Akaroa: French spirit flourishes

French colonists arriving in Akaroa in 1840 were dismayed to see the Union Jack flying over the town. Photo / Craig Stephens
French colonists arriving in Akaroa in 1840 were dismayed to see the Union Jack flying over the town. Photo / Craig Stephens

French Ambassador Michel Legras may be forgiven for pondering what might have been when he takes his place as guest of honour at this year's French Festival at Akaroa on Banks Peninsula.

When 53 French colonists arrived in Akaroa Harbour aboard the emigrant ship Compte de Paris in July 1840 they would have been more than a little dismayed to see the British Union Jack already flying over what they'd intended to become their motherland's southernmost Pacific outpost.

Governor William Hobson had signed the Treaty of Waitangi in February that year and claimed British sovereignty over the South Island just a month before the French and German settlers landed.

Now rapidly developing as a tourist destination in its own right, Akaroa retains a definite Gallic flavour and celebrates its roots through the unique architecture of its historic buildings, French street and place names and many remaining descendants of the original colonists.

Mr Legras, appointed ambassador to New Zealand in May, will make his first visit to the very French harbourside township for its hugely popular annual festival that is being run for the first time, this weekend, by the Christchurch City Council.

He and French trade commissioner Francois Raffray will host a five-course French cuisine black-tie dinner, La Grande Soiree, at the Gaiety Hall tomorrow night to kick off the festival, and will raise the Tricoleur the following day at a re-enactment of the settlers' 1840 landing on the foreshore.

Other events include le Jour de Marche (Market Day) with a variety of French fare, street performers, a French waiters' race, snail races, live music, boules, an aerial circus show on the recreation ground, tastings of top French and New Zealand wines, and a showing of French films.

Leading Christchurch chefs Philip Kraal (Le Bon Bolli), Tina Duncan (White Tie Catering) and Tony Smith (Crowne Plaza) will be joined by entertaining friends to spice up their French cuisine demonstration, Gastronomique Francaise.

Celebrity actor/entertainer and festival manager Mark Hadlow said the event, organised over the past 10 years by the Akaroa Heritage Society, had reached "maximum capacity", hence the involvement of Christchurch City Council.

The merger of the former Banks Peninsula District Council into Christchurch City in February last year paved the way for council staff and expertise to become formally involved in the festival.

"The great thing we've picked up from Akaroa is the huge spirit of involvement with regards to the festival itself," Mr Hadlow said.

Many local people, iwi and interest groups had pledged their time which, he said, provided "extraordinary building blocks for future festivals".

"This sleepy little town is a jewel in the crown of Canterbury and for one day of the year, people who have never been there can experience the brilliant friendliness, great community spirit and unique Frenchness of Akaroa."

Bonjour, Akaroa

* On Banks Peninsula, 85km from Christchurch.

* French settlers arrived in July 1840 and called it Port Louis-Philipe.

* Sailors from the HMS Britomart had already "claimed" the South Island for Britain.


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