Have a whale of a time in Kaikōura

Editor Sebastian van der Zwan gives this winter escape his seal of approval
A person ziplining over the town of Kaikōura

Sandwiched between the sea and snowy peaks, most tourists come to this scenic South Island town for whale watching, but the high point of my visit was soaring through the sky on an adrenaline-pumping adventure with EcoZip Kaikōura.

The 3.5-hour journey started with a thorough safety briefing from the friendly guides, who equipped us with harnesses and helmets, then our group of thrill-seekers clambered into a grunty Unimog that crossed streams and climbed bush-clad hills to take us high above the lush farmland of Rakanui Station.

A short stroll through native forest took us to a clearing with spectacular views over the Kaikōura Ranges and Pacific Ocean, where we were clipped onto the first of the five dual ziplines that saw us racing side by side back down to sea level.

From 250m to 610m, each line has a different length (adding up to a grand total of 2.2km), as well as varying heights and speeds, with incredible vistas throughout. And with each one, as we got used to the elevation and velocity, our daring increased, until by our final ride, we were all spinning around hands-free!

Despite the excitement and my mild fear of heights, I felt very calm as I took the final bushwalk back to the Unimog – must’ve been all the fresh air and stunning scenery!

Editor Sebastian wearing a ziplining helmet
You’ll love the view from the top.

Kai to die for

At Hapuku Kitchen, 2011 MasterChef NZ finalist Fiona Read and her husband Chris run cooking classes that get rave reviews. But if you can, try to book a seat at their semi-regular Supper Club events. Chefs prepare all the fabulous food for you at these events.

I joined a large table of charming locals for a delectable dinner that tasted even better than it sounds: For starters, roast heritage tomato soup with pecorino, ricotta and black garlic, followed by a main of pan-fried gurnard in curry sauce with potato, cumin and green chilli. Then for dessert, rhubarb and apple crumble with dark chocolate, mascarpone, mandarin and rosemary.

This was all washed down with a variety of sparkling wines from local vineyard Esses Estate, which sits in a unique micro-climate perfectly suited for méthode traditionnelle. Of course, chefs change the menu based on what’s in season, but they always serve something locally caught or grown. And also something that you’ll drool over the thought of it for years to come!

MasterChef star Fiona serving food across the table
Fiona dishes up a MasterChef experience at Hapuku Kitchen.

A little luxury

Located right by the beach, sophisticated Sudima Kaikōura is a brand-new 4.5-star hotel. It’s just a short walk to the centre of town and all the attractions – not that I wanted to leave my ocean-view balcony room!

Even if you’re not staying here, I recommend checking out in-house restaurant Hiku, which champions local kaimoana and fresh produce. Their crayfish omelette with guacamole is one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. To book, visit

Meet the locals

No trip to Kaikōura is complete without visiting the local wildlife, but having seen the whales before, I instead booked a brilliant birdwatching trip with Albatross Encounter. Our intimate group of animal lovers sailed 15 minutes off the coast on a specially designed boat, from which our avian expert Gary dispensed fishing offcuts to a dozen different species of seabird, including petrels, shearwaters, terns, gulls and gannets.

Two images side by side. One of two fur seals on a rock and the other of two albatrosses in the water
Getting up close and personal with the wildlife – fur seals and albatrosses are a must-see.

But the stars of the show were, of course, the albatrosses – giant, gooselike birds that are as graceful in the air as they are clumsy amid the waves. We got very close to three wandering albatrosses, which have the largest wingspan of all the birds in the world, as well as two royal albatrosses and half a dozen white-capped mollymawks, which look like they’re wearing very dramatic eyeliner.

And as if that wasn’t enough, once we’d had our fill of birds, Gary took us on a tiki tour around the coast, where we encountered several pods of leaping dusky dolphins and a colony of fur seals, including lots of super-cute pups. We had a whale of a time without even seeing one!

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