Like Peniche in Portugal, the Kaikoura surf is powered by huge underwater ocean trenches. They add some real gumption to the region’s breaks, which roll into bays beneath stunning mountain ranges. It’s a NZ must!
Kaikoura surf at a glance
- A huge variety of different waves in the region
- Stunning scenery
- Whale watching when you’re not on the swell!
- The better breaks have big lineups
- Flat summers
- You’ll probably need a car to reach the best breaks
This is a part of our greater guide to surfing New Zealand.
What will I find in this guide to Kaikoura surf?
An introduction to surfing in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a small town on a small peninsula on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s best-known around the globe as a mecca for whale watching. But it’s also the anchor of one of the most reliable and enticing surf regions Down Under. The reason for that is the unique geography of the ocean bed. Millions of years of geotectonic movements have left it scarred by deep canyons. That pushes strong currents up from the Southern Ocean and across the South Pacific to bless the shoreline with some of NZ’s most consistent and pumping breaks.
Different guides define the region of the Kaikoura surf in different ways. We’ll take it all the way from Lake Grasmere on the Marlborough border to the fringes of northern Christchurch. That territory along boasts at least 30 well-known breaks, not to mention countless more that we’ll leave you to discover on the ground (yep – secrets!).
There’s no trademark style to the Kaikoura surf. Some of the spots here are heavy points that can stand up on the biggest swells. Others are exposed beach breaks. Others are mellow longboard waves that have long, cruisy rides. It’s really all about getting a feel for the area, asking the local line up for tips on where’s best to ride in what conditions, and enjoying the raw scenery of it all – because, just as you’d expect, this corner of Kiwiland is a true feast for the eyes!
Where is Kaikoura?
The town of Kaikoura rests up Highway 1 (the main north-to-south highway on NZ’s South Island) from Christchurch. It’s about 2.5 hours in the car from the Garden City, but a little less if you’re driving down from Picton (where the ferries come in from North Island). More generally speaking, Kaikoura faces eastwards to gaze straight out at the breadth of the South Pacific Ocean. There’s not a speck of land between it and the remote, wind-blasted bays of the Chatham Islands, which leaves plenty of ocean to grumble up those groundswells!
A guide to the surf spots in Kaikoura
This wave-bashed region’s surf runs the gamut from point breaks up in Kekerengu to pebble beach breaks in Gooch’s Beach. Kaikoura town sits in the midst of them all, so a car and a base there means you can access the whole shebang via Highway 1. It’s a feast…
Recent earthquakes have actually helped the beach and point break combo at Ward. They both seem to have plumped up a little since 2016 and now offer the occasional day of rippable slabs. Bigger swells are better because the shore breaks can get pretty shallow in these parts, but you could also wait for low tide to get some better altitude between you and the ocean floor. Keep your eyes peeled for the resident dolphins!
June-August can fire up the beach at Kekerengu, which also boasts a duo of point breaks at either end. Rarely crowded but also never the cleanest ride you’ll get in Kaikoura, it’s a great place to escape the crowds that coalesce on the famous breaks and closer to Christchurch. Cross shore winds are the biggest culprits in ruining the scene but can sometimes help if you’re seeking mushy waves for practice.
Not to be confused with its namesake estuary break over in Oz, Clarence Point is a bit of a local’s spot that drags along the north end of picturesque Waipapa Bay. On smaller days, the ride is a long, mellow, and longboardy type right-hander. During the middle of winter, it’s not uncommon for things to get hollow and fast. Just be sure to check the forecast before to match it to your level. Watch out for rips.
Beginners can usually eat their hearts out on this low and easy-going beach break. The only things to keep an eye on are the shallow pebbles, but that’s rarely a problem if you’re cruising the foamy (and this wave is perfect for a foamy). Good protection from dominant northerlies thanks to the high cliffs and mountains behind. That gives way to regular groundswell sets that are best at shoulder to head height. Just try to get in early before the Kaikoura surf schools!
Mangamanu is the jewel in the crown of Kaikoura surf. Long and peeling left-to-righters flood the whole bay and come off the rocky point into a steady offshore breeze courtesy of the soaring Kaikoura Range that rises to the east. On other days, when the swell is more easterly, they turn into A-frames that are rippable in both directions. Line ups can be big, but the prize or waiting are some of the longest rides this side of Raglan. Oh, and the views are simply incredible, so you shouldn’t get bored!
Some say they call it Meatworks because you’ll get all churned up on the underfoot boulders and rocks if you drop in and bail here. The truth is this one probably isn’t as gnarly as the name makes out. It can be heavy on big days and has quite unpredictable sets that can lash out and easily push you over the peak or drag you into the impact. The unpredictability seems to have been heightened by the 2016 quake, too, so watch out. Expect fast take offs, some hollow sections, and closeouts when it’s really large.
Close to the town but really nothing special, we’d recommend Gooch’s Beach Kaikoura for those off days when you can’t be bothered to jump in the car and seek out something different. That’s not to say it’s awful. On medium-swell days, you’ll find fun peaks here with lefts and right, along with lots of mushy whitewash for total novices.
If it weren’t for Mangamanu, Kahutara surf would probably be the pre-eminent break in Kaikoura. It’s really an upper-intermediate to expert wave. Known for holding up on those punchy winter swells to heights of 10 foot, it’s a challenging river mouth that rolls over rocky reef. Barrels are easy to find when it’s rolling, but the drop in isn’t for the faint hearted. You’ll need to paddle hard and be seasoned at fast pull ins. Pig dogs galore, folks!
