Is this the finest place on earth to hear the call of the wild?

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Leave the Rugby World Cup fans to their crowded stadiums. For the real New Zealand, head to Kaikoura, the new home of eco-holidays with a touch of luxury. Jonathan Lorie reports

As darkness fell on the olive trees and the grazing deer, I slipped into the Jacuzzi in my tree house and listened to the Pacific breakers roll in.

My muscles ached from swimming with 400 dolphins beyond that surf, and my head swam from sampling almost as many wines at the vineyard outside town. I was looking forward to a dinner of drippingly fresh crayfish, then an evening by the fire that flickered already at the far end of this tree house room. Beyond it, huge windows revealed a zigzag of blue mountains. A stag bellowed to a doe. Beside the fire, an iPod rippled jazz. I slid deeper into the scented water. Was this, I wondered idly, the world's finest place to get close to the wild?

Kaikoura is not a name that trips off the tongue when you list those lucky places that offer encounters with nature and a touch of luxury. But this township of wooden cabins, ringed by mountains in a rugged bay, is New Zealand's next big eco-destination. "It's the best place in the world for swimming with dolphins," explained Kate Baxter, the sparky concierge who welcomed me to Hapuku Lodge.

She showed me up the rickety stairs to my tree house. "And seeing whales," she added. "But mind you read the weather report at breakfast." She grinned. "If the sea's rough, you might need a Kaikoura Cracker. They're the only pill that works."

Kaikoura has two great claims to fame. One is Hapuku – a line of tree houses perched in a grove of wispy manuka trees, between the mountains and the sea. From the outside it's a tumble of timber boxes on stilts, but inside it's a cool expanse of slate flooring, designer furniture and satin drapes. Its restaurant is superb, with a chef flown in from San Francisco, and its management is keen to be green. It has been called the world's most romantic honeymoon hotel.

The other great claim lies beneath the sea. Below those heaving waves is the Kaikoura trench – a Grand Canyon of the ocean, 60km long (35 miles) and 1,200m deep, whose rich food chain attracts giant squid and 14 species of dolphin and whale. Nowhere else in the world has such deep water a kilometre from shore. Here, your chances of seeing a whale are 95 per cent, every day of the year.

Next morning I'm ready for the sea. Dutifully, I search the breakfast room for that weather report. It's a handwritten note among trays of fresh-baked scones and jars of homemade jams. "Rough seas warning." Should I be worried by this?

I don't need much persuading by Stefan, the crisp-shirted waiter, to try the Lodge's signature breakfast dish: duck hash, a crisp tangle of fried duck strips, softened with sautéed potatoes and drizzled with the yolk of a poached egg. It is meltingly good.

As is my stomach when I hit the water an hour later, intent on catching the best experience this coastline has to offer: a swim among dolphins. They're everywhere. Our speedboat is surrounded by hundreds – leaping, diving, their black fins slicing the water, splashing in curious circles around us, somersaulting in water and air in a vast display of playfulness and trust. I sit on the back step of the launch, clad from head to toe in rubber, madly adjusting my diving mask. "You have too many smile lines," warns the instructor from Dolphin Encounter. "They'll let the water in." Then I leap into the wake behind the boat.

There's a shock of cold water and a heave of ocean swell, even though we're within sight of the mountains, not half a mile from shore. But out here the waters stretch to the South Pole, and wide-winged albatrosses skim over the waves. The water tips and slumps like a vast creature breathing. Luckily, I have taken a Cracker.

Then I look down. Below me, far into the green depths, are shadow after shadow of dusky dolphins. They weave through soft jade light. One curves towards me, then darts away. Another circles my head. I float face down, peering into their world.

We make three dives like this – the maximum the instructor allows. "We don't want to disturb them," he says. But three is enough. On the third, as I float marvelling, a single dolphin of my own length appears beside me. It stays close. I see its head turning towards me, peering into my face. Then I hear the crackle of its voice.

I am entranced. It's a feeling that returns next day, out at sea once more, this time in search of whales. Today's skipper is a tousled Maori who's tracking them with a sonar. Whenever it blips, he guns the catamaran to top speed. "They only come up for five minutes," a crewman shouts above the roar, "then they dive for hours. Their tail flip makes 500 horsepower – enough to dive a thousand feet in a couple of minutes. Last year, a research submarine took two hours to do that."

