The heart palpitations began as we approached a seven-metre motorhome that resembled more a beast than holiday. Neither I or my partner Josh had any experience with a vehicle larger than our zippy Honda Fit. We, admittedly, are city-slickers through and through.
Luckily I had mentally prepared for this excursion. I recalled my list of questions to rattle off to the staff at motorhome rental company McRent in Christchurch. How does one plug a motorhome into a campsite? I thought. How on earth does one find parking? I was far too timid to broach any question involving the toilet.
Our rental was a Dethleffs Trend T 6757 DBM, roughly double the size of our compact car. My heart once again fluttered, this time with excitement, as we toured the spacious RV. The large oval shaped bed would easily accommodate our height and, with a foldable TV screen, it had a home-away-from-home feel about it. But the real test would be driving this bad boy off the lot and heading up the north Canterbury coast in one piece. Our mantra was simple yet foolproof: thou shall never, ever take the motorhome through a drive-thru.
I handed Josh the keys. He has always been a skilled driver, but I could see his face glistening as we drove the motorhome off the lot. Our speed (and Josh’s confidence) picked up as Christchurch disappeared in the southern horizon. It was just us, our motorhome, and a 180km stretch of SH1 to our destination.
Ambience in Waipara
The two-hour drive from Christchurch to Kaikoura is practically begging to be broken up, with plenty of quaint towns, wineries and natural wonders along the way. We had survived just under an hour without accident – we deserved a rest, right?
Josh pulled the brakes in Amberley, a popular stopover town with just enough cafés to entice passers-by to drop in. Sustenance at the Nor’wester Café came in the form of towering eggs benedict, a much-needed breakfast for these motorhomers-in-training.
Waipara Valley was a short drive away and, we discovered, a prominent stop between Amberley and Kaikoura. The vineyard-dense region, once a sleepy railway town, is now home to more than 75 wineries. Many of these (to our delight) were dotted along the highway. Pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay rule in this neck of the woods, so for travellers who enjoy the tipple, this is a stop worth taking.
Most wineries are open for tastings from Friday through Sunday, as well as garden-to-table dining for motorists with an appetite. I eagerly checked my watch. It was just past midday – a socially acceptable time to pull into the Waipara Springs vineyard for a wee tasting. Five wee sips of wine later and we were off, inching closer to our coastal destination.
Off the beaten track
Feeling spontaneous, we turned off near Domett for a quick coastal detour. The country road twisted and turned around farms and hills as we approached Gore Bay. Most motorists pull over roughly halfway between SH1 and the coast for a peek at Cathedral Cliffs, a geographical spectacle and convenient place to stretch the legs. A large wall of spiraling clay pillars can be seen in the distance which is the result of soft sandstone eroding over time. Gore Bay, not far from the cliffs, reminded us of the days of no mobile reception and colourful (but basic) baches. It’s a small, isolated holiday spot worthy of a stopover – or even a longer stay at the Gore Bay Campgrounds, which has 10 powered sites adjacent to the beach.
Back on SH1, we felt privileged to be driving on what had become a gloriously warm day. As we approached Kaikoura, the sun beamed down like a spotlight on the nearby mountains and quaint seaside town. We pulled into the Top 10 Holiday Park and, surrounded by seasoned motorhomers, managed to connect to power without any hiccups. There seemed to be a non-verbal language in this campground – friendly nods, grunts and waves were exchanged between just about everyone. One neighbour even stopped at our site to examine our rental. “Now that’s a good-looking motorhome,” he told us. The next morning we were greeted with a glorious sunrise. It was a quiet, misty morning and we realised several other motorhomers had left their homely comforts to watch the pink-and-orange glow creep over the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges.
Gateway to the sea
Straddled by sea and sky-high mountains on either side, Kaikoura is a winner for both views and activities. The seaside town sits as close as 500 metres to an underwater canyon; it’s this nutrient-rich environment that keeps dolphins, sperm whales, and other sea life around regardless of the season. Whale watching is by far the most popular marine activity, but there are lots of other options for those willing to embrace their sea legs.
That morning we shimmied into blubber-like wetsuits for a sea kayak tour of the peninsulas. Kaikoura Kayaks owner Matt Foy knew where to spot all of the friendly seals. Several even slipped from their rocks to approach our canary-yellow kayaks. On such a peaceful sunny day, it was difficult to imagine a better way to experience the marine life in Kaikoura.
