South Island east coast road trip: Nelson to Invercargill (Part 1)

The idea of a quintessential South Island road trip usually conjures up images of the stunning lakes and mountains of Central Otago, the dramatic scenes of the Fiordlands, and the not-to-be-missed wild West Coast.

However, the South Island has so much more to offer, as you’ll discover on a road trip from Nelson to Invercargill down the east coast. In this case, think stunning beaches, marvellous marine life and the chance to visit the island’s two largest cities. This is one incredible stretch of coastline to explore, so let’s hit the road!

Nelson (Whakatū)

Nelson is not a city you want to simply ‘pass through’ as there are so many incredible experiences on offer. The city and surrounding Tasman region will treat you to amazing food, popular street markets, vivid artworks by talented artists, fine wines, awesome craft beers and ciders, and stunning outdoor scenes. Try and spend at least a couple of days in the city that lays claim to being the sunniest spot in Aotearoa New Zealand!

Need a place to stay?

Soak upthe English country charm of The Honest Lawyer, Ascend Hotel Collection in Nelson. The hotel has just 13 rooms, packed with period features and elegant furnishings.

Shop for locally crafted wares at The Nelson Market. Image courtesy of Nelson Tasman NZ
Shop for locally crafted wares at The Nelson Market. Image courtesy of Nelson Tasman NZ

Blenheim (Waiharakeke) via Picton (Waitohi) – 168 kilometres

There is a more direct route to Blenheim, but going via Picton is worth the extra fifty kilometres. Stop at the popular Pelorus Bridge before turning onto Queen Charlotte Drive at Havelock. The 45-minute drive gets pretty winding the closer you get to Picton, but there are some stunning views and stops to enjoy along the way. Picton is where the Cook Strait ferries dock, so this place knows how to cater to travellers. Book a seat with Cougar Line for a cruise on glorious Queen Charlotte Sound.

Blenheim is a less than 30 minutes’ drive from Picton and worth a stop of a couple of days. As the heart of the Marlborough wine region, it attracts wine enthusiasts from around the world. With 150+ wineries in the area, more than three-quarters of all New Zealand wine is produced right here. A wine tour with Na Clachan Wine Tours has to be on the ‘to do’ list.

Need a place to stay?

Quality Hotel Marlborough makes the perfect base from which to discover everything Blenheim has to offer. There are plenty of wineries within easy reach, and you can walk to the town centre with ease.

Well Kept Vineyard
Marlborough wine region, Blenheim. Image – Bigstock


Christchurch (Ōtautahi) – 309 kilometres

Blenheim to Christchurch is a long drive, so you’ll need a good strong coffee under your belt. Less than an hour south of Blenheim is The Store at Kekerengu. This cafe is right on the beach and offers gorgeous views. Another half an hour on will bring you to the Ohau Point Lookout, where you’ll get to see a large seal colony. Drive on to Kaikoura, which is renowned for marine mammal viewing experiences (especially whale watching and dolphin encounters). Take a drive up to the Kaikoura Lookout (off Scarborough Street) for a spectacular view of snow-capped mountains meeting the bright blue Pacific Ocean.

From Kaikoura, it will take about two and a half hours to reach Christchurch. The drive begins by following the coastline, before heading inland. Cheviot is the perfect stop to refuel, grab a bite to eat, or pick up supplies. If you feel like stretching your legs, there are some lovely walking tracks here. Before reaching Christchurch, you may like to indulge in a wine tasting at one of the North Canterbury region’s fabulous wineries. Waipapa Springs comes highly recommended.

Christchurch needs no introduction and you could spend weeks here and not run out of things to do. You can really appreciate how this incredible city has rebuilt itself since the devastation of the 2011 earthquakes by doing a hop on hop off tram tour of the CBD. Check out the many outstanding eateries and restaurants, inspiring street art, and fantastic creative and community spaces that are constantly emerging. Other popular things to do in Christchurch include soaring high above the landscape on the Christchurch Gondola and punting on the Avon River.

Need a place to stay?

Choice Hotels offers a superb range of Christchurch accommodation options to suit every budget.

Go punting in Christchurch. Image – Bigstock

Ashburton (Hakatere) – 90 kilometres

It’s only a one-hour drive from Christchurch to Ashburton, but there are a few treats along the way. You’ll cross the Rakaia River, which is one of the world’s best examples of a braided waterway. At the time of its construction, the bridge that spans this river was the longest in the southern hemisphere (1.8 kilometres). On the south side of the river is the town of Rakaia – the Salmon Capital of New Zealand. If you’re into spotting ‘big’ things, stop and snap a picture with the Rakaia Salmon Statue.

If you love museums and galleries, then you’ll really enjoy your stay in Ashburton. This town boasts a nationally recognised Art Gallery and History Museum, as well as the Plains Vintage Railway and Historical Museum, Ashburton Fire Museum and Ashburton Aviation Museum.

Need a place to stay?

Quality Suites Ashburton is conveniently located on the approach to town from Rakaia, and offers contemporary accommodation at affordable rates.

Rakaia River
Rakaia River. Image courtesy of Tourism New Zealand

Read more: South Island east coast road trip: Nelson to Invercargill (Part 2)

About the writer

Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. In the past few years alone, Karllie has visited over twenty countries and ticked off over more than 50 cities across three continents. She loves the great outdoors – especially hiking and anything to do with the ocean.

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