Great stuff guys – 5 days off and a trip to the South Island awaits. For many it seems strange to hop straight on a ferry and head on down south when there is so much to do on your doorstep in Wellington but for us, we just love a trip to Nelson and a chance to explore the Abel Tasman National Park as well as sample some of New Zealand’s finest wine over in Blenheim. This trip has a bit of everything from the outdoors to the laid back so there’s no time to waste – let’s GO!
- Route map with key locations
- Recommended vehicle for this trip
- Trip itinerary
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1Wellington to Nelson (137 kms – 1 hour 51 mins plus ferry ride 3 hours 10 mins)
Depending on whether you have explore Wellington before, you may want to have a wander around New Zealand’s capital city, described as the coolest little city in the world.
Here are some of our top tips:
Park your car and head for a walk around the waterfront where you’ll find the fascinating Museum of Wellington City and Sea in the old Harbour Board Bond Store, complete with its opulent 1920s board room and a complete teak cabin from an 1879 steamship. It’s not far from New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa – a futuristic multi-storeyed complex that forms one of the largest new museums in the world, with numerous interactive displays.
For the best panoramic views of the city and Port Nicholson all the way across to the Hutt Valley, head up to the lookout on Mt Victoria. The historic cannon on the summit was installed in 1877 and was fired each day as a time signal for many years. If you look down below, in the suburbs, you will spot the New Zealand Cricket Museum, located in the Old Grandstand at the Basin Reserve, not far from the Colonial Cottage Museum on the site of one of the original 1840 New Zealand Company Town acres.
Grab a coffee (Wellington claims to have the best coffee in New Zealand) and visit the cool one-of-a-kind stores along Manners Mall and Cuba Street. When you’re on that street, notice the cool Bucket Fountain that doesn’t actually work the way it’s supposed to (take a close look at it and you’ll see the water doesn’t actually obey the easy bucket system and sometimes misses the buckets altogether).
Treaty of Waitangi
A visit to Archives New Zealand on 10 Mulgrave Street allows you to see the Treaty of Waitangi (the document that is considered the foundation of the country). You can also take a tour of the Beehive, the country’s parliament, if you’re feeling politically-inclined before taking a stroll along the waterfront, decorated with interesting sculptures and populated by numerous bars (including some decent craft beer spots).
If you have some free time, we suggest a visit to the Weta Workshop, nestled away in the Miramar suburb. Weta is known worldwide for its weird and wonderful creations for film, including creatures, makeup and digital special effects for movies such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar and The Chronicles of Narnia among others.
You can take the 45-minute guided tour through the workshop, which provides unique behind-the-scenes glimpses into the work of this award-winning company.
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Before long though it’s going to be time to head across and catch the ferry to Picton and kick off your mini South Island adventure. There are 11 ferry crossings a day but be sure to book in advance or even better, use our free ferry booking service when you book your car. Easy peasy.
The ferry crossing take just over 3 hours and your South Island adventure can begin straight away if you are feeling energetic.
The Snout Track
Get ready to dust off the hiking boots and have a true Kiwi experience by venturing into the great outdoors with a 3.5 hour return hike to awesome views of Queen Charlotte Sound – a good introduction to what the South Island has to offer. From the Snout Track car park, walk along the gravel road to reach the track, then follow the signs to the Snout Head.
The Boulder Bank
The Boulder Bank is another spectacular example of the South Island’s natural wonders. The 13km long bank is one of the very few of its type in the world so you’re in the presence of something very unique. It has been formed from large granodiorite boulders that have been moved by wind, water and tide to form the spectacular line in front of you.
The lighthouse was made in Bath (England) and shipped in parts to New Zealand, then assembled in 1861.
You can access the bank by turning off SH6 and driving along Boulder Bank Drive, 7km north of Nelson.
The Wainui Falls are located inside the Abel Tasman National Park and are 20 metre waterfalls, a welcome reward at the end of an easy bush walk. The hike takes about one hour (return).
