3 Great Sea Escapes in New Zealand

by  Elissa Garay | Updated on May 13, 2022
Kerry Hargrove/iStock

You’ve likely heard all about New Zealand’s wondrous Middle-earth-worthy landscapes, but its offshore seascapes don’t skimp out on the wow factor either. With pristine conditions that provide a haven for thriving marine wildlife, offshore New Zealand offers optimum terrain for coastal adventuring like whale watching, sea kayaking, and diving. Freshly back from getting my own fins wet, I'm here with three top picks for the ultimate coastal Kiwi escapes.

Sea Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park

Accessible via the artsy coastal enclave of Nelson, the golden sands and sunny skies of Abel Tasman National Park make it one of the country’s most popular park destinations, and the endless coastline and sandy beaches are best explored via kayaking tours. Try “The Bee’s Knees” tour: Hop a sea shuttle from Kaiteriteri Beach or Nelson on Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle for a scenic sampling of the park’s 30-odd miles of coastline, hop off on a choice beach for a hike through the lush coastal terrain, then hook up with sea kayaking outfitter Kahu Kayaks for guided paddling around a section of the sparkling waterways that are frequented by seals and seabirds. 

Where to Sleep: Well worth the splurge, the palatial two-room Wakefield Quay House sits on the Nelson waterfront, offering sprawling Tasman Bay views and well-appointed digs. The plush pad is run by an animated husband-and-wife team who enjoy entertaining guests on the deck during the daily sunset happy hour (included in the rates); wifi, and cooked-to-order breakfast is also included.

Whale Watching in Kaikoura

The Kaikoura coastline offers the best marine wildlife viewing in New Zealand, representing a staggering 80 percent of the planet’s whale and dolphin species. Giant sperm whales – which can grow to be up to 65 feet and weigh 60 tons – make the most regular appearances here, though, depending on the time of year, blue, fin, humpback, minke, and other whales can also be sighted, along with an assorted cast of other characters including dolphins, seals, and seabirds (like albatross and herons). Head out aboard the modern catamarans of the Maori-run Whale Watch Kaikoura, the area’s only tour boat company with permits for whale encounters (book ahead, tours do sell out) – their ships were designed specifically with whale-watching in mind, and deliver, with a 95 percent success rate, and an average of one or two sperm whale sightings per sailing. 

Where to Sleep: Book one of Bay Cottages' five budget-friendly beach cottages on South Bay, offering basic but spacious digs (which can sleep four), including loaded kitchenettes, all just a stone’s throw from the coast. More modern motel-style units are also available. The friendly fellow who owns the place will even invite guests out crawfishing on occasion, a popular local pastime. 

Diving and Snorkeling in the Poor Knights Islands

Set 14 miles off the coast of Tutukaka, the Poor Knights Islands offer amazing subtropical diving and snorkeling in the Poor Knights Marine Reserve (so good, in fact, that oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once ranked the isles amongst the planet’s 10 best dive sites). Fed by warm currents that come in from the Coral Sea, the waters here offer warmer temps and better visibility than anywhere else in New Zealand and afford an underwater landscape complete with sea caves (including the world’s largest), dramatic drop-offs, kelp forests, and plenty of marine wildlife, with more than 125 fish species represented. Head out for a full-day tour of the Poor Knights with the pros at Dive! Tutukaka, including boat transfers, gear rental, and expert guides. 

Where to Sleep: The Riverbank B & B Homestay is a tidy one-room stay set on 2.5 acres of lush land. Run by a chatty husband-and-wife team, standard B & B room rates can be upgraded to “homestay” status, incorporating full board with evening meals (owner Melva is quite the cook), accompanied by wine and the colorful company of your hosts. 

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