Kia ora: Kaikoura

Elisabeth Easther visits the South Island's sealife mecca.

This article was first published prior to the November 2016 earthquake so some details may have changed. Please check with local tourism providers for the latest information.

A sperm whale waves to tourists on the Kaikoura Whale Watch vessel as only a whale can do. Photo / Brian Betts
A sperm whale waves to tourists on the Kaikoura Whale Watch vessel as only a whale can do. Photo / Brian Betts

Origin of name: Originally called Te taumanu o te waka a Maui, the thwart of Maui's canoe, but was later renamed Kaikoura by Tamaki-te-rangi, who stopped for a feed in the area while chasing his runaway wives. Kaikoura is Maori for "meal of crayfish".

Population: 3000, give or take.

Where is it: 180km north of Christchurch, 156km south of Picton; you can get there on the TranzCoastal train, which is a superb rail journey.

The town slogan: Where the mountains meet the sea or Sustainable Community - depends who you talk to.

The town mascot: The whale, although there's no life-size sculpture. Yet.

Interesting geological fact: Originally an island, the Kaikoura Peninsula was joined to the mainland by debris that came down from the mountains in rivers Hapuka and Kowhai.

Interesting modern fact: Kaikoura is a plastic bag-free zone. At least it's meant to be.

Most prominent industry: Farming is the backbone, and tourism, namely whale watching, is close behind.

Source of pride: The locals (mostly) all strive to be clean and green, and share a passion for the water and its marine life.

Town competition: Trash Fashion, held every second year, is huge. There are also lots of outdoorsy sporting events and pig hunting for a wide range of charities.

Best festival: Seafest is on every October. It began as a wine and food festival, and is now a major hoolie.

Best reason to stop: It's one of the few places in the world where snowcapped mountains meet the ocean and every two or three years it snows on the beach. How often do you see that? Also, the whales, dolphins and seals are worth writing home about.

Best place to take the kids: Any of the beaches. There are lots of places to fossick about, little pools and bays, and to see seals and their babies.

Best place for a drink: Chill out on a summer afternoon at The Pier Hotel, or for an evening out go to The Whaler.

Best food: The White Morph for fine dining, or for good fresh steaks and seafood, it's The Pier again.

Most famous local: Robert Fyfe, Kaikoura's earliest European settler. He set up the first onshore whaling station and has an awful lot of stuff named after him. Fyfe House, Fyfe Rd and, most impressively, Mount Fyfe.

Best flat white: Reserve Hut. Wayne roasts the beans on site, and he really knows his coffee.

Best bakery: Kaikoura Bakery, the cream doughnuts and pies can't be beaten.

Best local website:

Best museum: Kaikoura Historical Society District Museum and Archives. The collection is amazing, and there's also the old jailhouse and vintage vehicles. Entry, a gold coin donation, is a bargain.

Best walk: The Peninsula Walk is about three hours return. Or walk up Mt Fyfe if you feel frisky. It's about three hours up and much less to come down. Privately owned Kaikoura Wilderness Walk is a fully catered three-day trek, said to be outstanding.

Best view: From sea level it'd be The Pier, or higher up, the water tower on the peninsula offers stunning 360 viewing.

Best place to pull over: Coming from the north, pull over at Ohau to look at the seals, from the south it's The Esplanade, where visitors can admire the water's edge.

Best facilities: There are some fancy new toilets in town, but be warned, cameras have been installed to prevent vandalism, and possibly induce stage fright.

Best playground: Take the nippers to Kaikoura Primary School.

Best kept secret: The Waterfall, where seal pups go with their nanas. They wobble up for the day with granny, then return for a feed with mum. There's a very discreet sign just past Ohau on the northern road.

Best shop: Cross your fingers someone has a garage sale - you'll find vintage stuff galore. Also the dump has a very popular emporium called Mitre 11.

Best swim: Take a dip in any of the rivers, there are lots, although the water doesn't get much warmer than 17C, so wherever you go it'll be a brief paddle.

Wildest wildlife: Whales, dolphins, shearwaters, albatrosses, blue kingfishers, harriers. Too many seagulls, little blue penguins, shags, wild geese and wild ducks. Kaikoura is popular with birdwatching clubs. There are lots of crayfish, too.

For some reason: There are over 100 classic cars in people's sheds, hot rods, ancient tractors, trucks and motorbikes. It's quite a scene.

Regional Park: Mt Fyfe and all the DoC land around is full of amazing walks and things to see.

Safety warning: Seals may look cute, but they bite. So no patting.

When a local has visitors from abroad staying: They take them whale watching in the morning, to lunch at The Pier where crayfish are chosen from the tank. Then, in the afternoon, go swimming with the dolphins, which is utterly surreal as they try to make you dizzy, smiling their heads off. If there's any time left, take them fishing. For as little as $70 visitors can fish for a couple of hours and take the catch home.

Visitors say: "Wow, we had a whale of a time."

Locals say: "Thank flipping goodness the tourists have gone. Now I can find a parking space in town."

Thanks to residents Steve Kirkpatrick and Jo for being so forthcoming about Kaikoura's charms.

- NZ Herald

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