The top of the South is a microcosm of the country, with diverse mountains, beaches, forests, lakes, and wildlife. Arrive in the Marlborough Sounds and complete a loop along the northern and western coastline, and through the mountains.

The ferry from Wellington takes about three hours, and passes through the dramatic Marlborough Sounds, a network of sunken valleys and isolated bays. Picton is the largest town in the sounds, and offers wildlife-watching cruises with chances of seeing penguins and dusky dolphins.

From Picton, follow the Queen Charlotte Drive to Havelock, a handy lunch stop on the way to Nelson.

Spend a day or two in pleasant Nelson, the largest city at the top of the South Island, or continue directly to the Abel Tasman National Park.

Continue on to Golden Bay, over the slow and winding road to Takaka, a preferable base for exploring the western side of Abel Tasman.

Return over the Takaka Hill, to leave Golden Bay and head to the small village of St. Arnaud, on Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes. How long you spend at the Nelson Lakes depends on how much hiking you want to do.

From St. Arnaud, continue in the direction of Murchison for great white-water rafting on the Buller River, and then on to Greymouth on the West Coast. Stop at Punakaiki’s Pancake Rocks on the way.

After a day at the Hokitika Gorge, head east to Hanmer Springs. The journey traverses the 740-metre Arthur’s Pass, through the mountains of the Arthur’s Pass National Park.

Finally, head to Christchurch to connect to an international flight or continue road tripping for a few more days, up the east coast, to make a full loop back to Picton.

Key information

Destinations New Zealand
Activity Beach, Family, Adventure, Hiking & Trekking, Mountain Biking, Water Sports, Kayaking, Canoeing, Active, Walking, Biking, Fishing, Road Trips, Swimming, Nature & Wildlife, Birdwatching, National Parks, Culture, Cities, Museums & Galleries, Indigenous Tourism, Culinary, Wine
Physical Level Easy
Season Season January - December

Suggested itinerary

Wellington

Day 1

Creative Wellington has a claim to be New Zealand’s most cultural city. From art galleries to theatre, craft beer to coffee, Wellington is a compact city packing a powerful punch. If you’re still looking for outdoor activities, try mountain biking or sea-water kayaking, or take a walk on the Makara Peak track for views across the west coast beach.

Marlborough Sounds

Marlborough Sounds

Day 2–3 in Marlborough Region

For many overland travellers, the Marlborough Sounds are their first glimpse of the South Island. The jagged area of islands, inlets, and sunken valleys offer scenic road trips, remote hikes, secluded beaches, gentle sea kayaking, and different views at every turn. Although not a national park, there are more than 50 reserves here. Some can be driven to — like the refreshing Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve — while others require a boat transfer, like Motuara Island.

Explore Abel Tasman National Park

Explore Abel Tasman National Park

Day 4–5 in Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman’s compact size makes it an easy place for trips to beautiful beaches, day hikes, longer treks, boat rides along the coast, and kayaking excursions. While the five-day Coast Track is the most famous walk, shorter sections can be done with the help of water taxi transfers, and the Inland Track sees far fewer trekkers.

Golden Bay

Day 6–7

Remote Golden Bay has a frontier vibe and very few inhabitants.

With the Abel Tasman National Park to the east and the Kahurangi National Park to the south-west, there are many hiking options, including the 4/5-day Heaphy Track.

The long, skinny sweep of Farewell Spit is an important bird sanctuary; the sacred, dazzling-blue Waikoropupu Springs are the largest cold-water springs in the country; and dramatic Wharariki Beach is a place for windswept walks, horse treks, and seal spotting.

Hike in Nelson Lakes National Park

Hike in Nelson Lakes National Park

Day 8 in Nelson

Nelson Tasman is known as one of New Zealand’s most artistic places, with painters, sculptor and jewellery makers are living here. Head to the local art market to discover what makes this such a creative place.

The mountains of the Nelson Lakes National Park mark the start of the Southern Alps mountains that run through the centre of the South Island.

Multi-day hiking is the only way to reach some of the 16 lakes in the park, including Blue Lake, thought to be the clearest lake in the world. But, Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa are easy to drive to. There are short (and longer) walks around these lakes, and water taxi services in season.

Paparoa National Park

Day 9

The unusual and aptly named Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, in the Paparoa National Park, are a worthwhile stop en route between Westport and Greymouth/Hokitika. From the rocks, you can admire classic West Coast views of dense native forest, limestone cliffs, and endless uninhabited, undeveloped coastline.

Hokitika

Day 10

An old gold-rush town, Hokitika is one of the West Coast’s few settlements.

On a clear day there are views of Aoraki Mt. Cook from the blustery beach, and pieces of pounamu (jade) can sometimes be found there. The turquoise waters of the Hokitika Gorge, east of town, are a scenic setting for kayaking and short walks.

New Zealand’s wild west coast is linked by a single track through Greymouth, Kumara, Cowboy Paradise, Hokitika and Ross. The Hokitika to Ross section takes in wetlands, forests and old mills, before ending with views over Totara lagoon as you ride into Ross. The one-way trip takes about four hours.

Geothermal pools at Hanmar Springs

Geothermal pools at Hanmar Springs

Day 11 in Hanmer Springs

The South Island’s answer to the geothermal springs of the central North Island, this mountain resort town is a place to chill out in the warm waters of open-air baths. Jet-boating and white-water rafting through the Waiau Gorge can also be enjoyed.

Kaikoura

Day 12–13

Kaikoura is the place to see wildlife in New Zealand, set against the might of the Seaward Kaikoura mountain range, this is a stunningly beautiful stop.

The ocean currents and deep trench offshore mean the seas around Kaikoura are home to a huge variety of marine life year-round. Sperm whales, humpback whales, blue whales, orca, dusky dolphins, Hector’s dolphins, seals, albatross, penguins and sea birds, who come for the nutrient-rich waters that are perfect for feeding, can be seen on sightseeing cruises or flights (note a minimum age of three for cruises, but not flights).

Sample wine in Blenheim

Sample wine in Blenheim

Day 14 in Marlborough Region

The largest town in New Zealand’s premier wine-producing region, the Marlborough. Blenheim is a half-hour drive from Picton.

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