In New Zealand, paddling is more than just a common weekend pastime—it’s a sport deeply rooted in the country’s history and culture. It was around 800 years ago that the first Polynesian explorers arrived on Aotearoa’s shores by way of waka. Using only the stars, birds and other ancient navigation techniques at their disposal, they paddled across vast expanses of ocean in these double-hulled ocean-going canoes. In fact, the South Island is known as Te Waka a Māui; its name stemming from the canoe of the demigod who pulled up the North Island.
Today, the tradition of setting out on the water lives strong, with the most popular version being New Zealand sea kayak adventures. It only makes sense—New Zealand is an island country, where you’re never more than 130 kilometers from the ocean.
From half-day excursions exploring hidden island lagoons to multi-day adventures that hug coastlines of golden sand, here are the best places to kayak in New Zealand, regardless of your skill level.
Best places to kayak in New Zealand
With braided rivers that flow out to the sea and more than 15,000 kilometers of coastline to discover, the question perhaps isn’t “where to go kayaking in New Zealand” but rather “where can’t you go kayaking in New Zealand.”
If you’re beside the ocean, a lake or a river—which accurately describes most of the country—you’ll have no trouble finding a kayaking outfitter or tour operator nearby. This is particularly true if you’re traveling to watersports meccas like Abel Tasman National Park, Kaikoura, Marlborough Sounds, Milford Sound, the Coromandel or the Bay of Islands.
Whitewater kayakers, on the other hand, will find that rafting outfitters are easier to come by—but there are some exceptions to the rule. Your best bet on the North Island is the Waikato River outside Taupo, or the Rangitikei, starting from Ohakune. Down south, you’ll find one of the country’s only whitewater kayaking schools beside the Buller River in Murchison, while the Clutha River, which flows from Lake Wanaka, offers up class I and II rapids.
Where to kayak with orcas in New Zealand
Every summer, a news article or three pops up with incredible footage of kayakers paddling directly alongside orcas off the coast of New Zealand.
But while humpbacks, blue whales, and countless species of dolphins can be found year-round, seeing orcas up close is far from par for the course. Few, if any, outdoor outfitters in the country will market or sell tours based on the opportunity to see orcas. Instead, you’re much more likely to find tours that increase your odds of getting up-close-and-personal with fur seals, penguins or dolphins. The following are the best regions to look:
You don’t have to travel far from the country’s biggest city to find whales—in fact, you don’t have to leave Auckland at all. With huge protected marine areas, the Hauraki Gulf is one of the best places to sea kayak in New Zealand. It’s home to over 20 species of marine mammals, including Bryde’s whales—this is one of the only spots in the world where you’ll find them in shallower water year-round.
Bay of Islands
Located about a three-hour drive north of Auckland, Bay of Islands is known for its secluded islands, turquoise waters, rich Māori culture and wildlife viewing opportunities. Owing to its sheltered waters and subtropical climate, it’s home to an estimated 500 dolphins, and frequented by orcas and long-finned pilot whales. There are also more than 144 islands to explore, with most boat and kayaking tours departing from the port side town of Paihia.
If you’ve traveled on the ferry from the North Island to the Sound Island, you’ve arrived in the Marlborough Sounds. Many international tourists will simply stop for a drink in this wine-producing region before moving on, but they’re missing out. Whales and even orcas enter the Sounds on their migratory routes, while dolphins and stingrays can be spotted at any time of year.
Just 2.5 hours north of Christchurch is one of the country’s best whale watching and kayaking destinations. Remember that video of a kayaker getting slapped with an octopus by a seal a few years back? That was filmed here. While you’re unlikely to get a tentacle to the face, you have a high likelihood of being joined on your paddle by the area’s dusky dolphins, penguins or fur seals.
Kayak with orca tours
- Auckland Sea Kayaks offers half-day, full-day and multi-day paddles in the Hauraki Gulf, with a sunset tour to the volcanic Rangitoto Island being a favorite.
- Bay of Islands Kayaking is based on Urupukapuka Island, the bay’s biggest island, and is the only operator in the region to offer full-day tours. It also offers kayak rentals for experienced paddlers.
- Wilderness Guides is locally owned and the staff here are experts in exploring the Marlborough Sounds. In addition to basic sea kayak rentals, it has multiple packages that allow you to explore the Sounds or the Queen Charlotte Track by kayak, bike or foot—or a combination of all three.
- Kaikoura Kayaks specializes in wildlife encounters, including seals, humpback whales, dusky dolphins, albatrosses and blue penguins. It hires out sit-on-top and sea kayaks, but beginners might find the exposed conditions better suited to a fully guided tour.
Where to kayak in glowworm caves in New Zealand
Chances are you’ve heard of Waitomo, renowned for its glowworm caverns. The gnat larvae (arachnocampa luminosa) are endemic to New Zealand, meaning their blue-green bioluminescence can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Add in the fact that they congregate in Waitomo’s underground system of limestone caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites and you have the recipe for a very popular tourist attraction.
But the reality is that glowworms can be found across the country—and there’s no experience more ethereal than kayaking through glowworm caves in New Zealand.
Lake District, Waikato
Waikato is located close by the famous Waitomo glowworm caverns, but it’s also where you’ll find off-the-beaten track glowworm adventures in the open-air, including off Lake Karapiro just outside Cambridge. The Māori name for glowworms is “titiwai,” which translates roughly to “lights over water”—which is exactly what you’ll see as you float in the dark and silence down the Pokaiwhenua Stream.
