The charming coastal town of Kaikoura in New Zealand’s south island has lots of things to do, but is primarily known for it whale and dolphin watching encounters. Combine this with some incredible peninsula walks and some of the best seafood in New Zealand and you’ll see why we flock back here every time we return to Aotearoa.
Kaikoura recently experienced a devastating earthquake back in 2016 (a 7.8 magnitude) which sealed the town off for a few days. Whilst now almost fully recovered, several buildings had to be demolished and the roads into Kaikoura are still being rebuilt so allow plenty of time whilst driving there (especially if you have a whale-watching trip booked in that day).
Overall, our favourites encounters here always involve meeting the locals and by that, we mean the wonderful wildlife and marine creatures – we always have a ‘whale’ of a time in Kaikoura and it certainly gets our ‘seal’ of approval.
Things to do in Kaikoura
1. Watch or swim with dolphins
Close encounters of the marine kind! Likely the main reason for your visit to Kaikoura is to get a glimpse of these beautiful cretaures. There are lots of companies operating boat tours where you can either watch dolphins or swim with the dolphins.
During our visit to Kaikoura we opted to go with the tour operator Dolphin Encounter for two reasons – firstly, they are one of the main and best reviewed operators for these type of dolphin adventures in Kaikoura, secondly, we also scored a half price deal through the Kiwi discount site Bookme. We organised our trip dates weeks in advance, meaning we could benefit from excellent discount deals like this.
We did encounter literally hundreds of dolphins, in numbers like nowhere else we’d seen in New Zealand (e.g. in Bay of Islands and Milford Sound), we saw a few dolphins, but they were throwing themselves at us in huge numbers here.
Half of our boat also paid extra to ‘swim with the dusky dolphins’ but it was a cold day and we’d done this previously in the Bay of Islands so we opted to stay dry. Note that if you suffer sea-sickness easily, the waters here can be very choppy and this probably isn’t the adventure for you – I (Neil) was snap happy on the top deck whilst Caroline was green around the gills and mainly stayed down below in the galley.
2. Whale Watching
Kaikoura is one of the world’s best places for whale watching and there is a magnificent 95% chance of spotting giant sperm whales. With odds like these then a whale watching tour should be high on your New Zealand bucket list and a trip onto the seas with Whale Watch Kaikoura is a must do! They run regular tours on modern catamaran boats which are equipped with engines that minimise underwater noise, and also have large outside decks for great viewing and photo opportunities.
Advanced booking is recommended as this is a really popular thing to do in Kaikoura!
3. Kaikoura Lookout
A short drive (or a long, steep walk!) from town, this is an easily accessible but stunning Kaikoura viewpoint as you can see both sides of the peninsula. This also means you get searing sunset AND sunrise views due to the 360 panoramic views. Just note that in the height of the tourist season, it can be hard to get a parking space as the car park is quite small.
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4. Point Kean Seal Colony
A true story – we met the ‘locals’ as soon as we arrived at the car park as a huge great fur seal was sitting on the boardwalk at the entrance to the Point Kean Seal Colony. Tourists had to walk around the seal to get into the carpark and there was a lot of photo action (we think this would be termed a ‘seal-fie, no?).
Located at the end of the peninsula, we went to Point Kean seal colony several times during our last visit and always saw many fur seals. Generally the best time to go is when the tide is out, as all the seals reside, sleep and rock and roll near to the car park.
This is a Department of Conservation managed area and is free to visit. Whilst we relished the opportunity to see such marvellous marine-life up close (not too close though!) in their natural environment, we were a little disconcerted by some of the tourists who clearly didn’t respect wildlife so much and insisted on getting waaaay too close for comfort.
5. Kaikoura Peninsula walkway
Starting from the Point Kean seal colony main car park, this is an easy morning or afternoon hike, as the whole walkway only takes two to three hours to complete. Here you can see more seals and seabirds from superb coastal vantage points high up on the cliffs before taking one of the many paths down to the coast to walk back along the beach, to get up close with the seals.
We’d recommend taking binoculars (or that new Huawei P30 smartphone super lense!) for the coastal cliff section, as you’ll be on the lookout for whales and dolphins. There are also lots of interpretation panels dotted along the route telling you what to look out for and the history of the area.
6. Eat fresh seafood
The Maori translation for Kaikoura is ‘meal of crayfish’ so it stands to reason that this is home to some of the best seafood in the whole of New Zealand. We always go to the legendary Kaikoura Seafood BBQ stall for some freshly caught seafood (the freshest you’ll ever have) and alfresco dining. It suits our budget (food starts from around $8 for a whitebait fritter) and has views of the bay from all the outdoor seats and tables.
Although not fine dining (it is effectively a lay-by on the road) and you sometimes have to wrestle your ‘catch of the day’ away from the aggressive seagulls, this is a must do (or must eat!) Kaikoura experience. We have also heard good things about Nins Bin – another famous and popular seafood shack in Kaikoura.
Another good and inexpensive option was Coopers Catch in town. We found this fish and chip shop purely by accident, observing the large queue out of the door (busy as!) when we were parking our hire car up one day. Although the wait for food can be long, it serves good value and tasty fish and chips (sorry, ‘fush and chups’) and has a massive outdoor dining area overlooking the main street.
7. Scenic flight
If you have the cash to flash then you can book scenic plane or helicopter flights for epic views of the Kaikoura Seaward Mountain Ranges and rugged coastal shores.
