Voyager pulled into the large natural harbour of Akaroa early in the morning. Its name in Maori means ‘Long Harbour’ and it’s the oldest colonial town in the South Island as well as the only French colonial settlement in the country. The lifeboats tendered us ashore and I jumped off one vessel to another to take a ship’s excursion on the harbour with Akaroa Dolphins tours. The comfortable power cruiser headed out towards the mouth of the harbour and along the way we saw pods of Hectors dolphins, the smallest and rarest in the world, and weren’t they gorgeous! Our hosts Patsy and Mark gave excellent commentary and guidance and took the boat extremely close to the rocks so we could have a very close-up view of colonies of fur seals.
We learned some of the history of the Banks Peninsula – there have been some 67 generations of settlement since the arrival of the Polynesian forebears of the Maori – and in Onawe Bay saw the Maori meeting house and wooden church sitting side by side at the waterfront.
After wandering through the picturesque village, which still has French street, shop and house names, I spent an illuminating hour in the museum finding out more about Akaroa’s sealing, whaling and French-British-Maori heritage – an absolute bargain at NZ$4 for the entry fee. Jewellery-lovers will be fascinated by the Blue Pearl Gallery on the wharf in Akaroa, where jewellery incorporating these exquisitely coloured, iridescent pearls is made on the spot.