There’s a place on the east coast of New Zealand's South Island where the mountains meet the sea; where the beauty of the landscape is matched only by the beauty of the people. And where marine life travels from near and far to come and play. This place is Kaikoura.
Nestled between the Seaward Kaikoura Range and the Pacific Ocean, this seaside gem is just two hours south of Picton (the gateway to the South Island) and two hours north of Christchurch. And whether you want to pop in for a day trip with the family or spend an entire weekend, you’re sure to leave with memories that’ll last a lifetime. Here’s our take on the top things to do in Kaikoura for families.
Whale Watching Kaikoura
We simply couldn’t begin with anything other than Kaikoura's world-famous whale watching experiences. The popularity of these enigmatic tours is no surprise, given Kaikoura is one of the few places where Sperm Whales can be seen all year round. Humpbacks, Southern Rights and Orca are also common visitors. In all, there is a 95% chance of sighting a whale on one of Kaikoura's many whale watching tours. And few things are more majestic than seeing these gracious leviathans close-up.
Whale Watch Kaikoura is the leading operator in Kaikoura and one of New Zealand's biggest attractions. Tours depart three times throughout the day (early morning, mid-morning and lunchtime), taking approximately 3.5 hours. Due to their popularity, we strongly recommend booking ahead - especially in the summer months.
If you’re travelling up from Christchurch for the day on the Coastal Pacific train, then you’ll arrive in time for the lunchtime tour. Conveniently, Whale Watch Kaikoura tours depart from their office inside Kaikoura train station - renamed the Whaleway Station in their honour!
For an even more dramatic view of these incredible beasts, South Pacific Whales offers Helicopter tours, where you can spot the whales from up high whilst taking in the breathtaking panoramic views of the Kaikoura Coast. Although you won’t get as close to the whales as you would in a boat, this unique perspective will give you a greater appreciation of their sheer size. And if you are looking to give your children an experience they'll always treasure, then this is definitely unforgettable.
Swimming with Dolphins in Kaikoura
Touted as the most intelligent life in the sea, there is little to compare with the thrilling view of dolphins darting through the sea. And with pods in Kaikoura ranging between 100 and 1,000 dolphins, tour operators can easily deliver action-packed sessions watching the "aquabatic" spectacle, with dolphins twisting, turning and flipping out of the water around you.
However, perhaps the ultimate experience is climbing into the water and playing with these marine intellects - and Dolphin Encounters Kaikoura can make that happen. Kaikoura's waters are home to the Dusky Dolphin, reputed to be one of the most playful, sociable and acrobatic of all the dolphin species.
For those less adventurous, there is the option to enjoy the show from the boat. But there really is no greater experience than jumping in the ocean and snorkelling around with these good-natured mammals.
Tours start at 12.30pm, which means you’ll arrive on the Christchurch to Kaikoura train in time for the tour and can even catch the return train to Christchurch. Tours take approximately 3.5 hours from beginning to end, and you can enjoy a bite to eat and a drink afterwards at the popular ‘Encounter Café’ - complete with a Kid's Corner for the little ones.
Albatross Encounters Kaikoura
Kaikoura’s spectacular wildlife also dominates the sky. Encouraged by the plentiful feeding in the Pacific waters below, Kaikoura’s skies are home to an array of stunning birdlife, including 12 species of albatross, shearwaters, penguins, petrels, gannets, skuas and more.
The team at Albatross Encounters have excellent knowledge of seabirds and have created a tour full of close up encounters and great photo opportunities - its great educational fun day out for kids!
Point Kean Lookout and Kaikoura Peninsula
Starting from the top, the Point Kean Viewpoint provides one of the most remarkable views you are ever likely to see. Looking back to Kaikoura, you will get a remarkable feel for the peninsula along which the town stretches. The skyline is dominated by the incredible Kaikoura mountains and, from this exceptional vantage point, you can see the range rise and fall from the north to the south.
From the Point Kean Viewpoint, you can walk down to the famous Kaikoura Peninsula, where a strange new world arose from the sea during the 2016 earthquake. The views as you descend provide an excellent perspective of how much land emerged. When you reach the shore, there is a very surreal, alien feeling, as though walking across a lunar landscape.
