Although it is located in a former British colony, Akaroa Harbour is decidedly French—down to the baguettes and street names—as this Christchurch enclave was originally founded by pioneering French settlers. Located on the rugged Banks Peninsula, 90 minutes by car from Christchurch, Akaroa drifts along at a pace that's more rural, laid-back—and French—than New Zealand’s third-largest city.
Aside from the welcoming, francophone atmosphere and scenic views, Akaroa is an especially popular spot to observe wild dolphins. The harbour is located inside the caldera of a sunken volcano, making it ideal habitat for marine mammals and birdlife. A harbor cruise is a must-do activity, and usually includes commentary about landmarks such as Akaroa Lighthouse, Cathedral Cave, and Scenery Nook. Some wildlife-viewing operations even let you swim alongside Hector’s dolphins—the rarest and smallest in the world—if you keep a respectable distance.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Akaroa Harbour is a marine mammal sanctuary where encounters with wildlife are regulated.
- No touching or harassment of wildlife is allowed, and in events such as mother animals seen swimming with babies, or dolphins appearing to be feeding, guests can view the wildlife from the boat as opposed to getting in the water.
- Boat crews brief passengers on how to safely observe the world’s smallest and rarest (and endangered) dolphins.
- If getting on—or in—the water isn’t your preference, it’s easy to meander around the charming village, browsing shops, bistros, bakeries, and cafés.
How to Get There
Akaroa is located 46 miles (75 kilometers) southeast of Christchurch, from which shuttles run daily. If driving from the city, allow roughly 1.5 hours and follow a scenic route along Highway 75 around the Banks Peninsula to Akaroa. Alternatively, full-day tours are run from Christchurch, and shore excursions are available for cruise ship passengers at Akaroa Harbour.
When to Get There
Summer sun and generally higher temperatures around December–February make the hidden coves and beaches of Akaroa more pleasant. However, the cooler temps of winter keep the crowds away and off-season prices lower. Wildlife cruises operate year-round.
Wildlife Viewing Abounds in Akaroa
For some added adventure in the area, tour the scenic coastline by kayak and scour the waters for wildlife. In addition to pods of Hector's dolphins, you may see little blue penguins as well as colonies of New Zealand fur seals and diving cormorants (aka shags) that frequent the rocks around Akaroa Harbour.