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Christchurch to Nelson (and back) Road Trip Itinerary

Journey across the top of the south and its iconic wine and food districts. You will visit Abel Tasman National Park, Golden Bay and the Marlborough Sounds


The top of the South Island is brimming with beautiful destinations, making it an ideal spot for a New Zealand road trip. From whales and wildlife in Kaikōura to the golden sands and tranquil bushwalks of Abel Tasman National Park, this part of New Zealand is simply magical. 

Travelling by campervan hire is the perfect way to create a travel itinerary that lets you explore at your own pace. You have the freedom to spontaneously stop to take in the southern sights. Call into one of Marlborough’s renowned wineries for a tasting session. Or park up at a scenic beach and make a tasty lunch using fresh produce you’ve bought along the way.  

The jaw-dropping beauty and unique experiences of the South Island can be a lot to take in, but with the right route, you can see its best parts without feeling rushed. To help you get started, we’ve put together this ultimate 11-day South Island road trip itinerary that takes you from Christchurch to Nelson via Kaikōura, then loops back via Hanmer Springs. 

Ready to hit the road? Let's set the wheels in motion…

Day 1: Christchurch to Kaikōura

Travel time: 2 hours, 15 mins

Distance: 178 km

On day one of your exciting Christchurch to Nelson road trip, the first item on your itinerary is to pick up your camper from Apollo’s Christchurch branch

Starting your journey in Christchurch has its perks. After picking up your camper, you’ve got the opportunity to immerse yourself in the city's unique charm. Take some time to wander through its vibrant streets, get to know its history, and visit the supermarket to stock up your campervan. 

When you're ready to hit the road, Kaikōura is just over two hours' drive away, covering around 180 km of scenic landscapes. This coastal town is a gem, known for its rich marine life and breathtaking juxtaposition of mountains meeting the sea.

Experiencing a whale-watching tour is a must-do in Kaikōura, offering an unparalleled opportunity to witness these gentle giants in their natural habitat. If you'd rather stay dry, the Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway offers unparalleled views of the rugged coastline backdropped by towering mountains. And when hunger strikes, Kaikōura has you covered. Dive into the local culinary scene and treat yourself to fresh seafood dishes that capture the essence of this coastal haven.

End your day at the Kaikōura TOP 10 Holiday Park. It's a comfortable spot to unwind and enjoy the fresh coastal air.


Image: Miles Holden


Day 2: Kaikōura to Blenheim

Travel time: 1 hour, 40 mins 

Distance: 129 km

The next leg of your journey takes you through more of New Zealand’s classic coastal scenery. As you leave Kaikōura and drive north along State Highway 1, make a stop at Ohau Point where you can see seal pups playing in the rock pools. It's an utterly endearing (and completely free!) spectacle you won't want to miss.

As you approach Blenheim, the landscape subtly shifts to a mosaic of vineyards, hinting at the region's wine-making prowess. The local wineries are welcoming to visitors. Drop by, learn about the wine-making process, taste some of the region's best offerings, and perhaps discover a new favourite.

Aviation enthusiasts will love a visit to the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. This museum offers a deep dive into aviation history with meticulously restored aircraft and interactive displays. From World War I biplanes to stories of legendary pilots, it's a captivating journey through the history of flight. 

In the mood for a spot of shopping? A leisurely stroll down Blenheim’s Market Street offers plenty of opportunity. Whether you're after souvenirs, fashion, or local crafts, there's likely to be something here to catch your eye.

End your day parked up within the tranquil setting of Blenheim Bridges Holiday Park. Nestled amidst nature, it's an excellent base to recharge and enjoy a good night’s sleep.


Day 3: Blenheim to Havelock

Travel time: 30 mins

Distance: 43 km

Today’s travel is nice and short – just 30 minutes. This gives you the perfect excuse to enjoy a laid-back morning. Relish the comfort of your bed a little longer before indulging in a leisurely breakfast. When you feel refreshed and ready, set off towards Havelock.

Although small, the township of Havelock packs in an awesome range of experiences. For those looking for a water-bound adventure, the scenic Mail Boat Cruise offers an insightful journey through the stunning Marlborough Sounds. 