Waimarino, Bay of Plenty
The landing site of several migratory wakas that brought early Polynesians to New Zealand, the Bay of Plenty is a large bight along the North Island’s East Coast. The seaside surfing and golfing destination is also a haven for paddlers. Here, just outside regional center Tauranga, you’ll find Lake McLaren Falls Park. At the head of the lake, a narrow, high-sided canyon glows with the light of thousands of glowworms.
Glowworm cave tours by kayak
- Waimarino Kayak Tours is the regional expert in guided evening glowworms tours of McLaren Falls Park.
- Lake District Adventures: A short drive from both Cambridge and Hamilton, this family-owned guiding company offers evening excursions, where you float down Pokaiwhenua Stream lit only by the light of glowworms.
More can’t-miss places to kayak in New Zealand
Kayaking in Abel Tasman, New Zealand
Known for its golden-hued sands and aquamarine waters, Abel Tasman National Park on the north end of the South Island is one of New Zealand’s most preeminent kayaking destinations. It’s also home to the Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of the country’s designated “Great Walks.” Don’t let that description mislead you though—you can also opt to complete the entirety or a portion of the 60-kilometer journey by kayak, where you can expect to see fur seals sunning themselves on granite headlands and boulder beaches.
There are a number of outfitters in the area that offer Abel Tasman kayak rental and tours. But if you’re looking for one of the best half-day Abel Tasman Kayak tours, it’s actually not by kayak at all—it’s aboard a double-hulled canoe with Waka Abel Tasman.
Best Abel Tasman kayak rentals and tours
- Waka Abel Tasman: Part paddling tour, part Māori cultural experience on water, Waka Abel Tasman runs half-day trips to the iconic Split Apple Rock that depart from Kaiteriteri.
- Abel Tasman Kayak was the country’s first sea kayaking company. For over 35 years, it’s run half-day, full-day and overnight tours in the national park, including combo walk packages on the Coastal Track.
Kayaking in Milford Sound, New Zealand
Deep in New Zealand’s southwest corner lies Fiordland, one of the country’s most difficult to access, yet most-visited destinations. Milford Sound—which is technically a fjord, not a sound—is known for its excessive rainfall (on average, it receives nearly seven meters of rain per year), resulting in dozens of waterfalls cascading from misty green peaks directly into the ocean.
The vast majority of tourists come here to do the classic two-hour boat journey, which travels past the iconic Mitre Peak, Bridal Veil Falls and Lady Bowen Falls. But getting directly on the water is your best chance to see rare Fiordland crested penguins, seals, dusky dolphins and bottlenose dolphins.
Both Milford Sound and nearby Doubtful Sound are worth the time, effort and expense to visit. While you may have a more difficult time finding Milford Sound kayak rentals, there’s no shortage of Milford Sound kayak tours—but you’ll want to book well in advance and be aware that tours are heavily weather dependent.
Best Milford Sound kayak rentals and tours
- Rosco’s Milford Kayaks: Known as the “Mayor of Milford,” owner-operator Rosco has been running tours on Milford Sound for nearly 30 years. He runs half- and full-day excursions, which can be combined with the Milford cruise or the Milford Track.
- Go Orange: In 2020, Go Orange won Fiordland Operator of the Year, in part for its four-hour kayaking tours departing from Deepwater Basin.
Kayaking in Cathedral Cove, New Zealand
With countless hidden coves and beaches, the North Island’s northeast peninsula is a summertime destination for locals and international visitors alike. Two of its most well-known attractions are Hot Water Beach, where you dig your own hot tub in the sand, and the sea caves of Cathedral Cove.
The latter is only accessible by foot or boat, but let us be the first to say that the one-hour walk to get there, while lovely, isn’t the most exciting hike in New Zealand. It’s also often packed. Kayaking is the perfect alternative—not only does it have the best views, it gets you away from the crowds.
Looking for a Cathedral Cove kayak rental? Swing by the Hahei General Store, where you can rent a paddleboard, solo kayak or tandem kayak for a half-day. Otherwise, you’ll want to sign up for a guided experience with Cathedral Cove Kayak Tours.
Then again, if you want to avoid the crowds altogether, skip Cathedral Cove and head south to Whangamata, where you can kayak into the Whenuakura Wildlife Sanctuary’s lagoon center. Also known as Donut Island, this destination can only be accessed by kayak or paddleboard. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why it was a local secret until recently.
Best Cathedral Cove kayak rentals and tours
- Hahei General Store
- Cathedral Cove Kayak Tours: The classic half-day excursion includes paddling through sea caves to Cathedral Cove—but full-day versions are also on offer.
- Surfsup: For tours or affordable kayak rentals to access Whenuakura, turn to Surfsup in Whangamata, located an hour south of Cathedral Cove.
When to kayak in New Zealand
Owing to its mild winters, New Zealand is a year-round kayaking destination, with summer (from December until March) serving up some of the calmest conditions and hottest weather. However, it’s also the busiest time of year—particularly the school holiday months of December and January—and you’re most likely to encounter crowds and peak season pricing. Book far in advance or push back your visit to the shoulder season.
If you’re near a body of water in New Zealand, you can invariably find an outfitter offering kayak rentals or tours. | Photo courtesy of: The Coromandel