Drive out of Christchurch into the picturesque Banks Peninsula and you’ll be welcomed by an array of wonderful attractions. Whether you’re spending the day exploring the township of Akaroa or you’re venturing further out, here are 10 local gems everyone visiting this stretch of New Zealand’s Canterbury region should experience for themselves.
A wildlife cruise of the Akaroa Harbour
Getting a glimpse of the rare Hector’s dolphins, penguins and native fur seals in their natural habitat is one of the key things that attracts people to Akaroa Harbour. There are quite 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; other companies you could check out include Akaroa Dolphins and Akaroa Sailing Cruises.
If you like being 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 your own kayak, Pohatu Penguins offers guided paddling tours around the reserve.
White-flippered penguins at the Pohatu Marine Reserve
There are quite a few walking tracks around Akaroa & 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 – 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 is a historic homestead which has been transformed into an artsy escape. It is located just a few minutes’ walk from Akaroa’s town centre and in its past life was the residence of the first bank manager in the area. These days, The Giant’s House features its own bed and breakfast, a cafe, a contemporary art gallery and a terraced garden filled with beautiful adornments like sculptures and mosaics.
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 Heads 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 right back into its upkeep), but seeing the historic relics from up close and getting to immerse yourself in the surrounding views is well worth it.
The Okains Bay Maori & 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 out as a private collection of Maori 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 down and recover it.
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 historic archives, photographs, artworks, textiles, treasured Maori artifacts (taonga), and technological relics of the 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 of charge.
Barrys Bay Traditional Cheese is the last surviving factory out of the nine family-owned dairies that were scattered around the Banks Peninsula in the 1800s. To this day, the cheese maker continues to use the traditional recipes that were 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.
Meniscus Wines is a hillside vineyard just off Lighthouse Road, on the southern end of Akaroa. The Wine Lounge is where the enthusiasts will get to sample the various vintages and grape varieties the winery is best known for: particularly Pinot Noir, Riesling and Pinot Gris. No bookings are needed for cellar door visits. Gourmet snacks are also available to complement the wine-tasting sessions, and stunning views of the Akaroa township and surrounding harbour are always a given.
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 9 a.m.–1 p.m. every Saturday from October until April and showcases all of the area’s finest produce, honey, cheese, olive oil, artisan baking and home-made preserves. If you have an artsy flair, the Akaroa Craft Market is held every weekend outside the Presbyterian Trinity Church. In the summer months, the market extends its opening times to coincide with the regular cruise ship arrivals.