The Kaikoura peninsula has a justly deserved reputation as one of the best places in the world to see whales. Indeed, tens of thousands of tourists come there every year for that reason alone. But this lovely part of New Zealand’s South Island has so much more to offer tourists than just whale-watching.
The peninsula’s setting is almost impossibly attractive: a finger of lush farmland, surrounded by the deep blue sea on three sides, and snow-capped mountains on the other. At its heart lies the small town of Kaikoura, which started life as whaling port in the mid-19th century. It’s a charming place, with lots of built heritage, most notably art deco gems from the 1920s and 1930s, such as the community-run Mayfair cinema.
By the time the first European settlers arrived in the early 1840s, the Maoris had been living in the peninsula for several hundred years. The latter were drawn principally by the ready supply of seafood, particularly crayfish. The peninsula’s full name – Te Ahi Kaikoura a Tama ki Te Rangi – means “the fire that cooked the crayfish of Tama ki Te Rangi” (a legendary Maori hero).
The abundance of crayfish is just one sign of the extraordinarily rich marine life in the waters off Kaikoura. The biggest year-round residents are sperm whales, while several other leviathans are regular visitors, including humpbacks and blue whales, the largest animals ever to have lived on this planet.
Whale-watchers can choose between boat, plane and helicopter tours. Whichever option you go for, it is rare not to see at least one of these magnificent creatures. How much you see of them though is another matter entirely. While humpbacks are known for putting on spectacular shows, sperm whales spend much of their lives deep below the surface.
Several species of dolphin can also be spotted in these waters, from the tiny and extremely rare Hector’s dolphin, to their massive cousins, orcas (killer whales). Most commonly sighted though are dusky dolphins, who are famed for their acrobatics. Nobody knows exactly why they choose to expend so much energy in this fashion, but whatever their reasons, they are certainly not camera-shy.
As well as being big show-offs, dusky dolphins are also highly curious. It is this curiosity – married to their playfulness – which makes them so enjoyable to swim with. The superb eco-tourism operator, Encounter Kaikoura, runs several dolphin swimming (and watching) tours every day, weather-permitting.
It is hard to describe in words quite how moving it is to engage with these amazing creatures; to experience at close quarters their grace, their beauty, their intelligence. Of course, it must be remembered that they are not circus performers, but wild animals. If they are not in the mood for human company, they simply keep their distance.
Dusky dolphins are not the only playful mammals which you can swim with off Kaikoura; you can also get up close and personal with seals. Tours are offered by two experienced local operators: Seal Swim Kaikoura and Top Spot Seal Swims. Or you can see these characterful creatures on land (and at no expense) at Point Kean.
Also drawn to nutrient-rich waters off Kaikoura are umpteen seabirds, many of them endangered, including several species of albatross. Rather comical looking while bobbing on the surface of the water, these huge bids are exhilarating to watch in full flight. Thanks to their massive wings, they soar with the minimum of effort.
Although wildlife encounters play a huge part in Kaikoura’s tourism appeal, the peninsula does have rather more strings to its bow. It is a year-round destination, with beaches to sunbathe on during the summer, and nearby Mount Lyford to ski or snowboard at during the winter.
The bucolic countryside surrounding the town is perfect for walking, whether it be a short stroll, or a multi-day hike. You can even go trekking with llamas! No visit to New Zealand would be complete without learning more about sheep, and a local farm and B&B, The Point, offers the chance to see a shearing exhibition. Kaikoura has its own golf course, and a boutique winery, Springbank estate, both of which welcome visitors.
Kaikoura town – and surrounding areas – have a wealth of accommodation options, from well-run backpacker guesthouses, to luxury lodges. The drinking and dining scene also has a good range of possibilities. Kaikoura can be reached by bus, rail and most conveniently, with your own transport. For more information, see the informative official tourism website.
Mayfair cinema www.mayfairkaikoura.co.nz
Whale Watch Kaikoura (boat) www.whalewatch.co.nz
Wings Over Whales (plane) www.whales.co.nz
World of Whales (helicopter) http://worldofwhales.co.nz
Encounter Kaikoura (dolphin swimming and watching) www.encounterkaikoura.co.nz
Seal Swim Kaikoura www.sealswimkaikoura.co.nz
Top Spot Seal Swims www.topspot-sealswims.co.nz
Mount Lyford alpine resort www.mtlyford.co.nz
Kaikoura Llama Trekking www.llamatrekking.co.nz
The Point (sheep shearing) www.pointsheepshearing.co.nz
Kaikoura Golf Club www.kaikouragolf.co.nz
Springbank Estate (winery) www.springbankestate.com