New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most beautiful and easy-going places in the world for a road trip. I may be a little bias, we are talking not just about my home country. here – but my home island, and even home town! But in any case, I’ve driven around these parts many times and can personally testify what an awesome road trip route it is.
Starting from Christchurch, there are two main ways to get to the top of the North Island. Whilst the coastal route is the scenic & more touristed one, I prefer to take the inland route up the South Island. This path will take you through Waipara, Marble Hill, Lewis Pass, Daniels Lake, Kaiteriteri, Nelson, Picton, the Queen Charlotte Sounds, Renwick and Blenheim before either looping back down the coast to the South, or shopping on the ferry bound for the North Island.
What time of year is best to visit the South Island of New Zealand?
My favourite time of the year to take this road trip is on the outer edge of summer, in February or March. The roads are laden with roadside peach vendors and apple stores outside the orchards, sunny golden beaches and green leafy campsites. Every season brings its own charm to the region though, with snowy & steaming hot pools in the winter, abundant blossoms in the spring and richly coloured orange and red grapevines in the autumn.
However, the South Island is great to visit year round – and no matter when you go, the seasons will be changeable. To get an idea of the current climate, head to Canterbury Weather Updates for the Canterbury regions, or MetService to get a bigger picture for the Buller, Nelson and Marlborough regions of (Northern parts of) the South Island.
The New Zealand summertime spans December through to March, although some years you can find winter sprawling out into January. Likewise, if you pick a good year, the warm summer days can last as late as April. December and January are definitely the busiest periods for this part of the country, so if you want good weather, but to avoid some of the crowds (sorry, this is a popular place – there will always be some crowds!) then choose the warm, ‘shoulder season’ late summer months of late February and March.
Autumn and Winter bring their own benefits – snowcapped peaks and gorgeous vineyards & orchards during the harvest await those who come exploring from April to August, and spring (although traditionally wet and windy!) still has nice days with crisp evenings that are perfect for popping into the steaming hot pools, and beautiful blossoming orchards around the Nelson region.
Where to start this amazing road trip?
Personally, I start in Christchurch. It’s my home town, and due to the massive earthquakes in 2010/2011, has been going through a fascinating rebuild and revival. There is plenty to do and loads of accommodation, and don’t worry – the seismic activity has almost entirely settled down at the time of writing! However, this part of New Zealand is accessible from any direction, so it is super easy to fit it into your own travel plans.
Starting out in Christchurch and not sure what to do? Check out my post Seven Unique Things to do in Christchurch this Winter
Flying into Christchurch:
- Blenheim and Nelson both have regional airports that you can fly into from many other New Zealand domestic locations, this may be more convenient but be prepared that the flights are almost always more expensive than those between larger cities! But will have incredible views and lower altitude due to the smaller planes.
- Both Wellington and Christchurch have excellent international and domestic airports that you can fly into from across the country and world.
- If you’re looking to combine this with a more comprehensive full-length New Zealand road trip, then consider flying into Auckland or Queenstown International Airports.
Driving into Christchurch:
If you’re driving, then Wellington and Christchurch are the biggest & most practical cities to leave from. When we did this, we were leaving my hometown of Christchurch so it made sense to leave from there and head north – but many people travel this route in the opposite direction. The Marlborough and Nelson region makes an excellent part of a larger journey between Auckland and Queenstown, and there are many different companies offering rental cars and campervans in the area, check the end of this post for some recommended companies.
Stop 1: Waipara Valley & the Alpine Pacific Triangle
Heading north out of Christchurch, an easy 45 minutes out of town comes Waipara. A wine-making region gaining steady popularity over fantastic Pinot Noirs & Riesling, Waipara makes up one point on the Alpine Pacific Triangle – a scenic region famed for bubbling hot springs, vineyards and whale watching.
