The Must-Dos in Kaikoura: The Marine Wildlife Mecca of New Zealand
Nature lovers, don’t miss this wildlife hotspot on the South Island. Kaikoura attracts a range of magnificent wildlife that many of us dream of witnessing. This is due to its nutrient-rich waters created by an underwater canyon just off its shores. Whales, dolphins, albatross and seals: they’re all seen on a daily basis from the shores, boats and flights on offer in Kaikoura. Of course, there are many land activities to enjoy too, from picturesque walks to indulging in fresh seafood. Find out what you could be getting up to with this list of things to do in Kaikoura.
If you are only driving by, make sure to schedule enough time to embrace the area; two days should be a minimum. Take your pick of activities below to make this stopover the best one on the South Island’s east coast! And now, let’s get on with the best things to do in Kaikoura.
1. Watch a Seal Colony Take a Nap on the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
Let’s start our list of the best things to do in Kaikoura with a visit to the local… seals! Seals are taking over Kaikoura! The best place to see seals is along the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway with multiple viewpoints over seal colonies, as well as plenty of seals probably blocking the path too. Hell, you don’t even need to start walking to see the seals, as there is plenty to see at the Point Kean car park at the beginning of the walkway. Remember to give the seals plenty of space, as they do not like to be disturbed on land. Plus, if you’re into these adorable marine mammals everywhere you go, take a look at 15 Best Places to See Seals in New Zealand.
Location: Point Kean car park, 4.4 km (2.7 mi) south of Kaikoura.
2. Kayak with Seals
While seals might not like to be approached on land, they are certainly keen to approach you when in their element. Discover this for yourself on an amazing seal encounter with Seal Kayak Kaikoura or Kaikoura Kayaks (more info on Viator and Klook). One of the most affordable wildlife experiences in Kaikoura, kayaking with seals is easy and fun for all experience levels, even beginners and families. Paddle past seal colonies, where it’s common for these creatures to approach you in the water, and look out for dolphins, penguins and more. As an experience you can share in a double kayak, we also list this one in the 10 Most Romantic Things to Do in Kaikoura.
Location: Seal Kayak Kaikoura – 18 Beach Road. Kaikoura Kayaks – 19 Killarney Street.
3. Swim with Dolphins
Wondering what to do in Kaikoura on a rainy day? Jump in the water! Far from the sad experience of swimming with captive dolphins in a small aquarium tank, Kaikoura’s main attraction is the wild and happy dolphins! The small dusky dolphins are playful and easy to approach: hop on a tour boat, pop on a snorkel and jump in the water. Tours are available with Dolphin Encounter. For more places to swim with dolphins, see the 5 Best Places to Swim with Dolphins in New Zealand.
Loction: 96 Esplanade, Kaikoura.
4. Join a Whale Watching Cruise
Whale watching is available year-round in Kaikoura and one of the best ways to see sperm whales, dolphins or even other species of whales is on a whale watching cruise. The expert guides at Whale Watch Kaikoura will get you up close to these ocean giants from their high-speed catamarans. They have a 95% success rate! You can book on Viator or Klook.
Location: Whaleway Station Road, Kaikoura.
5. See Whales from the Sky
For an alternative perspective of Kaikoura’s famous marine mammals, see the entire length of whales from a scenic plane or helicopter flight. Whale watching fixed-wing flights are available with Wings Over Whales (more info on Viator or Klook) and with Air Kaikoura, while helicopter flights are provided by South Pacific Helicopters and Kaikoura Helicopters, all of which give you a unique view of whales and whatever other marine mammals may be seen from the skies. Flights last approximately 30 minutes or can be upgraded for scenic flights over the Kaikoura Mountain Ranges too.
Location: Tours depart from either West End in Kaikoura town centre or Kaikoura Airport, approximately 8 km (5 mi) south of Kaikoura.
6. Hike on Mt Fyffe
In true New Zealand fashion, next on our list of things to do in Kaikoura is a hike. Climbing to the summit of Mt Fyffe takes a whole day but will treat you to the most stunning views of the area, from the mountain ranges to the ocean. Alternatively, enjoy some of the short walks on its foothills, like the Hinau Track or Fyffe-Palmer Track. For more details on Kaikoura’s trails, check out the 10 Best Walks & Hikes in Kaikoura.
