"More than Whales" Top 5 Page for this destination Kaikoura by Kakapo2

Kaikoura Travel Guide: 210 reviews and 699 photos

Sure, Kaikoura is a prime tourist destination because it is THE place for whale watching in New Zealand, thanks to the steeply falling seabed close to the shoreline, and the mixture of subtropical and subantarctical currents providing an abundance of food. One million visitors a year flock to the otherwise quiet and laid-back coastal town of 3600 inhabitants.

But if you just see Kaikoura as a stop-over destination for whale watching, you get it totally wrong. Kaikoura is a spectacular place in many ways, and well worth a longer stay if you are a nature lover – and if you have any time left on your tour of the South Island.

It is already beautiful to drive to Kaikoura from the north, along the sometimes rough, sometimes smooth Pacific Ocean, and its blue bays, toetoe grass – similar to pampas grass - waving in the wind, and past lone cabbage trees along the State Highway, the sea to your left, and rainforest on your right. But only from the south, coming from Christchurch or the inland road (SH 70) from Hanmer Springs, you get aware of the magnitude of the mountains towering above the township and its peninsula.

Five peaks of the Inland Kaikoura Ranges – called the Inland Kaikouras - reach altitudes of more than 2200 metres, with Mt. Gladstone the highest one with 2371 metres. On fine days you can see them from the beaches and the Port Hills of Christchurch, 180 kilometres further down south, most of the year covered in snow. The Seaward Kaikouras form a lower range in front of this massive panorama, with one exception: Te ao Whekere with 2596 metres is the highest peak of the whole region. No wonder that the Kaikouras are a good skiing destination – but really: I do not know anybody who would ever have mentioned this. The most popular lifts are at Mt. Lyford which you reach from the inland road.

With those impressive mountains rising up staight from the sea, you can compare the region a little bit to the French Sea Alps (Alpes Maritimes) in the hinterland of the Côte d’Azur – but of course, a lot less glamourous. But on the other hand, nature in Kaikoura is much more diverse, and the wildlife is just wonderful. Funny enough, my first thought is not whale watching, as you do this once or twice, and if you do not go out to sea on the whale watch boats you do not see those amazing mammals. I think of the seals and their pups that sunbathe along the shores. Somehow, they are everywhere along SH 1, to the north and to the south, with two main places of colonies on the peninsula south of the town centre, and Ohau Point, some 25 kilometres north of Kaikoura.

TranzCoastal Train Stop and Historic Places

But please: Take care and do not stop in the middle of the winding road when spotting a seal. Stop at the lay-byes from time to time and look out for seals, instead of risking an accident. SH 1 around Kaikoura is notorious for such tourist-related accidents. Another big problem are landslips which block the road after heavy rain. An alternative to travelling by car is taking the TranzCoastal train from Christchurch or Picton. It stops in Kaikoura.

Due to its special location Kaikoura has its own micro-climate. This can be good or bad. Sometimes it is five degrees warmer than the regions further north and south, sometimes five degrees colder.

Apart from whales and seals also dolphins and an incredible lot of sea- and shorebirds love the region. If you are lucky you get to see all kinds of birds, and the dolphins for free on a whale watch trip. But you can also book specialised tours, and swim with dolphins and seals.

Whaling was the main source of income of the early settlers in Kaikoura. There is a tiny park along the waterfront (Garden of Remembrance) where you can walk on an archway, the arches made of whale bones. And now again the whales are the main factor of the town’s economy. Thankfully by protecting the whales and not by killing them anymore. The flip side is that the fishing industry is struggling as there are so many regulations in place for protecting whales and dolphins. So the locals totally depend on tourism, be it as tour operators (Whale Watch Kaikoura is owned by local Maori), accommodation provider, restaurant workers, or whatever.

I remember the early days of whale watching in Kaikoura. When I went there the first time in 1991, we went to the deserted old railway station in the darkness of the early morning, and waited with four or five other people until our tour guide arrived. He was the boat operator as well, and the boat was a small open motorboat. The sea was choppy, and when we came back to shore we did not feel our bottoms anymore. You were out in the wind for hours and hours, and hardened up LOL

The old and new Way of Whaling

You cannot imagine this when you arrive at the whale watch operation centre now. It is still where we once waited in the dark. But the railway station has been transformed into a visitor centre with counters, café, a film room, a shop, toilets, and tours starting during the whole day – if the weather is right. This is the problem of such a weather-dependant attraction. Even if the weather is nice in town the sea could be too rough for the - now modern ;-) - boats, and the trip can be cancelled – and only delayed, if you are lucky. Still, if you do not book in advance you can easily miss out, so high in demand the tours are. So it always is a game of watching and waiting. The tours BTW start from the visitor centre – but first a bus takes you to South Beach where Kaikoura’s marina is.

The name Kaikoura relates to a delicacy served in many restaurants in and food stalls around town: lobster, here called crayfish. The Maori word for food is kai, and koura is crayfish. But do not think it would be cheaper than anywhere else – it is just fresher ;-)

Most tourist accommodation, restaurants, and cafés can be found along a busy street along the waterfront, called Westend, then the Esplanade. Only lately more and more cafés have been opened along SH 1 (Beach Road). There you also find a supermarket.

I quite like the Esplanade. It is lined with distinctive Norfolk Pines and further down pohutukawa trees. So in summer when the pohutukawa are flowering you get fantastic views, with the red flowers, the turquoise blue sea, colourful sea kayaks floating on the waves, the dramatic backdrop of the mountains in the background… The walk leads to the peninsula and Kaikoura’s oldest house (Fyffe House), and at Point Kean the seal colony. Be warned: You can only walk there at low tide. But you can always walk up the hill and start a coastal walk. It might be very windy but it offers spectacular views of the rugged coastline.

For more information, these websites are very good:


Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Fantastic Wildlife, Mountains, Walks, Colours
  • Cons:Some overrated and overpriced restaurants
  • In a nutshell:A wonderful Place - lucky me, not far from home
  • Last visit to Kaikoura: Apr 2009
  • Intro Updated Aug 6, 2009
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Reviews (23)

Comments (2)

  • Nemorino's Profile Photo
    Aug 31, 2008 at 5:52 AM

    I started rating this page several hours ago but then got sidetracked, sorry. In any case, you really are lucky to live near such a fantastic place for whale, seal, dolphin and bird watching.

  • unaS's Profile Photo
    Aug 3, 2008 at 9:56 PM

    Thanks for bringing back some of my fondest memories. The swim with the dolphins was an experience that I have never forgotten. The euphoria remains for years and years and years...

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