I say, buck the trend!
Kaikoura, with its bountiful marine life, offers a number of life-changing travel exclusives. Imagine swimming in the open sea with hundreds of wild dolphins; getting so close to fur seals that their distinctive stench stays on your clothes for days; watching the glorious mating dance of orcas just meters away from your boat; or being personally serenaded by the haunting call of a humpback whale. Throw in the most amazing food, and you get a most surreal and magical experience you'd remember forever.
The Hubs and I aren't the rough-and-tumble outdoorsy sort: we like our creature comforts, hate hiking or bush-walking, don't dive (and don't plan to, ever), and shy away from adrenaline sports. Basically, we're city rats who don't care to frolic in the tranquility of the remote countryside. So you'd think we'd be bored silly in a country like New Zealand. But having visited the beautiful country twice in two months, I can tell you that New Zealand has so much more to offer than just adventure sports or its breathtakingly scenic countryside.
New Zealand has incredible food (very much like Australian cuisine, which is to say, a melting pot of cultural influences highlighting local produce), world-class wines (so good we'd shipped back 40 bottles of wine after just 4 days in Marlborough...*hick!), the nicest, simplest, and most welcoming local folks, and the cutest animals (dolphins are my spirit animal, and for some reason, they seem to love New Zealand...so you can swim with them in just about anywhere in New Zealand!), and even though the accommodation isn't exactly teeming with the 5-star variety, we love love love New Zealand.
Oh, and Kaikoura isn't pronounced the way those of us taught in Queen's English would. It's "Kai-Koh-Dah", or Maori for 'eat crayfish' - "kai": eat, and "koura": crayfish.
Kaikoura is best savoured over a span of 4 days 3 nights, which is what we did. You want to space out the seafaring tours to watch/swim with the marine life, with stretches of languid nothingness.
Kaikoura, being in the mid-northeast of the South Island in New Zealand, enjoys a temperate climate. That means swimming in the waters in any other season apart from Summer will be a teeth-chatteringly frigid affair.
Summers are awesome in Kaikoura, with long sunshiny days (the sun rises about 5am and sets around 9pm), and awesomely cool weather (highs of 18C and lows of 12C). Long days = more time to enjoy New Zealand.
Kaikoura is only a 2.5 hours' drive north of Christchurch, which houses the closest international airport entry point for most tourists. There's just the one route, State Highway 1, a stunning coastal drive so direct, no way you'd get lost.
The receptions of major car rental companies are located right in the airport itself, but if you're like us, and procrastinated the renting to the very last minute, and ended up with a off-airport rental company, there are regular complimentary shuttles to and fro the car rental office and airport.
You can also opt for the train, which runs alongside State Highway 1. I wouldn't advise taking the train, as a car would allow you mobility throughout Kaikoura.
There's just the one option, self-driving. I didn't see any taxi cabs, buses, or any other public transportation in which to get around.
Most places in Kaikoura accept major credit cards, except for the food trucks, so we charged everything to our cards, and used about NZ$100 for meals at the food trucks.
New Zealanders are just about the nicest, friendliest people with just one motto, live a simple happy life. They're to Australians like the Canadians are to the Americans. Just nice. There wasn't a single small town that we were avoided stopping at for fear of racist rednecks. Everyone was just so nice and welcoming!
Having travelled every other month to a new country for the whole of 2015, I have to say that New Zealand is the first (and only) country I can actually see myself settling in.
Having heard the call of New Zealand's prime minister for Singaporeans to migrate over, I can't say I wasn't seriously tempted.
Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses is the only option for luxury accommodation. It may be a 15-minute drive along State Highway 1, north of the Kaikoura town center, but the rest of the accommodation options in the town center were budget backpacker types or of the kitchenette-equipped apartment variety. Rates start at NZ$1,200 per night for a lodge suite, inclusive of daily continental breakfast and a 3-course dinner in-house. The full rundown's here.
The scenery along State Highway 1 - so gorgeous you'll have trouble keeping your eyes on the road
The sea off Kaikoura sits on the edge of the continental shelf plate, and drops off into an abyss. And when those cold waters of the deep meet with the warmer shallow waters of the Pacific, it creates a potent nutrient-rich feeding ground for all sorts of marine life, primarily, dolphins, fur seals, orcas, and whales.
Suffice it to say, marine life is central to Kaikoura's attraction, whether it be highlighted in its cuisine, or must-see sights.
Do - Dolphin Swims
Kaikoura is noted for its huge dusky dolphin pods, numbering in the low hundreds (which is A LOT). There's just the one company, Encounter Kaikoura, which conducts the swims. I'd strongly advise booking ahead of schedule, especially during peak holiday periods.
No worries if you don't want to get into the water, you can do the dolphin watch instead...but I would really really really advise the dolphin swim. It'll change your life, I swear!!
No worries about encountering sharks either, as dolphins and sharks are opposing predators, and if you find a dolphin pod, it's highly unlikely you'll see a shark at all.
I've done dolphin swims before, but this was by far the most well-oiled and professional set-up.