Stopping over in the Waipara Wine Region: Waipara is home to 31 different wineries nestled into the valley, there are 12 different cellar doors for tasting, and 4 different winery restaurants if you’re after a bite to go with your tipple. Some of the more prominent vineyards to stop in at include Waipara hills, Pegasus Bay and Torlesse. I especially enjoy Aromatics from this region, but they are also excellent producers of Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. The Waipara vineyards offer wine tasting, delicious lunches and even concerts sometimes in the summer. Having grown up less than an hour away, I have many fond memories of coming out for sunny gigs in the sun with a glass of wine. Take a look at Waipara Hills Wineries schedule to see what’s coming up next.
Stop 2: Choose your own hot spring adventure
When it comes to hot springs, you have a few options in this region:
Family Friendly: you can take the exit to the nearby Hanmer springs. New Zealand’s self proclaimed Alpine Spa Village, Hanmer Springs has bars, cafes, mountainbiking and the famous hot pools, suitable for the whole family. Take a look at the Hanmer Springs ‘Getting There’ page for more detailed information on planning a Hanmer detour. In Hanmer you’ll find many different hotels, AirBnBs, campsites, and guesthouses.
Luxury: For something a touch more romantic or luxurious, and my absolute favourite South Island stopover, Maruia Springs Thermal Resort offers small natural thermal pools, sauna, spa treatments and hotel packages (that include 24 hours access to the pools) starting from $199 at the time of writing. When taking the inland route through the Lewis Pass, Maruia is on the way so no detour is needed – you’ll drive right past the entrance.
Curious about Maruia Springs? I wrote more about my wonderful experience here
Budget/Backpacker/Explorer: The Lewis pass has naturally occurring hot springs – some accessible by road, some involving more in-depth hikes. The most famous Sylvia Flats was unfortunately destroyed by dangerous slips in January 2017, but may get cleared and become usable again in the future.
You can check the NZ Hot Pools website for other spots, it’s an awesome website that outlines all the different hot pools, both spas and naturally occurring, around New Zealand. If you’re looking to go intrepid and find some free spots, with a bit of hunting & map-checking you can usually find dug-out hot water holes in the riverbeds to sit in, just don’t forget your bug spray!
Driving the inland route through the Lewis Pass
In the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017, a combination of severe earthquakes and terrible rain caused massive slips down the coastal roads linking Nelson, Blenheim, Kaikoura and Christchurch. Although well and truly repaired now, this was a massive inconvenience for many people, however the silver lining is it forced people like myself to explore the inland route. Although driving through the Lewis Pass is considerably longer, windy and laden with hills, it is a spectacular scenic drive and takes you through many awesome places you mightn’t normally visit.
Not long out of Christchurch, heading north, you’ll quickly find yourself snaking through picturesque vineyards, dense beech forest and bone-white cliffs balancing precariously over rapids. It takes only around 3.5 hours to find the first campsite of the trip, and it it’s well worth the scenic hill-route.
If you’re heading through these routes, especially in the winter time, make sure to check out the NZTA traffic website for the most up to date info on NZ road closures, or try this link for Malborough & Nelson region specific road info. Even the inland route is prone to slips and closures after recent rain.
The Lewis Pass is one of my favourite parts of the South Island, find out why in New Zealand Wilderness: Exploring Lewis Pass & The Maruia Valley
Stop 3: Camping out at Marble Hill
After finally making your way out of Christchurch, and spending a night or two at one of the hot spring spots, it is a little too tiresome (and besides, too quick for a scenic jaunt about the island) to drive the whole way to Nelson, so I suggest camping out a night or two at a DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite around the halfway mark.
Finding campsites around NZ is super easy thanks to the DOC website’s excellent search function that allows you to narrow by region, access, types of permitted camping, price and facilities.
Marble Hill campsite has beautiful views of hills, beech forest, river and grasslands. The facilities are basic: Toilets and firepit/BBQs with plenty of spots to pitch a tent or park a camper.
