The magic of Kaikōura: Swimming with dolphins, stoic optimism and cheese scones


This story first appeared in SCOUT Travel magazine and is republished with permission.

As the late, great George Michael once said, “Turn a different corner and we never would have met,” which is exactly how Scout editor Sarah-Kate Lynch feels about Kaikōura.

The unturned corner in question is under the rail bridge on your left if you’re driving SH1 south from Picton, and for years I hurtled past it on my way to or from other places – until a pal visiting from England (remember when that happened?) came to stay and regaled me with stories from her Kaikōura stopover.

“And then the bus driver said, ‘Climb aboard, my little mermaids,’” she laughed. “Me and my 86-year-old cousin in wetsuits after swimming with the dolphins! Can you imagine?”

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Swimming with dolphins? Yes, I had imagined it. Many times. I just didn’t know you could do it in Kaikōura. But turn that corner off the highway and it’s a whole new world.

A precious gem of a coastal town.

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A precious gem of a coastal town.

First, there’s the compact main street, with its shops and cafés and council building shaped like a cray pot. Follow the road past the curving beach and stick with it for a few minutes as you pass a historic pink cottage, the remnants of old whaling stations and finally come to a carpark overlooking a seal colony at the tip of the Kaikōura peninsula. Yes, it’s a peninsula. I mean, who knew?

Maui, about to go fishing.

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Maui, about to go fishing.

Not me – until 2017, that is, when I made my first dedicated trip to this precious gem of a coastal town (population 2400) and discovered that Māori legend has Māui using the peninsula as a foothold to brace himself as he pulled the North Island out of the ocean. So without Kaikōura, Auckland could be just another suburb of Hobart. In which case, it’s a big old ngā mihi, Māui. Or kā mihi, as they say down here.

On that first trip, I quickly found myself doing my own unlikely mermaid impression, via the company Dolphin Encounter. And boy, did we encounter dolphins. Not one or two or a dozen, but hundreds. I’d been reluctant for aesthetic reasons to don a wetsuit, but I could not get into the water quickly enough to swim with these magnificent creatures. At one point, I looked down, making the recommended nonsense noises through my snorkel, and there were seven of them circling playfully in layers below me.

Naturally, I cried. Misty mask aside, who wouldn’t? It remains one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. And I went back last year and had it all over again. But 2020’s been a different beast so, worried about how this place was faring without all those international dollars (thank you Covid), back I went again.

Whale Watcher Lisa Bond.

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Whale Watcher Lisa Bond.

“Yes, we’ve taken a hit,” says Lisa Bond, who’s been with iconic local business Whale Watch for 25 years. “But people love this place, and we’re actually doing okay with domestic tourism.”

Yes, the Kiwis are coming. Well, we can’t go anywhere else, but even so, where else can you go where you can stand on an empty beach with waves lapping at your ankles and snow-capped mountains so close it feels like you could reach out and scoop the icing off the top of them with your finger?

Snow-capped mountains close by.

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Snow-capped mountains close by.

“That’s exactly what I was just saying to my wife,” said one young Wellington father of two, whom I met outside Bee Box café, where I’d just decided against buying a cheese scone because it was gluten-free and I’m not. It was this family’s first time in Kaikōura and he was amazed.

“I had no idea. I guess you have to come here to really appreciate it.”

Dan Stevenson of South Pacific Helicopters, which offers fixed-wing and helicopter fights for whale-watching and sightseeing, says the Kiwis are doing more than just opening their wallets. “Well, they get my weird jokes,” he says. “But also, if they can’t do something right now, they might come back and do it next time.”

View of the shoreline from above.

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View of the shoreline from above.

The optimism in this town seriously warms the cockles. Dan says the pandemic’s actually given him precious time to think about how to do things differently, and Lisa’s the same. She started as a guide at Whale Watch, then became a boat captain and is now marketing manager, but says, “Post-Covid, we’ve all had to wear many hats, go back to doing whatever. And I think we appreciate each other a lot more now.”

But enough standing around chatting with the locals (although that’s one of my favourite things to do) – it’s time to do some actual Whale Watch-ing. Kaikōura’s sperm whales are not migratory but permanent residents, and half an hour out of the marina, we spot Zeus, who gives us the pleasure of his company on the surface of the water, blowing his spray for a good 20 minutes before rewarding us with an elegant flick of his tail – and he’s gone.

Whale Watcher Jack Crichton.

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Whale Watcher Jack Crichton.

On the way back to shore, fur seals dive gracefully in and out of the water (porpoising, it’s called) – startling because they look like such lumps when they’re basking on land. And then there are those dolphins. Oh, and did I mention the albatross?

The reason for this embarrassment of riches is the Hikurangi Trench, which comes closer to shore than many of the world’s trenches and forms the Kaikōura Canyon, a year-round food source that fuels this natural wonderland.

