To the best of my knowledge this is the first time Kaikoura has been nominated for one of those ubiquitous lists of 101 Things to Do Before You Die. This despite the fact that it rates way ahead of getting remarried in Vegas or learning to make an origami frog. There are two compelling reasons why heaven should wait. The first is that this little coastal town on New Zealand's South Island is all the evidence we need that we should embrace the admirable principles of eco-tourism. And, by extension, it's probably the feel-good capital of the southern hemisphere.
Kaikoura is one of the smallest local government districts in New Zealand, with a population of just under 4000. Each year it attracts one million tourists, and its lesson to us all is the way that it manages them without anyone feeling that they're being managed. Farming, fishing and forestry have sustained Kaikoura since European settlement in the 1840s, but today the major resource is a tourism boom so dramatic it has forced the local community to adapt. The world is full of jarring examples of local communities and tourism in violent collision. So what makes Kaikoura so different?
In the mayoral office which he shares with his bicycle and a pile of the shopping bags handed out free to every household when Kaikoura declared itself a plastic bag-free zone, "Mayor Kev" Heays suggests common sense might be the answer. From his modest command centre, Heays recalls that following the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit, an international program dubbed Green Globe was created to assist tourism businesses and destinations manage their environmental impact. The world listened but Kaikoura acted, and Kaikoura District Council at 34 The Esplanade became the first local authority in the world to achieve Green Globe certification. The township itself became the second Green Globe community in the world.
"Think global, act local isn't just some airy-fairy slogan," says Mayor Kev. "It's common sense, and it's imperative. Our staff is small but aware. We don't just push bits of paper around here. We monitor energy use, greenhouse gas and solid waste production, air quality, water consumption, resource conservation, biodiversity and community wellbeing. We might be just a pimple on a pumpkin, but we're active in the Communities for Climate Protection program tackling greenhouse emissions, we're on target to achieve zero waste by 2015. We have incentives to encourage private landowners to rejuvenate and protect areas rich in natural diversity."
While all this activity hums the mantra of altruism, it also has a tourism marketing spin-off. Mayor Kev cites a surge in tourists from places with sophisticated approaches to environmental matters - Scandinavia, Switzerland and the Netherlands in particular - drawn here by the area's diverse natural attractions.
Despite the tiny population, the peninsula on which the township sits is one of the most densely populated pieces of real estate in the country - and probably always has been. Kaikoura's name comes from the Maori words for eat, kai, and crayfish, koura. The Maori have always regarded it as a special place, and the abundance of food has attracted them to this coastline for more than 900 years.
Kaikoura itself is unremarkable, vaguely recalling Amity (the town in the movie Jaws) with its motels with naff names, real estate agents with unrealistic promises, souvenirs with a whale motif, cafés promising food that's tasty and affordable, and faux Irish pubs offering Guinness and "rural Irish hospitality". The mural artist and the signwriter compete to produce the most whale tails and crayfish. But the town has a pride, it has a momentum, and it has promising totems to the message that eco-tourism isn't restricted to affordable family fun.
The people of Kaikoura enjoy an almost spiritual relationship with the land and the sea. The best way to understand the connection is to join Heather and Maurice Manawatu of Maori Tours Kaikoura on one of their half-day tours. From the commanding site of the Nga Niho Pa to remote bush tracks, the guides follow a rich vein of relics and recollections. You know how good this tour is when, at its conclusion, you feel the first palpitations of privilege and respect for a genuine insight into the spirituality and values of the Maori way of life.
Those who have seen the 2002 movie Whale Rider, based on Witi Ihimaera's empowering novel, will know both the place of the whale in Maori mythology and the movie's important lesson of social change. A world-famous feeding ground for giant sperm whales up to 29 metres in length, the waters around Kaikoura are also regularly visited by humpback, minke, blue, sei, fin, southern right, orca, beaked and pilot whales.
Central to the huge variety of marine mammal, fish and seabird life is the presence of a vast deepwater trench - the Kaikoura Canyon - close inshore. Cold nutrient-rich water from this trench surges into the shallower coastal waters, sustaining a complex food chain.
