The small town of Kaikoura, on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, is a place not to be missed. Its stunning location, with turquoise seas and snow-capped mountains, makes it an attractive destination in its own right, but Kaikoura can also lay claim to being one of the world’s best sites for viewing marine life. Sperm whales, dusky dolphins, the rare Hectors dolphin and fur seals are among the many mammals to be seen, while bird life includes the wandering albatross, petrels and fulmars.
Whale watching is probably the highlight for many visitors to Kaikoura. Northerly and southerly currents meet off the coast, and this, combined with an offshore continental shelf which drops suddenly into an 800 metre deep canyon, forces nutrients up to the surface, attracting whales and other marine life. Local companies offer whale watching by boat, helicopter and aeroplane, and all trips can be booked at the friendly and helpful Visitors Centre. A half hour flight is similar in price to a three and a half hour boat trip, and both offer a high chance of spotting sperm whales. Guides on the boat trips use their experience to predict exactly when the whales are about to dive, allowing photographers to be ready in time to catch the typical shot of the whale’s tail disappearing amid flying water droplets.
A whale watching trip often includes sightings of other marine life, with dusky dolphins frequently jumping and diving alongside the boat, but true dolphin fans may wish to take the opportunity to swim alongside them. Both whale watching and dolphin swimming should be booked a few days ahead to avoid disappointment, and as they are dependent on good weather conditions, it is advisable to be prepared to stay on in Kaikoura and wait for better weather.
Although most visitors come to Kaikoura for the marine life, the area offers other attractions, particularly its beautiful scenery. The town is situated on a tiny peninsula, providing spectacular views to both north and south. Short circular walks can be made from the town along the cliffs and back along the beach past the fur seal colony, although tide times should be checked first. For more seasoned walkers there is a three-day loop walk, with opportunities for luggage to be transported each day.
Other Kaikoura highlights include the Seafest, an annual food and wine celebration in early October, the Maori Leap Cave, a limestone cave with stalagmites, and the Kaikoura Wine Company, which offers guided tours.
Kaikoura is around 180 km north of Christchurch, the main city on South Island, and is easily reached by road and rail. The TranzCoastal train passes through Kaikoura on its way from Christchurch to Picton, from where ferries leave for the North Island. It is a beautiful train journey, with mountain ranges on one side and the coast on the other, and 175 bridges and 22 tunnels en route. The road also hugs the coast for much of the journey from Christchurch, and plenty of view stops are recommended for drivers.
Kaikoura itself has a population of less than 4000, but became one of New Zealand’s premier tourist attractions after the first whale watching trips were made in the late 1980s. There is much evidence of early Maori settlement, and the area is thought to have been a base for hunting the giant moa bird, now extinct. Captain Cook sailed past Kaikoura in 1770 but did not stop, and the first European settlers were whalers, who came in 1842. Whaling, along with agriculture, was the town’s main industry until tourism took over.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
There is a plentiful supply of accommodation in Kaikoura, ranging from backpacker hostels and bed and breakfasts to holiday parks, motels and boutique hotels. However, despite the abundance, it is advisable to book ahead in the summer months. There is also no shortage of places to eat, with various budgets catered for and seafood a specialty. Crayfish is the feature meal in many establishments, and even the town’s name means ‘crayfish food’ (‘kai’ means ‘food’ and ‘koura’ means ‘crayfish’).
There cannot be many more enjoyable ways to spend a day than watching whales and dolphins swim and dive, then going for a walk along the stunning coastline and finishing up with a fresh seafood meal under a starlit sky. Kaikoura is truly a place well worth visiting.
CLUB 1 HOTELS PREFERRED ACCOMMODATIONS
Hapuku Lodge + Tree Houses
State Highway 1 at Station Road RD 1
Kaikoura 7371 . New Zealand
Hapuku Lodge was built to give all guests a great night’s sleep in one the most beautiful places in the world. Located 12kms north of the world-renowned eco-marine town of Kaikoura, on New Zealand’s South Island, Hapuku Lodge shares the land with a deer stud and olive grove, nestled between the Kaikoura Seaward Mountain Range and famed Mangamaunu Bay.
A contemporary country lodge, Hapuku Lodge has four luxurious lodge rooms (including two suites), five luxury Tree Houses, built in the canopy of a native Manuka grove, one spacious stand-alone apartment, and multiple meeting and event venues. All rooms at Hapuku Lodge feature custom designed, handcrafted furniture, tailor-made beds and mattresses, Japanese soaking tubs (in the four lodge rooms), heated towel rails and floors, raindrop showers, and individual balconies.
The Tree Houses and apartment also have large spa baths and fireplaces. Breathtaking views of snow-capped mountains and surf-washed coastline are seen from all rooms. The food at Hapuku Lodge is fresh, uncomplicated and flavorful, sourced whenever possible from their garden and other local organic farms and nearby waters.