4-Day Road Trip Itinerary: Picton to Nelson
If you're keen to explore the northern end of the South Island, a road trip from Picton to Nelson is one of the best ways to do so. This brisk jaunt is a quick way to discover some of the most stunning areas in the entire country.
Picton is an underrated destination, especially since getting there from Wellington by air or boat is one of the most affordable ways to travel from the North Island to the South Island. After soaking up everything Picton offers, you'll be desperate to head to Nelson, the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park.
This 4-day road trip is a brief but fulsome way to experience this exceptional region. From natural beauty to urban delights, it's everything you need to maximise your South Island journey. Before getting on the ferry to Picton, pick up a rental car from our Wellington International Airport branch to ensure you have a trustworthy companion for this journey.
How long does it take to drive from Picton to Nelson?
It takes 2 hours to travel from Picton to Nelson via State Highway 6. This 139km route includes plenty of coastline and a range of unmissable stops along the way. It initially heads south to Spring Creek before heading back north and linking up with the stunning Queen Charlotte Drive in Havelock.
Alternatively, you can simply start the Queen Charlotte Drive in Picton for a drive of virtually the exact same length. While this is arguably the "scenic route", we suggest sticking with State Highway 6, as there's plenty to enjoy further south, including a small detour to the town of Blenheim.
Picton to Nelson Drive: A 4-Day Itinerary
As with most coastal road trips, summertime is definitely the best time to take this route on. However, winter is also a great time to check it out, especially if you enjoy unpopulated beaches and leisurely wake-ups for sunrises (think 7-8 AM rather than 5-6 AM). In addition, very few locations mentioned below are affected by winter breaks.
If you are taking this journey in winter, remember to ensure you have some snow chains with you (available for hire from Enterprise).
- Day 1: Arrive in Picton
- Day 2: Picton to Blenheim
- Day 3: Blenheim to Nelson
- Day 4: Explore Abel Tasman National Park
Picton to Nelson overnight stays
- Picton – 1 night
- Blenheim – 1 night
- Nelson – 1 night
Day 1: Arrive in Picton
Whether you've just jumped off a plane or a ferry, you'll be stunned as soon as you arrive in Picton. This beautiful town is home to some of the most stunning natural wonders anywhere in the country. Feel free to stay an extra night if you need more time to soak up all the attractions of Picton.
Some of the top activities in Picton are:
- Marlborough Sounds: Sometimes overshadowed by their southerly cousin in the Milford Sound, the Marlborough Sounds are breathtakingly beautiful in their own right. They're also somewhat more accessible. For example, the Queen Charlotte track offers a hike through these Sounds, allowing you to avoid splashing out on a boat cruise.
- Edwin Fox: The Edwin Fox is one of the world's oldest surviving merchant sailing ships and the only surviving ship that transported convicts to Australia. Today, it has been converted into a maritime museum and a central attraction of the town.
- Kaipapu Sanctuary: Kaipapu Sanctuary is a 40-hectare “mainland island” in Picton Harbour, accessible by a 10-minute boat ride. It is surrounded by a predator-proof fence and offers a 2.7km walking track that allows you to soak in local bird species and stunning views of the surrounding area.
- Marlborough Flyer: Steam train enthusiasts can't miss the chance to check out the Marlborough Flyer. Enjoy the incredible journey from Picton to Blenheim in style on this World War I Memorial Locomotive.
Picton food and accommodation
There are plenty of excellent options to grab a bite in this charming town, no matter if you've just set foot in Picton or need to refuel after a long day of adventuring. Top options include:
- Toastie Picton: Enjoy a casual and delicious sandwich on the waterfront at Toastie Picton.
- Oxley's Bar and Kitchen: This beautiful venue is the perfect place to grab a drink and a snack on the banks of Picton Harbour.
- Le Café: Le Café offers locally sourced ingredients and a range of excellent events, cementing it as a culinary icon of Picton.
When it comes to finding the perfect place to stay in Picton, you have plenty of options, including:
- Beachcomber Inn: The aptly named Beachcomber Inn offers remarkable views, an outdoor pool and a lovely bar and restaurant.
- Escape to Picton: This luxe venue offers waterfront views and 3 rooms each filled with handmade furniture and all the trappings of an excellent hotel experience.
