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The drive between Christchurch to Kaikoura is packed full of epic activities, local history, and iconic places to snap some eye-catching photos. That said, Christchurch and Kaikoura themselves are also some of my favorite places to visit on the South Island, offering plenty of amazing things to see and do.
Often though, people simply make the drive to Kaikoura from Christchurch without stopping. In my opinion, this is such a shame. For such a short drive (just under 2.5 hours without stops), there is a lot to see along the way. So, I’d recommend allowing at least half a day to enjoy this classic South Island road trip.
As a sneak peek, some of the best stops en route from Christchurch to Kaikoura include the gorgeous Waipara wine region (home to over 90 small wineries), the famous surf beach of Gore Bay, and adrenaline-packed Glenstrae Four Wheel Adventures. But I’ll hush for now, keep reading to find out the rest!
In this blog, I’ve listed 6 of the best stops on the drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura as well as some other handy information you need to know. This blog also works in reverse, if you’re driving from Kaikoura to Christchurch.
Need wheels? For rental cars, I always book with Discover Cars since the website is so easy to use with great prices. For motorhomes and campervans, I really like JUCY/Star RV because of their huge selection and multiple depot locations that make pick-up and drop-off a breeze. Plus, if you use my exclusive discount code DTRAVEL24, you’ll save 5%! This discount is only valid for bookings made before June 30, 2024, with travel dates before Dec 21, 2204. You can browse JUCY and Star RV’s availability here and apply the discount code at check-out.
About the Drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura
The drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura is 180 kilometers (112 miles) and will take approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes without stops. The route follows State Highway 1 (SH1) along the coast the whole way, and it is an easy drive. If you want to drive this route in one day and stop at some of the stops I’ve listed below, I recommend allowing at least 5 to 6 hours.
With that said, after renting a car in Christchurch, I think taking your time and spending the night along the way (I recommend Waipara or Gore Bay) is the best way to make this road trip from Christchurch to Kaikoura – especially in the summer months.
If you don’t fancy driving, you can also grab an Intercity bus between Christchurch and Kaikoura, with tickets starting from around $36 NZD per person. While this will get you to Kaikoura in one piece, it does sadly miss out on the stops I’ve mentioned below, but it is an option if you want to go straight there.
The final option when it comes to getting from Christchurch to Kaikoura is going part of an organized tour. If you’re looking for the complete package, which includes all transport as well as some fun activities, this is a great option for you. One tour I’ve heard good things about through a close friend of mine, is this full-day whale watching tour in Kaikoura — it’s also got some pretty great reviews online!
If you’re going to Kaikoura mainly to see the incredible wildlife that comes here during the summer months (December to February), then this tour really is a no-brainer, unless, of course, you want to visit the stops along the way, in which case I’d recommend driving yourself.
With all transport included, this experience costs $350 NZD per person and often sells out in advance – you can check your dates and book your spot here.
I also wanted to mention briefly about the road conditions for my fellow drivers out there! Due to the 2016 earthquake, which destroyed much of the town of Kaikoura and the road there, works to improve the safety of the road here continue to this day. Would you believe that over 200 km (124 mi) of road was severely damaged in and around Kaikoura during the earthquake?
Route delays may occur on the road into Kaikoura due to roadworks — you can check the latest updates at the NZ Transport website.
During the winter months in NZ, this section of the highway can receive a decent amount of snowfall and close. In fact, during a visit to Kaikoura in August 2021, I got stuck, with only 4WD vehicles allowed to use the road after 10 centimeters (4 inches) of snowfall. Luckily, the road was eventually cleared a few hours later. As always, be prepared for delays during the winter months, and always carry snow chains!
Best Stops Between Christchurch and Kaikoura
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and the second largest in New Zealand (with Auckland taking first place). This incredible city has a population of just under 400,000 people, and as you can imagine, there are loads of great things to do and excellent places to eat.
As you can imagine, a city as big as this is also packed with tons of fun activities, both inside and outside of the city. Let’s take a look at a few now!
You might be surprised to hear that one of my favorite things to do in New Zealand actually turned out to be visiting the National Antarctic Center near Christchurch Airport! It offers an amazing insight into life in Antarctica and is one of the most popular activities in Christchurch, especially with families.
