It took a ship, bus and a plane to get home - and they had to leave a car behind - but a Rotorua woman and her husband are safely home after being stuck in Kaikoura following last week's massive earthquake.

NZME radio sales manager Justine Knowles, who was in the town for a friend's 50th birthday, said it felt "surreal" to be home.

She was among the tourists evacuated by the HMNZS Canterbury.

They boarded about 6pm Friday and docked in Lyttelton on Sunday morning.

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They were then transferred by bus to the makeshift evacuation centre at Horncastle Arena in Christchurch, then to the airport before flying into Rotorua late Sunday afternoon.

She said they had hoped the roads would be open by Saturday, so they could drive their cars out. But at a meeting on Friday it became clear that would not happen.

She said it was also made clear all tourists were wanted out of the town, and the Top 10 Holiday Park where they were staying needed their room, with the army moving in long term.

She said they were transported to the HMNZS Canterbury in lots of six on a Canadian tender with big swells, and then had to climb up a rope ladder.

"It was one of the scariest things I've done in my life."

She said her husband reckoned it was about 5m of rope up the side of the ship.

Mrs Knowles said people who were elderly and sick were helicoptered onto the ship.

She said they were on the ship for a total of 38 hours, as before it left Kaikoura it had to offload freight such as portaloos and piping.

"It was very surreal. It's an unusual place to sleep. There was quite a lot of roll with the swell."

Mrs Knowles said most of the people in her cabin were Dutch.

"They were just blown away I think by Kiwis and Kaikoura residents, and how everyone had pulled together.

"Apparently they don't get them [earthquakes] in the Netherlands and so they were just beside themselves."

She said once her friends had left on their flight, half an hour before hers, what she had been through finally hit.

She cried at the airport, on the plane and when she got home, she said.

"It was all very surreal getting home, I think it's sort of sinking in."

Mrs Knowles said her husband's work car was still in Kaikoura and they did not know when they would get it back.

She said she had contacted Ngai Tahu in Kaikoura and was going to get hold of organisations such as Red Cross and Civil Defence to thank them, saying they were "fantastic".