October 27, 2019

Akaroa: New Zealand's historic port town

Dallas Sherringham explores a once-sleepy town that only came alive in the summer holidays, but that all changed when the cruise ships started arriving en masse after the earthquake in nearby Christchurch.
The beautiful little town set inside an extinct flooded volcano now hosts 90 cruise ship visits a year, sometimes hosting two in one day.
That puts the population of just 600 under some stress, but business people don't mind as it has extended their opportunities far beyond even the most optimistic of them could ever hope for in days gone by.
And Akaroa has always been a town divided: there is a British town centre and a kilometre away there is a French town centre.
The French kind of "discovered" it first but the British claimed it and the two communities lived side by side for many years.
I learnt all this recently when I arrived on Ruby Princess while cruising from Los Angeles to Sydney via New Zealand and I hopped on a minibus driven by "Big Trevor".
Now Big T, as everyone calls him, knows Akaroa like the back of his hand.  He hosts tens of thousands of visitors every year on his Hop On, Hop Off service around the highlights of the twin towns while telling the story of the area he loves.
High on the hill behind the French town is the world-famous Giants House.
An easy walk from the Akaroa waterfront up Rue de Balguerie, this is a grand and elegant two-storey villa, lovingly restored and converted into a B&B by owner and artist Josie Martin. It was built of native timbers in 1880 for the local bank manager, intended to be impressive, and it certainly awed the toddler who unwittingly named it after saying "it looks like a Giant's house!"
The garden is sensational. Not just because it's beautifully designed and maintained, and full of flowers and topiary, but because of the ornamentation.
 Josie started 20 years ago by using pretty bits of broken china she'd dug up while gardening to make a mosaic doorstep – and just kept going. Now there's a full-size grand piano outside the main entrance, along with an accompanying band, a sailing ship across the lawn, a pool and fountain.
Along the winding paths up through the terracing beside the house are various life-sized and bigger people, cats, dogs, birds and other animals real and imaginary, all painstakingly shaped and decorated with broken china, tile, mirror and glass.
 It's all mosaic: paths, steps and walls, benches, arches and seats, surreal sculptures and realistic figures like mime artist Marcel Marceau, all of them colourful, witty and literally fantastic. There's something new to enjoy around every bend in the path, from ankle-height marvels of delicate artistry to impressive steel-structured engineering looming overhead. French music tinkles, so does the fountain, and time evaporates

In the French quarter also stands Akaroa's fascinating museum which tells the story of the town in professionally designed displays, typography and images. It includes two original rooms of the town's first house, built in the 1840s out of locally cut hardwood.
Across the road are eateries flying the tricolour of the French flag and set beside streets with names starting with "Rue de".
The war memorial, built after World War One, is one of the best I have seen in any country town or village.
If you are travelling the South Island, Akaroa needs to be on your "musts" list.
It is rich in delights ranging from harbour-side restaurants, great walks, penguins, viewing of the rare Hector's dolphin, kayaking, sailing, harbour cruises, tours, sheep dog displays or simply eating fish and chips on the end of the wharf as the sun sets.
 And then there's the shopping: arts, crafts, souvenirs, food, and three colours of pearls, jewellery, possum fur and woollen clothing, wine.
Entering and leaving Akaroa on a ship is spectacular. High, rugged hills and cliffs shrouded in mist and rain with occasional shafts of sunlight spearing through, lighting up the green fields or blue water light a giant spotlight.
Then the tiny town emerges from the mist as you approach it in the ships tender.
And as you leave you already pledge to return one day, such is the allure of New Zealand's very own Brigadoon.
Words and Images: Dallas Sherringham and supplied.
Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au

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