We race for a mile, banging into headwaves, and I realise I have no Crackers. But then the skipper cuts the engine and we tumble out on deck. Spray whips our faces. The boat rolls. My stomach steadies. The crewman points. Between billowing swells, we glimpse a fountain of water and the

long dark block of a sperm whale's head. "That's just the front of its body," he murmurs, "then there's the tail. They grow to 18m long."

It lurks in the water, still as a rock. Then tips up its head for one last fill of air and plunges into the deep. Its black trunk, gnarled with barnacles, surges upwards and then down, ending in the perfect arc of its tail, the twin flukes flicking skywards and under. A circle of bubbles floats on the water.

This is the first of four sperm whales we see this afternoon, but others are found here too – humpbacks, orcas, blue whales, all pausing to refuel in the trench, en route from the Antarctic to the tropics. The size of these creatures is staggering. You could swim in the artery of a blue whale. Its heart is the size of a small car.

Whales rarely come so close to shore. That's what first attracted Europeans, and their earliest settlement here was the Waiopuka Whaling Station in 1842. Its original building still stands, a clapboard bungalow on a lonely point. Now a museum, Fyffe House sits in a cottage garden of pink and white flowers. But when you reach its wide verandah, you see the foundations of the house made of whale bones. Huge discs of vertebrae, wide as your shoulders and grey with age, sit between the wooden walls and the beaten earth. This town was built on whales.

Today, the hunt is for thrills not kills, and Whale Watch Kaikoura, the leading tour operator, is keen on conservation. "We came up with the rules for watching whales," explains Lisa Bond, a feisty ex-skipper, in a shoreside office crammed with awards. Whale Watch's boats are environmentally designed; the density of marine encounters are limited and profits go to community projects. "The company was set up as a charitable trust by four Maori families, anxious to create jobs and keep the young people in town." She smiles. "Now the young people do leave for university – but they always come back. We have a rugby team again." And in 2009, Whale Watch was global winner of Virgin Holidays' Responsible Tourism Award.

The town council has followed this lead, with an ambitious plan. In 2004, it became the first in the world to win a Green Globe certificate for environmental management. "Not bad for a little nowhere place," grins council spokeswoman Ann Paterson over a cup of tea on the Art Deco Esplanade. Then the council set up a carbon-offsetting scheme called Trees for Travellers, and a festival of fashion from recycled materials. "Perhaps it's because we're so close to the sea," she ponders. "Nature matters to us."

But nature has always mattered here. Six centuries before the white men came, the Maoris arrived to fish its teeming waters. They named it for this abundance – Kai for "food" and Koura for "crayfish". In their legends, the trench was carved out by a god, and the first ancestor rode in on a Southern Right whale. The god Maui fished up North Island from the deep, and where his foot slipped into the water, it made a splash that became the headland above the town.

You can walk up there today, wander the ramparts of earth that remain from the ancient village, and gaze across the waters. I went there with Maurice Manawatu, who runs the local Maori Tours. His sister welcomed us with a ritual song, walking backwards before us into the site. In a sacred spot, Morris gave me a Maori name, enshrining a place back home that is special for me.

"And yours?" I asked. He pointed a finger at the peaks behind the town. "My name is taken from a mountain over there, called Sacred Footsteps of the Rainbow God. For us Maori, people of the land, all of nature is sacred."

It's a view that the modern world is starting to share. And here in Kaikoura, you can experience it for real.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.com) has return fares from £889. Hapuku Lodge (00 64 3 319 6559; hapukulodge.com) offers a night in a one-bed tree-house from NZ$805 (£417), including breakfast.

Further information

New Zealand Tourist Board (020-7389 0144; newzealand.com). A tour with Whale Watch (00 64 3 319 6767; whalewatch.co.nz) costs NZ$145 per adult, NZ$60 per child. A tour with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura (00 64 3 319 6777; dolphinencounter.co.nz) costs NZ$165 per adult, NZ$150 per child. A half-day tour with Maori Tours Kaikoura (00 64 3 319 5567; maoritours.co.nz) costs NZ$125 per adult and NZ$65 per child.

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