- Kippilaw House: Just a 5-minute drive from Picton Ferry Terminal, Kippilaw House offers decadent lodgings and an equally decadent chef's menu to enjoy.
Day 2: Picton to Blenheim
As much as you've adored your time in Picton, it’s time to move on and give Blenheim the spotlight!
Picton to Blenheim driving time
It takes just 24 minutes to drive from Picton to Blenheim. There's plenty to sink your teeth into when you arrive in Blenheim, so we recommend enjoying your morning in Picton and making a straight-line drive.
Arrive in Blenheim
Blenheim is perhaps best known as the gateway to the Marlborough wine region. But vino isn't all this little town has to offer. It's also a must-stop location for history buffs, with the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre offering a remarkable perspective on New Zealand aircraft and the World Wars.
Once you take part in some education, you can treat yourself to a visit to a classy winery. Some of the best venues in the area are:
- Saint Clair Family Estate: Saint Clair Family Estate is conveniently located, as it is just a 10-minute drive from central Blenheim. It produces an array of exceptional wines, while the Vineyard Kitchen Restaurant and Cellar Door offers one of the best wine-tasting and dining experiences in the area.
- Cloudy Bay: One of the oldest wineries in Marlborough, Cloudy Bay has been producing award-winning white wines for decades. Its wines are considered so luxurious that the winery was acquired by the LMVH brand in 2003.
- Spy Valley Wines: Named after a nearby Cold War-era satellite monitoring station, this winery offers gorgeous views and delicious beverages.
Blenheim food and accommodation
There are plenty of excellent eateries in Blenheim beyond the nearby wineries, including:
- Arbour: This fine-dining venue offers a 4-course set menu and the type of high-calibre wine list you'd expect to find in this region.
- The Fancy Cow: Go to the Fancy Cow expecting a decadent Italian menu, with delicious wines and craft beers from DNA Brewing.
- Frank’s Oyster Bar and Eatery: Nab exceptional oysters and much more at Frank's Oyster Bar and Eatery. As is obligatory for any restaurant in the area, the wine list is to die for.
As for accommodation in Blenheim, the top options include:
- Scenic Hotel Marlborough: This venue lives up to its name with a gorgeous design. Its rooms include pet-friendly and accessible options.
- Chateau Marlborough: Enjoy a premium atmosphere from the beginning to the end of your stay at the picturesque Chateau Marlborough.
- Ellena Court Motel: A short walk from the Blenheim CBD, enjoy affordable and convenient lodgings in the heart of Blenheim.
Day 3: Blenheim to Nelson
With your major detour out of the way, it's time to carry on to your final destination of Nelson. Though this is a short drive, there's plenty to see along the way, so be sure to head out nice and early.
Blenheim to Nelson driving time
It takes around 1 hour and 45 minutes to travel from Blenheim to Nelson via State Highway 6. The recommended stopovers for today will add around 20 minutes to your journey.
Stops between Blenheim and Nelson
Travel for 34 minutes until you reach the town of Havelock. Known as the mussel capital of New Zealand, you simply must stop at this location to enjoy this delicacy. Havelock is where your route joins the stunning Queen Charlotte Drive. Head to the nearby Cullen Point to take a look at the turquoise blue and lush green beauty of the Marlborough Sounds.
15 minutes away from Havelock is the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve. Named after a remarkable bridge crossing the crystal clear waters of the Pelorus River, this scenic reserve is packed with fun activities for singles or whole families.
There are walks encompassing a wide range of lengths and difficulty. Go for a summertime swim or kayak along the river, or bring along some snacks for a picnic. It's a fantastic place for some outdoor fun along your journey.
Carry on your trip for another 50 minutes until you arrive at Cable Bay. Cable Bay offers some of the best swimming in the entire region, as well as the enticing Cable Bay Walkway.
If you'd like to get your adrenaline pumping, consider making a stop at Cable Bay Adventure Park. Its range of hair-raising activities includes quad biking, paintballing and the famed Skywire Experience. One of the world's longest-flying foxes, it can reach speeds of up to 100km an hour above the forest canopy.
