Like a mighty sperm whale, which should never be appreciated only from the water’s surface, it pays to explore this charming seaside town at greater depth.
Words: Cari Johnson
Kaikōura lays claim to the holy trinity of scenic views: sky-high mountains, wild surf and a grassy peninsula jutting into the sea. As if that weren’t enough, more beauty is below sea level, with whales and dolphins aplenty. The small-yet-bustling seaside town sits near — as close as 500 metres — to a nutrient-rich submarine canyon. Sperm whales, dusky dolphins, seals, and seabirds thrive along the coast year-round and, in turn, have fueled the local economy for generations.
Adventurers have migrated to the resource-rich land for hundreds of years. Waitaha iwi were drawn by its sheltered bays and abundant fauna and were followed by waves of tribes settling along the coast and nearby river. In the 1980s, the local Māori hapū saw an opportunity to rebuild the economy on the backs of whales. Commercial whale-watching tourism put the isolated town on the map and, over the years, has inspired a host of eco-marine activities.
These days Kaikōura is home to about 3500 residents, many of whom are tied to the tourism industry. During the summer months, the highway is packed with holidayers seeking coastal charm and world-class activities. And the locals? They have their wetsuits on, hearts open, eager as ever to share their land and stories.
MUST-DO: THE PENINSULA
Kaikōura Peninsula, like a whale tail peeking from the ocean, is an adventurer’s paradise. Mountainside views, rugged bays, slumbering seals and that quintessential ocean mist — visitors can enjoy these natural features either on foot or in the water. Legend has it that Māui steadied himself on the peninsula while fishing the North Island from the sea. In the 1850s, whalers used its rocky perimeter as a natural butcher’s block.
When the southern right whale was hunted to near extinction, the peninsula’s plateau was converted to cattle and sheep farms. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and the peninsula still nourishes the region, though perhaps in a less literal sense. The easy track that twists and turns along the clifftops provides views of a sprawling seal colony and rugged mountains-to-sea landscape. It’s not difficult to spot a seal — the truth is, these tubby little guys are to be found snoozing just about everywhere.
One look at waves crashing into rocks may leave visitors wary of the prospect of sea kayaking. Perhaps this is Kaikōura’s way of protecting one of its well-kept secrets? Sea kayaking provides an excellent opportunity to see marine life up close — so close that seals and dusky dolphins have been known to come within arm’s reach. Kaikōura Kayaks owner Matt Foy has seen it all in his 20 years of operation.
Remember the YouTube video of a seal slapping a kayaker with an octopus? The extraordinary encounter, which made international headlines and went viral, was filmed on a tour with Matt. There is a time and a place for guided tours and Kaikōura, with its complex aquatic ecosystem, is most certainly the place. Knowledgeable guides know where to spot the most seals and keep a constant eye out for dolphins, blue penguins and migrating sea birds.
There’s no such thing as a predictable day on the water, and that’s part of the fun. The half-day tours are suitable for all skill levels and are available year-round — yes, even winter, when wetsuit booties and gloves keep kayakers as well-protected against the elements as the blubbery seals lying idly about. 19 Killarney Street, Kaikōura. 0800 452 456, kaikourakayaks.nz
When on the Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway, keep an eye on the water for Kaikōura’s famed residents, such as dusky dolphins, little blue penguins and even whales. While the easy 11.7-kilometre loop takes at least three hours (round trip) to complete, trampers can shorten their route by turning around and backtracking to their starting point. Begin the walk from either the city centre, South Bay car park or Point Kean car park. If starting in the city centre, follow the footpath and road verge along the Esplanade. The track is well marked and will pass Fyffe House, Point Kean car park and South Bay before looping back to the town centre.
Shortcut: The time-poor can still get a memorable peninsula experience in less than 90 minutes. Start at the Point Kean car park and ascend to the peninsula trail for a bird’s-eye view of the sprawling enclaves and surrounding mountains. Stay on the path (watch out for roaming livestock) for about 30 minutes until a set of stairs appears near the Whalers Bay lookout point. Return to the Point Kean car park via the beach, where drowsy seals will undoubtedly be lazing. Warning: Parts of the rocky beach are uneven, so a reasonable fitness level and appropriate footwear are recommended.
