There are different ways to reach Kaikoura. If you’ve landed in Christchurch, it takes approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes to make the drive north, via State Highway 1. For those who started their New Zealand journey in Wellington, you’ll need to catch the ferry to Picton (a 3-hour, 15-minute trip) before heading on the drive down to Kaikoura (which in itself takes about as long as the trip from Christchurch).
We’re keeping the times flexible here because they’ll depend entirely on which route you’ve taken. If you’ve made an early morning trip from Christchurch, for instance, you’re likely to arrive at around 11 a.m.; those heading from Picton straight to Kaikoura might arrive around lunchtime. As for accommodation, there’s a myriad of options available — it’s easy enough just to pick one that suits your budget and is most conveniently located to your list of must-do activities. It pays to book your room in advance (especially in the high summer season), as the town is quite popular with visitors.
Head to town to get some food into your system before spending the rest of the day exploring some of Kaikoura’s inland attractions. Many of the cafes around town are located on the main streets — Beach Road and the Esplanade — so you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to finding the ideal lunch spot. Hislops Wholefoods for instance is well-liked for its freshly baked breads, muffins and cakes as well as ever-changing breakfast and lunch menu.
Hislops Wholefoods Cafe, 33 Beach Rd, Kaikoura 7300, New Zealand, +64 3-319 6971
The wildlife abundant Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is the closest trail from town. There are various short walking options around here — you might end up spending five hours exploring the path, depending on your disposition. The 50-minute walk from the town centre into the Point Kean car park will get you up close and personal to a local fur seal colony. Most of the seals you’ll encounter are males — don’t get too close to them as they might become aggressive. From Point Kean you can follow onto Whalers Bay where you’ll catch sight of all kinds of native vegetation as well as some wading birds and blue penguins going about their day.
Kaikoura’s name can be broken down into two Maori words: kai for food and koura for crayfish. Needless to say, that is the must-try speciality when it comes to seafood. Most of the town’s bars and restaurants will offer you the opportunity to taste these native seafood species, among many other types of fish and marine morsels that can be found in the Pacific Ocean. For a fancy, sit-down meal, try a place like the Green Dolphin Restaurant; for something more low-key, The Whaler Bar and Restaurant is a good option.
Now we get to what is, for many, the ultimate highlight for visiting Kaikoura. A morning tour of the sea is a good option for those wanting to see those famous whales, as that’s when the tides and winds are at their most optimal condition.
The earliest whale watching tour is actually at 7:15 a.m., but if you want to have some breakfast before your trip the 10 a.m. tour is the best alternative. Grab a coffee and a bite to eat from the Fluke’s Seaside Cafe, which is owned and operated by Whale Watch Kaikoura itself. Then, make your way to the check in-point for a safety briefing before the boat departs on the tour. Expect to be on the water for approximately 2.5 hours.
Take a quick breather from all the action by grabbing some lunch in town before visiting the Kaikoura Museum. Some of the nearby eateries include The Craypot and the Why Not Cafe; there’s also a Four Square supermarket down the road if you’re feeling a bit conscious about your food expenses. You can then walk to the modern museum premises to browse the interesting photographs and historic relics that line its stunningly decorated interiors.
The Craypot, 70 W End, Kaikoura 7300, New Zealand, +64 3-319 7191
Why Not Cafe, 66 W End, Kaikoura 7300, New Zealand, +64 3-319 6486
Four Square Kaikoura, 31 W End, Kaikoura 7300, New Zealand, +64 3-319 5332
Kaikoura Museum, 96 W End, Kaikoura 7300, New Zealand, +64 3-319 7440
Finish the afternoon with a practical — and personal — animal encounter you’ll cherish forever. Hiring a kayak for a self-guided ocean tour is a good way to spot the resident dusky dolphins. If you have an affinity for seals, Kaikoura is the only place in New Zealand which offers tours specifically geared towards swimming with these majestic creatures.
Let’s wrap things up on a picturesque note. Head to a takeaway shop like Cods n Cray, grab some battered fish, fresh crayfish and a scoop of chips, and then make your way towards the rugged coastlines for a meal filled with stunning vistas. This experience is good to immerse yourself in as a Kiwi summertime tradition (i.e. a fish and chips feast by the beach), and it will enable you to truly marvel at the postcard-worthy alpine landscapes that attract people to the South Island at large.
Cods & Crayfish, 81 Beach Rd, Kaikoura 7300, New Zealand, +64 3-319 7899