The Ultimate Christchurch to Nelson Drive: A 6-Day Itinerary
The bottom end of New Zealand's South Island might get all the love, but there's plenty to see up north, too. Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and is packed with amazing things to do. Meanwhile, Nelson is a charming small city that serves as the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park.
A visit to these locations will make your exploration of New Zealand all the more special. To help locals and international visitors alike get the most out of this trip, we've assembled an itinerary featuring all the most exciting stops you can make along the way.
To help your journey go as smoothly as possible, pick up a dependable Enterprise Rentals vehicle from our Christchurch Airport location. Be sure to get a few pointers from our friendly team while you're there.
How long does it take to drive from Christchurch to Nelson?
The quickest route from Christchurch to Nelson is an inland route, allowing you to check out locations like Hanmer Springs, Lewis Pass and Nelson Lakes National Park. This involves taking 5 hours and 11 minutes to chew up 409km.
However, we prefer a coastal route that primarily sticks to State Highway 1. This route can be driven in just under 6.5 hours, but we think 6 days is the perfect amount of time to spend on this itinerary.
Christchurch to Nelson Drive: A 6-Day Itinerary
This coastal route is best in the summertime, but you can also complete it in winter without missing out on too much, especially if you aren't opposed to an invigorating swim. The majority of the stops of this trip won't be affected by winter breaks.
If you do decide to undertake this journey in winter, just remember to ensure you have some snow chains with you (available for hire from Enterprise).
- Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch
- Day 2: Christchurch to Kaikōura
- Day 3: Kaikōura to Blenheim
- Day 4: Blenheim to Picton
- Day 5: Picton to Nelson
- Day 6: Explore Abel Tasman National Park
Christchurch to Nelson Overnight Stays
Our itinerary allows for 5 overnight stays, but feel free to add on as many as you like if our description of a location takes your fancy.
Christchurch – 1 night
Kaikōura - 1 night
Blenheim – 1 night
Picton – 1 night
Nelson – 2 nights
Day 1: Arrive in Christchurch
Your road trip kicks off in the beautiful city of Christchurch. A hub of South Island history and culture, you won't soon run out of things to do, see and eat here.
Here's a short list of what you can get up to in Christchurch:
- Christchurch Botanic Gardens – The Botanic Gardens are one of Christchurch's top attractions for good reason. No matter the season of your visit, this venue has something incredible to explore.
- Christchurch Gondola – There's no better way to see Christchurch than on this famous gondola. It offers views ranging from the Southern Alps to Pegasus Bay.
- International Antarctic Centre – Just a short distance from Christchurch Airport is the International Antarctic Centre. It's a remarkable facsimile of the world's southernmost continent, from terrain simulations to wildlife interactions.
- Quake City – The Canterbury earthquake of 2011 has played a major role in shaping the region. Discover remarkable and inspiring stories in the fascinating exhibits of Quake City.
- Mona Vale Garden Park – Mona Vale Garden Park is home to a range of gorgeous natural areas and historic buildings. Pack a picnic and have a great time in this tranquil destination.
Christchurch food and accommodation
Christchurch's culinary scene is bursting with amazing venues. A few top options to consider for your dinner reservation are:
- Inati – Head chef Simon Levy has worked at Gordon Ramsey's The Warrington, so open up your wallet for an exceptional evening of fine dining. It’s so good, it featured on our best restaurants in New Zealand list.
- Bloody Mary's – Christchurch is home to some remarkable steakhouses, and Bloody Mary's is one of the very best.
- Mandala – Mandala offers a remarkable fusion of Pacific, Indian and Asian flavours for a sensory feast to savour.
Some top options for places to spend the night in Christchurch are:
- Chateau on the Park – This high-end venue boasts a private vineyard to add to its luxurious offerings.
- Novotel Christchurch Airport – There's nothing better than walking from your terminal to an airport hotel and dumping your bags straight away. Novotel Christchurch Airport also offers lovely, comfortable lodgings for you and your family.
- Wyndham Garden – Wyndham Gardens offers excellent service and a highly convenient location for dedicated sightseers.
Day 2: Christchurch to Kaikōura
Now, your road trip can really begin. Your first day of driving will chew up a fair amount of ground while offering splendid scenery as your head towards Kaikōura.