Location: Specific location details for each walk can be found in the link above.
7. Go On an Albatross-Spotting Cruise
An often overlooked wildlife experience in Kaikoura, Albatross Encounter gets you up close to some of the world’s largest seabirds. As you travel by boat to the edge of the underwater Kaikoura Canyon, your guide will tell you more about these majestic birds with the longest wingspan of any flying bird in the world. The guides will then feed the albatross, often attracting 10 different species of birds right in front of you! For more wildlife experiences, don’t miss our 7 Best Wildlife Activities in Kaikoura.
Location: 96 Esplanade, Kaikoura.
8. Try Some Crayfish
See where Kaikoura got its name: “Kai” means food and “koura” means crayfish! Crayfish is another word for lobster and it’s a speciality here in Kaikoura. Try it for yourself on the way in or out of Kaikoura at Nins Bin, Kaikoura’s famous roadside caravan, or Karaka Lobster with its unmissable crayfish sculpture. Closer to town, Kaikoura Seafood BBQ is a good go-to for all of your crayfish and seafood desires.
Location: Nins Bin – State Highway 1, 22 km (13.6 mi) north of Kaikoura, Karaka Lobster – State Highway 1, 30 km (18.6 mi) north of Kaikoura. Kaikoura Seafood BBQ – 55 Fyffe Quay.
9. Visit the Kaikoura Museum
If the weather isn’t playing ball or you’re simply curious, head to the Kaikoura Museum. Set in the “Craypot” building opposite the i-SITE, the Kaikoura Museum features fascinating exhibitions about the local wildlife, Maori tribes, fishing and whaling history, as well as information about the 2016 earthquake. There is a small fee to check out this museum, which is open from 10 am to 4 pm daily. For more affordable experiences like this, check out the 15 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Kaikoura.
Location: 96 West End, Kaikoura.
10. Admire the Maori Artwork and Seal Colonies Along the Kaikoura Coastline
If you’re up for a bit of a road trip, or for something to do on the way in and out of Kaikoura, stop by the numerous lookouts and picnic areas decorated with Maori sculptures along a 60 km (37 mi) stretch of Kaikoura coastline. Known as the Cultural Artwork Trail, there are more than 20 sites to admire – all in safe stopping areas so you can park your vehicle with ease and peace of mind. There are a couple of excellent sites to admire seal colonies too, including the Ohau Point Lookout and the Hikurangi Marine Reserve near Goose Bay.
Location: Sites start from Clarence in the north to Oaro in the south.
11. Play Mini-Golf, Do an Escape Room and Try Craft Beer at The Emporium
For some healthy competition, and to have a cheeky try of the craft beer from the on-site brewery, head to The Emporium for their 18-hole mini-golf course and/or their escape rooms. The former is an affordable activity that’s a good way to spend 30 minutes to an hour, putting your way through Kaikoura-themed holes. See if you can get your ball past the whale fluke or around the stranded cattle from the Kaikoura earthquakes! Alternatively, team up with friends and family to solve your way out of one of two themed escape rooms. For more ways to entertain the family, check out the 10 Things to Do in Kaikoura with Kids.
Location: 57a Beach Road, Kaikoura.
12. Trek with Llamas
If you didn’t come to Kaikoura for the seals, whales, albatross or dolphins, then you probably came for the llamas, right? Explore the Kaikoura coast in a unique way with a friendly llama by your side. With Kaikoura Llama Trekking, enjoy a half-day stroll with your own llama to carry your belongings in a saddlebag as you make your way to the historic Fyffe House for a picnic with cake and drinks. The walk then ends at the Point Kean seal colony. Alternatively, there’s a shorter tour along the beautiful Kowhai River.
Location: Half-day tour meeting point is at West End in Kaikoura town centre (i-SITE car park) and the shorter tours meet at 12 Kowhai Ford Road.