Be sure to also check out the Storm Dome while you’re here at the Antarctic Center, which with its rather intimidating name gives you the chance to experience how cold it is in Antarctica! There’s also a Penguin Rescue Center, 4D Cinema, and the opportunity to ride a Hagglund (an amphibious Antarctic vehicle). Admission to the center starts from $59 NZD and can be booked online here.
If you’re looking for some epic views, then the Christchurch Gondola is a must, offering spectacular 360-degree views of the region and is a great family-friendly activity too. Once at the top, take a short hike or simply grab a coffee and enjoy the views. Tickets for the gondola start from $40 NZD for adults and $18 for children.
A stroll through Christchurch Botanic Gardens with a coffee is a great way to spend an hour or two. And no visit to Christchurch is complete without visiting Quake City, which tells the story of the devastating 2011 earthquake.
Other worthy sights to pay your respects to the victims of the earthquake include the Oi Manawa National Memorial located on the Avon River in town, and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, which was left a ruin from the earthquake and is currently undergoing a massive reconstruction. All of these are free attractions in Christchurch, so they’re well worth visiting.
If you love hiking, be sure to check out the Godley Head Loop Track. This 9-kilometer (5.6 mi) loop takes you along the coast where you can spot whales, dolphins, and seals – it’s one of the best hikes in all of New Zealand!
I’m also a big sucker for outdoor adventure activities, and although Christchurch is a big city, it still has a range of fun adventure experiences to try. This Christchurch ziplining tour is a firm favorite, including no less than 4 epic zipline rides, and amazing views of the city as you go.
The Adrenalin Forest Obstacle Course is another great activity for kids (and big kids!) to burn off steam, with all sorts of fantastic jungle-gym-type activities up in the trees. I’ve given it a go and honestly loved it!
As for places to eat, one of my favorite restaurants in the city is 5th Street on Elgin St. in Sydenham. For your coffee fix – C1 Espresso on 185 High Street can’t be missed. Your food is delivered by pneumatic tubes, which you can watch overhead. It’s one of the coolest coffee shops I’ve ever been to (P.S. The coffee is fantastic too)!
Also, be sure to venture outside of the city and explore some of the best day trips from Christchurch. There are some really beautiful places nearby, whether you drive yourself or join a tour in Christchurch!
Where to Stay in Christchurch
There are tons of amazing hotels in Christchurch to choose from. One of the best places out by the airport is the LyLo Christchurch. It’s actually located within walking distance of the airport, so it’s perfect for those hopping off a long flight!
Another cool hotel close by is the Commodore Airport Hotel Christchurch. Although a short drive away, they offer a free shuttle and have amazing reviews.
If you like to travel on a budget like me, I love the Tasman Holiday Park in Christchurch. You can get really cheap rooms and the entire holiday park has been freshly renovated.
In the city center, the Crown Plaza Christchurch is perfect for those wanting a typical luxury stay. It’s a large hotel with amazing views of the city. For budget travelers, the social but comfortable YHA Hostel is a good option. Although cheap, it’s located in the heart of the city and only a short walk from Hagley Park. Plus, you can find the best deals on either Booking.com or Hostelworld.com.
Hot Tip: Consider renting a campervan in Christchurch to tackle this road trip!
2. Waipara (wine region)
Just an hour’s drive from Christchurch is one of the best wine regions in New Zealand. The climate here is perfect for grape growing because it has the highest summer temperatures and lowest rainfall of any of the country’s wine regions. Some of my favorite New Zealand wine is from Waipara – with the best varieties grown here being Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
Waipara is considered to be the country’s “fastest-growing wine region.” Would you believe the first vines here were planted in 1975 and today, there are over 1300 hectares (3,212 acres) of vines – that’s impressive! What I love too is that most of the wineries here are family-run. Of the 90 wineries in Waipara, most are smaller, family-run businesses.
My favorite wineries in Waipara include Waipara Springs (which also has an excellent on-site restaurant), and Terrace Edge Vineyard. If you want to taste the delicious wines, why not join a guided winery tour (so you don’t have to drive)?
Most tours depart from Christchurch and are between 4 and 5 hours in duration. These boutique wine tours typically include a light lunch like a sharing platter to be enjoyed at one of the scenic wineries. If you fancy trying out a tour before beginning the drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura, then this half-day tour from Christchurch is a fantastic choice.
