There is a magical place in New Zealand where the mountains literally meet the sea – as if a fairytale land has been imagined into real life.
Few places exist like this where enormous snowy peaks drop straight down into the ocean, and fewer still where the ocean shelf next to the beach drops off so dramatically allowing for an abundance of deep-dwelling sea life like sperm whales cavorting off local beaches. Of course, no matter where you find yourself in New Zealand, you are never far from the sea, but if you are looking to experience marine wildlife in an epic environment, Kaikōura is the place for you.
If you come to Kaikōura, the best place to be is on the water. Or even better yet, in the water.
Kaikōura experienced an enormous earthquake in November 2016 – a huge jolt with a magnitude of 7.8. The town suffered a lot of damage and some shops and services were shut down. Everything is mostly up and running again, and tourists are being encouraged to visit.
But be warned about that water... while it is bright turquoise and very inviting in appearance, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth! It is frigid, due to the continental shelf dropping off drastically only a few hundred meters offshore.
Being a tourist-focused town, there is an array of activities that will bring you out onto the water. But that being said, while Kaikōura is a popular stop for international travellers, it still has managed to stay mellow, classic and local.
Many of the activities are perfect for Kiwi families on holiday and are a great way to bring your kids into close proximity of amazing wildlife. The standard Kaikōura must-do is usually joining a whale sightseeing tour. There are a few local sperm whales that hang about and you are almost always guaranteed a glimpse of one, after all, they are rather hard to miss being twelve metres long. If you have the budget, I would recommend doing a small plane flight out over the water. In addition to getting a kickass scenic tour of the peninsula and mountains, you also get to see the whales from above, which puts their huge size into perspective. While it’s amazing from the boat, you really only see their tales, whereas if you are in a plane, you get a much better idea of their scale. Let’s go with enormous.
Now if you are a little more adventurous, one of my overall New Zealand must-dos is to swim with the dolphins in Kaikōura. Don’t worry, you’re given thick wetsuits on the boat, though you will still likely scream as you jump into the water. It is extremely cold, especially at sunrise. The dusky dolphin pods are locals and you can almost always find them in one place or another. While swimming with dolphins is quite controversial in tourism worldwide, in Kaikōura, these pods are totally wild, and swimming with them is carefully regulated to ensure they are not affected by humans. If you are really lucky you might even get to see orcas cruising by as they hunt stingrays.
If you can’t get enough of the water, you can also swim with the local seal colony.
Seals are a big part of the wildlife in Kaikōura and you can find them on many of the rocky beaches around the area.
While they often blend into whatever background they are napping on, you can always count on smelling them first to give you a heads up. And don’t forget to head north of Kaikōura to the Ōhau waterfall, New Zealand’s worst-kept secret. After a short walk up a stream bed, you’ll likely find a gang of baby seals frolicking in the pool beneath a forested waterfall. It really doesn’t get more fairytale than that.
I know this is a bit of a sweeping statement, but one the best lodges I’ve ever stayed in is in Kaikōura – Hapuku Lodge. Just outside of town, it’s on the most stunning piece of land, with deer grazing below your windows with the snowy foothills of the mountains behind them. In the other direction is the sea.
This is the kind of accommodation where you never want to leave, even to swim with dolphins. Did I mention you’re in a treehouse?
Likely the most luxurious treehouse in New Zealand, the two-storey houses are the perfect place to get away, with floor to ceiling windows and every amenity you could imagine, including your own fire. And don’t even get me started on the bathrooms. You can dine in the lodge, which will blow your mind and likely your wallet, so make sure you save this for special occasions.
When in Kaikōura, you must eat crayfish. If you don’t like seafood, too bad. The crays here are guaranteed to change your mind. Kaikōura literally means 'food' and 'crayfish' in Māori, and if the stories are true, there used to be so many crayfish here they would walk up onto the beach and you could just grab them. If only that were still the case.
Luckily there are plenty of fishing charters and tours that will take you out and teach you how to catch them or just take you out for a fish. But if you are just looking for one cooked up fresh for you, my favourite side-of-the-road crayfish shacks are the classic Nin’s Bin in Halfmoon Bay north of Kaikōura and the Kaikōura Seafood BBQ stall. It is sacrilege to come here and not eat crays for eat least one meal, preferably all.
No matter where you go in Kaikōura, you’re pretty much guaranteed a great view, whether it’s the sea or the mountains.
One spot I always find myself going back to straddles the peninsula and offers views in every direction. Off Scarborough Street in town, it’s easy to find next to a huge decorated water tank, and it’s my favourite place in Kaikōura to watch sunrise and sunset. And trust me, Kaikōura gets some amazing sunrises and sunsets.