The perfect break
A whirlwind trip to Kaikoura ticks all the right boxes for Andrew Simmons.
My partner and I are nearing the end of our South Island adventure. In T-Minus three days, four hours and 24 minutes we will be back at Christchurch Airport boarding the big jet home. All our senses have been spoilt and are now fit to burst.
We want to finish our trip with a bang but where to go? After all the South Island has so much to offer and the more time we spend here, the more our expectations rise.
It needs to as be jaw dropping as Fiordland, boast the plethora of wildlife of the Catlins and within a days drive from Queenstown, Oh, and by the sea. Is that too much to ask? Probably, but we figure our best shot is Kaikoura.
We had heard a lot about this place “where the mountains meet the sea” and people we had met had boasted about their whale encounters just a few miles offshore, but for some reason, I was sceptical.
We decide to set off early so we can take advantage of the increasing daylight hours. The drive through Mackenzie Country is breathtaking and the miles fly by. The view of Mount Cook over the turquoise water of Lake Pukaki was a real highlight.
After a quick stop in Christchurch for a bite to eat, we continue on State Highway One. Now just 10 minutes from our destination we’re on a winding road coastal road, the sun behind us. “Dolphin!” my partner yells. A pod of seven or eight are all taking turns to jump out of the water. There is much speculation as to why they do this but to me they’re simply showing off. Either way we’re off to great start.
The sun is setting when we reach The Fairways Apartments, our home away from home for the weekend. It’s past reception hours but our hosts Ross and Jenny James have left milk in the fridge and put the fire on.
The luxury five-star accommodation is next to Kaikoura Golf Club, just five minutes from the township. The one-bedroom apartment is ideal for us.
The next morning, we are greeted to the sight of snow-capped mountains and the faint sound of crashing waves. Bliss. Today’s the day and we want to see all that Kaikoura has to offer - but only have one day to do it in. We figure our best bet would be to catch a glimpse from above. Ross recommends Kaikoura Helicopters. They are the established helicopter company flying tourists over the mountains and sea for over 25 years.
They offer a wide range of flights, including, of course, whale-based tours. We go for the aptly named “Top ‘n Tail” charter. We figure this will give us best of both worlds.
After a delicious eggs benedict from the Allure Cafe in town, we meet up with Chelsea at Kaikoura Helicopters. She explains that we could go now but if we wait a couple of hours we’ll be in for a real treat. It’s a tip that more than pays off.
There’s barely a cloud in the sky when we take off. Our pilot, Lee, is in constant
communication with the Whale Watch and Encounter operators below, radioing back and forth as we head in search for the sperm whale.
Kaikoura Helicopters actually time their charters around the whale’s diving patterns. They typically arise every 45 minutes and are at the surface for 6-9 minutes giving you plenty of time to take in the majesty of the moment.
In our brief, before setting off, Lee explains that the sperm whales are permanent residents to the Kaikoura coastline so the chances of seeing one are extremely high. This is due to the unique landscape: A trench as deep as the mountains are high (3km) is just off shore, full of tasty giant squid and grouper for the whales to feast on.
The flight is surprisingly smooth and the helicopter makes less fuss than the rental car I’ve hired for the weekend. With the help of the Whale Watch boats it doesn’t take us long to find one. From above you can really appreciate their sheer size. We can see the whole length of the whale: It’s as long as the 60ft boat below.
We fly slow orbits uninterruptedly above him before he takes one long last breath, lifts its tail (the size of a family car) and descends to depths again.
It takes us less than five minutes to touch down at 5200ft on the summit of Mt Fyffe. The fresh snow crunches under our feet as we step outside and soak up the 360 degree view. The North Island to our right and Banks Peninsula to the left.
Lee tells us stories about flying in different locations around the world. You almost want to hate them for seemingly having the best job in the world but you can’t. Peter, Lee and Chelsea were genuinely the nicest people and took real joy in seeing our astonished expressions.
We finish our trip with dinner at the Cellar View Restaurant, another one of Ross’ tips. The food and view were to die for. Karen, the owner, epitomises the people of Kaikoura. She makes us feel as if we were in front of our own fire as we fight over their selection of home made ice cream.
I can say with some confidence that all our boxes were well and truly ticked but much more than that we were leaving a place were everyone we met instantly made us feel a part of this amazing community. Pure New Zealand.