Famous as the best place in New Zealand to spot whales at any time of year, the little South Island town of Kaikoura is surrounded by mountains and offers some of the freshest seafood you’ll find in the country. Here’s how to spend a day in and around the town.
Kaikoura is sandwiched between the snow-capped Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean, on the northeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The meeting of warm and cold ocean currents, coupled with the deep trench just offshore, draws a huge variety of marine life here. As well as the sperm whales that are a year-round draw, in Kaikoura you can also spot dusky dolphins, seals, albatross, and penguins at any time of year, as well as orca, humpback whales, blue whales, and Hector’s dolphins at certain times of year. Kaikoura is conveniently located between Christchurch and Picton and many travellers make a half-day stop on their way through. While you should definitely make time for wildlife spotting in Kaikoura, there are other attractions to enjoy, too. Here’s how to spend an ideal day in Kaikoura.
Dolphins can be spotted from many places in New Zealand, but Kaikoura is unique in that you’re almost guaranteed to see a whale on a boat ride. Tour operators send reconnaissance flights up in the mornings to scope out the position of whales, so they know exactly where to take you. Magnificent sperm whales live in the waters here year-round, and orca, humpback whales, and blue whales migrate in winter (June to August), and are sometimes seen from November to March, too. Alternatives to the standard whale-watching cruises are fishing trips, kayak tours or scuba diving trips. There are also tours that focus specifically on dolphin-watching, if you’re more interested in this animal, although you may also see dolphins on a whale-watching tour.
If you’re travelling with an infant or toddler, it’s important to know that, unlike many other wildlife-spotting cruises in New Zealand, in Kaikoura your needs must be at least three to join a whale-watching cruise. A scenic helicopter flight is a good alternative. Seeing whales from above is a very different experience, but you’ll also get fantastic views of the mountains and coastline. Children of any age are allowed, and those under three usually fly for free.
After your whale-watching tour, enjoy a leisurely lunch with sea views. Unsurprisingly for a seaside town, Kaikoura serves great seafood, especially grouper, cod, mussels, paua (abalone), and crayfish. In fact, the meaning of the Te Reo Maori name Kaikoura is “to eat crayfish”. Consider that an order.
Kaikoura’s tagline is “Where the mountains meet the sea”, so after prioritising wildlife in the morning, in the afternoon you can appreciate the other natural features of the town. If you’re feeling active, many short walks of an hour or two are possible for varying fitness levels. The seal colonies just south of town are a good destination for an afternoon walk. There are great views from the Point Kean Viewpoint, and you’re highly likely to see seals on the rocks and in the water, too. They’re not dangerous, but do keep a safe distance from them. For information on other local tracks, and seasonal conditions, it’s a good idea to drop into the Kaikoura i-Site tourist information office.
Kaikoura also offers great mountain biking, again suitable for all fitness and experience levels. You can enjoy cycling through native bush, alongside rivers and on quiet country roads. The i-Site can give more information on renting bicycles, and recommended routes, too. Alternatively, visit the Lavendyl Lavender Farm for a fragrant and relaxing afternoon. The five-acre farm is just northeast of town, beneath Mt Fyffe. Stroll through the gardens, watch the lavender oil distillation process and shop for lavender products.
Cap off your day with a walk on pebbly Kaikoura beach. In the summer you might even want to swim: it’s safest at the southern end, where the waves are smaller, but there’s no lifesaving patrol here, so take care.
Although Kaikoura is a small town, there are bars and restaurants along the Esplanade that stay open quite late. Kaikoura is just south of New Zealand’s preeminent wine-producing region, Marlborough, so wine enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the chance to try a drop of Marlborough sauvignon blanc. If beer’s more your thing, local craft brews are served at Emporium Brewing.
If you’re heading north out of Kaikoura this evening, stop for dinner at Nin’s Bin, 20km (12.5 mi) north of town on the highway. The little shack serves seriously tasty crayfish with garlic butter, and other fresh fish and chips.