Wednesday 14 July 2010

Vive la France!

Bastille Day today. We could have been French, you know, if they'd been a bit quicker off the mark - or, at least the South Island ('Mainland' to those of us in the know, ie born there) could have been. The Brits were well ensconced in the North, but hadn't much bothered with the South, which was well-frequented by French whalers in the early 1800s: New Zealand whale oil lit the streets of Paris, woo hoo! But by the time the Frogs had decided to make their move, they'd been pipped by the British who organised the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 and got South Island tribes to sign it in May - and Capt Lavaud arrived in August.

So near to Roquefort and mille feuilles, and yet so far! But all was not totally lost: the French settlers who came on Lavaud's ship stayed anyway, at Akaroa, over the hill from what's now Christchurch, and even now the town has a strong French flavour: rue this and that, a French Fest, sweet little cottages that have a different feel to those elsewhere.

Dave Armstrong wrote a play about how it would have been if the North Island had been British and the South, French: Le Sud. It's a farce, funny and topical, and I thoroughly enjoyed it when I saw it at the Maidment. Even the North Islanders liked it.

Anyway, Akaroa's well worth the winding drive over Banks Peninsula:


9am On a crisp, bright morning, we head out of Christchurch for the 85km journey to Akaroa. It's tempting to stop at the Little River café for a coffee and a browse through the art and crafts displayed there, but there are more crafts to come - and there is no better view than from the Hilltop Tavern. Perched 425m above sea level, there are sparkling views behind over Lyttelton Harbour and in front towards Akaroa - 'long harbour', the land around it wrinkled into countless steep valleys.

10am We wind down to Duvauchelle, the first indication that this is a part of New Zealand like no other: one clue is the name, the other the French flag flying over the little hotel. Back in 1838, Captain Jean Langlois bought a title deed which he took back to France- but by the time the ship carrying 63 settlers arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed and the British were rushing off to plant their flag on Banks Peninsula, which they did just five days before the French got there. France gave up its claims some years later, but by then the settlers had made themselves at home, and their descendants, with names like Le Lièvre, Fleuret and Eteveneaux are still in the area. We were to find many more French influences in Akaroa - but we had already been past the cheese factory at Barry's Bay, where cheeses have been made since 1893, and where you can watch the process as well as buy the product.

10.30am We arrive in Akaroa and cruise up the main street, Rue Lavaud, which is lined with gingerbread wooden cottages tucked into pretty gardens. Many of these offer charming B&B accommodation, but we are staying at a friend's bach, and twist up the hill to find that the house has a magnificent view over the town and its two piers jutting out into the harbour. We walk back down into the little town, around rues Jolie and Balguerie, where there are many little gift shops, cafes and galleries. The French theme is perhaps a little overdone at Café Eiffel, which has a two-metre model of the tower on the footpath outside, but the coffee is good.

12 noon From the main pier, we take a two-hour wildlife cruise on a catamaran. As we head out on the harbour, we are glad of our fleeces, but the sun is bright and we are thrilled to catch a glimpse of a Hector's dolphin. The smallest and rarest dolphin in the world, it has a cute Mickey Mouse ear-shaped dorsal fin; sometimes a pod will put on a show, but not today. Instead, we see blue penguins, fur seals and salmon leaping in their cages as we go past the fish farms. The volcanic rock cliffs soar above us, sculpted by the sea, and Cathedral Cave is impressive. All around, the hills are tinged gold in the low sunshine and the sea is sparkling.

2.30 We browse through the blue-painted shop of Akaroa Blue Pearls out on the jetty, and see how flat-backed pearls are grown on paua shells and mounted on gold and silver to make beautiful jewellery. Then back into the town for a self-guided wander around the colonial houses and churches, fetching up at the picturesque light-house, just on the edge of town. It's the best way to get the feel of the place: just mooching around, enjoying the old buildings, the little shops, the sandy beach fringed with Norfolk pines, and the wonderful views across the harbour; and whenever you need a rest, there is a café nearby with tea and cake.

6pm We watch the sun set behind the far side of the old volcanic crater: the sea is like beaten bronze under a golden sky that intensifies to deepest red, silhouetting the little pointed shelter at the end of the jetty until everything fades to black. We follow the colonial-style street lamps and, though we could indulge in some authentic French cuisine at one of the fancy restaurants, go instead for the best fish and chips in the South Island, poking a hole in the paper to scoff chips on the way home, and finish it all off with a bottle of wine in front of the fire at the bach.


9.30am Eggs Benedict with coffee and the papers in front of the fire at Le Jardin is a great way to start a winter Sunday. If we had the energy we could go horse-riding, walking or 4WDing; in summer we could visit gardens or kayak - but the vote goes to gentle blobbing out before a slow trip home, detouring to the French Farm Winery for lunch by another fire. On the other side of the hills, we wake ourselves up with a brisk fossick along the steeply-shelving beach at Birdlings Flat, where pebbles of agate, quartz and jasper have already been polished by the sea. Then the weekend's over: c'était magnifique.
[Pub. Sunday Star-Times 14/8/05]

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