The town of Kaikoura is located half way between Christchurch and Picton (the center of the Marlborough wine region) on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains for most of the year. Kaikoura is famed for its selection of eco-tourism activities, most notably whale watching and seal and dolphin swimming.
Whale Watch (tel. +64/3-319-6767; www.whalewatch.co.nz) is New Zealand's only marine-based whale watching company offering visitors the opportunity to get up-close to giant sperm whales throughout the year. Each tour is a unique experience and sightings vary. On a typical tour you may encounter pods of Dusky dolphins, Wandering Albatross, New Zealand fur seals and depending on the season, you may also see migrating Pilot Whales, Blue Whales, Humpback Whales and Southern Right Whales. The ocean off Kaikoura is also home to the world's largest dolphin, the rare Orca and the world's smallest dolphin, Hectors. If by some chance you do not see a whale on the two-and-a-half hour tour, the company will give you an 80% discount. Dress warmly as it can get rather chilly out on the water, even in the summer months (December to March). The tour costs $101 for adults and $47 for children three to 15 years of age.
Wings Over Whales (tel. +64/3-319-6580; www.whales.co.nz) takes you high over the Kaikoura Peninsula and out over the Pacific Ocean in a four or eight-seater fixed wing plane. In a typical 30-minute flight you will have an excellent chance to see sperm whales, Dusky dolphins and fur seals and on occasion, Southern Right, Humpback, Fin, Sei, Brydes, Pilot, Southern Bottlenose and Blue Whales. You can also see evidence of Maori fortifications flying over Pa sites and the township of Kaikoura. Adults tickets (15 years and up) are $113, children two to 14 years are $58. Advance reservations are recommended but not essential. Walk-in bookings are sometimes available.
Kaikoura Helicopters (tel. +64/3-319-6609; www.worldofwhales.co.nz) is another option for viewing the whales from the air. The company caters for people with a love of flying, those who are pushed for time and those who simply wish to whale-watch in a truly unforgettable manner. Pilots provide full in-flight commentary. There are various flight options, such as from the 30 minute "Whale Watch Experience" priced from $152 per person if there are three or more passengers (with two passengers the price is $230 per person). The "Top'n'Tail" flight climbs high above Kaikoura to land at 5500 feet on the rugged Seaward Kaikoura Range and then flies down and over the ocean for whale watching (priced from $238 or $355 per person with less than three passengers). Children who can comfortably sit on your lap are free.
After watching these mammoth marine mammals in action, you may like to get in the water with some slightly smaller creatures. Swim Kaikoura (tel. +64/3-319-6182; www.sealswimkaikoura.co.nz) takes you on an adventure swimming with playful fur seals in the shallow waters off the Kaikoura Peninsula. The company provides all participants with extra thick wetsuits and hot showers afterwards. The tour is fully guided so you have trained professionals in the water with you at all times. Even non-swimmers can be accommodated. Seal tours operate from early October until May subject to conditions and trips run for around two hours. The tour is priced from $62 per person for a boat based swim or $55 for one that is shore based. Children 14 years and under pay $55 or $47 respectively. By prior arrangement, they can arrange a hotel pick up and drop off. If there is a lack of seal activity on your trip, a discount of up to 50% will be given.
Although Kaikoura can be done as a day trip, you may prefer to stay a few days to take in the natural landscape and activities. Accommodation is plentiful with everything from hostels to more luxurious boutique hotels.
The five-star Fyffe Country Lodge (tel. +64/3-319-6869; www.fyffecountrylodge.com) is a small luxury lodge with an on-site restaurant. The lodge offers stunning mountain views and luxurious king-size beds, and breakfast is served daily in a sunny courtyard facing the slopes of Mt Fyffe, or in the Victorian dining room during less than fair weather. The restaurant is known for its regional specialties like crayfish, salmon, beef and seafood chowder. There is a wide selection of fine New Zealand wines and South Island beers. Superior room rates start from $147 per night.
Bendamere House Bed and Breakfast (tel. +64/3-319-5830; www.bendamere.co.nz) offers its guests panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Kaikoura Ranges in quiet, peaceful and private surrounds. A five-minute walk from town or the beach, there are five superior boutique rooms - the ground floor rooms open out onto the extensive lawns and the first floor rooms have exceptional views from glassed in balconies. Continental breakfast is included and your hosts offer a free pick up service from trains and buses and can assist you with booking various activities. Double room rates start from $137 per night. Hapuku Lodge and Tree Houses (tel. +64/3-319-6559; www.hapukulodge.com) is located between the Kaikoura Seaward Mountain Range and Mangamaunu Bay on a deer farm and olive grove. The lodge features a selection of accommodation including standard rooms, tree houses and an apartment. Nested 30 feet above the ground in the canopy of a native Manuka grove, each tree house has spectacular views of Kaikoura's dramatic mountains and Pacific coastline. The tree houses are designed to complement the environment, with exteriors clad in native woods and copper shingles with large windows that bring the tree canopy right into the bedroom. With these unique features comes the moniker of being the most expensive property in the area, with tree houses priced from $296 per night including a continental breakfast.
Getting to Kaikoura is easy by car from Christchurch and takes approximately two-and-a-half hours. Rail New Zealand (www.railnewzealand.com/Tranzcoastal.html) trains run daily in the morning for a three hour journey that is priced at $47 one-way for adults and $28 for children. Alternatively you can fly from Wellington on Sounds Air (www.soundsair.com). Adult one-way fares are $98 for adults and $87 for children two to 12. If you book online, there is a slight discount of $12 per sector (unfortunately their website is not compatible with some browsers on Apple computers). Sounds Air only allows passengers to carry 33 pounds of luggage per person. There is a slight charge for excess weight of around $1 per pound.
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