3 hours’ north from Christchurch, you will find a seaside town located on a rocky peninsula, beneath the mountains called Kaikoura. Literally, the name Kaikoura means “to eat crayfish”.
However eating Crayfish isn’t what Kaikoura is known for. Kaikoura is New Zealand’s leading eco-tourism destination with famous residents including fur seals, dusky dolphins, whales and albatross.
I heard about Kaikoura 3 years ago whilst travelling South East Asia and it was described as the best place in the world to swim with dolphins. At that point I had already booked a trip to New Zealand via the Sheepdog coach tour with Kiwi Experience, however the tour didn’t extend to Kaikoura. I figured at the time I’d make my own way there somehow before flying out of Christchurch.
You call read all about my first trip to Kaikoura here, but it specially outlines two highlights. One being the Albatross Backpackers Inn (I loved this hostel, and spent a great deal of time here just enjoying my final days in New Zealand with some fabulous girls I’d met travelling). And two, that the dolphin swim I’d come here to do was sadly cancelled, twice, but that I’d come back one day to do it. Well, this was that day.
After landing in Christchurch at midnight the night before, we spent the night in the Jucy Snooze pod hostel (10 mins walk out of the airport), then picked up our Jucy hire car at 10am (15 mins walk from the hostel or the hostel offers a shuttle). You get 10% off your car hire by staying at Jucy Snooze, which was awesome considering the car was already just $15 (7.50) a day. After doing a huge food shop at Pak ’n’ Save (NZ’s cheapest supermarket), we were off.
To get to Kaikoura we used the app Maps.me – I’ve talked about this app before, and Stu and I regularly use this when we’re in countries without access to the internet on the road. What’s great about this app is it’s free to use and whilst you’re on WIFI you just need to download the regions you’re visiting and then once you’re there you just click on an area and like Google Maps it directs you where you need to go (by foot, car or public transport). It includes everything you’d need along the way too like petrol stations, attractions like view points, supermarkets, ATM’s etc. Roads in New Zealand are fairly easy to follow as there isn’t many roads, but it’s a great help for us when arriving in town on whilst on hikes.
As we turned into Kaikoura, it was a glorious sunny day and I directed Stu to a view point so he could over see Kaikoura before we settled in (as I had done 3 years prior when being dropped off in town). But to my surprise, the view was far better than I remembered. When I was here, it was during a rainy March with a cyclone on the way and on this day, it was a clear day.
My top tips on activities whilst in Kaikoura:
Dolphin Encounter is a local family owned business which started in 1989/90. Their business focuses on giving customers a natural experience with dolphins, not one that is fabricated. They do not feed or entice the dolphins in order to get the dolphins to interact with the swimmers. Any interaction between human and mammal is completely on the terms of the dolphins. You are not permitted to touch the dolphin’s, but you are encouraged to sing to them.
In the Summer there are 3 trips out a day (5.30am, 8.30am and 12.30pm) and in the Spring/Winter (8.30am and 12.30pm). The morning trips seem to be recommended by most so I did the 8.30am which was perfect as I still got to eat some pancakes at my hostel before venturing out by myself.
As I checked in, the lady on the desk advised me that the ocean was looking a lot calmer than usual (so you could still take/buy sea sickness tablets or risk it) but also warned that it’s not 100% certain that you’ll see dolphins. Then the swimmers are called to a room to pick up all your gear (snorkel wetsuits etc) then you’re shown a hilarious 10 min video on the day ahead – what to expect, safety, etc. This is where I met Gemma and Scott (a lovely couple from Scotland living in Auckland), who I was lucky to spend the day with and some of the evening. We then got a coach to South Bay where the boat docks and our boat had 8 swimmers, 2 watchers (watchers pay a cheaper fee of $95). Once we found a pod of dolphin’s, the swimmers sat on the back of the boat and waited for the horn to blow that it was safe to get in the water…
I’m just going to jump to it and say, it’s hands down one of the most amazing and overwhelming experiences of my life.
