Nestled between the Kaikōura Seaward Ranges and the Pacific Ocean, this small town enjoys epic natural beauty with mountain- and seaviews, both in constant flux thanks to ever-changing weather that provides a further cinematic backdrop. An ocean trench just off the coast reaches depths of over one kilometre and, with the local Mount Fyffe rising to 1,602m, it is little wonder that the peaks and troughs of daily life in Kaikōura can sometimes feel exaggerated.
The town stretches along a distinctively shaped peninsula and sprawls across the Kaikōura Flats, until the Seaward mountain range stops house building in its tracks. Until European occupation, the flats had been almost completely covered in wetland and so it is the peninsula that has the richest human history, with unbroken Māori occupation stretching back at least 800 years.
Initial views of Kaikōura are best enjoyed from a quad bike or UTV at Glenstrae Farm, a 1,600-acre off-road haven, with unbroken panoramic views both north and south. Glenstrae owner Alistair Trewin says that on a good day guests can see Banks Peninsula but, most importantly, “it’s a great way to look at Kaikōura from a completely different angle”.
Once in town, a 10km clifftop walk around the peninsula offers a chance to contemplate the many factors that might have drawn people to settle here, including marine life so plentiful that some locals refer to the coastline here as ‘the larder’. Paua collection is on hold while stocks recover from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook the town three years ago, but intrepid divers can still hunt for crays and butterfish, or simply enjoy the subaqueous views.
Kaikōura’s history, as well as its geography, is marked by extremes. The largest intact moa egg ever dug up was in the context of a Māori burial here, and one of the strongest earthquakes recorded in New Zealand took place just north of the town, in 2016. It is not a place of easy middle grounds.
The incredible depth of the canyon so close to shore brings orca, dolphins and even blue whales close to shore in search of food, allowing one to get up close and personal with some incredible wild creatures. Acrobatic dusky dolphins can be seen back-flipping from the town beach and orca have been known to swim underneath the pier. There is something quite humbling about being in such close proximity to ocean life, and visitors flock from around the world to experience the world-renowned marine adventure industry.
Kaikōura Kayaks are the only New Zealand-based kayak operator to hold dolphin, seal and whale watching permits, enabling guests to get within reaching distance of humpbacks and orca whilst remaining in sight of shore. Trip Advisor reviews of the guides’ “impeccable” knowledge and boundless enthusiasm has led to the tour company being voted as the best activity provider in town. For those less confident on the water, boats, planes and helicopters offer the chance to see sperm whales, and even the occasional blue, from the comfort of a boat or helicopter. Whale Watch communications manager Lisa Bond says that as well as an array of whale species, guests may also encounter fur seals, pods of dusky dolphins and the endangered wandering albatross. Seabird aficionados can also get their fix, as Kaikōura attracts the largest concentration and variety of seabirds on mainland New Zealand. “Kaikōura truly is a marine mecca,” she says.
With a permanent township population of just over 2,000, the town is a bigger hitter than its size might suggest. The Kaikōura Old Winery boasts a head chef who has served King Abdullah II of Bahrain, and the national chain Sudima is building a high-end hotel overlooking the bay.
Kaikōura may be small, but it will stay with you long after you have left.