forest Trust but is open to the public. The reserve includes 1,250ha (3,089ac) in the southeastern corner of Banks Peninsula on the South Island’s east coast. There are several interlinking tracks, with steep inclines and declines, and many include the Big Circle, which features the summit of Taraterehu/Stony Bay Peak and Ōtānerito beach.
Banks Peninsula War Memorial and Grounds
The Banks Peninsula War Memorial and Grounds is a site of social and historical significance in Akaroa, built to honour the lives of New Zealanders who fought and died in the South African War as well as both World Wars. This memorial was unveiled in 1924 and is just one of the many memorials around the country that are still an integral part of New Zealand society and at which many people still gather today for ANZAC day.
Additional reporting by Bianca Ackroyd
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