With round-trip transportation included, you’ll enjoy over 5-hours of wine tastings, with lunch included too! Whenever I’m looking for a great wine tasting tour, I always look at the maximum number of people allowed on the trip, as too many can ruin the experience. This tour is capped at 6 people, meaning you get plenty of one-on-one time with your guide without feeling rushed around as a large group.
Tickets for this half-day wine tour cost $199 NZD per person, and you can reserve your spot online here.
Alternatively, you can rent a bike from Action Bicycle Club in Christchurch and cycle the 10 km winery bike trail, stopping at several wineries along the way. The track is relatively easy, with only a few uphill sections.
As for accommodation options in the Waipara region, there are plenty of good choices, from the luxurious Waipara River Estate to the very stylish Black Estate B&B. As these are very close to the wineries, you also won’t have very far to go back to your accommodation if you fancy enjoying a tasting or two!
3. Gore Bay
A short detour off State Highway 1 (SH1) is the small coastal village of Gore Bay – a very popular spot with surfers! Gore Bay is especially loved by Christchurch locals who escape to one of the many beachside bachs (holiday homes) for a break from city life.
Make sure to stop at the weird and wonderful Cathedral Cliffs on your drive in. These cliffs are siltstone pillars formed by erosion and are a great example of the American “badlands’ landscape we commonly see in Western movies.
The Jed Vale Cemetery Walk is a short and easy (just 45 minutes return) walking track that starts from the Children’s Playground in Gore Bay. The trail begins with a beach walk and then along an estuary, where you will see waterbirds before reaching the cemetery. The cemetery has a few information boards and marked graves. Please remember to be respectful here.
The beach at Gore Bay is a great place to stretch your legs too, and at low tide, you can collect stunning paua shells on the beach’s southern end. It’s important to note there are no shops or facilities (besides toilets) at Gore Bay, so why not buy some food in Cheviot, the closest town that’s 5 km (3.1 mi) away, and have a picnic on the beach, or at one of the picnic benches near the parking lot?
4. Glenstrae Four Wheeler Adventures
As we carry on up State Highway 1, just 20 minutes outside Kaikoura you’ll find the perfect activity for adrenaline junkies. This 2.5-hour quad biking tour with Glenstrae Four Wheeler Adventures explores local farmland with stunning coastal views – you may even spot fur seals on the beaches below during your tour! It’s a fast-paced tour, with the quad bike reaching speeds of up to 45 kmph (28 mph).
The tour also includes refreshments at a hidden wooden cabin (about halfway through your tour). It’s an incredibly scenic stop-off point!
If you’ve never driven a quad bike before, fear not, you will be given a briefing and shown how to effectively operate the vehicle at the on-site training course before departing. If you’re still not confident, you can hop in their 8×8 vehicle driven by an experienced guide. This vehicle is used for younger family members (or those who can’t drive).
Worth noting – no driver’s license is required for this activity! However, I do recommend being comfortable behind the wheel as this is a high-powered vehicle.
Tickets for this experience start from $169 NZD per person, and you can learn more about this quad biking tour over on the official Kaikoura website.
5. Kaikoura Marine Resting Area
One of the best places to see fur seals (and lots of them) in New Zealand is at the Kaikoura Marine Resting Area, approximately a 20-minute drive southwest from the center of Kaikoura. From the viewpoint, you get fabulous views – think turquoise water in the foreground and snow-capped mountains in the background!
Here at the marine resting area, you can see whales, dusky dolphins, and so much more. If you’re traveling between October and March, you’re in luck, as this is also the best time to see whales near Kaikoura. The famed fur seals are much easier to spot, and you will likely see dozens of them resting on the rocks here.
The Kaikoura region is known as a wildlife mecca in New Zealand. You might be wondering why! Well, there’s a continental shelf in the ocean, around 500 meters (1,640 ft) from the shore. This shelf plunges 2 kilometers (1.2 mi) below the surface and provides the ideal deep water that marine life thrives in.
Last, but certainly not least, we have the pretty town of Kaikoura! Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and backdropped by the Kaikoura Mountain ranges – it’s one of the most breathtaking places to visit in New Zealand. That’s because it’s teeming with wildlife with the opportunity to see hundreds of fur seals, dolphins, blue penguins, and even whales.
One of the best and most popular things to do in Kaikoura is to head out on a helicopter whale watching tour, like this 40-minute whale watching flight, and see these impressive animals from the sky. It really does make the world of difference being able to see them from above – the water is usually pretty clear, so you can easily make out their silhouettes as they come to the surface for air.
I also love helicopter wildlife tours because you get to cover ground much more quickly, which means you have a higher chance of seeing them without having to wait! Tickets for this tour cost $165 NZD per person, and you can book your spot online here.
Sticking to water-based activities (when you visit Kaikoura you’ll understand why all the best things to do in Kaikoura involve the water) – one of my favorite things I’ve done in Kaikoura is a half-day kayaking tour to see the native dusky dolphins and blue penguins.
We did this sunset kayaking tour, and it was magical – the wildlife is typically more active at sunset/dusk, so we saw lots of dolphins and whales. On this tour, we also learned a lot about the history of Kaikoura and the Maori culture here.
I also loved that this tour is run by a group that genuinely cares about the welfare of the local wildlife, taking their time to explain proper distance and allowing these amazing animals to be in peace. Tickets for this tour cost $140 NZD per person and can be booked online here.
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway to Point Kean is a 50-minute (each way walk) that starts at the South Bay parking lot and ends at Kean Bay. You’ll also find many information boards along the way which tell about the wildlife in the area. This walk is one of the best hikes on the South Island and provides plenty of opportunities to see fur seals.
People from all over the world come to Kaikoura to surf, which surprises me because the water here is cold, averaging about 13 °C (55 °F)! So, make sure to pack a cold water wetsuit if you’re planning to surf!
Some of the best New Zealand surf spots are only known to locals, so ask at popular local cafés like Beach House Cafe or Food Company Kaikoura (both on Beach Road) for their tips. I have heard that Mangamaunu to the north of the town is one of the best surf spots for intermediate to expert surfers, so if you’re an expert wave-chaster, why not give it a go?
Where to Stay in Kaikoura
Kaikoura really isn’t a large town, however, due to its popularity, there are actually a ton of great places to stay. The trick is to book in advance to get the best places.
Dolphin Lodge – $
If you’re on a budget, there are some great choices, but for me, I love staying at the Dolphin Lodge when I’m looking to save a few dollars. The cheapest private rooms here come with a shared bathroom, but I always get the slightly more expensive room, so I can get ready in private.
They also have dorm beds for solo travelers. What I love most about the hotel is the awesome location and ocean views. On top of that, they have a communal kitchen, which always saves me a lot of money and is a great way to make new friends!
A bed in a dorm here typically starts at around $35 NZD per night, while a private room starts at around $90 NZD per night. You can check available dates and book your stay online here.
Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments – $$
If you enjoy a little more comfort, then the Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments are a top contender. These gorgeous apartments are oceanfront and come with a modern design and furnishings. The best part is they are located in the heart of Kaikoura, and you’re only steps from the beach!
With a range of 1 bedroom and 2 apartments that can sleep up to 4 guests, this is a great place to stay if you’re traveling as a couple or family. A one-night stay here typically costs $230 NZD per night, but I have seen it dip as low as $186 NZD. You can learn more and book your stay online in advance here on Booking.com.
Shearwater Apartments – $$$
For high-end travelers, there are a lot of great options in Kaikoura. My personal pick would be the Shearwater Apartments, which really stands out if you want to be close to town. Imagine luxury apartments right on the water with ocean views!
There’s no better feeling than waking up in the morning with some epic views, and Kaikoura certainly delivers, so if you’re planning a visit as part of a special occasion, or simply enjoy a more luxurious stay, this is a great option. A stay here typically starts from $450 NZD per night – you can view the apartments and reserve your stay online here.
Related Read: While in the area, why not check out the best things to do in Nelson, NZ!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. My top choice for a motorhome company is Star RV because they have beautiful motorhomes at affordable prices. You can check prices and availability for Star RV motorhomes online here. Alternatively, you can use Motorhome Republic to search all motorhomes in NZ. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
I hope this blog helps you make the most of your Christchurch to Kaikoura road trip. I’m sure you’ll agree there’s some great wildlife, stunning viewpoints, and some very unique towns on this adventure – now all that’s left is to enjoy it for yourself! Whether you stop at just one or all of the above stops, the drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura is sure to be one to remember.
Thanks so much for reading! If you loved this blog, be sure to check out more of my content. I’m always exploring more of New Zealand and documenting my journey along the way right here! Some other blogs you might like, include: