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Road Trip New Zealand: Top of the South Island highlights

The top half of the Te Waipounamu South Island is abundant in wildlife, wineries, natural wonders, thermal springs, and epic cultural encounters. This stunning region has everything you need to create a perfect road trip-ready itinerary for your clients. From picturesque Picton to cosmopolitan Christchurch and across to the rugged West Coast, the scenic diversity makes this an unforgettable region.

The top half of the Te Waipounamu South Island is abundant in wildlife, wineries, natural wonders, thermal springs, and epic cultural encounters. This stunning region has everything you need to create a perfect road trip-ready itinerary for your clients. From picturesque Picton to cosmopolitan Christchurch and across to the rugged West Coast, the scenic diversity makes this an unforgettable region.

Only in New Zealand can you discover a wide range of experiences so close to each other. This proximity leaves travellers ample time to drive and explore at a leisurely pace. Visitors arrive as tourists and leave as whānau.  

Christchurch, the South Island’s largest city, is the entry point, with direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane in under 3.5 hours. Alternatively, fly to Wellington to catch the scenic Cook Strait ferries to the Top of the South Island. 

Marlborough

To say Marlborough is stunning is an understatement. Gorgeous scenery, delectable cuisine, world-class (and world-famous) wine, and ample adventure opportunities make this an idyllic destination in the Top of the South Island. 

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While crossing the Cook Strait on the ferry, passengers are treated to a visual feast of coastal wonders. © MarlboroughNZ

Picton is the entry point to Marlborough from Wellington. With two comfortable ferry offerings – the Interislander and Bluebridge – this is a 3.5-hour journey from the capital to paradise across the Cook Strait. Travellers can also reach Picton from Christchurch on the Coastal Pacific Train.  

Expert tip: The Coastal Pacific is currently on its scheduled spring timetable of running long weekends, Thursday-Sunday, and will return to daily journeys from 14 December 2023 until 28 April 2024.

Once in Marlborough, cellar door lunches, gourmet dinners, hikes through the fabulous Queen Charlotte Track, and cruising the majestic Marlborough Sounds await.  

The Queen Charlotte Track is a mesmerising trail along historic bays, affording jaw-dropping vistas across the Marlborough Sounds. Wilderness Guides offers guided walking, independent hiking, sea kayaking, and mountain biking excursions. 

For a different pace, Beachcomber Cruises runs leisurely boat trips into Queen Charlotte Sound Tõtaranui and Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary. Native species, many critically endangered, call the sanctuary home, including little blue penguins. 

The charcoal oven at Harvest Restaurant enhances Marlborough’s most delectable flavours. Amplified by the lush vineyard setting, welcoming family vibes, and a glass of Marlborough white or red, of course.  

  • Fun fact: The picture-perfect Marlborough Sounds is a glorious network of sea-drowned valleys encompassing one-fifth of New Zealand’s coastline.  

Nelson Tasman

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A picturesque moment in Abel Tasman National Park. © Tourism New Zealand

Nelson Tasman is famous for its artisanal produce, spectacular natural landscapes, world-class mountain biking, and vibrant arts scene. Add in those high sunshine hours, and it’s evident why it’s known as a destination to reconnect and recharge. Nelson Tasman is only two hours from Picton making it an idyllic addition to any Top of the South Island itinerary. 

The Abel Tasman National Park is Nelson Tasman’s biggest drawcard. Explore this accessible coastal paradise by foot, boat, kayak, catamaran, or chopper.  

Waka Abel Tasman offers culturally rich waka tours. Their popular paddle to Split Apple Rock Toka Ngāwha goes beyond the beauty of this iconic spot, revealing the region’s Māori history and legends.  

A trip to the World Heritage Site at Farewell Spit is impressive when brought to life by Farewell Spit Tours. See the spit, meet the resident seals, and journey to the South Island’s northernmost point, Cape Farewell.  

Visiting Pic’s Peanut Butter World complements Nelson Tasman’s outdoor pursuits. Learn Pic’s history and how they support the community and planet. They also have a yummy café filled with peanutty goods, the PC Eatery.  

  • Fun fact: Have you noticed that a map of Golden Bay and Farewell Spit looks remarkably like the head of a kiwi?  

Kaikōura

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Kaikōura’s iconic Nin’s Bin: Where ocean views meet seafood bliss. © Tourism New Zealand/Miles Holden

You’ve heard about Kaikōura’s dramatic coastline, craggy mountains, and abundant marine life, but nothing prepares for how breathtaking it is in person. While driveable from Christchurch in under 2.5 hours and from Nelson in 3.5, Kaikōura feels like a world away.  

