{going solo in NZ} Part 3: seeing the Marlborough Sounds from the Interislander + winter beaches & llama treks in Picton/Kaikoura

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going solo in NZ: Itinerary | Auckland | Wellington | Picton & Kaikoura | Christchurch | Queenstown | quirks & perks of solo travelling |

Picton & Kaikoura, ever heard of them? They’re small towns located along SH1, the highway that connects the entirety of the eastern side of the South Island, so most road-trippers pass through those towns for a quick meal or just stay overnight at a motel.

I had a bit more time to spare, so I decided to spend a few extra days seeing what these towns had to offer, and it was definitely worth the detour.

I had initially planned to fly directly from Wellington to Christchurch, until I read about the Interislander ferry between Wellington and Picton. It sounded more like a sightseeing cruise than a simple ferry ride, and after having experienced it myself, it really was all that amazing.

Picton/Kaikoura Itinerary (28 Jul-1 Aug)
Day 1 (Thu)⛴️ Interislander Ferry from Wellington
🍽️ Toasties (American)
🛍️ High Street
🍽️ Shai Shai’s Takeaways (Seafood)
Day 2 (Fri)🍽️ Picton Pizza And Kebabs (Western)
🚌 Intercity bus to Kaikoura
🍽️ Cods & Crayfish (Seafood)
Day 3 (Sat)🏖️ Kaikoura Beach
🦙 Half-day Guided Llama Trek
🍽️ Country Fried Chicken (Western)
Day 4 (Sun)🏛️ Kaikoura Museum
🍽️ Chiwis Cafe (Western)
🛍️ West End Street
🍽️ Cods & Crayfish (Seafood)
🍰 Kaikoura Bakery
Day 5 (Mon)🍽️ Coopers Catch (Seafood)
🪨🦭 Ohau Point Lookout
🍨 The DAIRY – Kaikoura
🚗 2.5h roadtrip to Christchurch
Day 1 – the Interislander ferry experience

The ferry ride was a 4-hour journey: chugging slowly out of the Wellington harbour, past the wind-turbine covered backhills, into the infamous Cook Strait (which can either be calm or terrible, depending on the weather), then through the stunning Queen Charlotte (Marlborough) Sound, before finally pulling into Picton.

The Interislander ferry was delayed by over an hour – a common occurrence – but thankfully, the sea conditions that day were favourable and far better than the previous weeks, when the ferry had been battered by 8-metre tall waves in the choppy Cook Strait.

When our ship began its winding course through the Queen Charlotte Sound (one of the many ancient sunken river valleys in the Marlborough region), the captain announced the opening of the observation deck on the 10th floor*, and many passengers thronged to the top to admire the views.

*the Bluebridge ferries don’t have outdoor observation decks, which was why I chose Interislander despite it being slightly pricier

Vid #1: the start of the Cook Strait, feat. wind turbines on Wellington’s hills // Vid #2: Queen Charlotte Sound (Marlborough Sounds)

Honestly, look at those views…seeing the shimmering cerulean waters against the backdrop of wooden cabins along the bay and dotting the hills made me feel like I – a bona fide city girl – had suddenly stepped into a new universe entirely. It gave me the chills (and it wasn’t just from the strong winds).

We soon reached Picton, a quaint port town that caters mostly to travellers passing through; it’s hardly a main attraction, but is nevertheless a lovely first page in most people’s South Island journeys. It only has 1 small main street, lined with restaurants/bars and souvenir shops, as well as a few tiny museums.

After having a pastrami grilled cheese sandwich at Toastie, I checked in at the Picton Beachcomber Inn, a stone’s throw from the main street. I was given an upgraded ground floor room (with 3 beds?!) that opened up into the hotel’s garden, affording me a view of the harbour and the ferries sailing in and out of it.

I then took a slow stroll around town, darting into the tiny stores selling generic souvenirs, and leaving empty-handed. By then, the sun was starting to set, so I ordered takeout from a famous fish n chips store, Shai Shai’s Takeaways, and headed back to my room to eat while enjoying the sunset. The fish was lightly battered, the fried mussels were succulent, and the chips were not too greasy – it was overall a pleasant meal, although I’m not the biggest fan of this dish (in general).

Day 2 – road trips (and delays) + a late-night fish n chip run in Kaikoura

The next morning, I had half a day to kill before my bus ride to Kaikoura. The whaling museums was closed, and the other attractions (Edwin Fox Museum & EcoWorld Aquarium & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre) hardly seemed worth the entrance fee, so I wandered around the small beach, walked past the same old stores, and stopped for a hearty lunch of seafood pizza at Picton Pizza And Kebabs.

Hopping onto the Intercity bus armed with a large bottle of coca-cola and lots of snacks, I was ready for a short road trip! But what was supposed to be a 2.5-hour journey became 5, after a serious accident caused both lanes of the highway to be closed for half the day. Thankfully, we arrived near the tail-end of the delay, and were only stuck for over 2 hours.

