Kaikōura is a truly magic place. Located on the upper east coast of the South Island, it’s about a 90-minute drive south from Blenheim or 2.5 hours north from Christchurch. It is a colourful texture-laden drive from either direction and will have you stopping to take in the views, smell the sweet, fresh salty sea air or gaze at the wildlife.
Kaikōura translates in te reo to a ‘meal of crayfish’ and yes, you can buy and gorge yourself on them while there. Historically, fishing was the main industry in the region with whaling in particular, beginning in 1843, one of the key reasons the region was established and grew quickly during that time. It’s worth a visit to the local museum to connect you to the sea and to learn more about the history of the area. The museum also has a startling and detailed exhibition outlining the most recent and devastating earthquake; there are some heartbreaking images and facts to absorb.
It has taken a few years for Kaikōura to recover, but the locals and businesses are ready to see you. Some of the key attractions are on the ocean and include whale, dolphin, orca and seal watching. You’ll need your sea legs for most of the boat trips – you’re into open ocean to watch these majestic animals.
If you’re not so good on boats, a flight around the region is a great alternative. I did this with the Air Kaikōura Aero Club – what a fantastic treat it was to see whales from 150 feet above sea level! Kaikōura has been grandfathered into the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary with the passing of the Marine Mammals Protection Act (1978).
Today, Kaikōura boasts a modern township with some great shopping and dining opportunities. Finding a decent coffee in the morning is something that must be mentioned with around 10 good options to choose from: Sime’s Kitchen is at the top of the list.
Wherever you stay locally, it will take about 10 minutes to get to most places you want to visit so accommodation options are numerous. For example, Fyffe Country Lodge is a rather lovely, quiet place to stay, and your hosts Chris Rye and Colin Ashworth are delightful. Many of the motels and hotels are along the waterfront dotted along Beach Road, each with a great view of the harbour and mountains beyond.
Beach Road is also where you’ll find local brewery Emporium Brewing. Owners Laura and Paul moved up from Christchurch in 2016 to start their brewery. It just so happens there’s a mini-golf course on site as well, so all the family can dine, adults can taste beer and all can play a round. Belgian styles, barrel-aged stouts, sours and a decent refreshing lager are what they do best.
Some of the hops used in the brews are grown locally at the Esses vineyard, owned and operated by Melinda and Aaron Skinner. Here, they mainly produce bottle-fermented sparkling wine with some aged releases.
The vineyard is small, only 1.5 hectares, so the wine production is equally in small quantities, but very good. Fortunately, you can try some aged releases at local restaurants or buy online. My favourite is the 2015 Coeur de Cuvée, a 100 per cent chardonnay Méthode Traditionnelle aged for 45 months on lees prior to disgorgement: flavours of apple and white peach, a delicious fine autolysis and plush, refreshing mousse.
Of all the local fresh seafood available, the best one to pair with a local sparkling is crayfish. Nins Bin is an institution, not only as a lunch stop for some of the freshest fish and chips in NZ, but it also has whole crayfish and seafood for sale.
It’s hard to miss the large lobster sculpture atop the Karaka Lobster Café as you drive southward into the region, another place for excellent crustaceans.
Crayfish isn’t just delicious whole or with sauce mornay; ask a local anywhere in Kaikōura how to learn the best ways to prepare crayfish and they’ll direct you to the Hapuku Kitchen, where proprietors Fiona Read and Chris Sturgeon can teach you myriad ways to enjoy the delicacy. It may be a cray you caught earlier or you can learn to embellish its flavours with Chris and Fiona’s programme of foraging, harvesting and cooking. Their one day or half-day programme can fit easily into your visit.
There’s just one spirit distiller in Kaikōura and you’ll need an appointment to visit, but it’s worth it. Mt Fyffe Distillery on McInnes Road is also a working farm, so if you’re fond of sheep, there are plenty to get up close to.
Distiller Justine Schroeder hand harvests all the major botanicals for her spirits from her farm and surrounding areas. Kānuka, elderflower, blue borage flowers and rosehips are major contributors to the aromatics in the gins. Only producing a few bottles at a time, this is true bespoke gin at its best. Of the two gins made – the Woolshed and Shearwater – the latter is my favourite and recommendation.