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As you ride the main road leading into Kaikoura, keep your eyes on the sea for the town's biggest draw: playful dolphins leaping in the ocean. There are also curious whales, basking seals and enormous albatross to spot around this jagged New Zealand peninsula jutting out into the bright blue Pacific Ocean. But a rugged shoreline and top-class surfing beaches where you can catch some epic waves mean this is more than just a wildlife haven.
Fitting in with New Zealand's nature-first ethos, many hostels in Kaikoura are eco-friendly, with herb and veggie gardens as well as cupboards stocked with Fair Trade tea and coffee. Look out for comfy common areas warmed by log fires and outdoor chill spots complete with hot tubs, or make the most of the local scenery by picking a Kaikoura hostel with views out over the sparkling ocean. Showers with pleasingly powerful water pressure are just the ticket after a day surfing up the coast in the cold waters off Mangamaunu.
The centre of Kaikoura is one long main strip – aptly named Beach Road – with a handful of friendly craft-beer pubs, authentic fish-and-chip shops and adventure-gear stores. You can walk from here along the coast to Kaikoura Beach and then on to Esplanade Road. There are a few restaurants and hotels to stop off at before heading to the protected end of the rocky peninsula to see the New Zealand fur seal colony.
One of the most epic things to do in Kaikoura is an ethical swimming session with wild dolphins, where you'll head out to sea on a boat before donning a mask and diving in. If you're lucky, hundreds of curious dolphins will whizz under, above and beside you – and might even interact with you. There are also seal snorkelling and whale-watching tours in this area, and you might even be able to glimpse a pod of orcas.
There's an InterCity bus from Christchurch to Kaikoura that passes through the lush green Waipara wine valley, or you can rent a car and make the drive in under 3 hours. In Kaikoura's surrounds, there are shuttle buses to get you around, but the town itself is compact enough to be walkable. The nearest international airport to the town is in Christchurch.