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Driving from Christchurch to Kaikoura is a popular road trip with New Zealanders and tourists, particularly during the summer months. Both Christchurch and Kaikoura are excellent tourist destinations on the South Island, offering plenty of amazing things to see and do. In fact, Kaikoura becomes a bustling coastal getaway from December to February when marine life (think fur seals, dolphins, and whales) are in abundance.
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 lots to see along the way. So, I recommend allowing at least half a day to enjoy this classic South Island road trip.
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.
In this blog, I list 6 of the best stops on the drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura as well as other information you need to know! This blog also works in reverse, if you’re driving from Kaikoura to Christchurch.
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, 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.
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 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, this section of the highway can receive snowfall and close. In fact, during a visit to Kaikoura in August 2021 I was stuck, with only 4wd vehicles allowed the use the road after 10 centimeters 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.
One of the best things to do in New Zealand is to visit the National Antarctic Center near Christchurch Airport. It offers an insight into life in Antarctica and is one of the most popular attractions in Christchurch, especially with families. Be sure to experience the Storm Dome, which gives a natural feel of the cold weather in Antarctica. There’s also a Penguin Rescue Center, 4D Cinema, and the opportunity to ride a Hagglund (an amphibious Antarctic vehicle). Admission is $49 NZD.
A 15-minute drive from the CBD in Heathcote Valley is the Christchurch Gondola, which offers 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 to the gondola are $55 NZD for adults and $25 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 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.
If you love hiking, be sure to check out the Godley Head Loop Track. This 9-kilometer 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! Other outdoor activities I love are the Christchurch Ziplining tour and the Adrenalin Forest Obstacle Course.
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)!
Where to Stay in Christchurch
One of the best places out by the airport is the Jucy Snooze Christchurch. It’s actually located within walking distance of the airport! 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.
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.
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 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), Waipara Hills, 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 4-5 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. This half-day tour from Christchurch is highly recommended.
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 favored with 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 water birds 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. 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) and have a picnic on the beach or at one of the picnic benches near the parking lot.
If you have a self-contained vehicle – Gore Bay is a great place to spend the night at the Gore Bay & Buxton Camp Grounds. Otherwise, Broadview Motel in nearby Cheviot ( a 5 km drive away) is a great option.
4. Glenstrae Four Wheeler Adventures
Just 20 minutes outside Kaikoura is the perfect activity for adrenaline-junkies. This 2.5-hour quad biking tour with Glenstrae Four Wheeler Adventures, explores 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 km per hour!
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.
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 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.
Take your binoculars with you to see whales or dusky dolphins in the ocean beyond. The best time to spot them is from October to March. 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. What you may ask attracts so much marine life to Kaikoura? Well, there’s a continental shelf in the ocean, around 500 meters from the shore. This shelf plunges 2 kilometers below the surface and provides the ideal deep water that marine life thrives in.
Kaikoura is probably one of the prettiest towns in New Zealand. 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 whale watching tour and see this impressive animal up close. Or, if you’re after a truly unique experience – swim with dolphins! Yep, the bucket-list-worthy activity of swimming with wild dolphins is available in Kaikoura.
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 the sunset 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.
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. There are 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 degrees Celsius (55 Fahrenheit)! So, make sure to pack a cold water wetsuit! Some of the best surf spots are only known to locals so ask at popular local cafes 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.
Heading to Picton? Check out my blog about the drive from Kaikoura to Picton!
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, you need to book in advance to get the best places.
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 myself 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.
If you enjoy a little more comfort, then the Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments are a top choice. 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. They have 1 bedroom and 2 apartments that can sleep up to 4 guests.
For high-end travelers, there are a lot of great options in Kaikoura. The Shearwater Apartments really stands out if you want to be close to town. Imagine luxury apartments right on the water with ocean views. If you’d prefer a stay nestled closer to the mountains the Manakau Lodge is one of the best-rated hotels in Kaikoura. Or, for a really unique stay, consider the Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses and sleep above the forest.
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 book 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 is what most budget backpackers get 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! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic.
- 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. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
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 listed above. 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: