Welcome to Kaikoura. This whole area is a magnet for nature-lovers. If you look inland, the mountains you see are the Kaikouras. The tallest peak is Mount Tapuaenuku. Hike up any distance and you’ll get crazy views. There’s quite a bit of good walking around here. One of the best is a guided three day walk along the Kaikoura Coast Track. It starts and finishes at Ngaroma, which is about three quarters of an hour drive south of Kaikoura.
Kaikoura’s ocean-life is also deeply impressive (no pun intended). Over a century ago, Kaikoura was founded on killing whales, so it’s kind of ironic that it now prospers from showing them off.
There’s a deep underwater trough that ends near here called the Hikurangi Trench. Within 80k’s of the shore, the trench is more than 3 kilometres deep. What this means is that Kaikoura gets a whole lot of deep water fish that you wouldn’t normally find so close to land, along with the predators that hunt them. It’s why the sea around here is heaving with sperm whales, orca, giant squid, New Zealand fur seals, dusky dolphins, and even the endangered Hectors dolphin.
Have you ever seen a whale re-oxygenate? It’s really quite something. Their breathing is voluntary, so a whale only takes in air when it’s above water. To do it, the whale clears the way by spouting water from a blowhole in its back. With each breath, we humans use about 15% of the oxygen taken in. A whale’s way more efficient. It uses about 90% and stores it in special cells, so it can survive under water for up to 2 hours.
If you’re very lucky, you might get a glimpse of a whale from the shore. Sperm whales are the most common, but others like minke, humpback, orca, the southern right whale, and even the rare Blue Whale, all pass this way on their underwater highway.
If you like the sound of the whales, it’s pretty exciting to see them up close and you have a few options. You can either take a trip in a light plane or helicopter, which are awesome because you get to see the whole whale, and most are bigger than a bus. Or you can join a Whale Watch Kaikoura boat cruise. These trips plunge over the edge of the continental shelf down to that trough we talked about earlier. If you’re watching the depth sounder you’ll see it suddenly change from a depth of around 60 metres to a stunning 1236 metres deep.
Join a Whale Watch Kaikoura Tour and become part of the magic of the Kaikoura Coast. New Zealand’s only marine based whale watching company offers you a close encounter with giant sperm whales year round. Their ninety five percent success rate means that they can guarantee an eighty percent refund of your ticket if your tour doesn’t see a whale. Watch sperm whales resurface and exhale blowing huge spray plumes sky high. Witness flurries of seabirds skimming the ocean and the majestic albatross gliding above on the breeze. Be amazed by Kaikouras stunning backdrop of steep mountains plunging to meet the sea. With Whale Watch Kaikoura, this is a small snapshot of what you will see.
There’s only one way to see how big these whales are - and that’s from the air above. If you want a true perspective of a whales size then fly with the professionals at Wings Over Whales. You’re in safe hands, they’ve been taking whale watching flights for 23 years and their ‘sighting rate’ is over ninety five per cent. From well trained and experienced pilots, to flight tracking, safety equipment and Qualmark accreditation, everything about Wings Over Whales is top notch and says quality. And another great reason, as if you needed more, is you’re guaranteed an uninterrupted, panoramic view of the whales no matter where you sit. That’s because their modern, high winged aircraft have been selected to give you the best views.
Have you noticed all the seabirds though? There are heaps of them and some are really special, like the Royal albatross with a wingspan as long as a campervan.
You’re in the seabird capital world you know. This is your big chance to see up to ten species of albatross, including the enormous Royal Albatross, up close. There’s no other place on earth with more regular sightings of such a range of these magnificent seabirds. Did you know they spend up to a year at a time out at sea? They can get away with it by drinking seawater and sleeping on the waves. A short boat trip from Encounter Kaikoura will get you so close to the albatross, mollymawks and petrels , you’ll have to drop your zoom…because they’re just as interesting in us as we are of them. As they paddle over, close enough to touch, the guys at Encounter will tell you all about the birds, their life spans and how they are faring on the threatened species list!
Specialised bird watching tours leave Kaikoura regularly, and dolphin tours too. It makes sense, since Kaikoura is the home of Dusky dolphins, one of the most playful and acrobatic dolphins around. Duskies are famous for putting on a good show; they spin around and slap their sides, laughing like crazy and doing backward and forward flips. It’s a lot of fun.
