Kaikoura is a quaint little town on the east coast of New Zealand’s south island, roughly halfway between Picton and Christchurch. The town is situated right on the water, in the shadow of the Seaward Kaikoura Range — a branch of the Southern Alps. The town will likely be a short passing-through stop if you’re on a southbound bus to Christchurch, but I recommend setting a day aside to explore this little coastal gem.
Kaikoura may not be very big (the population is less than 3,000), but there’s still plenty to do and see, especially if you enjoy the outdoors. Here are a selection of things you might choose to add to your itinerary:
Go whale watching
Kaikoura was originally settled by whalers and fishermen, thanks to the deep Hikurangi Trench that lies off shore. These days, that trench has helped Kaikoura become a bit of a tourist mecca for those seeking a spot to go whale watching. Sperm whales live in and around Kaikoura waters year-round, and other whale species occasionally found in the area include humpback whales, pilot whales, blue whales, and southern right whales.
The most well-known whale watching operation in the area is Whale Watch Kaikoura. They have a 95 percent success rate for spotting whales on their tours, but will give you an 80 percent refund if you don’t sight any.
Whales aren’t the only marine animals you’ll be likely to see on a whale watching tour, however. Orcas often pass through Kaikoura waters, as do Hector’s dolphins — the smallest and rarest breed in the world. Whale watchers will also likely see pods of dusky dolphins, and some New Zealand Fur Seals, too. You’ll also be sure to see albatross, petrels, and shearwaters, among other sea birds.
Swim with the locals
Since Kaikoura has such diverse marine life, it’s no wonder that many of the activities available in the town involve them. Along with whale watching, you can also swim with some of the area’s marine mammals.
If you book a tour with Dolphin Encounter, you can watch and then swim with wild dusky dolphins in their natural habitat. Duskies live in Kaikoura waters year-round, so you are almost guaranteed an encounter with these acrobatic dolphins.
Slightly more unique than swimming with dolphins, Kaikoura also offers the opportunity to swim with New Zealand Fur Seals. Seal Swim Kaikoura operates daily tours from October to May that focus solely on swimming with seals.
Note: All of these marine tours and encounters are dependent on weather and sea conditions. Booking morning tours is always advisable, because seas are usually calmer in the morning hours. If, however, your tour is cancelled due to the weather, most companies will refund you all of your money and offer to rebook you on another tour.
Hike the Kaikoura Peninsula
The Kaikoura Peninsula juts out from the mainland just south of town. There are some trails that will lead you up onto the peninsula (offering fantastic views of the mountains and surrounding area), or you can walk along the base of it. At low tide, take a stroll out onto the reef-like rocks that extend out into the ocean, and keep your eyes peeled for sea birds.
If you’re there at the right time of year (generally in the winter, between May and October), you’ll probably also see a good number of New Zealand Fur Seals lolling about. It’s always fun to see these animals in the wild, but be reminded that they ARE wild — meaning don’t get too close. A good tip: Never get between a seal and the water; if you do, it may feel threatened, and you may find yourself being chased. While it might sound funny in theory, it's not nearly as fun in reality.
Heading down to the peninsula is a great option if you want to see some Kaikoura wildlife, but don’t want to have to pay for it. Simply walking around is absolutely free.
Get a birds-eye view
If you have a car (or can find a nice local who has one), drive up to the water tower that sits above town. While not an official lookout, this vantage point offers one of the best views of Kaikoura: You can see the town, the sea, the peninsula, and the mountains rising in the background.
When I visited Kaikoura with friends, the owner of the B&B we stayed at drove us around town, and insisted on taking us to this spot. The day had been gradually clearing up as evening approached, and, as we reached the water tower, the last wisps of cloud were just being lifted off the snow-covered mountains. It easily rivaled any other stunning vista we saw on our south island trip.
Stay at a B&B
Speaking of friendly B&B owners, I suggest staying in a bed and breakfast if you’re going to be in Kaikoura overnight. There are a few backpacker hostels in Kaikoura (YHA Kaikoura and Albatross Backpackers are two I remember), but, for a few extra dollars, you can stay somewhere like the Brook House B&B.
This is where I stayed in Kaikoura, and it was one of my favorite overnight spots in New Zealand. The owner, Judy, was friendly and even gave us rides around town. She baked us chocolate muffins, and shared with us the history of Kaikoura. Brook House is located just outside of town, and stepping out onto the quiet back porch offers a great view of the mountains (though, many other accommodation options in Kaikoura do, too). Louis the poodle and Bruce Willis the senile cat helped make our stay at Brook House extra memorable, and I definitely would stay there again.
If you happen to be in Kaikoura at the right time of year, there are some events that could be worth checking out. Here are a couple that sound fun:
The first Saturday of October each year brings Seafest, a festival featuring food (namely, seafood), wine and entertainment from the Kaikoura region. It’s a celebration of all things Kaikoura, and sounds like a great way to kick off the spring months.
Another event that certainly sounds interesting is Trash Fashion, a fashion show now to be held every two years in which all garments are made from recycled materials — i.e., trash! Sounds pretty cool. If you don’t happen to catch the show, however, you can stop into the Revamped Gallery, which hosts a permanent exhibit of over 100 garments from the past decade of Trash Fashion shows.
So now that you’ve got a few ideas, find some space to squeeze Kaikoura into your New Zealand itinerary. It may be a small town, but it has a lot to offer.
It’s worth noting that many of the things listed here are locally-owned businesses. The marine encounter companies and B&Bs are not part of massive chains; they’re run by true kiwis who call Kaikoura home. So you can rest assured that any money you spend on these activities and services goes directly into the Kaikoura economy.