The meeting point is right in the Kaikoura town center. It's distinctively marked, and there are multiple signs leading you there, so you can't miss it.
Kaikoura is teeming with so much marine life that we saw a small pod of 30 duskies frolicking right on the beach, right in front of Encounter Kaikoura! I had a grand ol' time watching them play, and what a way to whet your dolphin experience!
First you make payment for your online booking, given a coloured tag, and wait till everyone else arrives. Next, we're all shuffled in staggered groups, to get fitted for our dry suits and flippers. It takes a while for everyone to get changed (a tip: like with any other rubbers, if the rubber suit isn't snug, you've got it wrong), and settled into the small auditorium, to watch a short but comprehensive and humourous Do's and Do Not's video. Thereafter, we were shuttled onto buses to the beach 5 minutes away, and loaded up into the boats.
Barely 15 minutes on the water, we were unexpectedly treated to the sight of a handful of dusky dolphins playing with a couple of killer whales. You'd think the duskies would be in danger, but orcas are actually dolphins, so even if they're apex predators, they don't usually see fellow dolphins as food. I was too engrossed watching them, that by the time I remembered to take a video, they'd started swimming merrily away.
We watched them for a while, and then moved on to the dolphins' main playground. There's no real season to see the dusky dolphins, as duskies are present year-round in Kaikoura. Duskies are slightly smaller than bottlenoses, but they love the spotlight even more than their famous relations. So they'll react to cheers and squeals by backflipping and somersaulting in the water.
You get a number of dolphins swimming excitedly alongside the bow, indicating you're near their regular haunt.
Or below you. Apparently, they love the purr of the engines and bubbles created by the engine.
You're given strict and clear instructions way beforehand, so once you land at the dolphin haunt, swimmers can get into the water quickly and efficiently. The key is to make like a dolphin, so diving down, graceful swim strokes, and squeaky clickity sounds attract them. And NEVER EVER touch them. These are wild dolphins, and their skins are sensitive, so any attempts to touch them may inadvertently hurt them.
I said before that dolphins are my spirit animal, and erm, because my squeals sound like them. So yes, that was me squealing in the video, and I apologise for the pitch. Anyway, isn't this just incredible????? Dolphins here, there, and EVERYWHERE!!!! Best. Travel. Experience. Ever!!!!!!!!
You get in about 4 swims, each lasting 15 minutes or so, before you're called back to the boat, and shipped over to the thick of the dolphin action.
Then, we're brought to watch the dolphins for photo-taking opportunities, which explains the deluge of photos to follow:
Bring sea sickness medication if you're prone, and avoid big meals before going on the boat. Some dude was puking his lungs out half an hour in, and his face was stuck in the puke bucket for the longest time, that was awful. Not just for him, just everyone else within earshot, which was to say, the entire boatload of passengers.
Do - Whale Watching
There are 3 ways to see the whales, on a boat with Whale Watch Kaikoura, in a helicopter with World of Whales, or from a plane with Wings over Whales.
We opted for the Top n' Tail helicopter ride with Kaikoura Helicopters, also known as World of Whales, so we could go up to the Kaikoura ranges as well. That way, you get to see Kaikoura in all of its spectacular beauty.
The meeting point, with the office at the left, and the helicopter on the right.
The view while getting some height
The whale watching industry is a tight circle, and operators appraised each another of the rising and diving of the whales, so the likelihood of spotting a whale is very high. Soon after we took flight, we spotted a humpy coming up for air, which they do for about 5-minutes at a time.
Just look, the humpback was as big as the boat!
A short video of us circling the whale from high above.
Thereafter, we were flown to the Kaikoura ranges, for a bout of sightseeing. Apparently, many hikers route up the ranges, and this little house is a refueling pitstop for many. It's unmanned, so they rely on the trust system here.
The view as we land on the top of the Kaikoura Ranges.
The helicopter is left running, to keep the engine hot, while we hop out to take a few pictures.
Being on top of the world, with a little bench for you to gaze out into the great big blue.
The aerial view on the return leg...Isn't this just marvelous?
The World Of Whales is right at the end of the boardwalk, through the road above. Don't worry if you see signs restricting entry to the public, there are a few lots for drivers who book an option with World of Whales.
Do - See the Fur Seals
This one's completely free, always a welcome bonus.
I'd originally planned to do a swim with the seals, but heard how terribly smelly they were, and thus, cancelled my swim booking, and opted for a spot of sightseeing to see them in the wild.
There are a few protected seal colonies along the Kaikoura coast, but the Ohau one is the most populated.
It's right along the State Highway 1, so even if you're just travelling through Kaikoura up to Marlborough, you can make a quick pitstop to see the seals.
The Ohau Point Seal Colony is right dab smack in the middle of a 4 km-stretch of protected seal area, so you can see them the entire stretch, just soaking up the sun rays. Yes, those black blobs on the beach are really seals suntanning.
Ohau Point is most populated with seals though, the rocks are the biggest and highest, so they get to rest peacefully without fear of predators.
Little seal cubs wallowing in the shallow protected pools, under the watchful gaze of their mothers.