Christchurch to Kaikōura driving time
A straight-line drive from Christchurch to Kaikōura should take just under 2.5 hours via State Highway 1. Our recommended stop-over for today will add just 10 minutes to the driving time of this long but scenic leg.
About 1.5 hours away from Christchurch is Gore Bay. This charming seaside town is a surfer's paradise and is home to a bevy of amazing walks like the Whisky Creek Track. There are no shops here, so bring your own supplies to ensure you can have a great time.
Arrive in Kaikōura
Carry on for another 1 hour and 10 minutes until you arrive in Kaikōura. This township is famed for its whale-watching and incredible collection of wildlife. Book ahead to ensure you can get a place on a whale-watching tour.
Other sights to check out include the Kaikōura Museum, the breathtaking Peninsula Walkway and Fyffe House, which is jam-packed with insight into the whaling history of the region.
Kaikōura food and accommodation
Dine on fresh seafood at Cods & Crays or intricately-prepared meals at Zephyr restaurant. Consider going wild at one of Kaikōura's remarkable campsites to really soak up the natural wonder of the region. Alternatively, Kaikoura Gateway Motor Lodge and the Alpine Pacific Motel are great options.
Day 3: Kaikōura to Blenheim
Day 3 of your trip will see you continuing up the scenic coastal route towards Blenheim, passing through some seriously stunning East Coast destinations.
Kaikōura to Blenheim driving time
A straight-line drive from Kaikōura to Blenheim will take around 1 hour and 40 minutes. Our recommended stop for today will add around 10 minutes of travel time to your trip.
Half Moon Bay
Just a 20-minute drive from Kaikōura is the gorgeous town of Half Moon Bay. Half Moon Bay is the home of Ohau Point, one of New Zealand's top seal colonies. While these seals aren't always feeling energetic, it's always an awesome sight to take in.
Carry on for another 55 minutes to take in another remarkable coastal sight in the township of Ward. One of the natural consequences of the 2011 earthquake was a land rise of 2 metres on Ward Beach, revealing an ancient seafloor. This led to the exposure of the famous Ward Beach boulders, which are remarkably circular.
Arrive in Blenheim
After another approximately 40 minutes of driving, you're at your final destination for the day. One of the sunniest areas in New Zealand, it's famed as the gateway to the Marlborough wine region.
Blenheim is steeped in history, which you can find out all about at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre and the Marlborough Museum. Both are packed with artefacts showcasing the unique history of the area. You can also get on the water with some local jet boating packages.
Then, of course, there are the wineries! We recommend taking the time to book a wine tour so you can check out a range of brilliant venues like the Saint Clair Family Estate, Cloudy Bay and Rock Ferry Wines.
Blenheim food and accommodation
On top of the fine meals you can enjoy at surrounding wineries, you can sample a taste of Brazil at Gramado's or grab a gourmet pie from the Burleigh. Blenheim is home to some stunning hotels offering comfortable lodging including the Chateau Marlborough and the Scenic Hotel.
Day 4: Blenheim to Picton
You're in for a short drive on Day 4, so you'll be able to squeeze in any leftover activities from Blenheim before making your way up north to Picton.
Blenheim to Picton driving time
Driving from Blenheim to Picton should take just over 20 minutes. There's so much to do once you get up there, so we recommend making this a straight-line trip.
Arrive in Picton
Be sure to have your phone ready to take plenty of Instagrammable snaps in Picton. This incredible seaside town is one of the country's best-kept secrets.
Here are a few of the best things you can get up to in and around Picton:
Marlborough Sounds – The Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus and Mahau sounds are some of the most beautiful you'll find anywhere in the world. Jump on a boat cruise and find out what all the fuss is about.
Queen Charlotte Track – Another way to take in the Marlborough Sounds is on the Queen Charlotte track. Either a single or multi-day hike provides one of the most accessible ways to enjoy these natural wonders in all of New Zealand.
Edwin Fox – One of the world's oldest surviving merchant sailing ships and the only surviving ship that transported convicts to Australia, the Edwin Fox is now the major attraction of the fascinating museum of the same name.
Picton Heritage and Whaling Museum – Overlooking Queen Charlotte Sound, the Picton Heritage and Whaling Museum contain incredible historical insight into the local region, with items dating back to the 1700s.