Speaking of fuel sources, I could not get that cheese scone out of my head (don’t judge), so after our Zeus experience, I got Lisa to drive me back to Bee Box to buy one – only to find that they’d sold out. Lesson learned. If the corner George Michael wants you to turn is a gluten-free one, take it.

And you should also venture off SH1 to the glorious Hapuku Lodge. If you can’t stretch to staying in one of their amazing tree houses, you can always feast in front of the roaring fire in their restaurant. This is a very special spot. Oh, and get the crayfish.

Brett Cowan, cultural facilitator at the Kaikōura District Council.

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Brett Cowan, cultural facilitator at the Kaikōura District Council.

Kaikōura is famous for it, although none of the locals I asked really cared for it, including Brett Cowan, cultural facilitator at the Kaikōura District Council and a member of the local iwi. Brett’s mother was born in Kaikōura but he grew up in Christchurch and moved “home” in 2000. Now he’s bursting with pride for the area and its people.

“It’s a one-stop shop,” he says. “If you want a lonely beach to read a book on, you’re there. If you want a mountain bike, we’ve got them. You can go surfing and snowboarding in the same day, do something different every day for two weeks. I think we’ve got it all.”

Including resilience. If locals are stoic in the face of the pandemic, it’s because they survived the massive earthquake that hit in 2016.

“Two minutes.” Those who were there that night all say the same thing with the same look on their faces. Two minutes is a very long time for an earthquake.

The old Kaikōura winery.

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The old Kaikōura winery.

But when I ask one operator whose family home was destroyed if he had considered moving away afterwards, he looked at me as if I’d just shot his favourite horse. No way. He rebuilt the house, only stronger. “Next time, we’ll be ready for it.”

In fact, you’re more likely to meet people who’ve moved to Kaikōura since the earthquake. Rob Cullen runs The Old Kaikōura Winery restaurant on the cliffs above SH1 just south of the town, and it’s an absolute must. The view is sensational – that comes with the territory – but the food is next level. Stewart Island salmon with local kawakawa? Chocolate mousse with a chilli bite that blows your socks off in a good way?

Hapuka Lodge: a view to write home about.

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Hapuka Lodge: a view to write home about.

There’s a reason the standard’s as high as those snow-capped ranges up behind us. Rob spent years feeding the Jordanian royal family before bringing his wife and five children back here. There came a day, he says, when he looked around at all that flamboyance and thought: “‘This is not us.’ So, now we’re back to basics. This is reality! And if you want a safe place to bring up a family, it’s Kaikōura.”

Similarly, I bump into Johnny De Zen, an Australian doing the electrical work on the stunning rebuild of Kaikōura’s art deco cinema, the Mayfair. It was red-stickered the last two times I was here, but now he’s putting the finishing touches to this reborn community asset. His pride in the place is infectious and his delight obvious as he talks about swapping his stressful Sydney commute for life here.

“There’s something about Kaikōura that draws people in,” agrees Moira Howard, another import, who moved here many years ago after meeting her husband, local farmer Richard. I’m lucky enough to be staying in one of the uber-stylish, self-contained cottages they’ve built on the family property.

Glenburn. It has that magical Kaikōura combo: wake up looking at the Pacific, turn around and see the sun rising on the mountains. All that and you can cook, and do your own laundry.

I tell them about a woman I met on the beach earlier, who’d moved to Kaikōura from the UK two years ago. She lost her husband after just a year here, yet had no thoughts of leaving. “The ocean,” she explained. “And the ruggedness of it all. It’s an ever-changing world.”

Richard agrees. “I’ve lived here all my life, but sometimes I look out the window and go, ‘Wow – I’ve never seen that before.’”

Zali Thomas.

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Zali Thomas.

At Karaka Lobster, north of Kaikōura (spot the stunning cultural art installations along the way), I meet yet another Australian. Zali Thomas moved here with her partner, Ash Reader, at the beginning of the year. He catches the crays and she serves them from their shoreside café, which has stunning ocean views. They’re a brand new business, and once more that incredible optimism bursts through the Covid bubble.

“We don’t have anything to compare it with, but it’s the Kiwis who talk and spread the news, so we’ve been thinking maybe it’s a good thing we don’t have the foreign tourists, because they won’t come back – but the Kiwis tell their friends, who will,” says Zali. “And locals keep coming in to grab a coffee and say, ‘We want to keep you guys on your feet.’”

Straight from the sea.

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Straight from the sea.

On a bad day, Zali’s shifting 10 crays, and on a good day 30, but no matter how often – or not – the cash register rings, she reckons, “We’re just so lucky to have such a beautiful landscape.”

Love. Love. Love. If you’re thinking about turning a different corner, please, turn this one.

See Sarah-Kate’s Kaikōura Scout guide here.



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