This has been a pretty full on first day and you will be ready for a good feed once you park up for the night in Nelson. Nelson is a great place to head out for some delicious food but perhaps more exciting is the vast range of craft beers to be found around here. Be sure to get involved in sampling some of the local brews and forget about Export Gold for the night!
2Exploring the Abel Tasman National Park (59.7km – 1 hour from Nelson)
From Nelson, you’ll have an early start to head off to gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. The roads are windy so make sure you allow enough time to drive the relatively short distance of 60kms. Once you get to the park there are so many activities to choose from it really is up to you how you plan your day – these are some of our top tips:
Cruise and water taxi – if you’re after a fairly relaxed, laid back day, there is no better way to see the park than on a cruise of in a water taxi. The crystal clear waters of the Abel Tasman are a sight to behold to getting out on the water is a must.
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If you’re feeling a bit more energetic, we highly recommend hiring a sea kayak for the day and heading out into the park. You’ll be amazed at what you can see over the side of the kayak as you peer down into the depths of the sea. Park up (is that even a saying for a kayak?!) on a secluded beach and enjoy a spot of lunch – spectacular.
Cruise and walk – the best of both worlds if you want to get out on the water as well as waking through this beautiful national park. Take a cruise and get dropped off deep into the park before following the route back along the rugged coastline.
Mapua (33.6kms – 34 mins)
As you head in towards Nelson, a great little detour and a good spot to grab some dinner is in Mapua.
Mapua is a very picturesque village situated on a wharf on the Abel Tasman coastline. With a huge range of shops, galleries, restaurants, bars and cafes, this makes the perfect stop off for an afternoon beverage or dinner and maybe some retail therapy before you land for the night in Nelson. From the Jellyfish Café and Bar to Forest Fusion Functional Art, there is lots to see and do in Mapua as well as taking in the lovely surroundings.
After a full day in the park, it will be back to Nelson for the night as tomorrow we head south!
3Nelson to Hanmer Springs (300kms – 3 hours 40 mins)
Another early start beckons this morning as you have quite a drive ahead of you but we promise it will be well worth it. Before you leave Nelson, it’s definitely worth checking out the World of Wearable Art Museum.
World of Wearable Art Museum
A trip to Nelson wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the World of Wearable Art (WoW) Museum, a New Zealand institution in its own right. The first ever show was held in Nelson in 1987 and has since grown (and moved to Wellington where it is currently held). The museum displays some of the supreme winners of the shows. Whether you’re interested in clothes and fashion or not, this is an important slice of New Zealand’s culture – one that you should not miss.
From here, it’s time to hit the road heading south to our first stop of the day at Murchison.
Murchison (125kms – 1 hour 37 mins)
After an early start in Nelson our first stop on the way south is Murchison, the gateway to the Kahurangi National Park. It’s unlikely you will have the time on this trip for a full on tramp, but with lots of walking tracks in the area, you may be able to manage a 1 hour leg stretch. One thing Murchison does really well is whitewater thrills from rafting to kayaking to jet boating. The water runs fast around these parts and if you love some adrenaline fuelled action, this is the place for you.
Maruia Springs (97.1kms – 1 hour 5 mins)
Although we are heading to Hanmer Springs and the amazingly relaxing hot pools, Maruia Springs offers a really good alternative and if you can spare an hour, is a great place to relax and unwind although you may not want to get back in the car afterwards! If soothing hot pools are not your thing, there is also some amazing fishing to be had in Maruia Springs with an abundance of blue-ribbon trout in the many streams that criss-cross the area. A good opportunity to catch yourself some supper!
Hanmer Springs (78.1kms – 58 mins)
Once you have arrived and checked into your accommodation, it’s probably going to be getting close to dinner time and Hanmer is a great place to grab some food and sample some of the local beverages.
Monteith’s Brewery Bar
If you’ve not managed to sample the delights of one of New Zealand’s favourite beers, fear not! Although it may not offer the full brewery tour experience, The Monteith’s brew pub in Hanmer is certainly a great place to go and try your favourite Monteith’s ale and relax and unwind. Situated right in the heart of the town, there is a great vibe to match the great beer so whatever you have been up to during the day, this is a great place to end your night. Our top tip is the Monteith’s Southern Pale Ale. When in Rome as they say!
