Ask people who have been to New Zealand to name the city with the best location in the country, and chances are a good number of them will say Queenstown. Located on the shore of Lake Wakatipu and with the Remarkables mountain range serving as a backdrop, there's no arguing that Queenstown is in a pretty stunning spot.
BUT, as much as I love Queenstown, it can get very congested with adventure-seeking tourists and backpackers.
I still definitely think you should visit, don't get me wrong. But if you're looking for a town with a similarly epic view without the tourist crowds, I would ask you to consider:
Located on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island a couple hours north of Christchurch, Kaikoura is one of those places that many NZ visitors just pass through – or skip entirely. But, just as I've told you that you shouldn't skip Wanaka, I'll also tell you that you shouldn't skip Kaikoura.
In fact, Kaikoura is one of my FAVORITE towns in New Zealand. And here's why:
The marine life
If a non-New Zealander has even heard of Kaikoura, chances are it's because they've heard of Kaikoura's fabulous whale watching. The most well-known whale watching operation in the area is Whale Watch Kaikoura, which has a 95 percent success rate for spotting whales on their tours.
But whales aren't the only marine life you'll find here. Lying just offshore, the deep Kaikoura Canyon and its currents draw all sorts of sea life to the area – you'll find whales, dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, albatross, and more year-round in Kaikoura.
Along with going whale watching, you can also swim with wild dolphins and get up close with fur seals.
There's also a seal colony within walking distance of Kaikoura, meaning that it's not out of the ordinary to see seals sunning themselves all along the coast if you're there at the right time of year.
You can take a walk out to the Kaikoura Peninsula, where in the winter (generally between May and October), you’ll probably also see a good number of New Zealand Fur Seals lolling about.
The landscape and views
Kaikoura is right on the ocean, with a long pebble beach stretching from the town all the way to the nearby seal colony. But Kaikoura is also right near the mountains – here the Kaikoura Ranges (an extension of the Southern Alps) extend nearly to the sea.
So yes, you get the beach AND the mountains in Kaikoura, just like in Queenstown. It makes for some seriously epic views, no matter where you are in town.
The relaxed vibe and small-town feel
Kaikoura is MUCH smaller than Queenstown. The town's population is less than 5,000, and “downtown” consists of just one main road. I kind of love this about Kaikoura, though. You don't feel like you have to rush (AND you can pretty much always find parking).
You won't find a ton of souvenir shops here, and the restaurant selection is also less than what you'll find in larger cities. But the variety is enough for a couple of days. Especially when you consider…
The fresh seafood
Since it's right on the ocean, you can get some amazing seafood in Kaikoura. Crayfish (basically lobster) is the specialty here, but if you can't shell out for that (haha, see what I did there?), there's plenty of fresh fish and shellfish, too.
There are a few fish n' chips takeaways in town (I got some delicious blue cod for just $8 at Coopers Catch), and most restaurants in town serve up fresh seafood chowder. Outside of town, you'll find roadside places like Nins Bin and the seafood BBQ that's near the seal colony.
If you're planning a trip to New Zealand, I highly recommend spending at least a couple of days chilling out by the sea in Kaikoura.
Note: Kaikoura did suffer a lot of damage in a 2016 earthquake. The roads leading to the city were severely damaged, and a 110km stretch of the Kaikoura Coast was uplifted during the 7.8 magnitude quake. The city is fully operational again now, though, and could definitely use your tourism dollars!
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: I've been to Kaikoura twice now, and both times I stayed at the Brook House B&B. This bed and breakfast is located slightly away from the “downtown” area, so you probably need to have a rental car (or be willing to do a bit of walking) if you stay there. I LOVE this B&B, though. The owner, Judy, is a wealth of knowledge about Kaikoura (from its history to all the things you can do there), and she makes some delicious chocolate muffins. The B&B itself is light-filled, charming, and homey – and has mountain views from the back deck! (Read TripAdvisor reviews here | Book your stay here!)
How long to stay: If you want to book any of the amazing wildlife tours in Kaikoura (like whale watching, dolphin swimming, etc.), I would allow 2-3 days in Kaikoura — just in case you run into some bad weather and have tours canceled on you. All wildlife tours/encounters are very weather-dependent, so tour cancellations are not uncommon here.
Will Kaikoura make it onto your New Zealand itinerary?
Any time of year is good to visit Kaikoura! You will be able to see fur seals year-round, and there may still be some seal pups around in October, too. You will not see whale sharks, though – those animals do not live in New Zealand. You CAN see regular whales and dolphins in Kaikoura, also all year.