Shandelle Battersby gets up close to some of our rarer creatures on Banks Peninsula

Banks Peninsula is a curious part of New Zealand, a big blob of land jutting off the coast of Canterbury, formed from the remnants of two volcanoes. It's a place you have to want to go, there's no chance of arriving here by accident. It's also a very pretty spot with an interesting history, and offers the opportunity to get up close to some of our rarest wildlife in their natural environment.

On a midwinter weekend in July — the coldest of the year — I wound my way along SH75 out to the peninsula, 90 minutes from Christchurch. There was a dusting of snow on its hills like icing sugar, and a few patches of dirty slush lining the highest parts of the road.

It was warmer and clearer than Christchurch, and during the next 24 hours the French-established township of Akaroa put forward its best case that though it might be considered a summer destination, it's just as appealing on a still winter's day when the sky is blue and the sun is shining.

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Regardless of the season, out on the water is where you want to be, especially when it's as flat as a pancake and reflecting the snowy hills behind it.

I wrapped myself up and climbed on board an Akaroa Dolphins boat for a two-hour cruise from the inner harbour out to the Pacific Ocean. Straining with excitement at the bow of the boat, clad in a natty yellow lifejacket, was Jet, our "dolphin spotter". The Australian kelpie's job for the afternoon was to find some Hector's dolphins — the world's smallest and rarest — as dogs can hear their sonar.

The lifejacket wasn't there just for looks, Captain Stew told us — this enthusiastic pooch has been known to get a bit carried away and hurl himself into the water. With the water temperature today sitting at about 7C, leaping into rescue him did not sound too appealing, so I was pleased when he was tied up as we got closer to the harbour mouth.

Jet the dolphin-spotter. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
Jet the dolphin-spotter. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

Our host, Tracey, came around with extra jackets to make sure we were all warm enough, handed out tissues for inevitable runny noses and took drinks orders. We made our way slowly into the harbour as Stew delivered a running commentary over the loudspeaker about the area's French, English and Maori history and pointed out some of the sights including the pa and historic church (1878) at Onuku. The harbour was once a volcanic crater and as a result there are many interesting rock formations dotted around its edges.

We saw sea caves and seals, waterfalls and sea birds, and even a tiny white-flippered penguin bobbing on the freezing waves. Then, all of a sudden, we saw about half a dozen Hector's dolphins. They raced along beside us and coasted under the prow of the boat as Jet whimpered and pulled at his leash. It was thrilling to see them leaping and surfing in our wake as we slowly went around in circles, and Captain Stew gave everyone plenty of time to enjoy the sight and try to capture a few pictures or videos of these beautiful mammals.

We ventured a little further out into the Pacific Ocean to Scenery Nook, a particularly spectacular volcanic amphitheatre, before turning back from home, enjoying another dance with the dolphins on the way, and some home-made biscuits to munch on too.

This family-owned operation gives a portion of each fare towards dolphin education and research, an ethos echoed by Pohatu Penguins, which offers penguin and nature safaris and sea kayaking at Pohatu or Flea Bay, about half an hour's drive from the township.

It's now a marine reserve and land-owners Francis and Shireen Helps have spent years protecting the little penguins, or korora, that come on to their property to nest. Pohatu is thought to be the largest colony of little penguins in mainland New Zealand.

Their conservation efforts have resulted in an increase in numbers, and during our three-hour penguin safari we get a quick peek at several pairs who are in the pre-breeding phase, cuddled up together in the dozens of tiny nesting boxes (or "penguin hobbit holes" as one American in our group describes them). Francis and Shireen have built on the property. We also see the beak of one little chap poking out from under the woolshed as we drive in; fans of dark, enclosed spaces, there are 15-20 breeding penguin pairs who have set up house under the woolshed. Better here, our guide Kevin explains, than in Francis or Shireen's gumboots, once a popular place for them to nest before there were better alternatives.

The wharf. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
The wharf. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

Commorants sweep over the sheltered bay as we don (thankfully empty) gumboots and camouflage ponchos and head out to the property's hides to watch the penguins make their move from the water to the nesting sites as the sun starts to set. We're equipped with binoculars too, and see some of the penguins on the water, seals on the rocks opposite, and a lone yellow-eyed penguin slowly waddling up on to the land below the hide, where a pile of droppings reveals he's been sleeping the past few nights.

Kevin, a passionate Frenchman, informs and entertains us along the way, reminding the children not to be too loud or move too fast, and for the adults to turn their flashes on their smartphones off. These little creatures need to be protected from artificial light.

Kevin the Frenchman, guide at Pohatu Penguins. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
Kevin the Frenchman, guide at Pohatu Penguins. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

Tired but satisfied, our group heads back to town knowing that, thanks to people like the Helpses and other like-minded tourism operators in the area, our precious native wildlife will be around for many more years for other visitors to the peninsula to enjoy.

Akaroa highlights

Art and garden fans alike should call into

to see artist Josie Martin's nearly 20-year labour of love. Her historic home, high on a hill over looking Akaroa, was given its name by a girl looking up at it from the valley who said it was so big it must be the house of a giant. Martin has created a fantastical outdoor gallery featuring large mosaic sculptures that have to be seen to be believed, and landscaped a beautiful garden around them. There's also a gallery space featuring some of her paintings.

- 68 Rue Balguerie.

Did you know that alpaca wool is three times warmer than sheepwool? And that it comes in 22 natural colours overwhich breeders have no control? A few minutes out of town is

, a working farm that is home to 150 alpacas, who all have names. As well as a shop selling lovely knitwear — all locally made with no dyes or chemicals — owners Frank and Anya Walkington hold daily tours ofthe farm. Guests can get up close with these cute and gentle creatures, who have fun names like The Rising Sun (a major stud) and Horatio, and have the chance to feed and pet them. The Walkingtons export the alpacas to Europe and Australia, and this is an enjoyable tour in a picturesque spot.

- 328 Wainui Main Rd

A few minutes out of town is Shamarra Alpacas. Photo / Shandelle Battersby
A few minutes out of town is Shamarra Alpacas. Photo / Shandelle Battersby

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

Jetstar flies daily from Auckland to Christchurch with one-way fares starting from $59. Akaroa is a 90-minute drive from Christchurch on SH75.

Accommodation: Heritage Collection Akaroa Cottages are 1km out of town, set amongst 5ha of picturesque grounds with views of either native bush or Akaroa Harbour.

Further information: Akaroa Dolphins is at 65 Beach Rd; Pohatu Penguins is at 8/2 Rue Balguerie.

Further information: See Christchurchnz.com.