Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours of the best things to do in Kaikoura! Americans like me don’t always learn very much about our own history in schools. But the history of New Zealand? Fuggedaboutit! Before I took the 20+ hour flights to this rugged island nation, all I knew about it were two things. One: The Lord of the Rings was filmed here. Two: there are more sheep than people.
I certainly had never heard of the coastal town of Kaikoura on the South Island. In fact, the only thing I had heard of on the South Island of New Zealand is bungy jumping in Queenstown. But in my 24 hours of the best things to do in Kaikoura. I managed to see and eat more aquatic life than you can shake a sheep at. Join me, and I promise we’ll put the kai back in Kaikoura!
Best Things to Do in Kaikoura
What to Pack and Where to Stay
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do today. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
New Zealand is hot in the summer, so don’t forget the sunscreen. My favorite is the Neutrogena spray bottle because it’s so easy to apply. And as a solo traveler, I can actually use it myself on my own back. I just put it in my purse and re-apply throughout the day.
Finally, if you’re not from Australia, New Zealand, or the UK, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. NZ electrical outlets don’t work with American or non-UK European plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
And if you’re looking for great deals on hotels where you can stay while finding the best things to do in Kaikoura, click here! There’s some great options to choose from, so I’m sure you’ll find something in your budget.
24 Hours: Best Things to do in Kaikoura
Morning: Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway
As I’ve said approximately a bajillion times on this blog, I do not know how to drive. Most of the time it’s not a problem because I love cities, and I love walking. But New Zealand is famous for its stunning natural vistas! How could I even get to see them without a car? That’s why I was glad that I spent my 24 hours finding the best things to do in Kaikoura as part of a 12 day tour with Intrepid Travel. With the help of our trusty local guide, whom I shall call Russell, and his even trustier minivan, we were able to reach the Kaikoura Peninsula and spend all morning on a beautiful stroll there.
Most of the people in the group were expert “trampers”, as they say in New Zealand. So even though I love a good hike myself, I often felt like a feeble baby just learning to walk. But don’t worry too much about your fitness level. The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is pretty smooth and easy tramping. It shouldn’t be too hard to walk at least part of the way and discover…
three fun facts: kaikoura peninsula
1) What’s With the Rocks?
Kaikoura Peninsula is made of two kinds of rocks: limestone and siltstone. If I were in charge of promoting Kaikoura, I would just tell everyone that the whole thing was made of limestone because it sounds a lot nicer than siltstone. But no one asked me! It actually used to be an island, but it got connected to the rest of the South Island of New Zealand through the sssssllllloooowwww movement of the mountain rocks shifting.
That’s so boring! I’ve decided that the island got attached to the mainland when Moana stood on the South Island and sang “How Far I’ll Go” so beautifully that the island wanted to be closer to her. Animated movies are way more interesting than geology textbooks.
But even if geological facts are boring, the rock formations aren’t. Wander around and take as many snaps as you can! After all this is why you took that 6 hour flight to Los Angeles and then a 14 hour flight to Auckland and then a one hour flight to Christchurch! To see the natural beauty of New Zealand!
2) What’s With the Birds?
Kaikoura is one of the most famous bird watching areas in all of New Zealand. And if you haven’t figured it out by now, Kiwis are passionate about preserving all of their precious natural resources, so there are bird sanctuaries a-plenty. I almost had to surrender my boots at New Zealand Customs because they were worried they might have American seeds or animal hairs on them. Fortunately the Customs Officer let them in because I promised him I had only worn them on the nature-free pavements of New York City.
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is most well-known for being home to the rare Hutton’s shearwater colony of birds. We didn’t have quite enough time in our 24 hours in Kaikoura to get to them, sadly. However, we did see a dead sheep from a distance. In fact, we wasted about 20 minutes trying to figure out if the sheep was having a nap or just dead. (It was very dead.) So I think that’s almost as exciting as taking beautiful photos of rare birds.
PS. The dead sheep is hidden somewhere in this photo above.
3) What’s With the Seals?
The most exciting part of this coastal walk is getting to see the seal colony. I had never been this close to a seal before! Russell warned us that we should never stand between the seal and the water because it’s dangerous to get between an animal and its food source. I was worried this meant the seal would eat me instead, but Russell said it would just push me over and maybe hurt me. I’d like to believe him, but it would be just my luck to find New Zealand’s only man-eating seal.
Enjoy your stroll among the seals, but remember these two pro tips! First: do not step on any seals. They will not enjoy it. Second, do not take anything with you, even a pretty shell. New Zealand laws are very strict about taking shellfish away from a nature preserve, and you could face an enormous fine. And I don’t even understand the New Zealand dollar to American dollar exchange rate, so they could basically take anything they wanted from me.
If you can, don’t forget to take a selfie with a seal in it. I call this a “sealfie”. It’s going to be a thing!