A quick video of the view...it doesn't capture how foul they smell though. My friend was right, you can smell them from a mile away and boy, does it stay etched in your memory.
Informative signs abound on safety around seals, just be sure to maintain your distance with them, as they tend to get aggressive about their territory.
Do - Surfing at Half-Moon Bay
We didn't do this, but we saw a whole lotta people doing it...Half-Moon Bay is a little cove beach along State Highway 1, between Hapuku and Ohau Point, and come evening time, surfers all come out in droves to surf. There aren't any facilities, so most of them just come out, catch some waves, then return to their accommodation to wash up.
The town center is really small, and it's just one long stretch of road, lined mostly with restaurants, a few shops, just the one pharmacy, supermarket, and bank. Everything you need to keep a satellite town running.
Four Square Supermarket, a NZ chain
Pharmacy just next door
A few notable shops, the Kaikoura Gallery, which retails art and homeware, all local-made, of course, just opposite the supermarket
Kaikoura Cheese Shop, a few doors down the street from the pharma
Whaleway Station Road, a pun on the railway station, is where the train passengers enter and depart Kaikoura.
We were lucky, the train pulled up just as we passed by.
There's a playground just in front of the Whaleway Station Road, with proper traditional swings, perfect for me, who never grew out of getting on a swing.
Scattered throughout the town center are memorial monuments or particular landmarks, like the Memorial Gardens, a geshalt of the coloured history of Kaikoura
The first of the structures, was an obelisk, erected in memory of Kaikoura servicemen perished in WWI
An arched walkway of whale bones, as a tribute to Kaikoura's origins as a whaling station
The garden's gates were built last, to commemorate the lady who planted and tended to the gardens.
Lyell Creek, which is really a dam that protects Kaikoura from flooding, so the creek regulates and flows between the pacific and town center.
The concourse at Lyell Creek, look at the comic sans font carving!
The foot bridge across the creek was built entirely by volunteers! How's about that for civic mindedness!
Fyffe House, not to be confused with Fyffe Country Lodge, which you'll pass on State Highway 1 5-minutes before you hit Kaikoura town center. Fyffe House is a historic house, built in the 18th century back when Kaikoura was a harsh and unyielding whaling station.
Skip this, it was boring as dry biscuits, and I didn't think touring the house was worth it.
Cows grazing in wide open fields is trite, especially in farmland New Zealand, but one sight that wasn't as common, was cows crossing in hordes. This, we found profoundly amusing and giggled lots. Childish, very, but hey, we're on holiday and afford some levity!!
There's also a small flock of alpacas, visible from State Highway 1, in a point somewhere between the Kaikoura town center and Hapuku Lodge. These were so friendly, but then again, I did offer them carrot treats.
This was particularly friendly, and the first to boldly approach!!
Lavender is abundant in the wild...and one of New Zealand's major agricultural exports (in addition to cows and sheep-related products). You could pick them and line your luggage with a couple of stalks, OR you could...
Head to Lavendyl Lavender Farm, the only lavender farm in all of Kaikoura, about a 5-minute drive from the town center.
You can take a jaunt in the lavender field adjacent to the shop. The entrance into the lavender field is so Alice in Wonderland, isn't it?
Rows and rows of lavender bushes that smell incredible!! Be careful of bees, they love the lavender scent as much as you do.
The retail shop, swathed in shades of lilac, purple, and lavender.
We bought a couple of lavender-scented sleep balms, and kept one to bring on all my flights to assist with a more relaxed snooze.
In spite of what the guide books may tell you, it's not just crayfish or fish & chips that's available in Kaikoura. Although, both are ah-mazing in Kaikoura.
Kaikoura cuisine ranges from the rustic and casual, so the upscale and sophisticated. So there's a range of restaurants to suit every tastebud. Although....please don't be a stereotypical Asian tourist, and restrict yourself to only eating at Asian restaurants. You're on holiday in another country, get out of your comfort zone!!
A must-try and a Kaikoura institution, Nin's Bin is the best food truck ever! A charming and unassuming set-up in the middle of nowhere, but with the most magnificent sea views ever, best to hit this up for a late breakfast or lunch, as they sell out by 3pm on a busy day. Pick the biggest baddest crayfish, and get it grilled with garlic butter. Your love won't kiss you after, but it's ok, because you live to eat anyway. And, it's ridiculously value-for-money, which makes the 25-minute drive from the town center so worth it!
Even if you're not staying at the lodge itself, I'd still recommend making a point to pop by the Hapuku Lodge Restaurant. The cuisine is innovative but not contrived, and a seamless fusion of its many cultures, and rotates according to the seasons.
For more classic Kaikoura cuisine, head to the Green Dolphin where the crayfish is one of the best. If you prefer something more meaty, there's always the renowned Canterbury beef, done to perfection. Reservations are essential here at Kaikoura's hottest buzziest restaurant. Ask for the tables by the windows for the best views.
If you're hankering something different, Passione Italian Restaurant is a Kaikoura favourite, for Italian cuisine that's surprisingly authentic.The pizzas are fantastic, and available for takeaways too.