13. Scuba Dive with Seals, Sharks, Octopuses and More
Nothing gets you closer to the action than scuba diving. Observe the underwater wildlife of Kaikoura that very few get to experience with Daves’ Diving. Whether you’re a newbie or are a fully certified diver, there are trips available for all. While it’s unlikely that you’ll encounter a whale while diving, you may be lucky to swim with dolphins, while it’s common to spot seals, stingrays, octopuses, sharks, nudibranchs and lots and lots of fish! See how diving in Kaikoura compares to the 10 Best Places to Scuba Dive in New Zealand.
Location: 79 Beach Road, Kaikoura.
14. Land in the Kaikoura Mountains on a Helicopter Tour
Watching the whales is not the only attraction a scenic flight can offer. South Pacific Helicopters also offer an extended flight experience taking up to a maximum of five people over the dramatic mountains, beaches and coastline with a touchdown at the summit of Mt Fyffe. Of course, dolphin and seal viewings across the ocean are also included in this tour.
Alternatively, join Kaikoura Helicopters for a 90-minute experience climbing 8,000 ft into the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges to bask in the mountain and sea views. Make the experience extra special with a private helicopter picnic thrown in the mix. For more upscale activities, take a look at the 7 Luxury Experiences in Kaikoura.
Location: South Pacific Helicopters – 58 West End. Kaikoura Helicopters – 16 West End.
15. Experience an Exclusive Hike on the Kaikoura Coast Track
While hiking is a major part of a New Zealand holiday, you can experience a more premium form of hiking on the Kaikoura Coast Track. This private walking track takes two days to complete, allowing hikers to discover dramatic coastlines, tussock-covered coastal cliffs and lush farmland. Tramp through bush-filled gullies to emerge to views of the Kaikoura Mountains. The exclusive experience only allows 10 people on the track at one time and features luxury services like luggage transport, catering, and warm clean hiker’s cottages are available. For alternative walks, see the 10 Best Walks in Kaikoura.
Location: 356 Conway Flat Road, Conway Flat, approximately 43 km (26.7 mi) from Kaikoura.
16. Sample Kaikoura’s Own Gin, Beer or Sparkling Wine
Delite the palate with tastings of Kaikoura’s range of homegrown beverages. Esses Kaikoura specialises solely in Méthode Traditionnelle, with the aim to grow the perfect sparkling. Taste it for yourself at their tasting room which is open by appointment. Gin lovers should certainly not miss the small-batch boutique distillery of Mt. Fyffe Distillery, set on the scenic foothills of its namesake. Try their two distinct blends of artisan London dry gin; Woolshed Gin and Shearwater Gin, as well as experience a tour of the off-the-beaten-track distillery which is open by appointment. Finally, sample a range of craft beers at Emporium Brewing close to town along with a lunch menu, escape rooms and mini-golf – something to do in Kaikoura with the family.
Location: Esses Kaikoura – 280 Postman Rd, RD1. Mt. Fyffe Distillery – 202 McInnes Road. Emporium Brewing – 57a Beach Road.
17. Check Out the Kaikoura Farmers’ Market
Ok, so you need to time this right, as the Kaikoura Farmers’ Market only runs from October to April each Sunday from 10 am to 1 pm. Nevertheless, if you are lucky enough to be in Kaikoura at this time, you’ll be treated to browsing home baking, artisan goods, fresh organic produce and crafts; some of which you can sample.
Location: West End, Kaikoura town centre.
18. See Kaikoura’s Oldest Surviving Building
Sitting pretty in pink, about a 45-minute walk from the town centre along the Kaikoura Peninsula, Fyffe House is Kaikoura’s oldest surviving building. The heritage home not only makes a fun photo opportunity but can be explored on the inside by paying a small fee. The home also holds some simple exhibitions and archives about life in Kaikoura in the 1800s.
Location: 62 Avoca Street, Kaikoura.
19. Hit the Cycle Trails
The next entry on our list of favourite Kaikoura activities is mountain biking! There’s plenty of two-wheel fun to be had in and around Kaikoura. From the easy-going 42 km Kaikoura Trail to the rugged grade-4 trails of the Clarence Reserve, there’s something for all riders and experience levels. Enquire with the Kaikoura Cycling Club to learn more.