The first major beginner-level break to the south of Kaikoura town is also a doozy for casual surfers who like challenging beach peaks that go both left and right. Usually a little bigger than Okiwi, this exposed spot has punchy A-frames when dominant S-SE swells kick in during the winter. Notoriously flat during the summer months, sadly.
The Kaikoura surfing season
It’s possible to surf in Kaikoura no matter the time of the year. That’s just the joys of heading this far south in NZ, where the latitude helps the weather stay unpredictable. There’s no saying when te southerly groundswells could kick up this direction, even during the serene summer days of December and January.
But if you’re on the hunt for consistency, we’d say pack the 5/4 and the hoodie and head south to Kaikoura surf spots in the New Zealand winter. That’s when the Southern Ocean gets involved and you feel the full force of the offshores that are generated by the microclimate up in the Kaikoura Range. It’s also when fewer tourists are about, so line ups are smaller.
Where to stay for surfing in Kaikoura
The best way to go about planning a surf trip to Kaikoura is to look for a hotel in the town itself. It might not offer walking access to the most iconic breaks or the remoter beaches mentioned above, but it’s certainly the most convenient spot to base yourself. Why? Well, for starters, Highway 1 runs right by it, so you can usually whiz up and down that to get to any wave that’s working in less than an hour. On top of that, the town centre and urban beaches boast by far the best array of restaurants and hotels in the region…
Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments ($$)
Close to the beginner-friendly waves of Gooch’s Beach, Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments sit literally a (short) stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean. They are perfect for both couples and groups, with a selection of single-room and two-bedroom units on the menu. Each has a contemporary sleeping space, private ensuite, and fully-fledged kitchen, while some even offer terraces overlooking the sea – bag one of them if you want to check surf conditions at a glance!
Kaikoura TOP 10 Holiday Park ($)
Close to the main whale-watching outfitters but also Highway 1 (which can take you to all the best Kaikoura surf breaks in a jiffy), this top-rated holiday park has basic cabins and units with bunk beds and terraces. There are also some more sumptuous rental option that have private living spaces and kitchenettes. It’s really all about the communal facilities, though – you’ll get access to a heated outdoor pool, a bubbling hot tub (great for after-surf relaxation) and a games room.
Waves Luxury Apartments ($$$)
Beautifully finished modern interiors spill onto salt-washed balconies that gaze straight out across the main beaches of Kaikoura at this luxurious apart-hotel. It’s close to the centre of town and Gooch’s Beach, but also boasts free on-site parking and walking access to the coast. Apartments can sleep up to six people across two rooms and a communal space, so they are good if you’re on a NZ surf trip as a family or group of friends.
Surf shops in Kaikoura
Kaikoura Surf Company
You’ll find the outlet for Kaikoura Surf Company down on Beach Road. Stock runs the gamut from branded après surfwear to skate shoes to snow gear (for those piste sessions on the nearby South Island ski fields). The folk are also uber friendly, so drop in and don’t be afraid to ask for tips on where to go and what’s good with the current conditions.
Despite the name, Kaikoura’s Coastal Sports covers both shoreline and mountain with their range of hiking gear and surf gear. Drop by to find a huge array of wetsuits and boards for your time in the water. On top of that comes the MTB hardware, the freediving department, the action cams, the trekking stuff – the list goes on!
Where to eat in Kaikoura
Don’t hit the Kaikoura surf with a rumble in the belly or forget to refuel after long ocean days. This selection of fantastic local eateries is something you won’t want to miss:
Zephyr Restaurant is a real local gem. Facing the oceanfront on bustling West End, it cooks up Kiwi-Mediterranean fusion food that’s sure to satisfy any gourmands in the surf group. We’re talking the likes of butter-garlic mussels, juicy NZ steaks, and smoked salmon and pickles. It’s probably best to book ahead.
Kaikoura Indian Restaurant
Simply named and truly Indian, this subcontinent cookery offers spicy dals and dishes for all. For veggies, there’s a mix of cauliflower gobi and butter paneer (a type of Indian cottage cheese). Meat eaters get to pick lamb and chicken and fish masala mains. You’ll also enjoy a range of nan breads and rotis to go with the lot. Perfect to refill after a long day on the Kahutara surf!
Hislops Wholefoods Café
Chill out and fill up before or after that morning sesh at the lovely Hislops Wholefoods Café. It’s a classic NZ diner-coffee shop. The food includes the likes of free-range poached eggs benedict with local bacon cuts and uber-sweet stacks of pancakes. The setting is nice too, particularly when the sun’s a-shining down on that open terrace out front.
Things to do when you’re not surfing in Kaikoura
If the Kaikoura surf isn’t pumping, which admittedly is rare, there are still some downright amazing things to get up to in this corner of New Zealand…
Thanks to the rich and cold ocean waters that swirl all around the Kaikoura headland, this is one of NZ’s top whale-watching spots. You can hardly swing a cat in the main town without hitting a tour operator that offers trips out to see the great beasts. If you’ve not done it yet, it’s a real bucket-list-buster. Orcas come in the summer, but the best season is the Kiwi wintertime (June-August). Trips range in price but can run into hundreds of dollars!
Puhi Peaks Nature Reserve
Trade the wetsuit for the walking boots by heading for the Puhi Peaks Nature Reserve. It’s draped over the stunning Kaikoura Range just to the north of the town. There, tussock-topped hills and craggy summits await. Some even have sweeping views of the Pacific. Others roll down to hidden valleys were the spring wildflower blooms are spectacular. Consider a guided walking tour to do it with in-the-know fauna and flora experts.
This ultimate guide to Kaikoura surf is always being updated and changed. If you think we’ve missed something or gotten something wrong, we’d sure love you to get in touch. You can use email or just drop a message in the comments below.