ROAD TRIP: DRIVE NORTH OF KAIKŌURA
Driving north from Kaikōura is like re-enacting a scene from a Hollywood movie, only instead of white California beaches, here rough surf crashes into jagged rocks. The coastal stretch of SH1 extends as north as Clarence, but it doesn’t take long to get the picture. Drive for just 20 minutes to find board-riders chasing waves at Mangamaunu, a popular surfing beach, and carry on to find plenty of lookout points to stop and stretch the legs.
Beach shacks serving up fresh seafood are dotted along the highway, including the famous Nin’s Bin (on Facebook) and Karaka Lobster (karakalobster.com), a restaurant with a larger-than-life crayfish erected on its roof. Most motorists take a break about 20 kilometres north of Kaikōura to peer over the edge of the Ōhau Point to watch seals wriggling on the rocks. The stretch of highway was closed for 13 months after the earthquake; now that it’s up and running again, driving it is considered an essential experience for locals and visitors alike.
See another seal colony from a different perspective. Ōhau Point, a 20-minute drive north of Kaikōura, was once a must-visit. Before the earthquake, visitors scrambled along a track to Ōhau Waterfall to ooh and aah as seal pups played in their watering hole. Although the quake destroyed the track, a car park overlooking the colony opened to the public in 2018. And once again, visitors were able to exclaim in wonder.
Hundreds of seals can be observed on the outcrop below the car park, sometimes in piles of two or three. Crevices on the rocky bank have formed shallow pools for the seals to play in — look closely to find them splishing and splashing with as much delight as the onlookers above them. The lookout point is 27 kilometres north of Kaikōura on SH1, with 20 car parks available.
WHAT TO DRINK: EMPORIUM BREWING
Paul and Laura Finney are proof that locals know how to adapt. Their new brewery had been open for a month when the 2016 earthquake struck. So, what’s one to do with sloshed-up beer? The tropical sour (replaced with subsequent batches) was commemorated with the name Drop, Cover, Hold.
Paul developed a taste for brewing after receiving a homebrew kit for Christmas one year. “It’s a hobby that spiraled out of control,” says Paul, who subsequently founded a homebrew club and retail shop in Christchurch. The couple moved to Kaikōura to set up in a warehouse just off the main corridor where they brew everything from red IPA to belgian brown ale. The couple’s craft beer label is celebrated among locals — Emporium is found in cafés, bars and even used as a wash by a local cheesemaker, Kaikōura Cheese.
While the brewery is only open to beer-purchasing patrons (not drinking), the Finneys have made the pitstop well worth it. They also run an escape room (an adventure game) and an 18-hole mini-golf course just outside the brewery when not brewing. Pick up a few 330ml bottles and keep an eye out for Emporium on tap throughout Kaikōura. 57A Beach Road, Kaikōura. (03) 319 5897, emporiumbrewing.co.nz
WHERE TO EAT: SLAMCLUB
Anyone who considers a sandwich mundane needs to hurry on over to the SlamClub. Imagine a toastie taken to the next level: slow-cooked venison, homemade caramelized onion relish and a side of herbaceous roasted potatoes. This centrally located café is a go-to lunch spot for residents and visitors, with some travelers joking that they’d relocate to Kaikōura for another chance to bite into one of these gourmet sandwiches.
While the sandwich bar specializes in wild game meats (think hoisin-roasted duck and venison), the salads, homemade strudel and vegetarian fare are just as mouth-watering. Hummus, chutney, and veggie patties are all made in-house — it’s not uncommon to hear the ingredients being whizzed in the kitchen in preparation for the next finger-licking concoction. 10-12 West End, Kaikōura. 022 042 6030, on Facebook
This is an extract from The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand, created annually by NZ Life & Leisure. The Insider’s Guide is a thorough and independently researched guide to six of the country’s most spectacular regions, and is packed with recommendations on what to do and see on your next holiday. Order your copy of the 2021 edition here.
This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.