Part 1 – A Weekend Trip to Kaikoura

Warning, warning!!!! This will no doubt be the first of many travel posts about my many and varied forays in New Zealand.

Over the last 20 years, I have been incredibly fortunate to work on 5 different feature films in the country. Which adds up to quite a bit of time in the place.

It is in New Zealand that I have experienced some of the most beautiful destinations that I have ever been to…

I worked on a little trilogy in Wellington almost 10 years ago. And while I was there, I became determined to make the most of my time in the country. I made a pact with myself to take small weekend trips to different parts of the country as often as I could.

New Zealand stream and snow capped mountains
Somewhere in the South Island of New Zealand in 2004

Don’t get me wrong. Admittedly, I’m no thrill-seeker. I did not jump out of a plane or do anything even remotely concerned with the word bungee! I’m far more comfortable with my feet on the ground or propelling me along in the ocean.

One of those stand-out trips I speak of took me to the quaint seaside town of Kaikoura. And for me, it was utterly exciting!!!

The Interislander to Picton

As I was based in Wellington, travelling to Kaikoura was fairly straight forward. A 3 1/2ish hour ferry (known as the Interislander) from Wellington across the strait to Picton. And then a 2 1/2 hour or so drive down the east coast of the NZ South Island.

I booked myself on the late Friday night ferry with my rental car in the depths of the ferry down below. From memory, it departed around 11.00 pm-ish… this was almost 10 years ago!!

I actually slept on the ferry, having paid the extra for the ‘first-class’ cabin. Which to my glee I had entirely to myself!! I managed to sleep virtually the whole journey (I guess an 80 plus hour work week will do that!) and was woken, startled by the loud alarms letting me know of our arrival into Picton. I scrambled to my lone car and made for the drive down the east coast of the South Island.

The Most Beautiful of Coastal Drives

Kaikoura is about a 2 1/2 hour drive down the coast from Picton. That morning gifted me with possibly the most stunning sunrise I have ever seen in my life. It was magic. Truly I was in Middle Earth, feeling ever so slightly more like Mordor than the shire!!

red sunrise over beach New Zealand Kaikoura
The magical sunrise I witnessed north of Kaikoura

I had a snorkel trip booked with Seal Swim Kaikoura for the morning and a Wings over Whales flight booked for the afternoon. With plenty of time in between for lunching and checking out the town. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course the best-laid plans……. the seas were very choppy and my snorkelling trip was pushed a little, and then a little more….with a possibility of being cancelled. I waited out the morning and finally was told it was back on. Right now!!! My timing was cutting it very short but I was determined to swim with seals that day.

I Can and Must Swim With Seals!

The short boat ride from Kaikoura to the local seal colony was the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with our knowledgeable guides. They filled us in on the personalities of the seals, and just how intelligent and playful they are.

The sea was still pretty choppy and the water quite chilly. And overhead the clouds still looming, convincing me it was even colder than it probably was in truth.

Once we approached a tiny rocky island off the coast, I began to spot almost lifeless corpse like seal forms basking in the clouds. The sun was just taunting us as we arrived.

Everything was still; particularly the seals. I was in Jurassic Park, but hoped we did not have to resort to any sheep sacrificing to get these guys to come to life.

And just as I was giving up hope, the skies opened up and out came the glorious New Zealand sunshine!!

The sun brought them all to life!! And as quickly as that, there was activity all-round. The pups, in particular, began to delve into the water first of all, and most of the tourists on the trip were indeed taken with the cuter than cute babies.

Alright, time to jump! I was more than amply protected by my Michelin man-like wetsuit. In I plunged, and as is to be expected of me I stayed away from the crowd, most of whom who were still infatuated with the few pups cavorting at the island’s edge.

