Kaikoura, New Zealand: The Complete Guide

mountains and shore in Kaikoura New Zealand

Melchor Gomez-Labagala / Getty Images

The small town of Kaikoura, in northern Canterbury in New Zealand's upper South Island, is known as New Zealand's whale-watching capital. Visitors are practically guaranteed to see sperm whales on a scenic cruise or flight here, and there's a good chance of seeing dolphins, seals, penguins, and other birds. Located between the snow-capped Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean, a deep off-shore trench and the meeting of warm and cold ocean currents draw marine life to Kaikoura year-round.

Kaikoura was rocked by a large 7.8 magnitude earthquake in November 2016. The roads into and out of the town were badly damaged, and the railway line was swept into the sea. Two people were killed and a lot of property was destroyed. Despite this significant damage, Kaikoura has now been well repaired and is accessible again.

How to Get to Kaikoura

Kaikoura is located about half-way between Christchurch and Picton, on the east coast of the upper South Island, so it's a convenient place to stop when traveling north or south. Road and rail access has been restored after the earthquake in late 2016.

Kaikoura is about two hours south of Picton (the town in the Marlborough Sounds connected to Wellington by ferry) and about two-and-a-half hours north of Christchurch (which houses New Zealand's second-largest international airport) by car. Alternatively, Kaikoura can also be reached from the West Coast of the South Island, via Hanmer Springs inland.

Many travelers like to rent a car or recreational vehicle when visiting New Zealand since it makes it easier to explore, however, Kaikoura is well connected to both Picton and Christchurch by long-distance bus or scenic train (in season), so you don't necessarily need to have your own wheels. The Coastal Pacific train takes about five hours to travel between Picton and Christchurch, stopping en route in Kaikoura. It doesn't run in the winter.

A seal sitting on rocks on the beach in Kaikoura
TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

What to See and Do in Kaikoura

Whale watching is the major draw in Kaikoura. Sperm whales can be spotted throughout the year, as well as dusky dolphins, seals, albatross, and penguins. Orca, humpback whales, blue whales, and Hector’s dolphins can also be seen between June and August, and sometimes also from November to March. So, whenever you visit you're likely to see some impressive wildlife.

If you head out on a whale-watching cruise you're all but guaranteed to see a whale. Tour operators send reconnaissance flights up in the mornings to check the location of whales so they know where to take you, and if there aren't any around, the tour will normally be canceled. Partial refunds are also usually offered if you go out and don't spot any whales, so operators tend to do their best to make sure you see something.

In addition to whale-watching cruises, you can also take fishing trips, kayak tours, or scuba diving trips. Some tours focus specifically on seeing dolphins and other marine animals and birds, rather than just whales. 

Many short and longer walks can be done around Kaikoura, suitable for varying fitness levels. There are seal colonies just south of town, with great views from the Point Kean Viewpoint. Keep a sensible distance from the seals on the rocky beach and in the water. For a longer challenge, the Mount Fyffe summit track is an eight-hour return hike. It's steep in parts, but there are great views over the land and sea.

More active travelers can enjoy great mountain biking around the town, through the bush, alongside rivers, and down quiet country roads. Bicycles can be rented in town.

For a completely different experience, spend an hour or two at the Lavendyl Lavender Farm, a 5-acre farm north-east of central Kaikoura. Stroll through the fragrant gardens, learn about the lavender distillation process, purchase lavender products, and even stay the night at the guesthouse. 

What to Eat and Drink

Kaikoura means “to eat crayfish” in Te Reo Maori, so it should be no surprise that great seafood is served here. Grouper, cod, mussels, paua (abalone), and crayfish are especially good.

As a small town, Kaikoura isn't exactly a nightlife hub, but it does see a lot of tourists so bars and restaurants along the Esplanade tend to stay open late. Wine lovers shouldn't miss the chance to try some famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, produced just north of Kaikoura in New Zealand's largest wine-producing region.

While traveling to Kaikoura from the north, or leaving the town for Blenheim or Picton, take a meal break at Nin’s Bin, 12 miles north of town on the highway. The seasonal shack is famous for its garlic butter crayfish. 

Tips for Visiting

If you’re traveling with an infant or toddler, be aware that kids under 3 aren't allowed on whale-watching cruises. Tours take place on the open ocean, so there's a high risk of choppy seas, seasickness, and general discomfort that would be bad news for babies and parents. A scenic helicopter flight is a good alternative, as all ages are allowed. As well as seeing whales from the air you'll get great views of the mountains and coast. Some travelers even prefer this experience to cruises.

In the summer, visitors may be tempted to swim off pebbly Kaikoura Beach. It's generally safe to swim at the southern end of the beach, where the waves are smaller, but be aware that there are no lifeguards here. 

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