Down at the wharf on Akaroa Harbour, the waves are lapping lazily against the pilings. The harbour is milky today, silt from the Rakaia and the Rangitata rivers hanging in the water, having finished its long journey from the Southern Alps and across the Canterbury Plains. It turns the water a powdery blue from a distance, but from where we sit, it is icy and clear.
Just back from the water, visitors sit beneath sunshades on wicker chairs outside the Bully Hayes bar, and watch yachts and schooners bobbing on the sparkling water just steps away. Hopeful gulls hover overhead, keeping an eye on the chip situation. From our vantage point, cold beers in hand, this could be France on a sunny summer's day - if it weren't for the sounds of Fat Freddy's Drop carrying on the breeze. And the very New Zealand fact that we're sitting in the flooded caldera of an ancient volcano.
Akaroa has so many stories, and so many histories, to unpack. Created by volcanoes, settled by Māori, founded by the French, claimed by the British.
It is the French heritage the town mostly trades on, and yet the Frenchness of the town, although based in fact and history, comes with a bit of a wink - a mid-century marketing tool to lure tourists to town.
It's true that this is Canterbury's oldest town, and it was indeed founded by around 60 French settlers who arrived in 1840. But those French colonists never got a proper foothold (the British quickly declared sovereignty over all of New Zealand in order to cut the French off) and by the 1950s there was just one surviving example of French architecture in Akaroa - the courthouse, which now forms part of the Akaroa Museum.
In the 1960s, Frenchness suddenly returned - the town's oldest streets with French origins were renamed "rue" and Akaroa's modern identity began.
It is such a beautiful spot, in a sheltered harbour surrounded by heritage buildings and beautifully tended gardens. It's lovely to walk along a "rue", to eat Toulouse sausages from the local butcher, or see a poster for the annual "French-fest". To feel like you're somewhere a little bit different from the rest of New Zealand.
If you want to get to grips with Akaroa's history and heritage, a stop at the museum is a must. It's here that we learn that Captain Jean-Francois de Surville was sailing these waters at the same time as Cook on the Endeavour, in the late 1760s. (Although Cook named the area Banks Peninsula, he actually mistook it for an island). The French established themselves in the area, naming the bay Port Louis-Philippe, creating whaling stations and naval stations, doctors' offices and constructed roads. For a time, French culture and language dominated.
Descendents of those 60 French settlers remain, and indeed these days, there are French accents to be heard, more recent imports from Europe. Up on the slopes of French L'Aube Hill cemetery, the names of Pierre, Libeau and and Fleuri attest to the authenticity of the connection.
How to see the famous Hector's dolphin
The French may have lured us into town, but it is another famous resident we are eager to see today - the Hector's dolphin, one of the world's smallest dolphins. Their numbers are contentious, but there are generally agreed to be between 9000 and 15,000 in the world. Here on Banks Peninsula, around 1500 make their home.
We head out with Coast Up Close, a small business run by skipper and owner Tony, who has been taking tourists out on the Wairiri - a fishing boat built in Invercargill - for 10 years. It's a perfect day for it, with clear skies and clear water.
Actually the dolphins prefer a little cover. Because sharks don't use echo-location, they prefer to hunt when the water is clear. The dolphins like a little murk for camouflage. Nonetheless, they don't keep their distance. As we chug out of the harbour, our first sighting happens within minutes. In between sightings, Tony commentates on the harbour, the geology, and the history of Akaroa.
Seen from the water, the natural setting of Akaroa is clearer. We're sailing across the volcanic crater, extinct for around 6 million years, and now flooded by the sea. This huge cone, which forms Akaroa's mountainous backdrop, has eroded to only two-thirds of the size it once was.
As we cruise further out, we see Ōnuku Marae of Ngai Tahu, and the pretty little church that neighbours it, built in 1871, one of New Zealand's oldest non-denominational churches. In between dolphin-spotting we see red-billed gulls and white-fronted terns circling, taking advantage of the kahawai hunting beneath the waves, pushing the bait fish to the surface.
The benefit of the small boat is not just the personal commentary and service you get from the captain. It's also the manoeuvrability, taking you right up to the coastline and around (and sometimes through) the rocks. They do things a bit differently on this boat. If the dolphins appear, that's great, but if they don't, that's up to them - captain Tony won't chase them. He has been known to jump off the side when he fancies a bit of fishing. On our return trip, a free diver approaches in his kayak to have a chat, and show us his catch of the day - kina and cray. He is 75. The young backpackers on the boat are flabbergasted.
But the dolphins are the stars and each time they surface, the deck is filled with oohs and aahs. They approach readily, surfing the pressure wave that the hull creates under the surface, ducking and diving in front of us.
Back on land in Akaroa
Back on land, like Mad Dogs and Englishmen, we take a walk in the midday sun. This tiny town is split in two by its promenade, where locals and visitors stroll between the shops and cafes. But the summer days can be truly hot here. As in Europe, in the heat of the day the locals retreat inside, or to their beautiful flower-filled gardens that line the streets, the roses tumbling over the picket fences.
We wander to the ocean end of Rue Balguerie, and watch the kids bombing off the wharf, then double back and find ourselves at Harbar, a tiny little restaurant and beach bar that sits right on the water, overlooking French Bay. We settle in with cold beers, gin-marinated mussels and fries, and watch the boats bobbing about. It could be summer on the Riviera, but it's right here, a unique slice of Aotearoa.
The must-do guide to Akaroa
Get out on the harbour and see the dolphins
The Hectors dolphins are a must. Coast Up Close will take you out on their small kauri launch, allowing you to get up close and personal with dolphins, seals, sea caves and the incredible cliffs of the Banks Peninsula. The 2.5 hour cruises depart twice a day. coastupclose.co.nz
Go sea kayaking with the penguins
On the opposite side of the Banks Peninsula, you'll find the Pōhatu Marine Reserve, which is home to the largest Little Penguin colony on mainland New Zealand. A day trip with Pohatu Penguins will pick you up from Akaroa, take you on a scenic drive with stops, across the peninsula, then send you out on to the water to spot penguins as well as seals, seabirds and other wildlife. pohatu.co.nz
Walk the Banks Track
This three-day three-night hike is a hidden gem. New Zealand's oldest private walk offers stunning views through farms and forest, charming accommodation - and some decent climbs. It's just enough of a challenge to leave you feeling pretty pleased with yourself. Along the way you'll encounter wildlife up close, quirky huts, and the wonderful Hinewai Reserve, an ecological restoration project. It's self-catering, but pack cartage is included. For an extra $50, you can have a chilly bin driven hut to hut, so there's no need to skimp on wine, cheese and sausages. bankstrack.co.nz
Visit the Giant's House
The Giant's House is a sculpture garden created by artist Josie Martin. It's an eccentric display of Gaudi-esque mosaics, covering sculptures of animals, people, flowers and seats. You can walk there from town - just stroll straight up Rue Balguerie from Beach Rd. thegiantshouse.co.nz