Movie buffs can channel their inner Frodo Baggins by kayaking on the Pelorus River, paddling through some of the spectacular locations featured in The Lord of the Rings. 

For a taste of the local culture, stroll through Havelock's art galleries, letting the creativity of the region inspire you. And of course, a visit to Havelock wouldn’t be complete without savouring its famous green-lipped mussels. Dive into this delicacy at The Mussel Pot.

After your day's adventures, put your feet up for the night at the welcoming Havelock Holiday Park.


Image: Tourism New Zealand


Day 4: Havelock to Nelson

Travel time: 1 hour, 10 minutes 

Distance: 75 km

Known as New Zealand’s sunshine capital, Nelson is a beautiful city with loads to see and do. 

Nelson’s streets are a testament to its rich arts and crafts heritage. From boutique studios to open-air markets, there's always a unique piece waiting to catch your eye. A must-visit is the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum – a fascinating fusion of fashion and vintage vehicles.

But Nelson offers more than art. Take a stroll in the serene Queens Gardens, sample local brews at one of the city’s craft breweries, or bask in the sun at Tahunanui Beach, a favourite among both locals and visitors.

When you’re ready to park up for the night, make your way to the Nelson City TOP 10 Holiday Park. It's the perfect spot to spend a relaxing evening, offering both convenience and comfort, right in the heart of the city.


Day 5: Nelson to Abel Tasman National Park

Travel time: 1 hour

Distance: 62 km 

Today you’ll be travelling to one of New Zealand’s most stunning national parks – Abel Tasman. This beautiful park is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, showcasing the best of New Zealand’s pristine beauty. 

There are some great townships to explore along the way. As you head out of Nelson, pop into the Höglund Glass Studio. This impressive studio showcases the craftsmanship of internationally renowned glass artists Ola and Marie Höglund. Here, you can watch live demonstrations and maybe even pick up a unique souvenir.

A little further on, a short detour will bring you to the bustling coastal village of Mapua, known for its artisan shops, galleries, and delightful eateries. It's a great place to sample local seafood or grab an ice cream.

Further on, Motueka is often considered the gateway to Abel Tasman. You can stock up on any essentials here, explore local markets, or visit the Motueka Saltwater Baths for a unique swimming experience.

As you reach Abel Tasman, settle in at Marahau Beach Camp. You may like to enjoy a meal at the waterfront restaurant just next door. 


Image: Tourism New Zealand


Day 6: Abel Tasman National Park

Today, leave the campervan parked up and spend the day exploring everything on offer within this special spot.

Set out on one of the many walking trails, like the renowned Abel Tasman Coast Track, where golden beaches meet native forest. For those who prefer the water, kayaking offers a unique perspective of the park's coves and clear turquoise bays. And to make the experience even more magical, kayakers are often accompanied by playful seals and dolphins. 

For a bird's-eye view, consider a scenic flight or skydiving experience, giving you unparalleled panoramas of the park's beaches, forests, and surrounding water. 


Day 7: Abel Tasman National Park to Golden Bay

Travel time: 1 hour, 20 mins

Distance: 76 km

Today’s travels take you to another of the South Island’s magical destinations, Golden Bay. And the drive there is just as magical. Take your time and explore some of the special spots along the way. 

The small township of Tākaka offers a chilled-out ambience that’s hard to resist. Wander through the vibrant art galleries where local artists display their passion. 

If you're in the mood for a bit of fishing, Anatoki Salmon allows you to catch your salmon and have it prepared for you to either take away or dine in. It's a fun and unique experience.

Often referred to as the 'Pupū Springs', Te Waikoropupū Springs are a natural wonder. These springs boast some of the clearest waters in the world, allowing viewers to gaze deep into its aquamarine depths. It's a serene spot that encapsulates the purity of nature in the South Island. 

Further up the coast, Wharariki Beach is home to expanses of sand dunes punctuated with dramatic rock formations. And if you time your visit right, you might spot seal pups frolicking in the tidal pools. The beach sits at the start of Farewell Spit - New Zealand's longest sand spit. This natural barrier creates a unique ecosystem and bird sanctuary. Consider a guided tour if you want to delve deeper into the area's ecological significance and spot some of the diverse bird species.

