Kaikoura, New Zealand: Surfing, seals, and seafood

“The chowder isn’t the type you have back in the States” I am warned.

The brunette woman working the oceanfront seafood cart has detected my accent and is concerned I won’t like her steaming bowl of mollusks.

“There isn’t much cream, just freshly made broth mixed with massive chunks of crayfish and mussels.”

Facing the kelp strewn waters of the Kaikoura Peninsula, a popular hamlet on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, this is exactly what I was hoping for: Massive chunks of crayfish and mussels. After all, it’s only appropriate for a place whose name literally translates to “meal of crayfish”.

Regardless, eating anything else in Kaikoura would just feel wrong, because Kaikoura is not a processed, pre-packaged type of town. It’s a place where the smell of sea salt wafts on the breeze and surfers recount that morning’s early dawn session. Storefronts advertise seal swimming, whale watching, and guided eco-walks, while local scuba shops display the current water temperature and visibility on outdoor chalkboards adorned in smiling blue dolphins.

This, I realize, is what separates Kaikoura from all of the other adventure destinations and photo opportunities which lay scattered around the South Island of New Zealand. Kaikoura is different from the gorges of Franz Josef glacier or walks such as the Routeburn Track in that it has been a long time since I have traveled through a place that refreshingly feels so alive.

Sure, there are pubs with drink specials and tacky New Zealand souvenir stores like any other tourist haunt in the world, but in Kaikoura there seems to be an intrinsic harmony the town has with nature that gives it an energy not felt in other parts of the country.

Nowhere is this more apparent than ambling over limpet covered rocks beneath the peninsula walkway on Kean Point. Aside from the sandy strands of kelp which give the walk a malodorous yet authentic aroma, the shoreline teems with nesting red billed seagulls and dozens of southern fur seals lounging contentedly on the warm rocks.

%Gallery-145599%These same seals were once hunted voraciously by the native Maori people, and given the abundance of sea life in the region Kaikoura was once home to one of the largest Maori populations on the South Island. According to Maori legend, the Kaikoura peninsula was the spot where the Polynesian demigod Maui placed his foot while fishing up the North Island of New Zealand with his great fish hook, and the peninsula extends so far off of the main coastline that Captain Cook on his original voyage in 1770 actually mistook it for a separate island.

With the full-time arrival of the pakeha–Europeans–Kaikoura was transformed into a hub of whaling and trade led by Captain Robert Fyfe in 1843. To this day it’s still possible to visit the Fyffe House, one of the lone remnants of the first European settlement and a structure which still rests on whale bones used to create the original foundation.

Though the whaling trade has long ceased in Kaikoura, throngs of ocean goers have traded their harpoons for camera lenses and have turned Kaikoura into one of the South Pacific’s premier whale watching destination for the sperm, blue, and southern right whales.

It’s not just the abundance of marine life which breathes life into Kaikoura, however, as it’s also found in the people themselves. A rural community of only 2,100 permanent residents, the active, outdoorsy community which populates the Kaikoura peninsula is fortunate enough to be sandwiched between the biking and hiking tracks of the seaside Kaikoura range, and the diving surfing opportunities found where the Southern Ocean meets the rugged coast.

Nowhere is this froth for life felt more potently than down at “Meatworks” a local surf spot set just north of town. Though the clock has yet to strike 7am, a cadre of die-hard surfers has already colonized the heaving beach break and opted to start their day with an active session on the water.

“It’s stunning isn’t it mate?” offers a thinly bearded surfer sitting next to me in the Meatworks lineup.

The summer sun has just risen in the east, and the crisp dawn colors of morning are reflected off the empty Kaikoura mountains.

“Best way to start your day right here I reckon.”

Then, with a quick smile and nod to say goodbye, the affable local strokes into a meaty, overhead set wave and disappears towards the kelp laden shoreline.

So begins another day in Kaikoura, the living, pulsing, breathing speck of New Zealand shoreline that can be found when given the freedom to roam…

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.