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New Zealand has so much to offer with wonderful wineries, stunning national parks, marine wildlife, geothermal pools and hip cities. We have created a perfect itinerary that covers all of these highlights and visits the best destinations in the top of the south island. The round road trip starts and ends in the city of Christchurch (which has an international airport) and lasts 8 days. Here is our suggested jam packed Christchurch to Nelson drive itinerary:
Christchurch to Nelson itinerary round trip drive route
Car hire for Christchurch to Nelson drive road trip
Public transport can be almost non existant between towns in New Zealand, and many attractions are usually a bit of a drive away from city centres, so for that reason we would recommend using your own transport for your Christchurch to Nelson road trip.
You can pick up a hire car or campervan as soon as you arrive at Christchurch airport. From personal experience we recommend JUCY rentals or Apex rentals for excellent service, or take a look at rentalcars.com to compare different prices from all the rental car companies in New Zealand.
Note – we do not recommend Omega Rental Cars for car hire – we were given a filthy car, endured some shocking customer service, and then to top it off we had unauthorised payments coming out of our account months after our trip finished!
Christchurch to Nelson drive round trip itinerary
Day 1: Kaikoura
Christchurch > Kaikoura: 1 hour 40 minutes
The first stop of your Christchurch to Nelson drive is Kaikoura, located an hour and 40 minutes north of Christchurch. If you are arriving at Christchurch airport you can pick up your hire car there and head straight to your first destination.
Kaikoura is a rugged coastal town known for its amazing marine wildlife including a sperm whale population. Check into your accommodation and spend the rest of the day either out on the ocean on a boat trip, or taking a scenic drive/walk around the local area.
Things to do in Kaikoura:
Whale and dolphin watching
One of the most popular things to do in Kaikoura is to get up close to giant sperm whales or watch/go swimming with friendly dusky dolphins. There is a large success rate in seeing these magnificent creatures, and the boat cruises have some stunning coastal alpine scenery. Book a whale watching tour or a dolphin encounter >
Kayak with seals
Go kayaking around the stunning Kaikoura peninsula whilst cute fur seals weave and swim around you! Book a Seal Kayaking Adventure >
Point Kean Seal Colony
This wildlife reserve has some awesome rock formations with a gorgeous backdrop of Kaikoura’s mountains and coastline. Here you can watch fur seals lazing around on the rocks, and is a great spot to head over at sunset. The colony is handily located right next to a car park, but note – keep a good distance from the seals as to not disturb them.
Kaikoura Peninsula walkway
Take a 3 hour hike along a walkway with superb panoramic coastal vantage points high up on the cliffs, before taking a path down to the coast to walk along the beach and view the seals splashing about in the sea.
Kaikoura is home to some of the best and fresh seafood in New Zealand and we recommend a visit to the legendary Kaikoura Seafood BBQ roadside stall to sample some delicious lobster, crayfish, scallops or whitebait fritters. Another highly rated seafood stall further down the coast is Nin’s Bin, which also sells similar seafood dishes.
Kaikoura accommodation for 1 night
BUDGET HOSTEL – Dolphin Lodge
Affordable private rooms and dorms in a central location, with views of the coastline and the mountain ranges, plus garden, deck and hot tub.
MID RANGE – Kaikoura Boutique Hotel
Boutique Hotel housed in a historic 1880s building just 10 minutes walk from Kaikoura town. More expensive rooms have outdoor terrace and sea views.
LUXURY – Hapuku Lodge and Tree Houses
Splash the cash on this beautiful hotel located in nearby located in Hapuku, with ocean views, outdoor pool and onsite restaurant. All rooms are fitted with a balcony, spa bath, fireplace and rain shower.
CAMPERVAN SITE – Kaikoura TOP 10 Holiday Park
Holiday Park with mix of apartments, motel rooms and campsites. Facilities include a heated swimming pool (seasonal), spa and BBQ facilities, plus there are convenience stores and restaurants opposite the park.
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Day 2-3: Kaikoura to Blenheim
Kaikoura > Blenheim: 1 hour 40 minutes
After a morning of activities in Kaikoura, head off around mid afternoon and continue onwards on your Christchurch to Nelson itinerary to the next stop – Blenheim. Here are some places to stop off at on the way to Blenheim:
Cute beachside cafe with outdoor garden and amazing coastal views, located approx halfway between Kaikoura and Blenheim. The perfect stop if you want to grab a snack or coffee. Address: 5748 State Highway 1, Kekerengu, Marlborough
Peter Yealands Estate
Located a 5 minute drive off highway 1, this famous vineyard is so huge that they give you a map so you can take a self guided tour drive around estate. The grounds are very photogenic with rows and rows of vine trees, gorgeous ocean views and some of the friendliest free roaming chickens we have ever met! The award-winning Cellar Door offers free wine tasting, and you can purchase picnic hampers. Address: Corner of Seaview and Reserve Roads, Seddon 7285
Blenheim is the main base for reaching many wineries in the Marlborough region and is the sunniest town in New Zealand. It is one of the great wine making regions of the world – 75% of the country’s wine is produced here!