Tonight, park up at Golden Bay Holiday Park. With its prime location, you're just moments away from the bay's attractions, ensuring a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure during your stay.


Image: Tourism New Zealand


Day 8: Golden Bay to Nelson Lakes National Park

Travel time: 2 hours, 35 mins 

Distance: 176 km

As you leave Golden Bay behind, your New Zealand road trip continues on today to Nelson Lakes National Park. Plan to stop and enjoy a refreshment break or two parked up somewhere scenic – there are plenty of options!

As you arrive at Nelson Lakes National Park, you'll be met with the pristine alpine beauty of Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. These glacial lakes mirror the sky above, framed by majestic mountain ranges. Adventure seekers can lace up their hiking boots and head off on one of the many trails such as the Robert Ridge Track or the St. Arnaud Range Track, each offering panoramic views of the park's diverse landscape. 

For those looking for a more relaxed experience, picnicking by the lake or birdwatching are great ways to spend an afternoon.

After a day of exploration, plan an evening of wine and cheese at Kerr Bay Campsite. Set alongside Lake Rotoiti and surrounded by beech forest, this campsite is always popular so be sure to book in early.  


Day 9: Nelson Lakes National Park to Murchison

Travel time: 30 minutes 

Distance: 50 km

Today's journey to Murchison isn't a long one, so there's no need to rush. Bask in the morning atmosphere alongside the lake, perhaps with a coffee or tea in hand, Don’t forget to share a snapshot with friends back home – they’ll wish they were there!  

Murchison, often dubbed as New Zealand’s ‘whitewater capital’, is a haven for thrill-seekers. Dive into the adrenaline-pumping world of white-water rafting or kayaking on the mighty Buller River. For those seeking a serene atmosphere, a visit to Maruia Falls offers views of cascading waters, surrounded by lush forest.

The Buller Gorge Adventure & Heritage Park not only promises exciting activities but also a journey into the area's rich history. Experience the excitement of gold panning and feel the rush of discovering a shiny speck of this precious metal. 

For a truly unique sight, join a tour to witness the forest flames, a natural phenomenon that must be seen to be believed. 

Settle in for the night at the Murchison Motorhome Park, a cosy retreat that offers the perfect blend of convenience and natural beauty. 


Image: Tourism New Zealand


Day 10: Murchison to Hanmer Springs

Travel time: 2 hours, 10 minutes 

Distance: 183 km

As you depart Murchison, the journey to Hanmer Springs takes you through rolling countryside and alongside meandering rivers.

Driving into this resort-style village, you'll immediately understand its reputation as a relaxation haven. The town's main attraction, Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa attracts visitors from near and far with its inviting natural hot pools, making it the perfect spot to soothe any road-weary muscles. 

But there's more to Hanmer than just the pools. Dive into the Hanmer Forest, a maze of walking and biking trails surrounded by tall trees and the sounds of native birds. If you're in the mood for some retail therapy, the charming village centre offers a range of boutique shops, perfect for picking up souvenirs or simply enjoying a leisurely browse.

Enjoy the final night in your campervan by settling into the Hanmer Springs TOP 10 Holiday Park


Day 11: Hanmer Springs to Christchurch

Travel time: 1 hour, 35 minutes 

Distance: 130 km

It’s the last day of your amazing South Island road trip. As you make your way back to Christchurch, there's still a wealth of experiences awaiting you.

First on your list should be Waipara, known for its exceptional vineyards. Here, take a moment to swirl, sniff, and sip some of the region's best wines while soaking in the vineyard vistas. 

Continue your journey to Amberley and step into the Old School Collective, a unique space that combines history with a modern twist. Another worthy stop is the Brick Mill complex where you’ll find the Emporium of Lost Treasures, home to all sorts of fossick-worthy goodies. 

As Christchurch's skyline comes into view, you might like to tick off a few highlights you missed first time around. A great option for packing in some great attractions in a short time is to take the Christchurch Tram around the city centre.  

The final item on your South Island travel itinerary is to head over to Apollo’s Christchurch branch to drop off your camper.


Ready to explore the South Island?

Golden sands, sumptuous seafood, and seriously good scenery… it’s all waiting on this incredible South Island road trip. Ready to make it happen? Take the first step and book in your Apollo campervan hire online today



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