A French colonial seaside town that perches in the middle of an enormous volcano. A place surrounded by rare Hector dolphins, baby seals and a typically stunning New Zealand backdrop. A main street where you are just as likely to find a roquefort crepe as you are award winning fish and chips.
On paper, Akaroa sounds bizarre; a Kiwi-Poseidon-Francophile lovechild abandoned on an outcrop on the far east of the South Island. In reality, it is a fat slice of awesome and well worth the extra hour journey through Christchurch to get to.
Like many we came to Akaroa for the dolphins but ended up staying for the gorgeous surroundings. On our second day, we force our chuntering campervan up the steep climb to Heritage Park and strike out from there onto the Purple Curry Track into the undulating valleys that surround the volcanic Akaroa basin below.
Almost straight away the path dives down, leaving the sun-drenched vistas, and entering into a gloomy forest. The way snakes and meanders. We are forced to bend low under flailing branches, pick our steps over gnarled, ancient roots and edge around fallen trunks. Spiderwebs spool over our faces and stick to our cheeks. It’s all a little bit Mirkwood.
As we get deeper, even the birds seem to get queiter. All except the podgy Kereru (New Zealand Wood Pidgeon) that is as elegant as an elephant on speed. A few days before a local explained that they are so fat that they misjudge their trajectories and so spend their time clattering into branches and divebombing hedgerows.
A few kilometers later and we burst out of the trees ourselves into a scorching, midday summer sun. From here it’s a sharp ascent up to the Browntop Saddle, past mustard yellow gorse bushes and columns of fuscia foxgloves. Under the sun’s glare, pea pods crisp and burst open, accompanying us as we walk like a popcorn backing track.
The views are already spectacular but it’s climbing over the Saddle which yields up the true money shot. Behind still sits the Akaroa basin, and further back the snowy Southern Alps, but now visible in front is the unending blue sheen of the South Pacific Ocean.
It is superb. The lovingly handcrafted wooden sign threatening to hang trespassing mountain bikers by their lycra only adds to the spectacle.
The return route takes us through twee farms and private land which is a rarity in New Zealand. Cows moo and echo. Their baritone voices reverberating from an invisible spot somewhere in the valley. Along with the rolling hills and wheat fields, it almost feels like a July stroll over the Sussex South Downs.
Near Tree Crop Farm we catch our breath by a stream and splash our faces in the cool mountain water. This is much needed before the final climb back to Heritage Park which is the steepest of the lot. We stumble sweating into the wonderful park where, since 1992, six hundred individual trees have been planted by self-styled ‘tree enthusiasts’.
To celebrate their acheivement, and our own for returning to it, we feast on thick slices of baked ham, artichoke hearts slick with olive oil and fresh baguettes purchased earlier from the butcher back in town, on the Rue Lavaud.
Pass the dijon, si vous plait.