Magnificent Kaikoura. Yes, it’s open!

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“Yes, we’re open.” We’re so used to seeing these words everywhere in our daily life that they might sound insignificant. But seeing them on the official Kaikoura website is a really big deal!

This scenic seaside town in northern Canterbury was isolated for one year, one month and one day. A devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake on Monday 14 November 2016  left Kaikoura with ruined houses, no electricity, no running water, a crumbling shoreline and demolished roads. State Highway 1 was literally in shreds – many bridges had collapsed, 8m high sheer drops appeared from nowhere and huge slips blocked the remains of the road.

Undaunted, the locals never gave up and worked day and night to reopen Kaikoura and bring the tourists back to this enchanting corner of New Zealand. It took 1,600 enthusiasts and an incredible amount of faith and support to get the job done. Nature, once destructive, was now on their side. Even the colony of seals – shaken from their favourite spot – returned and in larger numbers. State Highway 1 from Picton was finally re-opened last year on 15 December.

The arrival of family from Russia provided my husband and me with the perfect excuse to don our travel guide hats and explore the South Island. We couldn’t wait to visit Kaikoura.

The warmest welcome

Our first morning we awoke in a comfy bed at Wacky Stays – a collection of glamping rental properties overlooking the Kaikoura Ranges that include accommodation in yurts, wagons, tipis, trucks and a train carriage. We chose the spacious colonial wagon which, on the outside, reminded us of a medieval circus trailer, but inside it’s an ultramodern room equipped with a shower, air conditioning, TV, heated blankets and a microwave. Seriously, even our obscenely expensive honeymoon hotel in Verona wasn’t this cool!

The gorgeous sunny morning makes me smile: we did it! We’re in Kaikoura!

There’s no better way to kick-start the day than by feeding the local animals. Wacky Stays is not only known for its unique accommodation but is also home to over 40 llamas, alpacas, pigs, donkeys, ponies, sheep, rabbits and peacocks.

Wildlife kingdom

It’s time to soak up some remarkable Kaikoura landscapes so we drive to Kean Point carpark. Located 4.5km from town, this carpark is a starting point for the famous Kaikoura Peninsula walkway and the closest you can get to seals. And by ‘closest’ I mean they will literally steal your parking spot, should you arrive a bit late.

These brave carpark scouts are mostly males and can turn aggressive if disturbed so we don’t linger too long and start walking further up a rocky shore in the hope of spotting some friendlier females.

On cue, one of them jumps out of the water right in front of us and starts chasing us with a loud noise – judging from the number of smartphones filming our accelerated escape, we’ll definitely become YouTube stars soon!

The Kaikoura Peninsula loop is 11.7km – sounds exhausting, but I can really recommend it as the views from the cliff are so worth it! The first lookout platform is only 5 minutes away from the carpark but persevere … you’re about to enter my favourite part of the walkway. A flat footpath snakes along the edge of the rugged cliffs, passes Whalers Bay – home to the largest red-billed gull colony in South Island – and goes further to South Bay viewpoint where you can observe endemic Hutton’s shearwater (an ocean-going seabird) relaxing in the distance.

This scenic hike is also the best way to learn more about the history and legends of the area. Generously sprinkled with interpretation panels, signs and information boards, you learn about how Maui used the Peninsula as a foothold to brace himself while ʿfishingʾ the North Island; when Tama ki te Raki stopped here for a meal of crayfish during his journey in pursuit of his three wives – an event that gave Kaikoura its name (“eat crayfish”); and when Māori hunted moa here 800 years ago.

Eat crayfish

You can’t visit Kaikoura and skip a meal of koura so, as our stomachs begin to rumble, we find a seat at The Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Exceptional barbequing skills, reasonable prices and a beautiful location scored this tiny food truck its fame that extends far beyond the town borders. Not surprisingly there is always a line of hungry people in front of it!

We order a giant seafood platter for two that includes whitebait and crayfish patties, prawns, mussels, scallops and the fish of the day for $53. The platter comes with salad and rice – my vegan expectations are satisfied!

Idyllic landscape

A South Island trip wouldn’t be complete without a photo in a lavender field. December-February is the perfect time to spot these beautiful purple flowers, and Lavendyl Lavendar Farm, which grows over fifty varieties of lavender, is where we head to next.

Lavendyl owner Mara – who hosts the farm with her two sons – warmly greets us in an eclectic gift shop, full of fragrant creams, oils, candles, towels and honey. As well as looking after the gardens, they also host weddings, serve high teas and even provide accommodation. In the high season guests can also enjoy watching distillation process demonstrations.

Before strolling through the tranquil gardens, we enjoy a cup of lavender tea with fresh scones, all served in the most aristocratic porcelain ever. We decide that homemade lavender ice-cream is a must as well!

Clue to the past

Our last stop in Kaikoura is Fyffe House. Standing pretty in bright pink, a visit to this house is not to be missed. Currently an informative museum, it was formerly the Fyffe family home, from 1842 when a whaling station was established by Robert Fyfe (not a typo! The second ‘f’ only appeared when his cousin George took over in 1854).

We pay $10 per person for a tour and follow our guide outside the house. Here we learn that whalebones form the building’s foundations, which was probably why it was one of the few buildings to survive the 2016 earthquake.

Our guide shows us a tiny whole in the wall where a bone peeks through. Although it sounds awful today, hunting whales for profit was one of the trades that turned Kaikoura into a wealthy, prosperous region.

Walking through the tiny attic rooms with basic furniture, I’m touched by the museum’s personal approach to history. I read the signs and the past comes alive – we learn what culinary delights the Fyffes enjoyed and that they loved to gather around the kitchen table for a chat – granny was evidently a bit grouchy, but charming. On display, we find collected artefacts, a favoured robe and a giant moa egg.

A visit to Fyffe House is a must-do experience when visiting Kaikoura and shows just how harsh the living conditions were long ago.

We so enjoyed our time in Kaikoura. It’s a destination for all seasons and provides plenty to see and do – whether that’s sightseeing, walking, fishing, kayaking or boating. Give yourself at least two days, preferably more.