There are so many beautiful walks in the area, and if you are here for more than a single night stopover you can hike to two different nearby huts. The campsite works on an $8NZD per adult, per night, camping fee through an honesty box system. You simply pop your money into an envelope with your car registration details & name, then attach a strip from it to your tent or vehicle. Credit cards are also accepted if you pay to the DOC representative who arrives at 7pm each night.
Preparing for the elements
Due to the Lewis Pass being snuggled away in a valley, it gets really cold here at night year round. When I camped here in the beginning of February (Mid Summer) it still got down to near zero degrees overnight (celsius), many nights it had recently gotten down to minus 5 even! It then got quite hot quickly in the morning and it was a race to open the tent up to the fresh air. So if you’re camping then be prepared for all seasons. This area is also prolific for sandflies all year round, so bring the insect repellant too.
Stop 4: Golden Bay, Kaiteriteri and the gateway to Abel Tasman
After leaving Marble hill you could leg it straight over to Nelson. But, you’d be missing out on one of the most beautiful parts of all of New Zealand! As a child Kaiteriteri and Golden Bay were frequent summer holiday destinations for my family, and I have so many happy memories of the gorgeous blue water, green forests and surreal deep, golden sands.
It’s a 3.5 hour drive from Marble Hill to Kaiteriteri, where you’ll find a string of beaches, and accommodation ranging from campsites, cabins, all the way up to luxury beachfront resorts. Golden Bay and Abel Tasman National park, in my opinion, are some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Trekking the Abel Tasman region takes either some serious planning and equipment ,or a bit of cash to fork over to agencies who will organise it for you. It is an incredible journey though, and you can hike it all, Kayak it all, or mix it up.
It’s worth noting that these beaches are super busy in summer, and the camping spots along the hiking route have to be booked well in advance, but it all quietens down a bit in Feb/March once school goes back. Also note that if you’re exploring the Abel Tasman region, kayaking involves hiring a guide if you are not experienced.
Most of the campsites provide no cooking facilities – so you need to bring these along as well. However, if private beaches, lush jungles, turquoise lagoons and kayaking in clear waters with dolphins are up your alley, then it’s well worth the time, money and effort to look into doing it.
Alternatively, plan a day trip or overnight camping visit to Kaiteriteri, Totaranui, or one of the many other road-access campsites. In the Abel Tasman and Golden Bay regions there are plenty of options that don’t require a trek to reach.
Stop 5: Māpua, the cutest of small town New Zealand
Nelson is an awesome city, and Motueka is worth an explore too. But for something a little different, may I suggest the small town of Māpua. Explore the wharf, browse the boutiques by the water, eat fish and chips and enjoy this gorgeous little stopover for a night.
You can camp at one of the campsites, or take your pick from a selection of different accomodation options.
Want to explore more of New Zealand’s most charming small towns? Check out some of my other posts: Discover the North Island’s Most Charming Small Towns & Exploring the Most Charming Small Towns in New Zealand’s South Island
Stop 6: Hidden Camping Hideaways in the Queen Charlotte Sounds
The Abel Tasman and Marlborough Sounds region is full of popular campsites that burst at the seams over summer – but it doesn’t need to be so hectic. A simple DOC campsite search will turn up the smaller and more chilled out sites in the area.
One one trip, we pitched our tent on the waterfront in the absolutely spectacular and rather unknown Aussie bay. Nestled away in the awe-inspiring Queen Charlotte sounds, we were metres from the water’s edge with views of crystal clear waters and starfish resting on the pebbles underneath.
It is worth a look to find the smaller gems, and there are many!
All around New Zealand there are many hidden-away tiny campsites that are usually very cheap – often free. Simply visit the DOC website and either use their comprehensive search function or interactive map to find your next spot.
Aussie bay campsite provides:
- Basic facilities on a small, tranquil, waterfront location. 6 non-powered/tent sites, so very small! But big enough to park a camper van on some of the sites.