Arrive in Nelson
Once you've had your fill of Cable Bay, it's another 30 minutes until you reach your destination, Nelson. It offers scenic wonder and some lovely urban features too. When you arrive, consider checking out the following attractions:
- Founders Heritage Park: This open-air museum offers the chance to stroll through the local history of the city. Attractions include a short heritage railway line operated by the Nelson Railway Society, shops selling artisan food and art, and a range of enthralling displays.
- Tahunanui Beach: This remarkable beach boasts crystal-clear waters and picturesque shores of sand. It is also conveniently located very near to the city centre.
- Queen's Gardens: Queen's Gardens is filled with gorgeous plant life, a war memorial, plenty of stunning sculptures and a cupid fountain. It's a slice of Victorian life right in the heart of Nelson.
- Nelson Classic Car Museum: Rev-heads rejoice. Widely considered one of the finest private car collections in New Zealand, highlights include classic cars like Renaults, Jaguars and Ferraris. The Classic Car Museum also includes the intriguing World of Wearable Art. The combined museum is the perfect wet-weather contingency.
- Botanical Hill: This small hill offers the definitive view of the beautiful city of Nelson. At under 2 kilometres, this climb is a great way to work some exercise into your road trip.
Nelson's food and accommodation
Day 3 is sure to leave you hungry. Thankfully, you're in the perfect place to enjoy some delicious food.
- Urban Oyster Bar and Eatery: Urban Oyster Bar and Eatery is an excellent option for grabbing scrumptious seafood in Nelson. It also has a great range of craft beer to browse.
- The Styx Kitchen and Bar: The Styx offers great food and remarkable views, creating an ambience and atmosphere where you'll always want to stay.
- The Fat Tui: This laid-back burger restaurant is the perfect place to enjoy a low-key meal in Nelson.
Consider the following options for laying your head down at night in Nelson:
- Tides Hotel: Located on the banks of the Maitai River, the Tides Hotel also includes the Tides Bar and Eatery for a convenient and well-reviewed dining experience.
- Delorenzo Studio Apartments: Enjoy spacious and luxurious lodgings in these remarkable apartments.
- Quest Nelson: These serviced apartments include air conditioning, laundry facilities and much more. They can be your home away from home as you explore Nelson.
Day 4: Explore Abel Tasman National Park
As incredible as Nelson itself is, the best aspect of the city might be its ability to serve as a base camp for your exploration of Abel Tasman National Park. This stunning location made it onto our list of the Top 5 National Parks in New Zealand, owing to its exceptional combination of gorgeous sun-soaked coastline and verdant forests.
That's why we've included a bonus day on this trip to highlight some of the must-see locations in Abel Tasman National Park.
- Coast Track: This 60-kilometre walking track offers enthralling views of coastline and forest alike. It's an exceptional way to experience the best of the park, even if you only complete a small section of it.
- Tonga Island Marine Reserve: This area offers a range of water-based attractions to enjoy. You can choose to take it all in on a guided kayak tour.
- Beaches: While many National Parks make their name with lush greenery, Abel Tasman National Park is a little bit unique with incredible beaches to enjoy. Top places for a dip and a sunbake include Torrent Bay, Onetahuti and Bark Bay. You can easily spend a few hours or all day in these locations.
- Ngarua Caves: These remarkable attractions offer a 300-metre walkway which you can use to marvel at the jaw-dropping formations inside.
- Split Apple Rock: This aptly named formation resembles a rock that has been cut in half. It's easily accessible during the low tide and is worth checking out for any visitor.
Picton to Nelson: Rev Up Your South Island Adventure
As you can see, there's so much more to the Picton to Nelson drive than the 2 hours Google Maps suggests. Following this itinerary helps you see some of the most underrated stops in all of New Zealand, while taking in the natural majesty of the Marlborough Sounds and the Abel Tasman National Park.
If the only thing you'd change about this route is making it longer, be sure to check out our 6-day Christchurch to Nelson drive. For an even more comprehensive trip, check out our ultimate 14-day South Island drive.
Wherever your New Zealand travels take you, Enterprise has a location for you to pick up the perfect vehicle. Check out our Wellington International Airport branch, or our Nelson Airport location if you want to start your trip from there. No matter what, you can be sure Enterprise will do everything we can to ensure your trip is safe, smooth and enjoyable.