It is unusual to find French settlements in Australia: it seems that on every occasion when French explorers, cartographers and naturalists came sniffing around, they were pipped at the post by the Poms.
Given the absence of historic Frenchness in Australia, it was a surprise then to find a quaint little French village in the South island of New Zealand. Akaroa ( its French name became Port Louis Phillipe for some time before reverting back to the original Maori name) began its French life in 1838, when Captain Francois Langloir
‘ made a provisional purchase of land in the greater Banks Peninsula from Tuaanau… On his return to France, he advertised for settlers to come to New Zealand and ceded his interest in the land to the Nanto- Bordelaise Company of which he became a part owner. On 9 March 1840, 63 emigrants left from Rochefort. The settlers embarked on the Comte de Paris – an old man-of-war ship given to them by the French government – for New Zealand. The Comte de Paris and its companion ship the Aube, arrived in the Bay of Islands in the North Island on 11 July 1840, where they discovered that the Banks Peninsula had been claimed by the British. The French arrived in Akaroa on 18 August and established a settlement.’¹
Today, Akaroa and the nearby smaller settlement of Duvauchelle, retain a pride in their French beginnings, fostering French detail in the local architecture, and ambience as well as holding a biennial French festival held in odd-numbered years in Akaroa.
Those looking for a French conversation will most likely be disappointed. Most of the old-time French speakers have long passed. There is a French cemetery, French named streets and of course, French bistros and restaurants, the local gendarmerie and a boucherie, a French backpacker hostel and wine bars. The local council is active in preserving its French heritage; new buildings and beachside apartments come with de rigueur French roof lines. It stops short, just, of being theme parkish.
Other pleasant pastimes include a stroll down the long picturesque jetty, stopping along the way for a tray of Murphy’s freshly caught and grilled fish. In town there is a famous cooking school, coffee shops and restaurants along the promenade, sea voyages to visit the Akaroa Dolphins and other wild sea creatures, getting completely lost in the Garden of Tane, strolling through the older parts of the village, and the listening to the Tim Minchin -like guy who plays classical music on an old piano along the main promenade.
Like many place names in New Zealand, the name Akaroa is Maori, meaning “Long Harbour”, which is spelled “Whangaroa” in standard Māori.
Akaroa is around one hour’s drive from Christchurch. It is a great road trip, with scenic views along the way. The town, being so close to Christchurch, makes a great place to start or finish a trip around the South island of New Zealand.