A local-approved guide to Kaikoura

Windy coastal walks and whale, seal and llama spotting

By now, we’ve seen a lot of New Zealand. And hands down, Kaikoura is one of the most magical places this country has to offer. 

There are few spots in the world where towering snow capped peaks drop straight to crystal clear waters. Add in the fact that it’s the whale watching capital and home to dolphins, seals and even domestic llamas. 

Our friend Nicola grew up in this amazing place and was kind enough to take us to her family home. We spent Easter weekend being spoiled with delicious food by her generous parents and touring the stunning peninsula with the best guide. 

There are endless activities in Kaikoura. We had just a few days to pack in relaxing like a local and spotting all the wildlife as an excited first-time visitor. As an equally animal-obsessed human, Nicola planned a lot of our itinerary. Here’s our local-approved tourism guide: 

Be humbled by understanding the recent earthquake’s impact

To understand Kaikoura, you have to know that it fell victim to a devastating earthquake in November 2016, followed by a 7-metre tsunami. The 7.8 magnitude shake brought rocks tumbling down from the cliffs across the main road. The slips caused SH1 and several other roads to close, cutting Kaikoura completely off from all land routes for 15 days. Part of SH1 remained closed for over a year which drastically impacted tourism the town’s local economy. 

The damage was still very evident when we visited. After our flight into Christchurch and picking up the rental car, Nicola expertly chauffeured us to her family home, pointing out even more than we would have realised without a local. Her parents described the quake to us in detail – and luckily they and the house were all okay. 

Watch the sunset from a lookout

A short stroll from Nicola’s house on the Kaikoura Peninsula, and accessible from the Walkway track, is the Kaikoura Lookout. It’s a perfect spot to watch the sun rise or set over the mountains and sea. 

Keep your eyes peeled for whales

You can’t visit Kaikoura without embarking on a whale and dolphin spotting cruise. We toured with Whale Watch Kaikoura and had an amazing experience. We tracked a sperm whale, while the crew was using echolocation to estimate when he may come up to the surface. They expertly explained this method on board, and I found a summary on their website that will make way more sense than me trying to recount it: 

“Our hydrophones (underwater microphones) can pick up the echolocation of a sperm whale anywhere from 1 to 8 miles away. The louder the click the closer to the whale we are, so if the captain is hearing the echolocation of the sperm whale and its quite faint we may need to make a move of 1 mile or more and hopefully on the next listen that ‘click’ should be a whole lot louder indicating that we are a lot closer to that individual. It is directional so whatever direction the click is coming from is the direction the whale is in.” 

– Whale Watch Kaikoura

Very cool. The method worked, as we arrived in time to see a resident sperm whale breach and then dive back under – not without giving us the epic whale tail photo opportunity. 

We also cruised next to no less than hundreds of dolphins. We saw two different species converge – the Dusky dolphins and Common dolphins leaping and spinning through the air, with the backdrop of snowy mountain ranges. 

Trek with llamas 

Probably not the most popular attraction, but one not to be missed is Llama Trekking. A truly local gem of an operation, a farm in the valley is home to a herd of male llamas who enjoy long walks by the river. 

Our guide selected three lucky boys from the pack to go for a stroll, and arranged our llama parade in a walking order based on their unique pshycographics. 

Brett bonded with Max, the lead llama responsible for keeping his herd safe. Nicola’s llama Bluey was selected for his blonde coat that matched her own flowing locks. He was the middle-of-the-pecking-order llama who was comfortable going with the flow. I just had to have Smokey – the most gorgeous two-toned pachyderm I ever did see. He was the dopey llama bringing up the rear. He was dubbed “sacrificial”, as the most vulnerable in case the pack were to be attacked by a vicious predator. (Don’t worry Smoke Show, I’ll keep you safe!)

We were also chaperoned by the farm dog, keeping us in line. He watched on as we learned to assert authority over and gain the trust of our new friends. We allowed them to sample the “llama chocolate” aka wild grases they were craving, and they in turn began to show “llama love” meaning nuzzling our hair and taking in our scents. 

If you can’t tell, this trek was heaven for me. I loved every minute. 

Tramp the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway

We set out for this walk on an appropriately moody day only Kaikoura can get away with. From the top of the headlands, down to the Point Kean seal colonies and back to the clifftops, this was a truly stunning walk. Waterproof hiking boots are recommended to stomp along the beach and jagged limestone formations. There are a few options to make the walk longer or shorter, but all up it’s nearly 12 km. Just allow extra time to spot the seals! 

Visit the seal colonies 

At Point Kean, you can see the seals up close on boardwalk – being respectful and minding your distance, of course, as they’re known to be aggressive. But if you can’t get enough of these silly, smelly creatures, you can also visit them at Ohau Point

Eat local

While we had most of our meals in, we had two delicious experiences in town. For a cute cafe, pay a visit to Hislops Wholefoods Cafe. And for an upscale dinner, we had a great time at Zephyr

Kaikoura made for the most fabulous Easter weekend. We can’t wait to go back!

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