This ordinary-looking seaside town is actually rather extraordinary
Kaikoura is a small town situated in the province of Canterbury on the east coast of New Zealand’s south island. The town owes its origins to the whaling industry, which took off in the 1840s and attracted European settlers. But archaeological evidence suggests that there was a Maori settlement in the area over 900 years ago.
Today, Kaikoura is – on the face of it – a thriving but unremarkable place. It’s not ‘pretty’ in the way that other south island towns and cities are, although the natural beauty surrounding it is dramatic. However, it possesses a number of remarkable attributes that continue to entice visitors of all ages.
1. Marine life
Whale-watching is the top attraction that brings most people to Kaikoura. The submarine environment of this particular coastline is such that sperm whales, orca (killer whales) and humpback whales all thrive there. The sight of these magnificent creatures is truly awe-inspiring. Several dolphin species also live in the area.
Whale-watching can be done by boat, kayak, helicopter or plane. Sightings are not guaranteed, however. Some tour companies offer refunds if no whales are spotted. Also, it’s worth knowing that rough weather can result in last-minute cancellations; this happened to me on a previous visit. So it’s best to approach a whale-watching trip with realistic expectations.
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Other activities on offer include swimming with dolphins and visits to see the fur seal colonies. After all that adventurous activity, you can stop off in one of the town’s eateries to taste the local crayfish which gave the town its name. Kaikoura’s delicately-flavoured crustacean is the freshest and best you will ever taste anywhere.
2. breathtaking landscapes
The Kaikoura Peninsula juts out into the Pacific ocean, which can be extremely rough in this area with big waves and frothy surf. Behind the town are the Kaikoura mountain ranges, dark and brooding. The highest peak of the coastal range is Mount Manakau at 2,608 metres. We were told that the famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary honed his skills in this area before ascending Everest in 1953.
The peaks are often shrouded in mist or snow-covered in winter. They can be seen from a long distance, including from the south coast of the capital, Wellington – 121 km away. I can confirm this personally as I live in Wellington and love to see those snowy peaks across the Cook Strait, glinting in the sun on a clear winter’s day!
This landscape is perfect for adventure tourism, so you tend to see lots of young people wandering around Kaikoura, dressed in their survival gear, carrying backpacks and preparing for various outdoor activities. Aside from whale-watching, you can do hiking, kayaking, quad bike safaris, helicopter tours of the local area and even llama-trekking!
3. The Coastal Pacific train
Kaikoura has the huge benefit of being connected to the main north-south railway line. This scenic train service operates from September to April and offers a wonderful alternative transport option for visitors. Kaikoura’s station is officially known as the ‘whaleway station’!
For anyone taking the full trip from Picton to Christchurch – around 5 hours – Kaikoura offers the perfect stopover. For more details, read my separate post A breathtaking trip on the Coastal Pacific train.
4. Fyffe House
Kaikoura’s first European resident was Robert Fyffe, an immigrant from Scotland who set up 2 whaling stations. He eventually expanded his business and became involved into shipping and farming also.
Robert built his family home close to the easternmost point of the peninsula. Timber was scarce at the time, so he imported a kitset from Australia and used whale bones for the foundations. 3 families in total – the Fyffes, the Goodalls and the Lows – have lived in the house, up until as recently as 1980.
Fyffe House is now managed by Heritage New Zealand and is open to visitors. You can look around the very simple rooms, enjoy the lovely garden and learn about the 3 families – including the very capable and resilient women – who lived there.
You can also hear stories about the whalers and fishermen who helped establish the town of Kaikoura and the Maori who preceded them. Of course it’s very sad for us today to read about the whaling industry and the slaughter of these incredible mammals, which continued until 1922. Hopefully the more confrontational elements of our past can help us learn lessons for a better future.
5. The resilient community
In November 2016, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck, just after midnight. The epicentre was around 60 km north-west of Kaikoura. Scientists have declared it one of the most complex earthquakes ever, with ruptures along 6 major faults and around 12 lesser ones. The result was 2 deaths and infrastructural damage on a scale never seen before in New Zealand, not just from rupturing but from landslides and subsidence.
Government road and rail agencies made up a list of 3,300 ‘things to fix’ in order to repair the railway and state highways with all their bridges and tunnels. The programme wrapped up as recently as 2021 and is a story of remarkable partnerships and engineering feats to reconnect devastated communities. This 5-minute video summarises events, with some mind-blowing facts, footage and statistics. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt quite emotional after watching it.
The 9000 workers who achieved the restorations lived in a temporary village and were welcomed and helped by locals. I know a young Danish couple who were living and working temporarily in Kaikoura when the earthquake struck. They were so impressed by the way the community responded – with everyone helping each other, looking out for each other and working together – that they decided to stay on permanently.
The stark evidence of the earthquake is still visible today, in the form of incredible rock formations from the seabed near the shore which was uplifted by up to 2 metres. You can learn more about the earthquake, its effects and the human stories arising from it, in the Kaikoura museum.
Accommodation and dining
Kaikoura offers a range of different accommodation options, from backpacker hostals to luxury lodges. There are some particularly lovely private properties offering apartment stays along the Esplanade. We chose to stay in the atmospheric old Kaikoura Boutique Hotel, overlooking the seafront. See our TripAdvisor review for more information. Another hotel option is the brand new and very modern Sudima just along the road.
The most highly-recommended eateries were Zephyr and The Pier Hotel, but both were booked out. So reserve your table in plenty of time if you want to try them! We thoroughly enjoyed the simple but very pleasant and family-friendly King Tide for dinner, and Flo & Co for breakfast – very popular and very busy.
We did try Hiku restaurant at the new Sudima Hotel for dinner, but would hesitate to recommend it. The food was good, but the service was poor. One hopes that over time, when staff have had more opportunity to settle in and learn the ropes, Hiku will offer a better experience.
Getting to Kaikoura
When the Coastal Pacific train isn’t running, you can reach Kaikoura by road – the main north-south highway passes through the town. The drive south from Picton or north from Christchurch takes around 2.5 hours. Bus services operate from both locations, with InterCity being the main provider. Shuttle services are also available from Christchurch.
Christchurch has New Zealand’s second largest airport, offering extensive domestic and international connections.
When to visit – and the weather
If you’re a train buff like me, then you’ll want to visit during spring, summer or early autumn when the Coastal Pacific is running. Due to various circumstances, we ended up visiting over Easter weekend. In hindsight, I would not recommend this. A number of business and services were closed. And the weather was rather cool and rainy; we didn’t get to enjoy the outdoor seating on our hotel balcony. April, May and June are the wettest months.
The upside to autumn travel was the spectacular colours along the Coastal Pacific route. But on balance, visiting Kaikoura in summer (December to March) would probably be better. Winter would be amazing due to the snow on the mountain peaks, and winters in Kaikoura do tend to be dry.
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