Cuisine editor Kelli Brett unearths the ultimate culinary tourism in Kaikōura.

Yes, we are certainly spoilt for choice in New Zealand, with so much to discover about how outstanding food and drink can elevate a special weekend away. If you are reading Cuisine, I’d hazard a guess that you are interested in a truly delicious experience when on the road, and a visit to the stunning eco-marine region of Kaikōura delivers just that: excellent food, spectacular views, hidden gems that sit happily in beautiful seclusion and the chance to meet passionate locals.

Chef Fernando Compos takes huge pride in his position as head chef at Hapuku Lodge and so he should. The lodge stands firmly in the area that was designated on the first European maps as ‘Kai Whare’, the Māori term for ‘house of food’, and Fernando elevates his cuisine by utilising the lodge’s gardens as well as the many premium ingredients that the Kaikōura region has to offer.

Tree house at Hapuku Lodge
Photo credit: Benedicte Lassalle

A meal at Hapuku Lodge is a sumptuous affair and you may find pan-fried tarakihi, braised Cheviot pork belly or mānuka-smoked duck breast on a menu that is constantly changing to reflect the seasons. Additional fine-dining experiences can be created especially for helicopter picnics and private chef’s tables.

This luxury lodge and its five unique tree houses nestled within the canopy of a native kānuka grove, provides a magical indoor/outdoor setting from which you can explore your surroundings. The tree houses in particular are designed to take luxury completely out on a limb and instill a great sense of place and an immediate disconnection from the daily grind. Each morning you can take a short wander down the hill to the lodge for a generous continental or cooked breakfast; the only challenge here is whether to go straight back to your room and curl up in complete comfort for the day or venture out to discover a taste of the region.
State Highway 1 at Station Road, RD1, Kaikōura
hapukulodge.com

If you choose to venture out, then a must-do in Kaikōura is to make the short drive to Esses Estate – the only vineyard within the Kaikōura township – nestled at the base of the snow-capped peaks of magnificent Mt Fyffe. Here you will meet Mel and Aaron Skinner who, having searched far and wide, finally found and settled within this plot of vines, which are now over 20 years old. The most exciting part of all is that they specialise solely in the making of méthode traditionnelle and, oh boy, are you in for a treat! Expressive and inspiring, their selection of limited-release, vintage sparklings is both complex and sophisticated. Their minimal intervention approach to winemaking is labour intensive and a labour of love – with each vintage taking approximately five years to create – but the end result is world class. The Skinners have plans for a champagne garden with hopes to have it ready for summer 2022, and I can’t think of anything nicer than having an afternoon of exceptional tasting within these magnificent foothills with this impressive couple. Grab a few bottles to take home if you can – there is not a great deal to go around.
280 Postman Rd, RD1, Kaikōura
esseswine.com

One place I would urge you to visit for lunch during your gourmet weekend is Sime’s Kitchen, where owner-operator Sam McConnochie and his team deliver exceptional and out-of-the- ordinary café fare. Here you can taste the relationships carefully nurtured between Sam and the very best of the region’s producers and artisans. The cabinet food looks spectacular and there will always be a slice or two made from a recipe from his great Aunty June. Sime’s bears tribute to Sam’s family who ran a bakery in Dunedin of the same name, and his grandfather’s treasured recipe book is the inspiration for some of the dishes on the current menu. Open for breakfast and lunch, do not miss Sam’s signature braised ham hock Benedict or the sautéed mushrooms in thyme with cream truffle parmesan reduction. The karaage fried chicken flies out the door and if you go for the sensational New Zealand kombu miso ramen, make sure you add the Canterbury smoked duck breast. The coffee here is one of the best cups in town, made from organic and Fair Trade People’s Coffee beans.
33 Beach Road, Kaikōura
facebook.com/people/Simes-Kitchen- Kaikoura/100025627404630

“I love water! Especially when it’s frozen and surrounded by gin.” A favourite quote from an unknown source that cemented my newly formed friendship with Justine Schroder, the outrageously energetic and sparkling woman behind Mt Fyffe Distillery. Actually I’m not sure who I love more, Justine or her copper still named Bruce, but together they make a formidable team.

Justine and Bruce are creating small-batch award-winning gins influenced by the stories and ingredients that surround them. And oh what a story she will tell you when you take off on the terrific new heli-gin experience created in partnership with Daniel Stevenson at South Pacific Helicopters. You’ll get a spectacularly scenic flight over the Kaikōura Peninsula and Seaward Kaikōura Range before landing on the top of Mt Fyffe for a tasting of two distinctively different gins.

The Woolshed is a London Dry style, pairing the traditional juniper with the earthy tones of kānuka and the freshness of mint and elderflowers. The Shearwater gin combines floral flavours of rosehip and blue borage with local seaweed to produce a unique-tasting oceanic gin.

Justine will tell you the whole story and it is a great one, having already won her the emerging product award at the 2021 New Zealand Spirits Awards. $995 per person will get you a 90-minute experience and includes the gin tasting and a complimentary bottle of your choice of the Woolshed or Shearwater plus an epic view of the region while chief pilot Dan fills you in on the breathtaking scenery as it unfolds beneath you. Just magical. Bookings essential.
mtfyffedistillery.co.nz southpacifichelicopters.co.nz

Now here is as good a reason as you will find for planning well ahead when making your trip to Kaikōura. Just down the road from Hapuku Lodge you will find Hapuku Kitchen, a cooking school, supper club and assortment of inspiring culinary adventures run by hospitality stalwarts Chris Sturgeon and Fiona Read. Over the years they have created a farm that showcases vegetable and herb gardens, a growing tunnel, a mixed orchard, a nuttery and an abundance of edible plants. Their rare-breed animals are raised with welfare and quality of life being of utmost importance. The result of all this exceptional work is a unique home in which the couple generously host experiences for cooks of all levels, focussing on reconnecting the kitchen to the land and the sea. Every cooking experience involves getting right into the thick of it: harvesting, foraging, collecting, meeting the animals, cooking and feasting with a side-serve of valuable tips from Fiona and Chris. If cooking is not your thing but you’d love the opportunity to experience a taste of the local community – from farmers, to fishers, small artisan producers and winemakers – then a meal at their supper club is definitely a must-do and is also definitely a must-book-ahead (1st and 3rd Friday of every month). I can guarantee that sharing a meal that has been made from ingredients picked and gathered from their farm and the surrounding region will leave you with memories of Kaikōura that will last a lifetime.
17 Parsons Road, RD, Hapuku, Kaikōura
hapukukitchen.co.nz

I truly believe that few places possess the transformational power of Kaikōura, where majestic mountains meet the sea and an abundance of marine wildlife creates a unique maritime landscape. What are you waiting for? You are in for an extraordinary couple of days.

Kelli travelled to Kaikōura courtesy of Uniquely Kaikōura. For updated information on activities, accommodation and shopping see kaikoura.co.nz