We recommend spending 2 nights in Blenheim so you have one whole full day to enjoy visiting the many wineries in the area. If wine really isn’t your thing then we would recommend you skip the visit to Blenheim and head straight the next stop, Picton.
Things to do in Blenheim
Wine tasting tour
Enjoy a day sampling award winning wines at cellar doors on a Marlborough wine tour. Check out the Marlborough wine trail to plan out your own journey, or avoid drink-driving and book onto a half day wine tour or a full day wine and gourmet tour >
Cycling and wine tour
If you enjoy cycling then you can book onto a full day guided bike and wine tour of Marlborough and visit 5-6 wineries. Book a Full-Day Guided Biking Wine Tour >
Tip: If you are visiting Blenheim during the month of February, be sure to time your visit to coincide with the famous annual Marlborough Wine and Food Festival! Also if you happen to be visiting Blenheim on a Sunday then check out the Marlborough Farmers market where you can pick up some gourmet delights to pair with your bottle of local Marlborough wine.
Blenheim accommodation for 2 nights
BUDGET AND CAMPERVAN – Blenheim TOP 10 Holiday Park
Holiday park with a mix of motels, self contained units, cabins and powered campervan sites. Facilities include a swimming pool, BBQ, indoor spa, TV room, showers, kitchens and laundry.
MID RANGE/LUXURY – Chateau Marlborough
Winner of New Zealand’s Best Regional Hotel. Luxury self-contained suites with on-site swimming pool, bar and spa.
MID RANGE/LUXURY – Marlborough Vintners Hotel
Boutique hotel surrounded by vineyards in the heart of the Marlborough wine region. Each room has a private patio with garden or vineyard views, plus onsite hot tub, fitness centre and restaurant / bar showcasing local wines.
Day 4: Picton
Blenheim > Picton: 25 minutes
The next stop on the Christchurch to Nelson trip is Picton which is a very short drive from Blenheim. Picton is a small coastal town located near the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound and has a pretty seafront filled with cafés and restaurants serving freshly caught seafood. It is a great place base for exploring the sounds on a boat cruise or kayaking tour, or if you have a few extra days you can hike the famous Queen Charlotte Track.
Things to do in Picton:
Dolphin watching and island wildlife sanctuary cruise
Take a scenic dolphin watching journey through Marlborough sounds, then head to Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary for a nature walk. Book a wildlife cruise >
Seafood Odyssea cruise
Take a three hour cruise along the Queen Charlotte Sound whilst sampling crisp local wine and delicious seafood dishes such as Greenshell Mussels, Regal Salmon and Cloudy Bay Clams. Book a seafood cruise >
Queen Charlotte Sound Mail Boat Cruise
This scenic and quirky afternoon cruise takes you onboard a working mail boat to deliver post to local residents in the sounds, with a stop at the pretty Ship Cove. Book a mail boat cruise or read more in our Delivering post on the Picton Mail Boat Cruise blog post >
Bob’s Bay Reserve
This gorgeous secluded beach is located a 30 minute walk from Shelley Beach in Picton town and is great for picnics and swimming. Walk along the lower or upper track to get there, but the latter is better with incredible views of the sounds.
Picton accommodation for 1 night
BUDGET HOSTEL – Piwaka Lodge
Highly rated hostel with private rooms/dorms situated in the heart of town near the supermarket.
MID RANGE – Bay Vista Waterfront Motel
Waterfront motel with all apartments having full kitchen facilities and some having a patio with panoramic views. Located a short walk from local restaurants in the marina.
LUXURY – Picton Beachcomber Inn
Hotel overlooking Picton Harbour with refurbished rooms, outdoor pool, on-site restaurant with views of Picton Harbour, plus some rooms come with a spa bath and balcony.
CAMPERVAN SITE – Picton TOP 10 Holiday Park
Holiday Park with a mix of villas, motel, cabins and campervan sites, located 1km from the town centre. Facilities include a solar-heated swimming pool, BBQ, spa, kitchen and free WIFI.