- A toilet and running water, but no cooking or showering facilities
- You can pitch a tent right on the waterfront – just one metre from the ocean
- Great swimming with clear water
- Get there early afternoon – late enough that the campers from the night before have packed up and gone, but before the new people arrive, to score the best spots
- See more info at the DOC Aussie bay page here
Stop 7: Renwick, Blenheim and the Marlborough Wine Region
From Nelson, it is only a few hours drive to visit Blenheim and the famous Marlborough wine region. Around 75% of the total wine produced in New Zealand comes from this region, with a climate comparable in latitude to Portugal’s Douro Valley (although a touch cooler!).
Allan Scott is my favourite winemaker in the region, but you really need to get out and test for yourself! The best way to sample the many vineyards is by bicycle, and Blenheim doesn’t disappoint! There are many tour agencies that will rent you a bicycle, suggested itinerary & vineyard map. Alternatively the Marlborough Wine & Food Festival is an annual sellout and a great way to sample a large variety of the South Island’s most treasured winemakers and varietals.
For something a little different, one of my favourite accomodations I’ve stayed in this region is the Marlborough Wine Barrel Cabins where you stay in the most beautifully renovated wine barrels with sweeping views over the heart of the wine growing region.
Amazing wine is just one of the many reasons to love New Zealand, for 25 more check out the A to Z of Visiting Aotearoa
How to Finish the Road Trip
Heading out of this region you have two options – North or South. Seeing as we came from the South, we were Northbound on the Interislander Ferry.
Option One: North to Wellington
Leaving the Marlborough and Nelson region heading north is easily done via ferry. You have two options when it comes to companies, Interislander and Bluebridge. Both provide on-board facilities for meals and upgrades to cabins.
Bluebridge docks much closer to the centre of Wellington, however Interislander provides a free shuttle service to central station. While Interislander provides an awesome lounge upgrade with free food, drinks and snacks, Bluebridge does offer a sleeper journey. Both services provide sleeping and showering cabins for an additional fee.
We opted for the InterIslander ferry from Picton to Wellington and splurged on the premium plus lounge. It was worth every cent of the $45NZD and we spent the entire short (3.5 hour) journey enjoying comfortable sofas, free WiFi and complimentary buffet-style breakfast, morning tea and coffee/juice/drinks/wine/beer.
Option Two: South to Christchurch and Beyond
If heading the other direction (or simply completing a full loop), then you would exit the region down to Christchurch. Being one of the biggest New Zealand cities, Christchurch has regular flights and bus connections further south. From here it’s super easy to get to Dunedin, Queenstown and Milford Sound. Christchurch Airport is international, so it’s also an easy spot to grab a flight out of the country.
Useful Links Mentioned in This Post
Practical Updates & Info
NZTA Traffic Updates – Get up to date information of traffic and road closures around the South Island before you drive
MetService NZ Weather Updates – Weather forecasts for the South Island (and the entire country)
Canterbury Weather Updates – In-depth and human written forecasts for the Canterbury (South Island) region
Transport in the South Island
Transfer Car hook up with cheap (and even free) car rental returns, where you relocate rental cars back to their home base within a set amount of time. Some even provide free fuel and ferry tickets between the North and South Island.
Jucy Car & Campervan Rentals one of the most popular rental companies for camper vans and rental cars
Naked Bus Super cheap bus fares and bus passes around the entire country – some of their package passes include ferry travel between the North & South Island too.
Intercity One of the most popular bus companies
Hot Springs & Thermal Resorts
NZ Hot Pools – Great website listing all of the different hotpools – both natural, free and resorts/spa in New Zealand
Camping & DOC sites
Hiking the Abel Tasman
Getting the Gear
Kathmandu a prominent store in NZ with branches in almost every city – sells hiking, camping and extreme weather gear. Can be quite pricy but the sales are often excellent.
Bivouac similar to Kathmandu, but stocks different brands (more Osprey, Icebreaker etc)
Trademe this is what Kiwi’s use instead of Ebay. If you’re looking for cheap/second hand gear (or anything, for that matter) this is where you go.
Waipara Wineries & Wine Tours