Off I went and befriended a trio of playful full-grown seals. I continued to swim alongside them. We were having an unspoken race around the island. This was some of the roughest seas I have ever snorkelled in and certainly gave me my cardio for the day. Or was that just the sheer elation that I was SWIMMING WITH SEALS?

fur seal Kaikoura on rocky coast
One of Kaikoura’s fur seal residents by Allan Harris licensed under (CC BY-ND 4.0)

We had been well-advised not to touch the seals, but communication through movement was encouraged to those who chose to listen to the guide on the boat ride over. They were certainly curious and trusting.

It became almost a game of cat and mouse. Eventually, a seal would pop up right in front of me, pause and await my reaction. Only when he darted back under the water, would I do the same. Then chase them. As the game grew, so did their trust of me. And eventually, they were darting out of the water in front of my very eyes.

To look them in the eye up close and underwater is an experience there are no words for. It truly was one of the most incredibly touching and moving moments of my life. Wow – this plus a top sunrise!! Pretty good day!

By the time my new group of friends and I had rounded the island, it was time to head back onto the boat. An eternal flash before my eyes experience was over. But the elation would last far longer than that boat ride.

A Quick Dash to Wings over Whales

Thankfully my drive to the Wings over Whales location was short and I made it there just in time for my booking.

This was really an exceptional way to view the sperm whales that live locally along the Kaikoura coastline. And depending on the time of year you visit, you may also be witness to different type whales that may just be passing through on their seasonal migratory paths.

Despite my aversion to flying in small planes (this was an 8 seater, pilot included!) I felt incredibly safe and at ease the entire tour. And once we were up and away, I forgot entirely about any issues I had prior.

wings ove whales kaikoura view from plane onto whale
My picture perfect view looking onto a giant Sperm Whale in Kaikoura

During my flight, I was fortunate enough to see two great sperm whales frolic about very close to the coastline. And although this was not the immediate and sensory overload I had experienced from my swim with seals, it was truly a beautiful sight to witness the majesty of these 60-foot creatures in person and from the air, no less. Once in a lifetime! Now I can check Kaikoura off my bucket list, for sure!

Treetops Here I Come!

Once my day filled with sea life tourism had come to an end, it was time to head to my accommodations for the evening. And just between you and me, I was truly looking forward to that as much as the seals and whales.

On recommendation from many of my local co-workers I indulged and treated myself to a night in the treetops. So to speak!

Treetops at Hapuku Lodge by Dave Smith Licensed under (CC NY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Hapuku Lodge is a short 15-20 minute drive north of Kaikoura. It is a member of the renowned Luxury Lodges of NZ. And it may well be one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever frequented.

With the accommodations ranging from Lodge Rooms to the Olive House and the oh so tantalising Treetops, I just had to pick a Treetop room for my visit!!! There are 5 Treetops villas in total, with varying options of bedrooms as well.

The treehouses literally sit some 30 feet off the ground. And once I was shown my dwelling and had climbed the steps up to the entrance I did not want to leave!

From one side, there was the most picturesque view of the deer farm immediately outside and set with the backdrop of the mountain ranges in the distance. From the other side of the treehouse, the developed olive garden leads the eye to the beauty of the eastern coastline. And while the open plan and ample windows really take full advantage of the awe-inspiring views, your privacy still feels totally unthreatened.

panoramic view of Hapuku Lodge near Kaikoura
Panoramic view of the Treetops at Hapuku Lodge by Dave Smith licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The balcony that overlooks the olive grove really does give you full opportunity to take in the silence and for me the clean crispness of the air that I have only experienced in New Zealand. And of course, those 360-degree views!

The Return Trip Home Always Takes Longer

With one of the most sound nights sleep I had been privy to in a long time, I awoke the next morning and reluctantly checked out before beginning the drive up the coast back home to Wellington.

To this day I can remember very little about that return trip. I suspect mainly because my head was still spinning from my day with the seals. And seeing sperm whales. And deer. Just ultimately having an exceptional weekend getaway experience. I made it onto the Picton-Wellington Interislander and got home in one piece. And I still day-dream of the smiling seals up close and in my face.

Not that Wellington is too bad a place to come home to!

Featured image by Tim Marshall via Unsplash

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