Vive la France in enchanting Akaroa

By Sue Baxalle

Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula is one of Canterbury's many attractions. Photo / Supplied
Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula is one of Canterbury's many attractions. Photo / Supplied

People who still consider Christchurch and Canterbury a slice of old England in New Zealand should think again.

The garden city is certainly picturesque - with tulips galore blooming in early October - but is fast growing into a contemporary and vibrant cosmopolitan hub.

One of the people championing Christchurch's charms is Frenchwoman Cecile Dransart. In New Zealand for just four years, Dransart says she loves Canterbury. "It's a large region with so much offering. You can ski and surf in the same day."

In fact, returning from a recent visit back to France, as she flew back in over the Southern Alps, she couldn't help but smile and realised she was happy to live here. "There's always something happening."

Looking ahead, Christchurch will soon be gearing up for Cup and Show Week this month, which includes the Style Christchurch fashion event. Then in January, street performers descend on the city for the 10-day World Buskers Festival.

The weekend of my visit to the region, we could choose from the Body Festival (dance performances and workshops), the Kaikoura Seafest, a day of food, wine and entertainment, and French Fest in Akaroa, celebrating the town's French heritage.

It was the latter we were off to enjoy. Set on Banks Peninsula, Akaroa is a picturesque town with a unique character.

Although back in 1840 it just missed out on being the main entry point to a new French colony, Akaroa has nonetheless clung to its heritage. Street signs are in French, and many boutiques and guest houses bear French monikers.

And for the past 12 years the town has celebrated French Fest, a focal point being a re-enactment of the arrival of its Gallic forefathers.

The original settlers arrived on a cold and stormy day in August 1840, but the sun was out for this year's event as the participants - all descendants of the the first group - were rowed in from their vessel by the Akaroa Sea Scouts and under the leadership of Akaroa town cryer Stephen Le Lievre.

Accompanied by the NZ Army Band, the newly arrived settlers paraded along the street to the recreation ground, the site of the main French Fest celebrations.

The festival had been officially opened with a ceremony the previous evening. French ambassador Michel Legras and Christchurch Deputy Mayor Norm Withers were on hand with the Army band and sailors from the HMNZS Pukaki and HMNZS Taupo, who raised the French and New Zealand flags for the occasion. The official party were welcomed by members of local Onuku Marae.

But once the speeches were over, it was party time.

Getting right in the spirit, French Embassy staff from Wellington showed they had been putting in overtime lately and revealed all - well almost - with their inaugural performance of the can-can. The field was bustling with live music, food from a variety of nations, art, craft, fresh produce, clothing - you name it - and activities including the inaugural "Le French Cricket Tournament", French waiter races and snail races. Spectators could lay bets on which snail - with names such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Sebastien Chabal and Mathieu Bastareaud - would be the first to finish.

One of the stallholders was Catrina Brocherie, the great-great-granddaughter of one of the settlers who arrived on Le Comte de Paris.

Brocherie returned to Akaroa this year after 20 years in Australia - she says the ties are strong - and began making her handpainted porcelain and felt handpuppets, under the label Broche Fantoche.

Meanwhile, at Akaroa's Gaiety Theatre, the ambassador's chef, Veronique Sauzeau, joined forces with famous-in-Christchurch chef Phillip Kraal for a cooking demonstration.

On the menu were Marmite Bretonne, a seafood hotpot, escalope de saumon with braised fennel and Crepes Suzette - made by a helper, Legras. Said Sauzeau: " This is the only day I can tell my boss what to do." Some of the team of can-can dancers arrive and take up the role of serving staff.

French festivities aside, Akaroa is worth a visit. Just a 90-minute drive from Christchurch, it is perfect for either a family weekend or a romantic escape.

Sue Baxalle travelled to Akaroa with the help of Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism and Jucy Rentals.

Further information: Black Cat Cruises is at Main Wharf, Akaroa. Ring (03) 304 7641.

To find out about Akaroa see www.akaroa.com. For more about visiting Canterbury see www.christchurchnz.com.

Tiny towns' colourful history

In the 1800s, Jean-Francois Langlois, commander of a whaling ship working off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, thought Akaroa would make the perfect base for the French annexation of the South Island of New Zealand.

Langlois negotiated with, and obtained signatures from, 12 Ngai Tahu chiefs to buy most of Banks Peninsula.

According to the deed, the land was bought from the Maori for a deposit of 150 French francs in goods. The remainder of the total price was to be settled on Langlois' return to take possession of the land.

Langlois returned to France to rally support and collect settlers.

Passenger vessel Le Comte de Paris set sail from Rochefort on the Atlantic coast in March 1840, a month after the warship L'Aube had departed for New Zealand under the command of Captain Charles Lavaud, instructed to represent France until the arrival of a governor.

However, just a month before the 57 settlers left France, the British had signed the Treaty of Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, followed soon after by the South Island chiefs. After signing the treaty a British warship had sailed to Akaroa and planted the Union Jack.

The French also discovered the land bought by Langlois had been resold.

However, all was not lost. An agreement between the French and British
governments was reached to protect the settlers' rights in Akaroa. But instead of a debut as a South Island French colony, just two small towns of around 60 French inhabitants were established, French Town and French Bay.

There were also German settlers on board and they were not forgotten, with communities named German Town and German Bay, today called Takamatua.


- NZ Herald

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