WEND YOUR WAY through the crumpled hills of Banks Peninsula from Christchurch to Akaroa.
It's a bucolically breathtaking drive, which I lapped up under a Tiffany-blue morning sky, as the luminous greens of spring bathed the countryside.
Akaroa is a charismatic place of evocative colonial cottages with no shortage of layered history to unpeel.
But it's Akaroa's unmistakeable French influence that accentuates the seduction. Order up a Café au Lait and soak it up.
In 1838, French whaling captain Jean-Francois Langlois made a down payment on 12,150 hectares of Banks Peninsula land, agreed to with 12 Ngai Tahu chiefs. In 1840, 64 French and German settlers arrived at Akaroa after enduring many months at sea, only to see the Union Jack flying on Green Point.
The British had arrived seven days earlier, under the watchful eye of HMS Britomart, after annexing the entire country under the Treaty of Waitangi. Despite their profound disappointment, the French settlers were allowed to stay on in Akaroa to live under British rule.
Insatiably popular and utterly mesmerising is a visit to The Giant's House. Art and garden fans are equally rewarded when encountering this 24 years-and-counting labour of love, conceived and crafted by Josie Martin.
Located at 68 Rue Balguerie, The Giant's House was named by a young girl looking up at it from the valley below, remarking it was so huge that it must be the house of a giant.
Built in 1880 by Akaroa's first BNZ bank manager, the manor house is a timbered delight, brimming with totara and kauri, plus a magnificent mahogany staircase imported from France. Josie has breathed new life into it. There was no developed garden when she purchased the property in the late 1990s.
When she began digging the dirt to design her garden, she unearthed shards of lovely old china, which she deployed when trying her hand at mosaicing the front steps of the house. The works are wondrous, whimsical, a seriously flamboyant and playful celebration of life. A grand fantasia.
As an avid traveller, actively involved in the fine arts for 40 years, Josie is constantly drawing on her global adventures for inspiration, as her garden continues to evolve, with the mosaiced theatre of art taking centre-stage in the parade of splendour. When I first clapped eyes on her wonderland, it struck me as Gaudi meets Disney. She calls it "the happiest garden on Earth."
Amid the slew of water-based options Akaroa offers, you'll definitely want to hop aboard Black Cat Cruises for their two-hour long nature cruise, on-board their luxury catamaran. Fully narrated, it's a magnificently scenic cruise, blending the abundance of marine wildlife encounters with the evocative history of Akaroa and the staggering rock formations that deeply carve the coastline and headland at the harbour entrance.
Cathedral Cave is an exceptional example of a volcanic cave, 100 metres high, and layered with self-explanatory evidence of different volcanic eruptions. The cave was formed by a massive explosion of trapped gas that blew out from the encased lava, laying bare the lines and layers of each eruption throughout the ages.
Pock-marked with blowholes, the ocean breathes in and out with a thunderous roar.
Rest assured, the crater you are floating in is that of an extinct volcano, which last blew its top 6 million years ago.
Nudging out of the harbour into the open sea, after admiring the gnarly Heads, the wildlife was ever-present. New Zealand fur seals sunbathed and bellowed from rocky platforms and sea stacks; little blue penguins scurried about in the water (at first glimpse you may mistake them for ducks); seabirds wheeled about in the breeze scanning the water for prey while a pod of frisky Hector's dolphins freely frolicked in the wake of the boat, playing to the cameras like seasoned performers.
Before turning for home, we delved into the most spectacular rock formation of all, Scenery Nook. This volcanic amphitheatre is considered by geologists as one of the most dramatic sea cliffs in the world, a volcanic vent, throwing up a riot of fiery red colours in the basalt, lava and volcanic ash.
There's a sense of the otherworldly, of danger and the unfamiliar, in this compelling Martian-hued amphitheatre. It's an arresting crescendo to a captivating cruise on Akaroa Harbour with Black Cat Cruises.