As I lowered myself into the water and doggy paddled out, I found myself surrounded by 100’s of wild dolphins that were just swimming by me. When I took everything in, including a mouthful of salted ocean water, something came over me and I was hyperventilating so much. Maybe it was the shock or the excitement or maybe the fact that I was treading water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean but it was an intense feeling.
Once I’d pulled myself together (10 minutes later), i stuck my head in the water and sang the first song that came into my head – Human League – Don’t you want me – this song really seemed to grab their attention and within seconds I was spinning and swimming with wild dusky dolphins. It was incredible. I tried other songs like Disney’s ‘Part of your World’ and ‘Under the Sea’ but funnily enough none of these songs had the same impact on the dolphins as ‘I was working as a waitress at a cocktail bar… when I met yoooou’.
- This was a “mid to calm water” day and even so, half the boat was heavily seasick with their head in buckets and wrapped in a towel whilst the rest of us were still dolphin watching. I think no matter what, take sea sickness tablets just so your experience isn’t ruined.
- Bring a Go-Pro OR rent one for $20 from Dolphin Encounter. Stu purchased an ApeMan camera (which is similar to the Go-Pro but a 3rd of the price) and it did the job and my footage is really cool, but isn’t as clear as the friends I made who had a Go Pro.
- You can try to book this via Bookme.co.nz for a cheaper price. It’s usually $175 at full price, but apparently on occasion it does come up on this site.
- Make sure you book ahead!
2. The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
I feel like no matter what season it is, this hike’s landscape of the coastline will amaze you. Please see the photo below from Autumn/Fall vs the Spring photo of my trip. They’re so different but beautiful.
The hike is an easy 3-4 hours round trip and you should see Seals in feet distance away from you, I’ve not yet met someone who hasn’t.
- Bring lunch – there’s so many view points and benches along the way to enjoy a lunch break
- If you want to see 100’s of seals, look for the steps down to the rocks (next to the giant mound), behind this is a colony of seals. Try to stand 10 metres away!
- If you stay at the Albatross Inn, the end of the hike takes you in a full loop.
3. Mount Fyffe Hike (full day hike or optional sleepover in a hut)
I didn’t do this hike, so it’s unfair of me to comment too much. But it’s a little something extra in case you’re reading this for advice on what to do in town.
The girls in my hostel hiked 3 hours up and slept in the hut – you can enjoy the sunset and sunrise overlooking Kaikoura. This hut is 3 hours from the start and 1.5 hours from the summit. It sleeps 8 – there’s a toilet and a stove. You’ll need to bring bedding and if there’s more than 8, well, you might need to sleep on the floor (as the girls needed to). The girls really enjoyed the hike and said it was challenging at times but really enjoyable. The hike there and back was 7-8 hours.
Stu decided to run the hike there and back. He did it in 3 hours around the same time I was doing the dolphin swim.
4. Look out for the street art in town
In town, try to look around at walls/sides of buildings. There’s so many mural’s that could go unnoticed. They’re all wildlife or sea creature related. Even the bike racks were shaped like whales.
Recommended places to watch the sunset in Kaikoura:
ONE: The Kaikoura Lookout for a view of the sun going behind the mountains with the view of the town and surrounding cattle farms. This place is worth seeing any time, I came 3 times during our stay.
TWO: The carpark of the start of the Kaikoura Peninsula walk is called Point Kean and we stumbled upon this by chance and thought the sunset was really incredible here. Step down onto the rocky beach – we found a few seals but also a beautiful view of the coast.
Where to stay?
Albatross Backpackers Inn – Everytime!!
The Albatross had all the things I personally love in a hostel – clean, a log fire, free towel rental, amazing showers, arts & crafts, friendly staff who don’t exclude the guests from conversations AND they bake cakes most nights. There’s also a selection of onesies to borrow if you want to get super cosy! I loved the family feel of this hostel.
How many days to spend in Kaikoura?
This is a tough one, each time I’ve spent 3 nights and I’ve always been sad to leave like I could stay longer. I’d say no less than 2 nights, but as long as you can! If you have the New Zealand working visa, there’s so many places in town advertising for jobs so that’s worth bearing in mind 😉