4Hanmer Springs to Blenheim (259kms – 3 hours 23 mins)
So after arriving late last night, it’s time to explore Hanmer and all its delights. Surrounded by the beautiful Southern Alps with crisp alpine air, relax and unwind in the award-winning thermal pools or simply enjoy the peace and tranquillity of Hanmer Village and surrounding areas.
Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa
The thermal pools and spa complex in Hanmer has been soothing peoples’ aches and pains away for the best part of 125 years and all those who have been before you can’t be wrong! Relax in one of 15 open air pools or try out one of the 3 aquatherapy pools. Families and children are catered for too since a recent redevelopment has added three waterslides and a lazy river to keep even the liveliest of kids entertained.
Wai Ariki Farm Park
If getting crinkly is not your thing, there are plenty of other attractions in Hanmer and one of the best is the Wai Ariki Farm Park. Offering a hands-on experience, Wai Ariki is home to some weird and wonderful animals which are sure to keep kids and adults amused for the morning. The Tibetan Yak are a particular favourite!
Although you have only just headed off on this epic kiwi adventure, we know some of you love a bit of retail therapy. With a fantastic range of boutique outlets including the quirky ‘Up the Garden Path’ and ‘Wink’, we’re sure you’ll find the shopping as relaxing as a trip to the thermal pools.
After a pretty full day relaxing, it is unfortunately going to be time to hit the road for our final destination for the night, Blenheim. Depending on what time you manage to head off, there are a couple of stop off on the way to break up the journey – we reckon if you’re on the road by 3pm at the latest, you will still have time to squeeze in a couple more activities in your day – we did promise you action-packed adventure!
Kaikoura (131kms – 1 hour 48 mins)
Kaikoura is a great stop off and if you make it in good time a great opportunity to tick off one of the things that appears on so many wish lists – swim with dolphins! Kaikoura is not just about the dolphins though – this place is a whale watchers paradise and one of the best places in New Zealand to spot them at varying times of the year.
Kaikoura Wine Company
Although we’re heading to the wine capital of New Zealand, the Kaikoura Wine Company offers you a pretty unique opportunity to sit down, relax with a glass of wine and do some whale watching (it doesn’t really get much better than that). The vineyard is located 2km south of Kaikoura along SH1 and it opens at 10am every day, with hourly tours until 4pm.
Swimming with dolphins
GO Play partner Encounter Kaikoura offers a brilliant opportunity to get in the water in the south Pacific and swim with these amazing animals with tours operating three times a day.
It’s not just dolphins that pass through the waters around Kaikoura though and if you time things right, there is also the chance to see various species of whale as well as seals and birds.
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From Kaikoura, it’s a further 129kms to Blenheim that will take you just under 2 hours.
5Blenheim to Wellington (34kms – 30 mins plus ferry ride 3 hours 10 mins)
Marlborough is a world famous wine region and it would be rude not to sample some of the local delights on your way through. Although it’s pretty early, there are plenty of wineries who will gladly take you through their wide range of vinos from a fruity pinot noir to the flagship wine of the region, Sauvignon Blanc (Please note: this is not a trip for our drivers so passengers, you are going to have to be the tasters and we suggest purchasing a bottle of your favourite as payment to the driver for taking one for the team!). There are some famous vineyards down here like Cloudy Bay but we recommend sampling some of the more boutique wineries – a great way to get around is on a bike although be careful if you have a few vinos on the way as you may get a bit wobbly! Wine tour by bike offer bike hire or guided tours which helps as they will transport you back to Blenheim.
If wine is not your thing, there are also lots of microbreweries in the region so this is the perfect place to stock up for when you get back home.
From Blenheim, it is a short 28kms to the ferry terminal at Picton which should take you around half an hour and then another 3 hours on the ferry will deliver you safe and sound back to Wellington and bring to an end this rather splendid road trip to the South Island. We hope you have had a blast and if you have uncovered any hidden gems on your trip, we would love to hear about them on our GO Explore Facebook page.