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Catch the Coastal Pacific train and stop off at Kaikoura, one of the South Island's most spectacular towns. Photo/Supplied.

Why now is the time to tick Kaikoura off your bucket list

What to do, see and eat in Kaikoura.            

There’s a few things that come to mind when one mentions Kaikoura – sure, mountains, marine life and magic are a given, but there’s more to be said. With an abundance of hidden gems to discover and adventure waiting to be lived, this rugged coastal town might very well be the South Island’s best-kept secret. If you’re journeying on the Coastal Pacific scenic train, from either Christchurch or Picton, we’ve got a stack of reasons as to why you should stop off. 

Whale Watch Kaikoura                             

We all know whale sightings are of the rare variety, but in Kaikoura that’s certainly not the case. As New Zealand’s go-to destination for all things marine life (and one of the world’s best places for whale watching), visitors have a 95% chance of spotting giant sperm whales, as well as dusky dolphins, orcas, humpback whales and everything in between. If you’re all about getting up close, we’d recommend hitting the seas with Whale Watch Kaikoura. Or if you’d rather go sky-high, a helicopter tour with South Pacific Helicopters gives you the chance to appreciate the size of the giant sperm whale from above, alongside panoramic views of snowcapped mountains and spectacular coastline.

Lavendyl Lavender Farm  

For a touch of luxury and sophistication, journey to Lavendyl Lavender Farm. Just outside Kaikoura’s centre, it’s the perfect place to indulge your senses and treat your taste buds. If you’re here for the day, take a stroll through the stunning Lavender fields, relax in their quaint café or watch the distillation process to find out how lavender oil is made. Or, if you’re touching down for the night, why not book a spot at one of the rustic cottages? Being surrounded by breathtaking lavender fields, it’s the ultimate rural retreat.

Fyffe House                        

If you’re willing to go off the beaten track, a stroll to Fyffe House could be a great way to get the legs moving. As the town’s oldest surviving building, this heritage home is full of archives and tales from the 1800s. It’s also situated among some incredible landscapes – picture snowcapped mountains, lush forestry and Kaikoura’s dramatic coastline. The trip to Fyffe house is just a gentle 45-minute walk from the town’s centre, with an entry fee of $10.

Dolphin encounters           

We’ve already labelled Kaikoura as New Zealand’s go-to destination for all things marine life – and this time, we’re talking dolphins. Just like whales, you’re pretty much guaranteed to rub shoulders (or fins) with a dolphin in Kaikoura. So if that sounds like you, jump on one of the Dolphin Encounter Tours. If you want to stay dry, feel free to work your camera from the boat. Or if you want to make a splash, you can dive in for just an extra $80. The choice is yours.

Whales and dolphins are common sights in the ocean around Kaikoura.

Kaikoura Museum

If the weather packs up and you’re after something indoors, head to the incredible Kaikoura Museum. Having been dubbed ‘the mini Te Papa’ and ‘Craypot’ (because of its shape), there’s an array of storytelling displays and natural history to read up on and unique artifacts to explore. Of particular mention is ‘The New Normal’ exhibition – a series of stories dedicated to sharing the events of the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake from the locals who experienced it.

Note: Tickets are $10 for seniors and $12 for adults. 

Beachside fine dining at Nins Bin  

You could spend lashings on a fine dining seafood experience, but when in Kaikoura, do as the locals do. In other words, head to everyone’s favourite crayfish joint Nins Bin. Simplicity and serenity is what has locals and visitors flocking (even after three decades). We’re talking quality crayfish, green-lipped mussels, beer-battered chips and organic beverages – all paired with breathtaking views of Kaikoura’s coastline and a soundtrack of waves.

Note: Nins Bin is open 9am-5pm, seven days a week during the summer months only.

Catch your own meal

Kaikoura’s known as one of New Zealand’s best destinations for fishing, so if you’re a seasoned expert, or just like the sound of catching your own meal, sign up for a fishing trip with Kaikoura Fishing Charters. With several different tours to choose from, be it two, three or four hours, you can spend however long you wish at sea. Expect to walk away with some fresh catch and incredible memories (you might spot a friendly dolphin). And just so you’re prepared, pack warm clothes, snacks and a camera.

Albatross encounters

Majestic takes form in the Albatross bird. And Kaikoura is home to twelve species, as well as shearwaters, petrels, gannets, skuas, terns and more. While you could try spotting them yourself, an Albatross Encounter tour will give you real insight into these incredible creatures, so we’d say it’s worth every penny. Better still, you’re likely to come across other friendly locals – most visitors see dolphins, penguins and a seal colony or ten. 

Tip: Tours run for two and a half hours, departing at 9am and 1pm daily.

The spectacular view looking down on Beach Road from Kaikoura Peninsula.

 Kaikoura beach  

If the sun’s out and you’ve only an hour to spare, a walk along Kaikoura’s beach could be a great way to break up the journey. Located in front of Kaikoura’s township, it has all the right ingredients. To paint a picture: think snowcapped mountains, wildlife life roaming freely and crisp mountain air, giving you a healthy dose of oxygen. Of course, if you’re here during summer, or want to brave the cold, the southern end of the beach is a great place to cool off (with the surf being less than one metre).

Tip: Check the Kaikoura weather report if you’re planning a day at the beach.

Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway

If you’d rather avoid having to shake sand from your shoes, the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is a walk that’s equally fantastic. The entire track is 11km, suitable for all fitness levels and takes roughly three hours to complete.  If you’re pressed for time or just not a big walker but want to see the seal colony, there are shorter parts of the track you can do. Expect stunning views of the Kaikoura Ranges, seal colonies bathing on rocks (look but don’t touch) and pockets of history to read up on.

Tip: Head to the Kaikoura i-Site Info Centre for directions. 

Kaikoura farmers’ market

If you’re passing through on a Sunday, a trip to Kaikoura’s farmers’ market is a great way to mix with locals. Open from 10am-12pm, you’ll find everything from organic produce, to fresh catch, to homemade baking, to artisan goodies, to beautifully crafted ceramics. The market is located at the west end of Kaikoura, not far from the town centre – and the railway station.

Note: The market runs from April through to November each year.

The view from the Coastal Pacific scenic train.

Hop aboard the Coastal Pacific scenic train to Kaikoura

While it’s easy to go for the big and familiar, exploring somewhere new can be a great way to step out of your comfort zone. So if you’re ready to take the plunge, hop aboard the Coastal Pacific scenic train and discover all the great things to do in Kaikoura. Running along the east coast of the South Island, you’ll experience 98km of stunning scenery, friendly service and an exquisite menu to tuck into (we’re talking hot and cold dishes, South Island wine, sweet treats and more). Better still, with the flexi or flexi-plus pass, you have the freedom to make as many or as few stops as you like.  

So whether your journey is from Christchurch to Kaikoura or Picton to Kaikoura, stopping off (or staying put) at this South Island pocket of paradise could be just the adventure you’re after. What are you waiting for? Make a booking on the Coastal Pacific scenic train today!