The town’s mountain-meets-the-sea vibes and unique ocean environment immerse visitors in nature’s finest. Get close to Kaikōura’s marine residents on a whale-watching tour or dusky dolphin encounter. Wings Over Whales even offer scenic flights!  

For clients that love contemporary luxury, book Hapuku Lodge + Tree Houses. Its stunning coastline setting, intimate spaces, and splurge-worthy spa and dining treats make this the perfect Kaikōura base.

Did you know that Kai means food and Koura means crayfish? Crayfish is the delicacy of the region. Sample at both the world-famous Nin’s Bin kiosk and Hiku at the new Sudima Kaikōura. The latter has incredible views to accompany this local must-try dish.  

  • Fun fact: Kaikōura is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales are not only seen year-round but close to shore!  

Hurunui

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Rows of lush grapevines at the picturesque Greystone Vineyard. © Tourism New Zealand

There’s something special in the Hurunui District, setting it apart from the rest of the Top of the South Island (and the country). Drive there in under 2 hours from Kaikōura and an hour from Christchurch to witness its lush forest, alpine retreats, towering clifftops, and rugged coastline.  

Hurunui’s most famous location, Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa, offers rejuvenating soaks in its healing mineral waters. With 22 outdoor pools, a kids AquaPlay area, and forget-your-stress spa treatments, this is a top spot for visitors of all ages. 

Experience the best of rural New Zealand at the family-owned Tawanui Farm. This Cheviot private glamping escape wows, along with their guided farm tour and thrilling Energy Jet boat ride.  

A culinary destination in its own right, stop for the long-lunch special with complementary wines at the award-winning Greystone vineyard. This is a unique spot to enjoy one of New Zealand’s pioneering regenerative agriculture wine brands.  

  • Fun fact: Hurunui’s Waipara Valley is one of New Zealand’s premier wine regions.  

Te Tai O Poutini West Coast

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Discovering the enchanting beauty of Hokitika Gorge, a tranquil oasis in the heart of nature. © Tourism New Zealand

Best travelled by car, the rich history, spectacular scenery and untouched wilderness of the Te Tai O Poutini West Coast leaves a lasting impression. It’s home to five national parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Area, and magnificent geological wonders.  

Franz Josef Wilderness Tours operates top-rated off-the-beaten-track Glacier Country trips. These include hiking and quad biking, kayaking and fishing on Lake Maporika, and a visit to Lake Maporika’s Kiwi Conservation area.  

For cultural experiences, Hokitika Scenic Tours impresses. Knowledgeable locals run tours to the region’s best landmarks – including Hokitika Gorge and Pancake Rocks – as well as their popular jade carving encounters. Reach Hokitika from Franz Josef in under two hours and Christchurch in three.  

Post-adventure, soaking in an award-winning natural hot spring is well received. At Maruia Hot Springs (only an hour from Hanmer and 2.15 hours from Hokitika), the snow-capped Southern Alps backdrop deepens feelings of relaxation and rest. As does the organic food and daily wellness classes.  

  • Fun fact: Lonely Planet named The Great Coast Road between Westport and Greymouth as one of the world’s Top 10 Coastal Drives! 

Ōtautahi Christchurch

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The iconic Christchurch tram gliding gracefully along the historic Oxford Terrace. © Tourism New Zealand

The rich stories, artsy vibes, and fun-filled activities in Ōtautahi Christchurch make it a perfect base for Top of the South Island exploration. The city’s famous street art, award-winning botanic gardens and inviting open spaces can be explored on foot, by bus, e-bike, gondola, tram, or even punting the Avon River! 

Witness Christchurch from a different perspective aboard the Tramway Restaurant. It’s the country’s only dining tramcar, offering seasonal dining, attentive staff, and an evening sightseeing experience like no other.  

For a cultural experience, Āmiki Tours guides groups and bespoke clients through the laneways of Ōtautahi Christchurch. They’ll share the city’s unique food, local stories, historical sites, and even a few words of te reo Māori (the Māori language). 

For fascinating adventure activities, consider Crater Rim Walks’ guided small-group tours around an extinct volcano. Along with showcasing Canterbury’s epic landscapes, their 1-day Banks Peninsula walks include a gourmet picnic lunch.  

  • Fun fact: Ōtautahi Christchurch is known as New Zealand’s ‘newest’ city.  

Stay tuned for our final instalment in this New Zealand Road Trip series. If you missed it, check out the Top of the North Island and Lower North Island inspo here, and full Road Trip New Zealand series. 

Get rewarded for seeking more 

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Driving along the iconic Great Coast Road, surrounded by lush rainforests and the untamed beauty of the West Coast. © BareKiwi

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