The bus slowly but surely chugged its way to Kaikoura, where I checked into a rather dated motel (A1 Kaikoura Motels and Holiday Park) located smack next to the highway. It was liveable for 3 nights and I received a free room upgrade, but I certainly wouldn’t ever return to that motel – not with its draughts of cold air in the bathroom & kitchen, not with its grubby yellowed curtains, and certainly not with its cobwebs on the bathroom ceiling.

The good thing about small seaside towns is that there’s an abundance of fish n chips stores to cater to tourists. But for someone who already had her fill of oily fish & chips, I wasn’t particularly overjoyed when I reached Kaikoura at night, only to realise that almost all the affordable places were already closed, and that fish n chips were pretty much my only option.

I trekked to Cods and Crayfish, ordering an $18 fish n chips n sausages meal. The fish was a bit too greasy, and the sausage too salty, but it was definitely great value for money. The portion was so massive I ended up keeping half of it for breakfast the next morning (before going llama trekking).

Day 3 – llama trekking

Who doesn’t love llamas? I certainly love all animals, especially those quirky long-necked goofballs, and so I booked a half-day guided llama trek (booked here), easily the most unique travel experience I’ve had in my life.

I was the only person who’d booked a tour that day, which was a problem since the tours usually only proceed if there are multiple guests. But Kevin, the farm owner & llama trek guide, went above and beyond in ensuring I was still able to go for the tour while I was in Kaikoura, arranging for two of his farmhands (a young couple on a working holiday in NZ) to join our tour.

The 3.5-hour tour was incredibly unique: we learnt how to lead & interact with the llamas, explored so many geologically-stunning places along the shorelines (created by the massive 2016 earthquake), and learnt lots of interesting tidbits about each location we stopped at. The llamas themselves were pleasant and easy to walk (I walked with Legend, a lovely black llama), and it was reminiscent of walking gentle big dogs.

After reaching the seal colony and looping back, we stopped for a nice tea session of lemon cake and warm drinks while the llamas grazed. They had a severe case of the munchies – it’s because a llama needs to keep all 4 of its stomachs well-filled round the clock to prevent stomach cramps – my llama behaved like a lawnmower, making a beeline for any patch of weeds he spotted while we trekked.

the seal colony (with seals in the distance if you squint)

It was surreal getting to soak up the raw beauty of Kaikoura’s earthquake-damaged rocky coasts, and even more surreal to walk a llama. Overall, this made my trip to Kaikoura (and enduring a stay in that motel) more than worthwhile, and I’d recommend going for this instead of whale-watching, if you only have a day in this seaside town.

Day 4 – exploring the tiny town

Kaikoura is a spot that roadtrippers tend to stop at for a quick lunch break or an overnight rest, so there’s really only one main street, with cafes/restaurants/souvenir shops. Its main attraction is the beach. Being a lifelong city girl, it was the first time I had ever seen such vast natural beauty, and it honestly made me cry (not exaggerating).

It’s so much more than just a beach, with grey rocks lining the entire length of the coast, seemingly extending into the snow-capped mountains in the distance, as harsh winter waves struck the shore. It was also bitingly cold, with the ocean bringing chilly winds ashore, so I sought shelter in the nearby Kaikoura museum, spending an hour exploring the town’s history.

Once it became sunnier, I took a long walk on the pavement along the highway, back up to the famous Kaikoura Bakery, known for being a good pitstop for pastries & coffee. I treated myself to a delicious salted caramel slice & custard slice, and rounded it off with some delicious & golden fried mussels from Cods and Crayfish (since it was just further down the road).

Day 5 – roadtrip to Christchurch

The next day, a friend from Christchurch drove up to meet me for lunch before our road trip. We had a hearty lunch of seafood chowder (which came with a generous serving of garlic bread) and squid rings at Coopers Catch – it was quite possibly the best chowder in existence, with seafood in every bite.

We then drove 20 minutes up north (the opposite direction from Christchurch) to the nearby Ohau Point Lookout to get a close-up view of baby seals, then driving back into Kaikoura for ice cream from the local dairy.

Our 2.5h southbound drive to Christchurch was great – the sun was shining down on us, the roads were clear, and we had a great playlist of Taylor Swift songs to keep ourselves entertained. And so, yet another leg of this great trip was over.

spot the many baby fur seals at Ohau Point Lookout!
Places for my next visit

If you ever pass by Kaikoura on a road trip, these are some of the other touristy options I’d recommend, and they seem to be well worth the price:

  • This town is known for commercial whale watching, with the most ideal months being November – March, when it’s warmer. I chose not to go for it this time as the weather was rather chilly and I was already going whale-watching during my Sydney trip just 2 weeks after
  • Another more unique experience I found was Dolphin Encounters, a dolphin-spotting tour that even allows you to swim alongside the friendly mammals. I’ll definitely try it out in summer someday
  • If you’re an avid bird-watcher, then you might enjoy Albatross Encounters, yet another touristy boat trip that takes you to view Kaikoura’s wildlife out at sea
All the posts in this series

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