Family fun in Kaikoura
There’s a place on the East Coast of our 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. We’re talking, of course, about 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 else. Kaikoura whale watching is famous the world over. And it’s no surprise, given it’s one of the few places where Sperm Whales can be seen all year round. Plus, it’s not uncommon to see Humpbacks, Southern Rights and Orca popping up to say hello, meaning a 95% chance of sightings. And there really is nothing more majestic than seeing these incredible mammals up close and personal. It’s once-in-a-lifetime stuff!
Tours depart three times throughout the day (early morning, mid-morning and lunchtime) and you’ll need to set aside 3.5 hours in total. If you’re travelling up from Christchurch for the day on the Coastal Pacific, you’ll arrive in time for the lunchtime tour. As you can imagine, they’re extremely popular. So, we strongly recommend booking ahead, especially in the summer months. Book your tour today with Whale Watch Kaikoura.
Rather see these marine leviathans from above? You’re in luck. South Pacific Whales offers Helicopter tours, where you can spot the whales from up high whilst taking in the breath taking 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. Either way, you and the kids will come away in awe!
Swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura
While there’s every chance of spotting a dolphin or two hundred out on a whale watching tour, everyone is required to stay very much on board (for obvious reasons). However, if getting into the water and swimming with dolphins is on your bucket list, 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. And with pods ranging between 100 and 1,000, you can look forward to an action-packed session watching these "aquabatic" dolphins twisting, turning and flipping out of the water around you. 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
You don’t have to pop on a wetsuit to get up close and personal with Kaikoura’s spectacular wildlife - it’s the Albatross capital of New Zealand! 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!
Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway and Seal Colony
Lining the rugged Kaikoura Coastline is the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. If you fancy getting close to seals in their natural environment, it’s an absolute must. 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.
If the sight of seals basking in the sun isn’t reward enough, the stunning clifftop views might be. And, to save you being caught out by the inevitable flurry of "why this" and "why's that" from the little ones, there are information panels dotted along the journey with interesting facts and stats on the geology, animals, plants and people, that make the area so special. If you do go wandering out this way, it’s worth reminding the kids (and over-eager adults) that the Seal Colony is better seen from afar, as seals get feisty when disturbed!
If you’re a real seal lover and want to get closer, the team at 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 on offer in Kaikoura.
The Point Sheep Shearing Show
If you’re after an activity the whole family can enjoy, head along to The Point Sheep Shearing Farm. 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’s heaps to keep everyone entertained. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to meet ‘Ram-Man’, the farm’s resident Drysdale Ram who’s become famous down these ways. He loves to eat out of palm of your hand…so get the kids involved!
It’s all well and good planning to get out on the water and see the whales, but sometimes the weather just doesn’t play ball. If that’s the case, the award-winning Kaikoura Museum is an excellent plan B. To be fair, it’s a good plan A too, with heaps to keep both adults and young’uns busy. Take a walk through the history of Kaikoura and discover how marine life shaped its culture and people, while the kids 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 easy on the wallet and great entertainment.
Take a stroll along Kaikoura beach
Wherever you are in New Zealand, a stroll along the local beach is never going to be a bad bet. That rings especially true for Kaikoura, which is widely regarded as one of the best surf beaches in the country. It’s 5km long and stretches right across the main township, making it the perfect setting for a coffee or ice cream and a stroll at sunset.
If you’re here over summer (or are really brave in the winter) and fancy a dip, the southern end of the beach offers beautiful sand, calmer waters and less rocks. If you’ve always fancied learning to surf, this is one of the better places to learn. Dave from Board Silly is a qualified surfing instructor and knows the area’s best surfing spots like the back of his hand. So for a fun half-day activity for anyone 12 and over, give Dave a call - he’ll even pick you up!
Paddle your way round to Hope Springs
Kayaking tours of Kaikoura have been around for 20 years, offering a unique and 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, take guided family tours there daily.
Coastal Pacific train - the best way to get to Kaikoura
Whether you’re travelling from Christchurch to Kaikoura or down from Picton, riding the Coastal Pacific train means the adventure starts the moment you board the train. Large panoramic windows and an open-air viewing carriage allow you to soak up the scenery and spot marine wildlife while the train travels along the beautiful Pacific coastline of New Zealand's South Island. There’s 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’s options for the kids too. Plus, we’ve fitted the arm of every chair with an audio commentary system, so the family can listen to stories and learn about the places outside your window as you glide by.
It’s an experience in itself – so book your tickets today and climb aboard this legendary train!