As well as scenic flights you can even book whale watching flights! These 30 minute flights orbit around the sperm whales so you can catch unique glimpses of them from high above! How cool is that? Whale watching flights are also a good alternative to boat trips if you suffer from seasickness!
8. Sea Kayaking
If you are a fan of kayaking then you simply cannot miss the chance to sea kayak in Kaikoura where you’ll get to view and interact with a variety of marine wildlife!
There are a range of guided group tours run by a company called Kaikoura Kayaks, where qualified and experienced local guides steer take you out onto the waters. There is a 100% guaranteed Fur Seal sighting rate, and if you are lucky you’ll get to watch seals dive and maneuvere around and under your kayak. There is also a high chance of encounters with both Dusky Dolphins and Blue Penguins too.
9. Kaikoura Beach
Located next to Kaikoura town, this black sand beach has a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains and is great for swimming in during the summer months and for surfing all year around.
10. Albatross Encounter and Wildlife Cruise
Kaikoura is renowned worldwide as a birding hotspot and nature lovers will enjoy the opportunity to get up close and personal with a huge variety of seabirds including 12 species of the majestic Albatross! Other birds include ten species of shearwaters, fifteen species of petrel, and several other species of seabirds such as shags, prions, penguins, gulls and terns.
You can enjoy viewing these birds on an albatross encounters boat cruise where an expert local guide and driver takes you out onto the ocean waters with informative commentary. Tours depart daily at 9am and 1pm. Click here to book a tour with GetYourGuide >
11. Kaikoura Museum
This award winning museum is housed in a modern building which is designed to resemble a crayfishing pot!
Kaikoura Muesum is the perfect rainy day / family friendly activity where you can visit exhibitions that explain all about the history and the dramatic geological features of it’s coastline. One of the more recent additions is the ‘new normal’ exhibition, which looks at the impacts of the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake on the community, landscape and natural environment.
The museum is open daily from 10am until 5pm and entry costs $12 NZD per adult.
12. Lavendyl Lavender farm
If you are looking for a more laidback experience during your trip to Kaikoura, then take a short 5 minute drive over to Lavendyl Lavender farm where you can enjoy a peaceful stroll through the colourful and aromatic purple gardens while admiring the scenic views of Mount Fyffe.
Other things to do at the lavender farm include having afternoon tea at the cafe, and visiting the gift shop where you can purchase lavender products such as essential oil, massage cream, bath products, honey, skin and hair care products. During the summer months of January and February, the distilling process can also be observed on site as the flowers are at their peak for oil production.
The farm also has 2 rustic style cottages onsite if you wish to book a stay there and cost between $195 – $235 NZD per night for 2 people including breakfast. Check out their website to find out more >
13. Hinau Track
Named after the hinau tree which can be seen on the trail, this easy 45 minute loop walk starts at the base of Mt Fyffe carpark, which is a 10 minute drive from central Kaikoura. It has a well formed track which takes you through bush and forest with an interesting mix of vegetation.
14. Mt Fyffe Summit Track
If you fancy something challenging then this 8 hour hike might be for you. This long and steep trail takes you to the summit of Mt Fyffe for incredible panoramic views of the Kaikoura Ranges and snow-capped mountains.
The hike begins at the Mount Fyffe Carpark and if you have a good level of fitness it will take you 6-8 hours to complete. If you want to split up the journey over 2 days then you can camp overnight in the Mount Fyffe hut – reservations are not required as it is first-come, first-served.
BUDGET HOSTEL – Dolphin Lodge
Affordable private rooms and dorms in a central location, with views of the coastline and the mountain ranges, plus garden, deck and hot tub.
MID RANGE – Kaikoura Boutique Hotel
Boutique Hotel housed in a historic 1880s building just 10 minutes walk from Kaikoura town. More expensive rooms have outdoor terrace and sea views.
LUXURY – Hapuku Lodge and Tree Houses
Splash the cash on this beautiful hotel located in nearby located in Hapuku, with ocean views, outdoor pool and onsite restaurant. All rooms are fitted with a balcony, spa bath, fireplace and rain shower.
CAMPERVAN SITE – Kaikoura TOP 10 Holiday Park
Holiday Park with mix of apartments, motel rooms and campsites. Facilities include a heated swimming pool (seasonal), spa and BBQ facilities, plus there are convenience stores and restaurants opposite the park.
How to get to Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a small town located on the east coast of new Zealand’s south island. The closest big city to Kaikoura with an airport is Christchurch which is a 2 hour 20 minute drive away.
The best way to get to Kaikoura is by car / campervan so that you can have a more flexible schedule and visit spots that are a short drive out of town. Many of Kaikoura’s highlights will require your own transport. Check out our Wellington to Christchurch to Christchurch to Nelson itineraries for some road trip inspirations!.
If you do not have your own transport then your best bet is to book an InterCity bus. It operates a direct daily route that runs from Christchurch to Picton via Kaikoura (and vice versa). You can also reach Kaikoura on the Coastal Pacific scenic train which journeys down the Pacific coast between Picton and Christchurch. Check out their fares at greatjourneysofnz.
Best time to visit Kaikoura
Many tourists come to Kaikoura to go whale and dolphin watching and this activity can be done all year round. However we recommend visiting during the summer months of November to March where the temperatures are much warmer. Between March and August there is quite a bit of rainfall which means whale and dolphin tours could get cancelled.
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