Kiwi Road Trip Part II: Kaikoura, Motueka, Nelson & Picton

We split our remaining time on the South Island between Kaikoura, Motueka, Nelson & Picton; a packed schedule considering we visited them all in just 8 days. But the long week included the most memorable wildlife encounter of our entire trip until then and still to this day: swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura. I remember finding out about the opportunity during one of the many weekends we spent researching our trip instead of enjoying the nice Los Angeles weather. “That's it, we're going to New Zealand”, I told Tyler as I jumped out of my seat and showed him my finding. Of course, there was more to the decision than that but I have to admit that my desire to visit NZ grew tenfold that day.

Fast-forward 5 months and there we were sitting on the edge of the boat with 30 other freezing wetsuit-clad visitors, holding on for dear life as we swayed from side to side in the choppy waters, waiting for the signal to jump. Before I go on, there are two things you should know about me: (1) I've loved dolphins for as long as I can remember and consider them to be my favorite animal but (2) swimming in deep waters, not knowing what's lurking around me or underneath me scares me out of my mind. So you can imagine the combination of excitement and nervousness I was dealing with that morning. Most of the boat ride is actually still a bit of a blur.

Once we spotted our first large group of dolphins, we were instructed to make our way to the back of the boat, put our masks on and wait for the signal. All I remember after that was the instructors yelling “GO, GO, GO, GO, GO!!!” and everyone jumping out in the water at the same time. By the time, I regained my senses, Tyler was already 10 feet ahead of me while I, on the other hand, was freaking out. Literally, I was having a panic attack in the middle of the ocean. I couldn't breathe, my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest and the choppy waters were of no help. Yet somehow I found the strength to swim over to Tyler. Thankfully, he found a way to subdue the panic attack and asked if I wanted to go back to the boat. “No”, I said. I was determined: I came to swim with wild dolphins and I wasn't leaving until I did just that. So, I got my mask back on, put my head underwater and watched as the tens of dolphins swam all around us. I was still freaking out inside and had to come back for larger breaths of air every now and then but seeing these dolphins at arms length was worth every bit of stress.

The boat made 4 stops all together each a little less scary and way more fun. The second time, I seemed to be the only one that swam in the right direction and so, the only human amid a sea of dolphins. I actually watched them from above this time. The sheer number of dolphins all around left me in shock that I couldn't get bring myself to watch from under water. But I kind of liked it better that way. There must have been 200 dolphins and all I could see were fins in every direction I looked. By the third and fourth drop-offs, I felt way more confident that I was one of the last ones to get back on the boat. The experience was so incredible that even now, months later, I still get giddy thinking about it. If you're in New Zealand, make your way to Kaikoura and book the tour with Dolphin Encounter. It's worth every bit of the hefty price tag.

After that eventful morning, we departed for Motueka the following day, a small town outside of Abel Tasman National Park. But not before enjoying a walk along the Kaikoura Peninsula...

We enjoyed a nice lunch at The Original Kaikoura Seafood BBQ stand (Paua fritter on the left, Crayfish fritter on the right) before we hit the road again

We reached Motueka early that evening under a bright sun. Wonderful news, we thought, as we were heading for an all day hike at Abel Tasman National Park the very next day. Unfortunately for us, we woke up to dark gray clouds and one of the activities Tyler was most looking forward to in NZ left us disappointed and quite drenched by the end of the day (see evidence below).

On the bright side, we had decided to forego kayaking (which would have left us even wetter) to spend more time hiking. Most of the trail we walked along the day was also covered by trees so the rain didn't bother too much and made the greens pop even more. We just didn't get to see the amazing blue waters the park usually showcases.

After 5 hours of hiking in the rain, we got back in the car, blasted the heat and drove to Nelson, a small city, which served as a good resting spot for a day. In fact, I took no pictures there. We had a good time just walking around town and enjoying the Saturday market. From Nelson, we left for Picton, our last stop on the South Island. On our way from Nelson to Picton, we drove along the Queen Charlotte Drive, a lovely drive with wonderful viewpoints. We even found a street with loads of fun mailboxes.

Queen Charlotte Sound

The small little town of Picton

With such a packed first two weeks in New Zealand, our only goal for Picton was to visit the wineries of the area. We chose the following four: Saint Clair Family Estate, Seresin Estate, Te Whare Ra Wines (our favorite) and Hunter's Wines. The tastings were fun, delicious (and free!), but our time in Mendoza, Argentina, ruined us a little. We were disappointed that the wineries didn't offer tours, just tastings. Nonetheless, we shared some great conversations with a couple of the owners and still ended up buying 3 bottles of wine (2 as gifts).

Notes & A Few Helpful Tips

On the drive from Queenstown to Kaikoura, we stopped by the Moeraki Boulders for a nice rest. We didn't get the best weather but it's a fun stop if you're in the area.


  • Fish Tank Lodge (Kaikoura): a rather basic hostel but the common room is very homey with large couches and a big communal table. Kitchen was average, but there was plenty of storage and fridge space. Rate was NZ$26 per dorm bed, including free WiFi and parking.

  • Eden's Edge (Motueka): nice setup, great facilities and amazing garden setting with cute cats. Room had shared bathroom but sink in the room. If you're doing the full Abel Tasman walk, this is a great place to stay before/after. Hosts are gracious and great to talk to. And the setting is incredible for relaxation. NZ$26 per bed in 4 bed dorm, including parking. 

  • The Prince Albert Backpackers (Nelson): Waffles! NZ$26 per bed in 4 bed dorm, including free generous breakfast with, you guessed it, waffles! WiFi, and off-street parking included. Each dorm was ensuite, I believe. 

  • Tombstone Backpackers (Picton): One of our favorite hostels in NZ. Free included breakfast each morning including cheese scones (limited to 100/day, so wake up early!), cereal, multiple types of bread, honeys and jams, and tea. Throw in free WiFi and parking and generous kitchen space and we were in heaven! It was also very close to the ferry terminals, convenient for the 8 AM departures. NZ$26 per bed in 8 bed dorm.