Swimming with dolphins is one of the most epic things you’ll ever do. What say you tick it off the bucket list while you’ve got a chance to swim with dusky dolphins? Out of all the dolphins, these guys are the most acrobatic. They’re so cool to watch, you’ll have a great time whether you decide to swim with them or just stay watch from the boat. Dolphin Encounter will sort out all your gear for you, but you’ll need to book as soon as possible because by law, they can only take a limited number at a time. Tours go out a couple of times a day and last for three and a half hours. Underwater cameras and go-pros are up for hire. And if you don’t believe how mind-blowing swimming with dusky dolphins can be, check out the comments on Trip Advisor.
Once you’ve swum with the dolphins, you could go for a sea kayak around the rocks. You could also take a cruise in a glass-bottomed boat.
The fishing’s pretty good off the old wharf and if you surf, Kaikoura’s point breaks are legendary. If there’s a southeasterly blowing, we dare you to attempt the ‘Meatworks’ break, ten minutes north of Kaikoura. The Meatworks is not for nanas, so watch out for rips and rocks.
Some of us are sensible landlubbing types. So if you’d rather stay dry, you can kill a good hour wandering around the local art at Atawera Art. This studio and gallery specialises in tattoo art, jewellery, paintings and carving. Tattoo artist Greg Ashwell renders exquisite ta moko, or Maori tattoos … and will interpret imagery from any culture and experience to create personal and striking artworks. The art of tattoo is integral to Aotearoa New Zealand’s Maori people, and with Atawera Art in Avoca Street, you’ll return home with a lasting and beautiful memory of your time here.
For a small town, Kaikoura has an outstanding district museum with displays of Kaikoura’s taonga (that’s the Maori word for treasures) and interesting accounts of the town’s colourful past. There’s also a cool old house on the point, Fyffe House, that’s built on whalebones.
To get the most out of your time in Kaikoura it you’ll want to stay a while. Kaikoura Top 10 Holiday Park is awesome. You can start with the fact they are an award winning park. Proof that everyone there is helpful and friendly and the grounds and accommodation are better than anywhere else in the country. The actual accommodation covers the full range. It is all modern and top quality. They even have an offsite beach villa available. The grounds are all sheltered, peaceful and park like and with an entertainment room, jumping pillow for the kids, heated swimming pool and spa, terraced barbecue area, kitchen, laundry and wireless internet you will want for nothing if you stay here. You can easily stroll into town along the beachfront in a couple of minutes and while here make sure you get a top 10 card and enjoy some great savings on the best local attractions including Whale Watch Kaikoura and accommodation specials.
Two minutes north of Nin’s Bin, on other side of the road from Ohau Point, walk up the Ohau Forest Stream track to the waterfall. It only takes ten minutes or so. In the pool under the waterfall, there’s often groups of baby seals playing. They make their way upstream to play while their parents are off getting dinner. If you go, it’ll be the thrill of your life.
Kai is the Maori word for food. Koura means crayfish. And crayfish, otherwise known as rock lobster, are gathered all along the coast here and sold freshly cooked from roadside stalls. The most iconic is Nin’s Bin, about 15 minutes north of Kaikoura, embedded in the coastal rocks. It’s been there since the mid-1970s. There are only two things on the menu. Fresh mussels and fresh crayfish. You just pick the cray you want (the prices are written on the tails) and they’ll cook it on the spot.
You’d think there’d be a lineup of cafes on the waterfront, but the only café in with a waterfront view is Encounter café on the esplanade. But it’s an exceptionally good café and the food and coffee there is beautiful. It also has to be said, views of the sea and mountains go extremely well with a glass of wine!
Donegal House has been called the “Greatest Irish Hotel in the Country”, owner Murray Boyd says call it what you want, just don’t call him late for dinner, or a glass of wine.
Donegal House is just five minutes North of Kaikoura, and it’s a place with a bit of everything.
Donegal House has a good Restaurant with a menu of delicious lunches and dinners - they celebrate “everything Irish” with Guiness and Kilkenny on tap, and some very fine whiskies in their homely Irish Bar.
Once you’ve enjoyed the Kaikoura coast, there’s a bit to do inland. In winter, Mt Lyford Ski Field is a great day out with a variety of terrain for experts and wobbly beginners alike. And a bit further on is the alpine village of Hanmer Springs. It’s spectacular place with the most beautiful hot mineral pools in the South Island.
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