Alternatively, if the 8-hour hike up to Mt Fyffe is too much for you, get on a bike to get it done in half the time. Be aware that both going up and down will require skills, so if you are unsure, opt for the hiking option instead.
Location: All over Kaikoura!
20. Feed Lambs and Watch a Sheep Shearing Show
While the marine wildlife may steal all the limelight in Kaikoura, there’s also an opportunity to meet some of the other animals New Zealand has become famous for – sheep! Point Sheep Shearing at The Point B&B & Campsite offers daily (and affordable) sheep shearing shows, which take place in a classic New Zealand woolshed. Learn about the various wool types, sheep breeds and traditional techniques and tools, some still used to this day. The highlights, arguably, are hand-feeding the majestic Drysdale Ram and even bottle-feeding the lambs, the latter available between August and January.
Location: 85 Fyffe Quay, Kaikoura.
21. Catch Some Surf
Did you know that Kaikoura is one of the best surf spots on the South Island? There’s fun for everyone at Ocean Fun Reefs at Kaikoura’s sandy beach or find your next challenge at Mangamaunu with fast hollow waves. Learn to surf with surf schools like Kiwi Surf Experience who will teach you the basics, from board control to wave selection. They also have equipment hire if you’re already a pro.
Location: Mangamaunu, 16.5 km (10 mi) north of Kaikoura.
22. Indulge in a Spa Treatment at Hapuku Lodge + Treehouses
If you’re in need of some pampering, pop into one of New Zealand’s most unique luxury accommodations and spa complexes. Situated at the Hapuku Lodge + Treehouses, the Kawakawa Studio Spa boasts a tempting array of spa packages to restore and indulge, as well as to enhance the romance with couples’ massages. Learn more about the lodge at the 15 Best Luxury Accommodations in Kaikoura.
Location: State Highway 1, approximately 13 km (8 mi) from Kaikoura.
23. Ride the Coastal Pacific Train
Watch the stunning coastal scenery go by and relax with a hot coffee or New Zealand wine onboard the Coastal Pacific train! The complete journey runs between Christchurch and Picton, stopping by Kaikoura along the way. See dramatic windblown seascapes on one side and towering bush-clad mountains on the other through the train’s panoramic windows or the open-air viewing carriage. Note that this is a seasonal train that runs from spring through to autumn. Learn more about taking the train in New Zealand with our guide to the Train Network in New Zealand.
Location: Kaikoura Railway Station, Whaleway Station Road, Kaikoura.
24. Dine Out at Cosy Cafes, Reputable Restaurants and Irresistible Ice Cream Parlours
It’s not just about the seafood, as Kaikoura is also home to passionate artisans eager to share their fare. If looking for dinner recommendations, Zephyr is a good go-to for high-quality cuisine with everything, from the pate to the ravioli, made in-house. As for breakfast, brunch or lunch, try Sime’s Kitchen for their fresh carefully-sourced organic cafe meals in a casual setting or the Beach House Cafe for its homely ambience. And what would a visit to Kaikoura be without a sweet treat from Poppy’s Ice Cream Parlour? – all of which are handmade! Find more dining recommendations in The Complete Travel Guide to Kaikoura.
Location: Zephyr – 40 West End. Sime’s Kitchen – 33 Beach Road. Beach House Cafe – 39 Beach Road. Poppy’s – 18 West End.
25. Watch a Kaikoura Sunrise
We’re wrapping up our list of the best things to do in Kaikoura the way you might start your day; with a stunning sunrise. Kaikoura is on the east coast of the South Island so gets some of the best sunrise views in the country. Head to the coast at dawn to watch some vibrant colours appear in the sky.
Location: Anywhere along the coast of Kaikoura but we particularly like Kaikoura Beach along Esplanade.
More Things to Do in Kaikoura
That’s it for our list of the best things to do in Kaikoura but is by no means the end of our Kaikoura advice! Find the best places to stay, dining recommendations and more experiences in the following guides:
- The Complete Travel Guide to Kaikoura
- 21 Best Hotels & Places to Stay in Kaikoura
- 7 Top Wildlife Activities in Kaikoura