Whale Watch Kaikoura. Sperm whales browse closer to shore at Kaikoura than anywhere else in the world. Humpbacks, pilot whales, and orca pass by on annual migrations. See these marine giants as they dive and breach with comparative ease on specialist whale-watching cruises operated by Ngai Tahu, the predominant South Island iwi (tribe). Having cruised these waters since 1987, Whale Watch skippers can recognize individual whales and adjust operations, such as the boat's proximity to the whale, accordingly. Allow 3½ hours for the whole experience, 2¼ hours on the water (you need to check in at the Whaleway Station at the end of Whaleway Road and you will be transported to your boat). Dolphins, seals, and other species of whales may also be seen on any day.
Book in advance: 7 to 10 days during the peak season, November–April, 3 to 4 days at other times. The whale-watching boats are sturdy catamarans and fully enclosed for sea travel, but once the whales are spotted you can go out on the deck for a closer view. Trips depend on the weather, and should your tour miss seeing a whale, which is rare, you will get an 80% refund. No children under three. Take motion-sickness pills if you suspect you'll need them: even in calm weather the sea around Kaikoura often has a sizable swell. Trips are subject to cancellation if the weather is bad. Whaleway Station Rd., Kaikoura, Canterbury, 7300. 03/319–6767; 0800/655–121; www.whalewatch.co.nz. NZ$145. Credit cards accepted. Nov.–Mar., daily at 7:15, 10, 12:45, and 3:30.
Wings over Whales. To get above the action, take a half-hour whale-viewing flight. From a small, fixed-wing aircraft you get a bird's-eye view of the giant sperm whales, and others that pass by. The planes will drop to 450 feet to view the whales while the pilots give an informative commentary. The stunningly scenic coastal flight is a bonus, and, of course, you won't get seasick. Wings over Whales claims a 95% success rate in spotting whales, and the planes can often fly when it's too rough for the boats to go out. Kaikoura Airfield, State Hwy. 1, Kaikoura, Canterbury, 7374. 03/319–6580; 0800/226–629; www.whales.co.nz. NZ$180; shuttle to airfield NZ$10. Credit cards accepted.
The Store at Kekerengu. This big, indoor/outdoor café/restaurant overlooking a rolling surf beach on State Highway 1 makes one of the best road stops in the area, well, in the country really. You'll find it halfway between Kaikoura and Blenheim. It's a beautiful, wild ocean-side spot with the Kaikoura Mountains towering in the background. There's a large outdoor deck and huge log fire inside. You can choose lunch from a selection of prepared dishes or order from the menu; try The Store's classic seafood chowder or a Thai beef salad with a glass of local wine, or something sweet with a coffee. 5748 State Hwy. 1, Kekerengu, Canterbury, 7371. 03/575–8600; www.thestore.kiwi. Credit cards accepted. No dinner. Reservations essential.