Picton food and accommodation
Grab a morning cup and a delicious bite to eat at Gusto or Le Café to fuel up for a long day of adventuring. For accommodation, you can score exceptional views at the likes of the Bay Vista Waterfront Motel or the Harbour View Motel.
Day 5: Picton to Nelson
With your road trip winding down, today will see you heading towards your final destination of Nelson. There are a few routes of similar distance between these locations, but we recommend taking Queen Charlotte Drive, as it offers the most stunning views of the Marlborough Sounds.
Picton to Nelson driving time
Driving to Nelson from Picton should take around 2 hours, and our recommended stop-over will add no travel time to your journey.
Havelock is known as the mussel capital of New Zealand, so stop in here for some delightfully fresh produce. Museum lovers are in luck as there is yet another offering here in Havelock. The Havelock Museum is packed with displays showing off the unique history of the region.
Havelock is a 50-minute drive from Picton via Queen Charlotte Drive. If you're desperate for a final glance at the Marlborough Sounds, you can stop at Cullen Point lookout just before your reach Havelock.
Arrive in Nelson
From Havelock, you'll turn onto State Highway 6 and drive for approximately another 1 hour and 10 minutes before you reach Nelson. Nelson is the perfect base camp to explore some of the most beautiful areas in all of New Zealand, but you can get to that tomorrow. After a long day of driving, take in some of the urban delights of the city, such as:
The Suter Art Gallery – The Suter Art Gallery is packed with fun things to do for the whole family, including a contemporary gallery, 150-seat theatre and café serving delicious food.
Queen's Gardens – Located beside the Suter Art Gallery in the Nelson City Centre, Queen's Gardens is a stunning instance of a classic Victorian park. It's filled with a range of beautiful flora.
The Nelson Provincial Museum – Don't miss the Provincial Museum's array of impressive exhibits showcasing everything you need to know about the local history.
Christ Church Cathedral – This gorgeous piece of architecture cuts an impressive figure in the natural landscape that defines Nelson.
Nelson food and accommodation
There is some delicious food to be found in Nelson, including:
Hawker House – Sample the flavours of Southeast Asia at Hawker House, packed with authentic street food eats.
Urban Oyster Bar and Eatery – It wouldn't be a coastal New Zealand city without some stunning fresh seafood to enjoy.
East Street Vegan Café and Bar – Plant-based diners rejoice! This whole menu is 100% vegan – no awkward conversations with wait staff required.
When you finally retire after a packed day exploring this gorgeous city, here are some of the top options for your accommodation:
- Tides – Tides is a hotel, bar and eatery all rolled into one, making it a convenient option for overnight stays in Nelson.
- The Sails – This luxurious hotel has suites and apartments to please the fussiest guest.
- Palazzo Motor Lodge – This well-reviewed motel is just a 15-minute walk from the Queen's Gardens.
Day 6: Explore Abel Tasman National Park
While your Christchurch to Nelson road trip is technically complete, we can't finish this guide without some pointers on Abel Tasman National Park, which appeared on our Top 5 National Parks in New Zealand list. This wondrous destination is replete with brilliant sights to see, including:
- Coast Track – One of the best ways to discover Abel Tasman National Park is via the Coast Track, which takes walkers to sights like Cleopatra's Pool and Tonga Island Marine Reserve.
- Harwoods Hole – The deepest vertical shaft in New Zealand is a breathtaking sight. Remember to take extreme care on this walk.
- Wainui Falls – These falls, located in Golden Bay, are accessible via an easy and pretty walk. Children are sure to enjoy the nearby swing bridge.
- Kayaking trips – From guided tours to private rentals, hopping in a kayak is an amazing way to see the aquatic offerings of Abel Tasman National Park.
Final Thoughts on Christchurch to Nelson Drive
This drive is a brilliant way to explore the often-overlooked northern end of the South Island. Follow these steps and we're sure you'll have an incredible time. If heading south from Christchurch is more appealing to you, then our Christchurch to Queenstown itinerary might be more suitable for you. If you're keen to see more of the west coast of New Zealand, take a look at our ultimate 14-day South Island road trip.
You can also see our guide on New Zealand's incredible scenic drives for even more travel inspiration. Before setting out on this journey, see our Christchurch Airport branch to find a safe and comfortable vehicle to guide you on this unforgettable journey.