Forming the south side of Lyttelton Harbour is an enormous, rounded land feature called the Banks Peninsula. Aside from its size, it has the unique feature of having lots of deep harbors and bays, giving it the look of a giant dandelion puff ball sprouting off the side of New Zealand.
At first glance, Akaroa looks like an interesting cruising ground (and yes, there is a guidebook). But looking closer we noticed that many of the bays have shoals and shallow water at their heads and aren’t well protected from ocean conditions. There is one exception, an area of great interest to cruisers and land travelers alike, and that is the very deep Akaroa Harbour on the south side of the peninsula.
Below, a interactive map showing the Banks Peninsula, Akaroa Harbour, and the places we stopped on our drive there.
The Banks Peninsula has mountainous hills, grassy pastures and scattered areas of trees. There aren’t many roads, and those that do exist are long, narrow and winding. Overall the peninsula is sparsely populated except for Akaroa, a charming French settlement that’s now a pretty resort town. Since it’s a winding, hilly 1 ½ hour drive from Chirstchurch, Akaroa manages to retain its quaint charm and not get too overrun with tourists (at least when the cruise ship’s not in).
Naturally, any visitor would love to see Akaroa, but upon learning it’s a 3-hour round trip just to drive there (and pretty much a day-excursion with meal stops and visiting the town), many Christchurch visitors sadly cross it off their list. As for the local boaters, it is a desired destination but also a rather long trip requiring settled conditions to get there and back. Thus, it’s definitely not something you can fit in over a long weekend.
For cruisers, it looks like an obvious stop for any boat heading south, but in reality when there’s a weather window between Dunedin (the next major city to the south) and Lyttelton, it’s wise to take full advantage of it and make the trip in one overnight swoop. Stopping in Akaroa would likely mean having to stay there, waiting for another weather window to come along. This is why we decided to drive, not sail, to this beautiful harbor.
One of the advantages of driving is that there are some great stops along the way, not to mention the amazing views from the hilltops en route to the harbor. We talked to one cruising family who did visit Akaroa by boat and were dismayed to discover it was such a long uphill walk to any viewpoints over the harbor that they eventually had to give up and turn around. (Any boaters who hope to see the general area would do well to sign up for a local tour in Akaroa.)
Here, in a few steps, is how we did our drive excursion to Akaroa.
Taking the route out of Chirstchurch, we headed about 20 minutes down the road and made a slight detour to visit Otahuna Berries which grows raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries and offers a U-pick in season. The main reason to visit, however, is The Raspberry Cafe, famous for its pretty setting and desserts. What we found was a beautiful cafe in a historic home, surrounded by umbrella-covered tables scattered over a lawn and gardens. The whole vibe of the place was one of gracious beauty. The desserts lived up to their reputation, and we’d definitely put it on our list of worthwhile things to do while visiting Christchurch. (But as busy as it was this Monday morning, we wouldn’t go near it on a weekend.)
Now it was time for the countryside part of drive. I’ve seen photos of this Peninsula covered with green grass, but this summer day everything was gold. I remember thinking this was the goldey goldenest place place I’d ever seen. Our drive started in a long deep valley before heading up the high mountainous hills scattered now with green trees. It was a beautiful drive but unnerving to see how far below us the valley became—it would be a long trip down for any car that accidentally went off the road.
Crossing over the ridge we started to get a view of Akaroa Harbour far below us. It was time for a lunch stop at the Hilltop Cafe & Barbecue which has views overlooking the harbor and surprisingly good pizza. After lunch we walked to the edge of the lawn to take in the view (well worth doing even if you don’t stop for lunch.)
The winding drive down towards the shore offered more beautiful views and a stop at Barry’s Bay Cheese where we could sample their excellent cheese and check out the goodies in their gourmet market. We enjoyed the cheese and decided to stop back here on our way home to buy a few things.
We arrived in Akaroa and found it is indeed a very lovely town. It’s the kind of place with charming cottages and flower gardens, waterfront cafes, a couple of inns, and boats floating peacefully in the still, lake-like water. Basically Akaroa ticks all the boxes for an ideal romantic weekend getaway.
Aside from some walking around, the only plan I had was for Rich and I to visit a place called the Giant’s House, an artist’s historic home with some pretty amazing gardens and mosaic sculptures. Alas, it was $20 per person to get in, and with Rich not particularly interested in going in the first place, it seemed like a steep price overall and we decided not to go.
With that we headed back to our marina taking a slightly different route past Governors Bay at the head of our harbor. We took a detour to the top of the Port Hills to get a view of it before heading on to our marina. What a beautiful drive!
In all we enjoyed Akaroa and thought it looked like a nice place to take the boat, but taking the amount of time that we’d need to do so wasn’t in the cards for us. If we’d gotten here earlier in the season, it would have been nice to make a stop here en route to or from Dunedin, but I’d still want to make the drive here as that is an experience in itself.–Cyndi