AKAROA, NEW ZEALAND — We knew we wanted to do a day trip today, but didn’t know where to go.
Our options were Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, Hanmer Springs or Arthur’s Pass National Park in the Southern Alps. Señor Google provided enough information for us to select Akaroa, a 90-minute drive and the closest to Christchurch.
We took our time getting out of the house and stopped at the very little town of Little River, about 2/3 of the way to Akaroa. Our host had recommended a stop, and we were not disappointed: It is the start of a bicycle trail along Lake Forsyth (surrounded by mountains) and has a cafe with an appealing menu.
We weren’t yet hungry, but at the adjoining gallery, Beth found a necklace she liked with a pendant made from the local rimu tree. It’s a spruce whose needles Captain Cook used to make beer and also treat his crew’s scurvy. Reportedly, they didn’t like it.
The next 30 minutes were spent the way we spent a lot of time in New Zealand: driving curvy roads up and down mountains. Akaroa was settled by Frenchmen who had planned to claim New Zealand for France. Unfortunately for them, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed a few days before they arrived, so they were greeted by a Union Jack flying in the breeze. The Brits were charitable, for once, and let the French settle this corner of New Zealand.
We speculated on whether we would hear more French or German spoken in Akaroa. And what do you think? Ja, genau! The street names were French, but our first impressions were of German tourists and Italian bistros and pizzerias. We watched a game of lawn bowling for a while and then booked a cruise on the harbor, as that is apparently the thing to do in Akaroa.
Booking the cruise was a little hard, because there are four options. Bus-tour groups from Christchurch take the Black Cat, a motorized catamaran, and there’s a rubber dingy as well as a sailboat and a two-masted schooner. We opted for the 3-hour cruise on the Fox II schooner, only $5 more.
With time to kill, we poked around town and lunched on oven-fresh pies from the Akaroa Butchery and Deli: a juicy lamb pie and a leek and salmon pie. Beth also got to use a swing again, which made for a happy face.
On our way to the pier, Torsten was approached by an elderly German woman about cruises, and she demanded to know whether our cruise was “going to the bay where the dolphins are.” This made us realize how lucky we were in our travels so far: We swam with dolphins in Hawaii and saw them play around our kayaks in Milford Sound, so the prospect of seeing dolphins from a cruise boat didn’t have the same urgency for us.
The crew of our boat was a microcosm of what we had seen so far in New Zealand: a captain from New York with a crew of a Frenchman and two Italians, who have been traveling on work visas in Australia and California for a year. They plan to stay in New Zealand only for another four months because they want to spend the summer in Europe. What a life!
The bay was originally the caldera of a volcano gently sloping into the ocean. Earthquakes and the ocean eroded parts of it until the ocean flooded in. This process is continuing today, most recently during the magnitude 7.8 Kaikoura quake on November 14, 2016, which caused rocks to fall from some of the cliffs.
The small Maori village of Ōnuku just outside Akaroa was the first place on the South Island where the treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. In fact, it was one of the reasons for the treaty, because Europeans were involved in an inter-tribal Maori feud in 1830.
The only other passengers were a medical resident from Mainz, Germany, and her partner, a business-school graduate. The doctor was on her way to Wellington for a two-month internship. We all got excited when captain Roy pointed out small blue penguins in the water ahead of us, followed by Hector’s dolphins — smaller than bottlenose, with round black fins that resemble Mickey Mouse ears — and two kinds of shags, or cormorants.
Toward the ocean end of the bay, the captain cut the engine, hoisted the sails and turned on some mellow Hindu chants, music for kundalini yoga. It was a great experience to move among wildlife with no engine noise. The penguins were really skittish, but it was fun to see them pop in and out of the water before disappearing for good.
We crossed the mouth of the bay twice to visit a seal colony and take a closer look at the caves on the east side, one of which was big enough for our boat to enter. Captain Roy blasted some music and we drank in the rocky acoustics — and then hot chocolate and coffee served in glass mugs by the crew, with a plate of cookies.
On our way back, Roy pointed out a lush valley partway up the mountain. It is the southernmost place where nikau palms grow, because the valley is protected from the wind and captures and holds rainwater. Early Maori named the palm nikau, or “no coconut,” because the palms they had seen in Hawaii produced coconuts, which this species doesn’t.
By now, the wind had died down and the skies had clouded up, creating a gorgeous patchwork of light and dark areas on the hills, covered in dried grass and patches of trees.
With the boat’s engines still turned off, the captain played Barber’s Adagio. Why that lovely piece? Because dolphins can hear music through their jaws, and they like it. Sure enough, four of them soon were weaving through the water beside the boat. Talk about a magical moment!
The cruise returned to the pier 3-1/2 hours after we launched, and we all thought it was a tremendous value for the personalized experience we just shared, especially when compared to the crowded cruise boats we saw out in the bay.
Beth was interested in visiting The Giant’s House, a collection of outdoors mosaic folk art not unlike the concrete folk art she likes so much in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the place closes at 5pm, so there was no time after our cruise ended at 5:05 pm.
Happily for Torsten, the gift shop where he had seen a large, variegated greenstone koru was still open. He hemmed and hawed, then gulped and went in and bought it. It’s a perfect souvenir of New Zealand.
By then, the town had quieted down, with most tourists gone and the crowds from the cruise ship anchored in the bay back on board. We looked for a place for dinner but came up empty handed, so we started the drive back to Christchurch. On our way, we came to the Hilltop Tavern, at the top of the hill to the bay.
We had noticed it on our way to town, and so we looked at their menu, liked the laid-back staff and ordered dinner. Torsten had a lamb pizza with a “spicy” sauce, red onions and olives.
Beth had the seared salmon with Parmesan polenta “fries” that looked more like two fish sticks and came covered by crispy rocket greens, a barely grilled tomato, Parmesan shavings and bits of tomato, basil pesto and balsamic vinegar. We were reminded of a comment made about New Zealand food by our friends Mary and John, to the effect of, “Why use just a few ingredients when you can use eight or nine?”
Once back home, we shared a drink and joined our hosts in watching a cricket match between the Black Caps and the South African team. Torsten thought he understood the basics of the game, but he got an education. After a while, we just enjoyed watching New Zealand’s Martin Guptill swat the ball out of the park time and time again. New Zealand won, and all was right with the world.