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Day 5 Nelson
Picton > Nelson: 1 hour 50 minutes
Check out of your Picton accommodation and head to Nelson along the scenic Queen Charlotte Drive – one of the most picturesque drives in the country.
Stop by the small marina town of Havelock, where there are many cafes and pubs. If you are a seafood fan you’ll love the Mussel Pot restaurant where you can order Havelock’s iconic green lip mussels!
From Havelock to Nelson the route goes by the beautiful Pelorous River, which has crystal clear waters that you can swim or kayak in. It was also a filming location in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug film!
Nelson is a pretty city with a vibrant arts scene and some excellent bars and restaurants. We recommend spending at least two nights here to enjoy the city and also so you can spend a whole day visiting some nearby beauty spots.
Things to do in Nelson
Geographical Centre of New Zealand Walk
This easy 2 km return walk starts from the city centre and takes you to the summit of Botanical Hill for 360 degree views of Nelson’s coastal views. It is named the Centre of New Zealand because it was a central survey point in the 1800s.
Nelson is the birthplace of New Zealand’s most eccentric fashion show – the annual World of WearableArt Awards. This museum stages a selection of past finalist entries as well as a classic car museum.
Nelson Saturday Market
Based in Montgomery Square this market is held every Saturday between 8am and 1pm, and has many delicious food offerings (Kiwi and international) at reasonable prices.
A little outside of Nelson city centre, McCashin’s Brewery has a daily brewery and beer tasting tour and also produces Stoke Dark, our favourite dark New Zealand beer. You can read all about our brewery tour experience at McCashin’s Brewery in our south island brewery tour blog >
Enjoy a thrilling ride on the world’s longest Skywire with incredible views of Cable and Delaware Bays. The Skywire seats up to four “flyers” at a time, with around 1000m of gravity assisted free-wheeling, reaching speeds of up to 100 kph – going forwards and backwards! Book a Skywire Experience >
Nelson accommodation for 2 nights
BUDGET HOSTEL – Tasman Bay Backpackers
Friendly and clean hostel with speedy WIFI, and free hot chocolate pudding and ice cream every evening.
MID RANGE – The Hotel Nelson
4 star accommodation with studios and spacious apartments and communal outdoor heated swimming pool.
LUXURY – The Sails Nelson
Luxurious 5-star accommodation with floor-to-ceiling windows and a private balcony or patio.
CAMPERVAN SITE – Nelson City TOP 10 Holiday Park
Cosy urban holiday park within easy walking distance to shops and supermarkets.
Day 6: Day trip from Nelson
We recommend spending your second day in Nelson exploring some of the amazing day trip options that are just a short drive from town:
Day trip option 1: Nelson Lakes
Nelson > St. Arnaud (Nelson Lakes): 1 hour
Take a short drive from Nelson to Nelson Lakes National Park to admire the beautiful alpine lakes of Rotoroa and Rotoiti and enjoy some excellent walking trails. It takes an hour to drive to St Arnaud, which is the gateway to which you can explore the park. From here there are some easy lakeside trails that will take a couple of hours, or you can take a water taxi to transport you across the lake to access more walks. Read more on the Department of Conservation website >
The lake is perfect for swimming during the summer months and there is a beach and jetty right by the carpark. Amazing views of Lake Rotoiti and the mountains can be seen from the Mount Robert Car Park – a half hour drive from St. Arnaud.
There are some accommodation options in St. Arnaud if you decide you would rather not drive back to Nelson (St. Arnaud is on the way to the next stop Hanmer Springs). Check out St Arnaud accommodation options on booking.com >
Day trip option 2: Kaiteriteri and Abel Tasman National Park
Nelson > Kaiteriteri: 45 minutes
Take a short drive to the seaside town of Kaiteriteri, which is one of the gateways to Abel Tasman National Park. You could choose to spend the day chilling on the beach, enjoying the golden sands and turquoise waters, and dine at some of the beachfront restaurants. Or you can book a water taxi / cruise to take you to some of Abel Tasman’s beautiful bays and enjoy some scenic walks. Book a Scenic Cruise to Anchorage Bay from Kaiteriteri >
If you have some extra days then you could spend a few days here – there are plenty of accommodation options in Kaiteriteri or nearby Marahau. Check out Abel Tasman accommodation on booking.com >
Alternatively you could complete one of the great New Zealand walks along the Abel Tasman Coast track. The walk takes 3-5 days to complete and needs advance booking to access the huts and campsites along the route. More information can be found on the department of conservation website >
Day 7: Hanmer Springs
Nelson > Hanmer Springs: 3 hours 45 minutes
Continue onwards with your Christchurch to Nelson round road trip and head to the small alpine town of Hanmer Springs for an afternoon of adventure or just pure relaxation! The journey there is almost 4 hours long so make sure you set off early. The route takes you through the Lewis Pass and below are some places of interest along the way:
Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park
Visit New Zealand’s longest swingbridge – suspended 19 metres high above the mighty Buller River. You can also enjoy goldpanning, bush walks, jet boating and flying fox rides. Check out bullergorge.co.nz.