Lining the rugged Kaikoura Coastline is the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. The easy graded 11km walk is good for all levels of fitness and ages. If you’re short on time, you can just do shorter parts of the track Point Kean is the place for seal spotting and there is a car park nearby.
Information panels are dotted along the journey with interesting facts and stats on the geology, animals, plants and people, that make the area so special. A recently discovered whale graveyard is one of the many interesting sights.
Point Kean is also famously home to a seal colony, where seals have often been photographed lolloping along the wooden walkway, metres from the car park. After the 2016 earthquake, the seals moved to the rocks farther around the point - a kilometre or so from the car park. But, thankfully, they are still visiting in strong number and are easily visible, lounging in the sun.
For a very intimate view, Seal Swim Kaikoura are the ones to see. Recently rated in the Top 10 marine encounters in New Zealand by Lonely Planet, it’s one of the must-do activities in Kaikoura.
The Point Sheep Shearing Show
If you grow tired of sea life, then The Point Sheep Shearing Farm. is a fun day out ashore. Whether you want to witness the sheep shearing show itself and learn about the different tools and types of wool, or simply cuddle a fluffy baby lamb, there are plenty of activities to keep everyone entertained. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to meet ‘Ram-Man’, the farm’s resident Drysdale Ram who loves to eat out of palm of your hand…
When a spare moment arrives, the award-winning Kaikoura Museum should be top of your list of things to do inside. Take a walk through the history of Kaikoura and discover how marine life shaped its culture and people. Meanwhile, the kids can try their luck at the ‘I-spy’ treasure hunt, museum quiz, jigsaws, origami and drawing competitions.
Be sure to spend time looking through the ‘New Normal’ exhibition, which features 30 individual mini-exhibitions that tell the tale of the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake and how it impacted the community.
Affectionately known as the ‘Craypot’, the museum is open every day (except Christmas Day and Good Friday) from 10am – 5pm and can be found in the landmark Craypot building opposite the I-Site. At $30 for a family pass, which includes two adults and up to four children, it’s great entertainment.
Take a Stroll Along Kaikoura Beach
A stroll along the beach is always a hit with children. That rings especially true for Kaikoura, with its 5km long stretching right across the main township.
For swimming, the southern end of the beach offers beautiful sand, calmer waters and less rocks. For those interested in surfing, the town's beach has a moderate swell which is perfect for learning. However, just north of the town are some of New Zealand's surfing hotspots, including Ward Beach, Kekerengu, Clarence Point, Okiwi Bay, Mangamanu, Meatworks, Gooch's Beach and Kahutara.
Paddle your way round to Hope Springs
Kayaking tours of Kaikoura have been around for 20 years, offering a an amazing way to take in the surrounding landscapes and enjoy close encounters with marine life. But one of their more impressive attractions has only risen to the surface since the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake.
Whalers Bay is now home to a natural phenomenon called ‘Hope Springs’, where natural gases fizz and bubble to the surface - it’s quite remarkable. And Kaikoura Kayaks, who were the first company in the water after the quake, offer guided family tours there daily.
Coastal Pacific train - the best way to get to Kaikoura
Whether you’re travelling from to Kaikoura from Christchurch or Picton, the Coastal Pacific train is the perfect way to travel, with your holiday adventure starting the moment you climb aboard.
Large panoramic windows and an Open-air carriage allow you to soak up the scenery and spot marine wildlife while cruising along the stunning Pacific coast. At Ohau Point, just north of Kaikoura, the train comes incredibly close to a colony of seals that lounge upon the rocks next to the railway tracks.
Nearby, at Waipapa Bay the train rolls across the Papatea Fault line amidst some of the most dramatically affected areas of land following the Kaikoura earthquake. Whilst many of the scars are now hidden and landslides cleared, the long straight scarp of raised land you'll see from your window remains a stark reminder of the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake's destructive power.
While taking in the views, you can learn the stories of our land by using the onboard commentary system. There is also a licensed café on board, which means you can marvel at the scenery whilst enjoying a barista-made coffee and slice of cake - or something a bit more relaxing! And don’t worry, there are options for the kids too.