After a quick change in the motorhome we headed out with our walking shoes to the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. This grassy outcrop has long served as the lifeblood of Kaikoura’s economy. Legend has it Maui steadied himself on the peninsula while he fished the North Island from the sea. At least 14 pa sites are scattered across the land where generations of Maori once lived. In the 1850s, whalers used the rocky perimeter as a natural butcher’s block. Fast-forward a few hundred years and the peninsula still nourishes the region, though perhaps in a less literal sense.
The easy track twists and turns along the clifftops, providing views of a sprawling seal colony and rugged mountains-to-sea landscape. The loop track takes at least three hours to complete; for a shorter trip, backtrack to your starting point.
A shore thing
The stretch of highway north of Kaikōura boasts some of the best crayfish money can buy. It was the same stretch that was closed for 13 months after the Kaikōura earthquake in 2016. These days it’s alive and well; seafood shacks dotted along the road are considered a rite of passage for locals and visitors alike. We settled on Nin’s Bin, an iconic no-frills caravan that has been serving fresh crayfish along the coast since 1977. While the local delicacy can be found just about anywhere in town, we left convinced that crayfish is best served at a picnic table by the ocean.
Ōhau Point is another popular pitstop north of Kaikōura. Prior to the earthquake, visitors walked to Ōhau Waterfall to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ as seal pups splashed in their secret watering hole. While that track was destroyed in the quake, a car park overlooking the colony opened to the public in 2018. And once again visitors were able to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’. Hundreds of seals snooze on the rocky outcrop below the car park, some in piles of two or three. As we looked closer, we noticed seals performing aquatic acrobatics in the shallow, rocky pools below. I found it difficult to peel my eyes away – Josh had to practically drag me away so we could return to Kaikōura for the night.
A whale of a time
With less than a day left of our trip, I was already feeling bitten by the campervan craze. Our 6am wakeup had never been so pleasant; we cranked up the heating before heading to the Whale Watch car park for our last outing in Kaikōura. On the Whale Watch catamaran, it took just a whisper of a sperm whale for the boat to fall into a frenzied dance. “Move to the starboard side,” the captain announced and, like a pod of dolphins, the passengers swiftly moved to take their place for the grand finale. We gasped in unison as the enormous creature dove into the water, leaving a (rather photogenic) tail in its wake. A whale sighting is likely but never guaranteed. We were lucky – we spotted two sperm whales and one humpback over the course of two hours.
Driving back towards Christchurch, we felt chuffed as ever. Kaikōura, though still recovering from the earthquake, had greeted us with its renowned coastal charm and hospitality. The warm-hearted spirit of the region is both tangible and undeniable. The north Canterbury corridor offers what I suspect we all are after — gorgeous views, plentiful activities and a smooth ride along the way.
While we left with only a small taste of the motorhome experience, I’d take a Dethleffs Trend T 6757 DBM over our zippy Honda any day of the week. Our spacious motorhome was a delight and, I’m pleased to report, successfully benefitted from our “no drive-thru” mantra. Though I suspect that it won’t be long before we’re back on the road, repeating the mantra once again.
- There’s plenty of RV parking suitable at the Kaikōura i-Site for a small hourly fee. kaikoura.co.nz
- Kaikōura Top 10 Holiday Park is one of several local campgrounds in town and is the closest to the town centre and Whale Watch. kaikouratop10.co.nz
- The Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway, a 11.7km walk, can take up to three hours. Start in the city centre, the South Bay car park or Point Kean car park. More information at doc.govt.nz
Brew Moon, Amberley: A local brewery serving craft beer and woodfired pizza.
Black Estate, Waipara: A vineyard-cum-restuarant boasting organic wine and seasonal, organic ingredients.
Slam Club, Kaikoura: Toasted sandwiches taken to the next level. Think slow-roasted game meats and homemade sauces.
Ohau Point: Peer down at a thriving seal colony at this popular highway pitstop.
Nin’s Bin: An iconic blue-and-white caravan serving fresh crayfish along the coast.
Strawberry Tree: A cosy Irish-themed pub located in the heart of Kaikoura.
McRent Motorhome Rentals
All of the motorhomes at McRent are less than two years old. With offices in Auckland and Christchurch, a road trip with plenty of space and comfort can be launched on either island. The Dethleffs Trend T 6757 DBM, or the Comfort Standard, is a deluxe option for couples seeking a home-away-from-home. Some of the benefits include:
- A semi-integrated motorhome that even a beginner will be able to manoeuvre
- An island bed that is easily accessible from both sides
- Matching closets (with hangers) on each side of the bed
- A well-designed kitchen with plenty of storage
- A completely separate shower and toilet
- A foldable TV and satellite