A 10 minute return walk from the car park takes you to an excellent viewpoint of a waterfall that was created following the 1929 Murchison earthquake.
Maruia Hot Springs Resort & Spa
This boutique retreat and day spa has natural mineral hot pools you can bathe in with picturesque mountain views. There is also a hotel and some glamping pods onsite if you want to stay overnight. Check out the resort rates here >
Arrive in Hanmer Springs around mid-late afternoon, check into your accommodation and enjoy one of the following activites:
Things to do in Hanmer Springs:
Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools
The largest naturally heated thermal pools in New Zealand has 15 outdoor pools, an award winning spa, waterslides and a cafe set among pretty landscaped gardens and alpine forest. You can book same-day return tickets to visit multiple times in a single day! Book a Hanmer Spring Thermal Pools Day Pass >
White water rafting
Adrenaline seekers will love riding grade 2 rapids on a 2-hour white water rafting expedition along the Waiau Gorge. Book a White Water Rafting Tour >
Explore the Alpine village and mountain landscape on an exhilarating 2-hour Quad Bike safari, either on your own bike or riding in tandem. Book a Quad Bike Safari >
Wheeeeeee!!! Speed along the Waiau Gorge on a fun adrenaline fueled jet boat adventure. Book a Jet Boat tour >
Conical Hill and Heritage Forest walk
The short uphill walk to the top of Conical Hill offers stunning views of Hanmer Springs. For a list of other local hikes, visit the DOC website >
If you are staying in self catering accommodation, then there is a small Four Square supermarket in town where you can purchase groceries and alcohol. Alternatively have dinner at the Monteith’s Brewery Bar or at one of the restaurants in town serving Asian or European cuisine.
Hanmer Springs accommodation for 1 night
BUDGET HOSTEL – YHA Kakapo Lodge
Highly rated hostel with private rooms and dorms, large communal kitchen, comfy TV lounge, outdoor deck, garden and BBQ area.
MID RANGE – Settlers Motel
Boutique motel in a central location, with studio and apartment rooms – some with private back patio.
LUXURY – The St James Premium Accommodation
Studio accommodation with balconies or patios and mountain views. Located a few minutes walk to town.
CAMPERVAN SITE – Hanmer Springs TOP 10 Holiday Park
Modern holiday park located just a 5 minute walk from town, complete with wood fired hot tubs and BBQ areas.
Day 8: Hanmer Springs to Christchurch
Hanmer Springs to Christchurch: 1 hour 50 minutes
Today is the final day of the Christchurch to Nelson round trip itinerary. Check out of your accommodation and enjoy a morning of more Hanmer Springs activities or continue onwards towards Christchurch.
Where to next?
The evening marks the end of your Christchurch to Nelson round road trip in New Zealand. Spend a couple of days exploring Christchurch city, then if you have more time you can continue your road trip and drive south towards Queenstown on this Christchurch to Queenstown 1 week itinerary, or head to Dunedin on this Christchurch to Dunedin 5 day itinerary.
Alternatively you could take the TranzAlpine scenic train to Greymouth, pick up another rental car and explore the west coast – heading south to Franz Josef Glacier, then onwards to Wanaka and Queenstown.
More New Zealand itineraries:
- Auckland to Wellington road trip – 7 day itinerary
- Wellington to Christchurch road trip – 7 day itinerary
- Christchurch to Queenstown road trip – 7 day itinerary
- Auckland itinerary – perfect 1, 2 or 3 days in Auckland
- Auckland to Rotorua 5 day round trip itinerary
- Christchurch to Dunedin road trip – a 5 day itinerary
- Queenstown itinerary – the perfect 5 day itinerary
Other New Zealand blog posts:
- Things to do on Waiheke Island: the ultimate guide
- Things to do in Queenstown, New Zealand
- A day trip to Milford Sound, New Zealand
- The 10 best day trips from Auckland, New Zealand
- The best day trips from Queenstown, New Zealand
- 20 New Zealand food and drinks items you need to try
- Visiting the Monteith’s brewery in Greymouth
Watch our New Zealand South Island video
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