Whale Watch takes 100,000 people a year off the coast of the peninsula to experience the magic of this marine environment. Chief operating officer Kauahi Ngapora started out emptying the seasickness buckets on the early tour boats; last November in London he accepted the major prize on behalf of the venture at the international Responsible Tourism Awards.
Whale Watch is a community trust owned by the Maori people of Kaikoura in partnership with their affiliated tribal people, the Ngai Tahu. It employs 54 locals year-round, has played an important role in the renewal of Maori cultural identity and community pride, and is a key player in the Kaikoura Coastal Marine Guardians, a group that provides leadership in the protection of the local marine environment.
Two decades ago, a handful of people from local Maori families came up with the Whale Watch concept and worked for free to get it started. Today it has multimillion-dollar assets and has earned international recognition and respect. But the core satisfaction has remained the same. "People from all over the world come here and see whales and dolphins up close and can't believe how lucky they are," says Ngapora. "How lucky do you think we feel, because many of the whales are old friends we know by name. To us, it's not just a whale, it's Noodle or Droopy Flukes come to see us again."
It's possible to get personal with an amazing array of marine creatures and seabirds in Kaikoura, even to the point of swimming with the seals and dolphins or snorkelling, scuba diving and kayaking among them.
Encounter Kaikoura provides two kinds of wildlife experiences - watching or swimming with large pods of dusky dolphins, and close encounters with the bird bearing the largest living wingspan in the world, the mighty albatross.
Like the sperm whales, dusky dolphins are a constant presence in these waters, and are occasionally joined by bottlenose, common and southern right whale dolphins. The smaller and rarer Hector's dolphins stick to their own territory around the river mouths. Fur seals - once hunted almost to extinction for their fur - are now back in abundance, with three protected breeding colonies within close proximity of Kaikoura.
That's the Kaikoura experience - connecting with the environment and feeling the warm glow that emanates from interacting with nature in a sustainable way. More than sustainable. The Kaikoura Coastal Marine Guardians envisage a future where the sea of Kaikoura is richer and healthier and people interact with it in ways that care for its "mauri". "Mauri," Maurice Manawatu tells me, "is the life force of the living system, and wairau is its spirit. They can be enhanced or damaged by human action, but they continue to exist whatever we do. Far better to have them on our side, mate."
Hapuku Lodge on Mangamaunu Bay extends the prevailing concept of making a connection with the environment. Guests get to choose between lodge suites or tree houses built 10 metres above ground in a corridor of native manuka and kowhai trees, with majestic views of the mountains to the west and the Pacific coastline to the east.
On a 96-hectare strip of the coastline, owner and architect Tony Wilson has established the lodge and tree houses, a deer farm, a grove of a thousand olive trees, a citrus orchard and a vineyard. The lodge grounds are planted in grasses, ferns and trees native to the Kaikoura district, and attract a variety of birdlife. Guests dine on crayfish that has been delivered live to the lodge, and on beef, venison, lamb, duck, salmon, cod, paua and mussels produced virtually on its doorstep.
The best option for eating out on the peninsula is the Green Dolphin Restaurant & Bar, a cheerful, relaxed seaside cottage that belies the dedication and meticulous preparation in its kitchen. Fish are bought direct from local fishermen daily, and the fish stew of the day's catch plus scallops, mussels and calamari in a saffron, star anise, garlic and tomato broth might just be the ultimate way of connecting with the local marine environment.
Those visitors who regard fermentation as a greater discovery than fire will be cheered to find that Kaikoura also has a winery - mischievously billed as Marlborough's most southern outpost. Less mischievously, it's also billed as New Zealand's closest-to-the-sea vineyard. Fair enough, because it's separated from the Pacific only by the state highway. The product range includes a méthode Champenoise sparkling wine, riesling, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, rosé, pinot noir and late-harvest riesling dessert wine.
It has been a long climb to the top of the food chain, and even the Kaikoura Coastal Marine Guardians are pragmatic about the sea's ability to sustain the needs of present and future generations. Right now, I need a whole crayfish steamed in salt water, then split and baked with Hapuku olive oil, riesling and herbs, plus a bottle of sauvignon blanc, thanks. And a toast to Kaikoura and its preview of a better future.