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‘Call this a highway?’ It’s a fair question throughout New Zealand, particularly on those winding roads where your top speed reaches 60 kilometres per hour, or on those remote rural stretches where you way is blocked by a herd of sheep. It calls to mind the saying, ‘It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.’
State Highway 1 between Picton and Christchurch is one of New Zealand’s signature scenic drives, taking in rural plains, rolling hills and dramatic shoreline as it skirts along the east coast of the upper South Island. Around the midway point is Kaikoura (population 3621), sitting proudly on a peninsula backed by the snow-capped peaks of the Seaward Kaikoura Range. If you’ve got the time to stop on your way from A to B, you’ll likely find Kaikoura very rewarding.
Early Maori certainly did, establishing many pa (villages) in the area, from where they harvested food from land and sea. The name Kaikoura attests to this history – kai meaning food, koura crayfish – and history further records that an early chief, Te Rakiwhakaputa, lived at South Bay ‘because he was very fond of shark and it was an excellent fishing place for them.’
It was larger prey that attracted the Europeans, and between the 1840s and 1920s the town was a substantial whaling station. As elsewhere, stocks dwindled and the industry shut up shop, the town turning to agriculture and fishing for its daily bread. By the late 1980s, the whale hunt was on again, but this time for observation and conservation.
Here at Kaikoura the continental shelf plunges to 900 metres deep just a little way off shore. Add in strong oceanic currents and you have perfect conditions for the resident Sperm whales, as well as the migratory Humpback, Pilot, Blue and Southern Right. Dolphins and seals dig this place, too. Throw in a weight of albatrosses and flocks of other seabirds, and you’ve got the remarkable menagerie that attracts wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world.
As you’d expect, whale-watching and marine tours abound, but there are loads of worthy onshore attractions that have sprung up in their wake. There’s horse-trekking, quad-biking, white-water rafting on the mighty Clarence, 4WD tours, skydiving and a rather charming sheep-shearing show amongst other things. There are also plenty of things to do for free, the highlight of which has to be the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway (three to four hour loop – although you can get good views on short walks at either end). And on a good day, eager walkers can bag the peak of Mt Fyffe (8 hours return), from which is it possible to see all the way from the North Island to Banks Peninsula, south of Christchurch.
Kaikoura’s not short on places to eat and drink. Our pick is a sundowner at the historic Pier Hotel with its panoramic view, followed by dinner at Hislop’s Café. If you’re looking to try crayfish, the famous local delicacy, head down to the Kaikoura Seafood BBQ, or better still: get yourself out on a fishing trip!
Between tours galore and some irresistible hospitality, the bill for your Kaikoura stay is in danger of reaching leviathan proportions. Our solution to this is to stay in one of three excellent holiday parks. All have built accommodation as well as campsites, all offer a different atmosphere, and all are good value for money.
The award-winning Kaikoura Top 10 Holiday Park is the biggest of the bunch and has all the bells and whistles. It’s right on the main road, but a large hedgerow shields it from the outside world and most of the traffic noise. There are plenty of well laid-out sites for campervans and tents, with built accommodation ranging from cabins through to motel units and a beachfront villa. The heated swimming pool and spas are bonus luxuries, and the children will no doubt enjoy the go-karts and giant inflatable-pillow. If the weather turns to custard, you can always park them up in the movie and games rooms.
Just a little further from the centre of town – but still only 5 minutes’ walk – Alpine Pacific Holiday Park is smaller and more peaceful than the Top 10, and has the bonus of pastoral and alpine views. The grounds are grassy and proudly kept and the facilities spotless. The resort-style spa and pool is great for getting into the holiday mood, and barbecue area should help things along too. If you’re not in a van or under canvas, you’ll find rooms for every budget. Stylish cabins will please the bargain hunters, while motel units will comfortably accommodate large families keen on self-catering or searching for a space to spread out.
If you’re looking for a beachfront option and you don’t mind a short drive to town, you’ll be sorted at Kaikoura Peketa Beach Holiday Park. It’s a spacious site set on 30 acres, seven kilometres south of Kaikoura. Digby and crew have done a great job of developing this pleasant environment for tents, caravans and campervans, as well as cabin-dwellers. There are hard-tops for the tourers and many camping sites with sea views – there are epic sunrises for the early risers. Those at the back plots don’t miss out either, enjoying a grand outlook towards the Kaikoura ranges. This is a relaxed camp and all the better for it. It’s got an in-store shop stocked with essentials, and there’s fishing rod hire so you can catch your own dinner. Mini golf offers a wee treat for the littluns.
Having grown up in Blenheim only 130 kilometres to the north, I can personally attest to the incredible transformation of this town. In our last few visits we’ve seen it through fresh eyes, and Lee and I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of its charms. In years gone by, we would have driven right through, but now Kaikoura has become an essential destination on our journey.
Alpine-Pacific Holiday Park & Park Motels
www.alpine-pacific.co.nz; 0800 692 322, 03-319 6275
Kaikoura Beach Peketa Beach Holiday Park
www.kaikourapeketabeach.co.nz; 03-319 6299
Kaikoura Top 10 Holiday Park
www.kaikouratop10.co.nz; 0800 363 638, 03-319 5362
Kaikoura Information and Tourism Inc.