It may have a Maori moniker, but Akaroa is a little slice of France nestled on New Zealand's South Island.
Outside Mrs Eteveneaux's sweet shop on rue Lavaud, my travelling companion decides against plan A - lunch at C'est La Vie Bistro/Café - in favour of plan B: a wander down to Ma Maison for some items of a boulangerie nature, pick up a bottle of local pinot noir from L'Hôtel and then a picnic in the park. Funny thing is, surrounded by rue Jolie and rue Pompallier, we're not as one would assume on Paris's Left Bank, but instead we're on New Zealand's South Island, just 90 minutes from Christchurch. And Christchurch is the most English city outside England.
Things could have been very different for Anglo-centric New Zealand. We raise a defiant sesame-crusted baguette and then a styrofoam cup of pinot noir in a toast to Captain Jean Langlois whose vision for a French colony lives on here in the piquant French flavour of Akaroa nestled among the folds of Banks Peninsula. In fact, the French influence is so palpable, I just said, "Merci," to a Maori.
Akaroa's setting is as attractive as the picture-book settlement that exists there. It's built inside the eroded crater of one of the extinct volcanoes that make up Banks Peninsula.
Volcanic eruptions ceased around six million years ago and the ocean eroded the walls of the crater to form a deep, sheltered harbour. In deference to the history of the place, the Pacific takes on a distinct French blue as it cuts through the green and gold of the Peninsula's bluffs.
The setting is so pristine it's as if some huge caring hand has delicately placed it here safe from the vandalism of time and change. Langlois' dream floundered, but the French settlers attracted to his proposed colony have left an indelible imprint on Akaroa in its charming narrow streets, quaint French colonial architecture and profusion of heritage roses, lavender bushes and walnut trees.
On the drive to Akaroa, the first croaks of Frogophilia are encountered at Barrys Bay Cheese factory. After the steep descent of the range separating Banks Peninsula from Christchurch the options are to turn right to French Farm or straight on to Akaroa.
French Farm has had a number of Gallic connections. The first settlers planted vines here on the pretty, sheltered slopes and French Farm Winery - a popular attraction for its winery alone - was, in times past, a worthwhile stop for any gourmand. Its restaurant boasted French chef Nico Fini who has a CV full of Michelin-rated French restaurants. The place served tasty French provincial fare… but alas, Fini has finis.
So, on to Akaroa which doesn't sound very French at all, except that it's just beyond Duvauchelle. At Duvauchelle, tri-colours fly defiantly - with best effect on the old Hôtel des Pêcheurs (Fishermen's Hotel). The original hotel was established in 1855 and was the first inn to be licensed on the South Island. Called the Travellers' Rest, it also provided a ferry service to Akaroa for farmers, fishermen, seamen and poachers. It was burned down by a zealot who believed all hotels to be places of sin, only to be rebuilt in the 1880s by those convinced of sin's commercial viability. If the heart says to stop in for a cleansing ale, then it's best to listen and order a pint of Monteith's Black.
From the early 1800s, Akaroa served as a bustling provisioning port for the many whaling ships operating off the South Island. It's regarded as the oldest town in Canterbury and claims to have been the site of the first New Zealand vineyard, the first New Zealand Catholic church, and the first residential hotel.
In 1839, Jean Langlois, master of the French whaling ship 'Cachelot', decided Akaroa would make an attractive and strategic French outpost. He entered into a dubious land purchase with local Maori and sailed back to France in search of financial backing and government approval. The French-New Zealand consortium known as the Nanto-Bordelaise Company was created, government sanction and even the approval of King Louis-Philippe received. A ship set sail with 60 colonists on board.
When they arrived at Akaroa Harbour on 17 August 1840 they found the British flag flying. The South Island had been declared a British colony just three months before but, in a rare piece of Anglo-French accord, British Land Claim Commissioners granted the French colonists the right to stay and they formed a French enclave on Banks Peninsula.
Today, the foreshore is lined with cafés, restaurants, art galleries and boutique shops. The township is so charming, so timeless, so relaxed and so authentic that it rejects any notion of being just a tourism opportunity. A host of eateries reflect the personality of the place. Among them are Takamatua Valley Vineyards and French Farm Winery, which both have wine tasting and bistro facilities, and Barrys Bay Cheese, which offers cheese production viewings.
Akaroa Museum on rue Lavaud invites the visitor to stroll through 150 years of French/British/Maori/Kiwi history… but that's what you do just to get to the front door.
Along streets with names like rue Pompallier and rue Viard and, alright, Church Street, a large number of the original French colonial buildings remain perfectly preserved - their interest enhanced by community gossip about past inhabitants.
The Akaroa Civic Trust, dedicated to the preservation of the town's beauty and history, lists 130 buildings and artefacts on their register. Every street has its treasures: St Peter's Church on rue Balguerie, the French Rose cottage on rue Jolie, the French cemetery on L'Aube Hill. On rue Lavaud alone there are dozens of historic properties such as Waeckerle's Cottage built for Christian Jacob Waeckerle who came to Akaroa with the first European settlers and Bon Accord, a Presbyterian church with links back to a liaison between France and the Scottish city of Aberdeen.
No less fascinating is the area's rich Maori heritage preserved at the Maori & Colonial Museum at Okains Bay (a 20-minute drive away) and still alive at the marae or 'meeting place' and Maori church at Onuku (only a 10-minute drive).
Okains Bay has an excellent swimming beach and several of the southern and south-east bays are popular with surfers.
Akaroa Harbour is a designated mammal sanctuary and home to the rarest and smallest dolphin in the world, the Hector's dolphin. On cruises of the harbour and bays it's possible to swim with the dolphins, visit a seal colony and see rare white-flippered blue penguins. It pretty much confirms the fact that Nature somehow knows to give its endorsement to special places.