Six and a half years after a devastating earthquake, Kaikoura is back and better than ever, with memorable adventures, a bustling main street and unbeatable new clifftop cabins on top of the town.
Nestled between snow-capped mountains and surf beaches, on the eastern top of the South Island, the coastal town is a revelation.
I've visited the friendly whaling-turned-fishing village many times over the years. And unlike many of the country's tourist hotspots (cough! Queenstown!), not a great deal has changed.
It still attracts adventure and marine-loving backpackers and remains a laidback coastal town, with old style shacks lining the beach and fishermen selling the day's catch from food trucks by the shore.
But since the earthquake of 2016, which caused massive damage and 900 evacuations, Kaikoura and many of its attractions have been spruced up. The main street has new funky boutiques, bars, food trucks, art and live music, and pit stops, including a giant Connect Four game.
But accommodation and restaurants are still reasonably priced and service remains friendly and warm.
The route to Kaikoura was smashed up by the earthquake, and the resulting year-long road work and closures had a huge impact on tourism to the area.
Now the road is back to its beautiful best, with a sensational two-and-a-half hour twisting and turning scenic drive from Christchurch and up through the Waipara wine valley.
On arrival, it's impossible not to relax immediately; and stay that way.
Especially if you're lucky enough to be one of the first guests at Seth and Penny's Clifftop Cabins, their January launch making them the newest and we reckon the best place in the area.
The three perfectly constructed, cosy and chic cabins - Dover, Fyffe and Ruby - overlook the town, beach and mountains beyond, and feature a wonderful outdoor bath, a lushly linen-ed king bed and luxury style and amenities.
They are peaceful and private, but also close to everything - just below the Kaikoura Lookout and steps away from Dempseys Track, which leads easily and directly to town.
What to do
About 25 kilometres north of town, at the Ohau Point seal colony rock platforms, you can ogle hundreds of sunbaking seals: big ones sleeping or waddling around asserting their dominance and dozens of pups playing in the rockpools. There's a newish and well signposted free parking/viewing area just off the road.
Later, you can swim with them and marvel at how these funny looking hairy mammals transform into such graceful creatures under the sea. Famously, you can also swim with dolphins, or take a whale watching flight, cruise or kayak.
And in a country known for its wonderful walks, Kaikoura has some of the best. Hike the three-hour Peninsula walkway loop around town and along the beach, over lush clifftop fields and right by the sea.
Feeling more adventurous? Climb Mt Fyffe, an eight-hour return trek with great views and a chance to check out the farmland, take on the hiking tracks at Saw Cut Gorge or explore the nearby Kekerengu River. There are plenty of cycle trails too and surfers rave about the breaks in the area.
For history buffs, there's Kaikoura Museum, with a three-metre whale jawbone on display, as well as Fyffe House, one of the oldest colonial buildings in the South Island. The pink weatherboard home was built in 1844 on the bones of whales by one of the five whaling companies, and was home to the rather large families of whalers, fishers and the harbour master.
Eating and drinking
Kaikoura was named by the famous explorer Tama ki te Raki - koura means crayfish in Maori - who stopped here to cook fresh crayfish. This continues today in most of the town's eateries; you really can't leave Kaikoura without eating crayfish.
You also have to try a whitebait fritter sambo, a simple but popular South Island coastal "delicacy" - basically a plain piece of buttered supermarket bread (often wholemeal) with a whitebait fritter patty and slice of lemon. The fresher the better for this one. You'll also find them in most cafes in Kaikoura.
After seal watching, head to nearby Nin's Bin (open 10am-4pm daily) for either of these dishes - or lobster, mussels, fish and chips. The (very) rustic van has been serving freshly caught seafood for almost 50 years from the same rugged coastal spot.
For dinner, head to Zephyr Restaurant and tuck into the lamb shoulder (because it's New Zealand) and mussels (because it's Kaikoura).