24 Hours: Best Things to do in Kaikoura
Afternoon: Shopping in Kaikoura
So the original plan for the second half of our best things to do in Kaikoura itinerary was to go whale watching. Kaikoura is famous for its whale viewing experiences. But sadly the whale watching trip was canceled because of rough waters. Apparently this happens fairly frequently in Kaikoura, so if you’re deeply invested in watching whales, you should spent at least a couple of nights there so you don’t miss out. But fortunately, there’s other things to do in Kaikoura instead of freeing Willy. Let me introduce you to…
approximately top 5: 24 hours in kaikoura edition
1) Southern Paua
I frequently mention my crippling addiction on this blog. I’m not hooked on speed or pills. For me, my drug of choice is earrings. They make such a great souvenir because they take up no space and I actually use them! I get a different pair in every city that I visit. So I couldn’t be in New Zealand and not purchase some paua shell earrings. Paua are a type of abalone native to New Zealand. That multi-colored iridescence you see in the earrings above is natural, so it’s no wonder that paua shells are so popular for jewelry making. Paua to the people, as my grandmother always says!
The Southern Paua store in Kaikoura had an excellent selection, so I chose these butterflies. Now I’ll feel like I can fly back to New Zealand any time I put them on.
2) Ocean Art Kaikoura
If you’re looking to purchase some local art, and I always am, head over to Ocean Art Kaikoura. They exclusively sell arts and crafts from area peeps. Many of their paintings are by Jane Riley. She grew up on the South Island, and many of her works showcase its stunning landscapes. But my favorite pieces of hers were these seascapes which actually use local shells and stones to bring New Zealand’s beaches to life.
Wait, I just now realized that it’s illegal to take shells away from New Zealand if you are a foreign national. I just hope I haven’t committed a terrible crime. Don’t come for me, New Zealand Customs Officials. (PS. If there isn’t a Netflix show about the life and times of the hard-working men and women of New Zealand Customs, there really should be.)
3) Manuka Honey Skincare
If there is only one word you remember when it comes to New Zealand souvenirs, let it be the two words: Manuka honey. Manuka honey can only be made by bees who have had their way with the Manuka tree. That’s why you can only find this stuff in New Zealand and Australia. (And also why it’s psychotically expensive.)
But my favorite way to consume Manuka is in the form of skincare. They say it has healing properties, and I’ve decided to stay 29 forever, so I need enough of the stuff so that it will basically mummify me. This Manuka honey lip balm has SPF, so it will come in handy if you arrive in New Zealand during their summer, but the North American winter, and forget you’ll need sunscreen. (This definitely did not happen to me.)
4) Blossom Boutique
My favorite thing to buy when I travel, aside from earrings and jams made from exotic fruits, are adorable tchotchkes with which I can decorate my apartment. My goal in life is to make my apartment look like Carmen Sandiego lives there, and the place is full of the treasures she stole from around the world. Blossom Boutique is a terrific store to peruse for the last word in Cute New Zealand Things.
I selected this diminutive kiwi bird made out of local plants that someone shellacked. (Once again, I have accidentally taken wildlife out of New Zealand! New Zealand Customs will have my head for sure!) The kiwi, of course, is one of the national symbols of New Zealand. People even call New Zealanders Kiwis for short. We kept asking Russell, our guide, if it was offensive to call New Zealanders Kiwis. He said not at all, but I’m not sure I can trust him.
5) Beer at The Whaler
Of course Kaikoura would have a pub called The Whaler. After all, the whaling industry was central to the development of the town. In recent years, New Zealand has become famous for its wines. However, its beers are just as noteworthy. The Whaler serves beer from Monteith’s Brewing Company, which is a New Zealand brewery on the West Coast of New Zealand. I chose the Beacon Pilsner, which was very drinkable and perfect for a New Zealand summer day.
I think I may have had a little too much Pilsner, though, because I thought a spider tried to attack me as I left the bar. Maybe they make the beers stronger in New Zealand?
6) Marine Themed Street Art
If you have some time after the shops close, go on a stroll of the Whale Murals of Kaikoura. Here’s one whale mural.
And here’s another whale mural.
I think this cafe is having a serious problem, though.
24 Hours: Best Things to do in Kaikoura
Evening: Dinner at the Lobster Inn Tavern
The name Kaikoura actually means “eat crayfish” in the Maori language. So everyone on the tour wanted to live up to the name and chow down on some local shellfish. Unfortunately every restaurant in town was…out of crayfish. This never happens in New York City. The only things we are ever out of are time and patience. But fortunately the Lobster Inn Tavern still had plenty of other kinds of local seafood, as well as…
24 Hour Treat: Green Mussels
There’s no dye used in the making of these beauties. The New Zealand mussels naturally come with big lips. They are so big and juicy, I felt like I was biting into a New Zealand sheep, not a kernel of shellfish. Because the mussels naturally have a sweet flavor, they were well-accompanied by the pungent chili-lime sauce, and the even more pungent garlic bread. I know green seafood sounds like the stuff of a child’s nightmares, but please don’t leave New Zealand without sampling these delicious treats.
The lobster inn’s other specialty is their seafood chowder made with mussels, shrimp, and monkfish. As you can see from my photo, the soup is really rich, and I might have preferred a less gloopy texture. But the fresh seafood made up for any slight glops or gloops.
That’s the Best Things to do in Kaikoura!
What do you think are the best things to do in Kaikoura? Do green mussels freak you out? And should I be more scared of man-eating seals or hallucinating spiders? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours with the best things to do in Kaikoura. If you want to add 24 hours of the best things to do in Nelson, try this itinerary. And if you want to add a day trip to Abel Tasman National Park, click here.