The road around Banks Peninsula is steeped in history, finds Wendy Dunlop.
Banks Peninsula is the result of a six-million-year-old volcanic tantrum which left a scenic legacy of steep hills, deep harbours and a frill of picturesque bays. At its heart is the historic village of Akaroa. The 80km journey from Christchurch is full of visual and driving variety.
Beyond the city, State Highway 75 runs beside the Port Hills to Tai Tapu. As Christchurch nibbles the green belt with new development, this still-rural community fiercely preserves its country pub, delightful golf course and village store. New rustic buildings house a popular lifestyle shop that lures people for a weekend drive.
Long straights and sweeping bends pass a patchwork of farms interspersed with bottle-green forests in regimental rows and recently-planted boutique vineyards.
Shrouded in cobwebby netting, now they promise new vintages and summer tastings.
At the junction to Gebbies Pass, a hilly alternate route to Christchurch, Motukarara enjoys local notoriety for its country race days and traditional Blue Duck tearoom treats. It is also the start of the 27km Little River cycling rail trail that follows the original branch line where the last train departed in 1962.
The trail cuts across the wetlands of Lake Ellesmere, the fifth-largest lake in New Zealand. Known as Te Waihora, the mirror-like surface is bisected by the long sandy tongue of Kaitorete Spit and fringed by coppery reeds. Once an abundant food source for Maori, Te Waihora is still home to more than 160 different species of birds and you can readily spot herons, swans, geese, mallards and pukeko from the roadside.
The aptly named Birdlings Flat rests on a shingle laden bar between Lake Ellesmere and Lake Forsyth, where fishing and eeling have been part of local life for decades.
The coastal bach settlement also boasts a surprising little gemstone museum that displays vivid agates, polished river stones and ancient marine fossils.
Nearby Little River has reinvented itself many times since its forests were first felled in the 1850s to build Christchurch. Once a farming settlement, then a railway settlement, it is now developing as a quirky tourist destination at the head of Lake Forsyth.
Take a break from driving to sample the delectable edibles at the Little River Store, browse its gallery for impressive paintings, carvings, jewellery and sculpture by New Zealand artists or discover country crafts on display in the old railway station. But for real ingenuity, book in at the newly opened Silo Stay and you'll experience round-room accommodation in shiny, rocket shaped silos on stilts. They're fun, eco-friendly and a funky reward for pedallers on the bike trail, too.
The road continues to Akaroa through Cooptown's imposing avenue of trees, before winding 7km to the peninsula's highest vantage point. The magnificent panorama is worth every tortuous bend and is one of the most photographed scenes in Canterbury.
A hotel has been at Hilltop since the 1870s, when horses and travellers needed a rest before the onward journey. In the foreground is the Onawe Peninsula, site of fierce battles between Ngai Tahu and the marauding Te Rauparaha.
A walk along its knife-edged spine takes you to an historic pa site featuring commanding views right to the harbour heads. Today's drivers can either follow the volcanic rim along the spectacular top road or continue downhill to skirt the shores of Akaroa Harbour.
At Barry's Bay, 150 years of cheese-making has culminated in an award-winning selection that is worth stopping for any time of year. In summer, you can enjoy a divine winery lunch at nearby French Farm before undulating from bay to bay and gliding into the gallic charm of Akaroa.
French whaler Captain Langlois was so enamoured of the destination that he negotiated land for a French settlement in the 1830s. But by the time French settlers eventually arrived in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed and New Zealand was under the sovereignty of England.
Unable to face the arduous journey back to France, the settlers stayed and established a bi-cultural township that endured remarkably well. Modern Akaroa has become a thriving New Zealand tourist town that has retained a unique French flavour through its colonial architecture, street names and early settler history.
With its sidewalk cafe, the tang of fresh fish, harbour cruise or historic village, Akaroa's ambience charms its visitors effortlessly. Its intriguing heritage is expertly captured at the museum which includes the Courthouse, the Langlois-Etevenaux cottage and recounts the life of Frank Worsley, Shackleton's navigator and Akaroa's very own polar explorer.
A self-guided walk will treat you to the town's picturesque cottages and landmarks as well as boutique shops, galleries and weekend markets. Sample Akaroa salmon, award-winning olive oil or farm fresh produce and, for a delightfully French experience, pop into the Meniscus Wine Lounge.
Amid a faithful replication of Monet's lounge in Giverny, you can savour wines from its sun-sloped vineyard poised above the town. Harbour cruises introduce you to rare and protected Hectors dolphins, blue penguins and fur seals against a dramatic backdrop of cliffs and caves. You can also swim with the dolphins, go fishing, kayaking or simply laze on the beach.
Energetic visitors can enjoy biking, bowls, tennis or golf at nearby Duvauchelle. Between October and May take the award-winning Banks Peninsula Track, a stunning four-day tramp around the rugged coast. Along the way you'll stay at farmhouses, in a whaler's cottage and soak under the stars in a log-fired bath.
Alternatively, you can drive beyond the Akaroa lighthouse to the start of the track at Onuku and find one of New Zealand's tiniest churches.
But be sure to return for a mesmerising sunset where the French first stepped ashore and stay in comfort at one of Akaroa's beautiful heritage homes.
ROAD TRIP FAST FACTS
• Christchurch to Akaroa via SH75 - 80km
• Non-stop driving time - 1 hour, 15 minutes
• Christchurch to Little River - 53km
• Little River to Akaroa - 27km