Road Trip Itineraries #5 - Southern Sun

This trip is full of surprises and natural treasures - three of New Zealand's great walks, mountains, rivers and golden sandy bays!

Christchurch to Hanmer


If you haven’t been to Christchurch since the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, you'll be quite shocked at the devastation of a once beautiful city. Looking past that, you’ll see and feel resilience and vitality - art tributes to the fallen, rebuilding and growth - a region determined to come out on top. Park your car and walk around the inner city, in particular the quaint New Regent Street in a stunning heritage setting, just a stones through from the remnants of Christchurch Cathedral and other historic sites. Be sure to check out the Cardboard Cathedral, an interim solution until the old one is repaired or rebuilt. The Cardboard Cathedral is spectacular, especially given that construction materials include 98, over 16 metre long and 120 kilogram cardboard tubes!!!

There's a lot of outdoor adventure to be had in the Canterbury region with river activities, hiking, biking, skiing and swimming on offer, and all with the Southern Alps as your backdrop.

As you head north on the east coast, detour at Culverden to Hanmer Springs, best known for its natural thermal and sulphur hot pools. Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa is a must, a selection of thermal and sulphur hot pools that range in temperature so as you become too hot or cold you can hop between pools. Visiting the pools is particularly fantastic in the evening when it’s dark and also in the midst of winter when you can snuggle into the warming waters. Another gem of Hanmer Springs is Sylvia Flats Hot Pool, sitting right alongside the river in the Lewis Pass. Ask locals for directions, it's not signed. Warning, the sandflies are over-friendly! Hanmer Springs, like the rest of the South Island, is a great outdoor wonderland. Reward yourself a stay at the Heritage, Hanmer Springs, in the the fully restored historic Hanmer Lodge building in the centre of town.

Activities to try:

  • Thermal Pools & Spa, Hamner Springs

Kaikoura to Blenheim


Head back to the east coast on to Kaikoura, a popular eco-tourism destination famous for whale watching. See them from up high whilst gaining a true appreciation for the region with Wings over Whales, or try check out the local seal colony's with a Half Day sea kayaking experience with Kaikoura Kayaks. If you’re a lover of crayfish, Kaikoura's your place – pick up a fresh one at iconic Nin’s Bin caravan just outside of Kaikoura. A must-do between May-October is Ohau Stream (Ohau Point, 27kms north of Kaikoura), where at the end of an easy 10 minute walk, you'll be rewarded with a beautiful waterfall with baby fur seals frolicking in the pool below. It’s like creche for baby seals!

The drive to Blenheim from Kaikoura is scenic and dramatic as you tuck alongside the rugged coastline most of the way.

Blenheim is home to some of New Zealand's best vineyards; being one of the sunniest places in New Zealand together with the surrounding mountains, has a lot to do with this. Sauvignon is the region’s specialty. Park the car and bike around the vineyards. If you have an interest in historical aviation you can’t look past the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre which has an impressive display including Peter Jackson’s personal collection of WWI aircraft. After Blenheim, it’s a short drive north to Picton.

Picton to Nelson


Picton is a picturesque seaside town and the main ferry link with the North Island. It’s also the gateway to the beautiful marine and forest attractions of the Marlborough Sounds. Driving from Picton, you can access the Sounds along Queen Charlotte Drive, a scenic drive capturing the beautiful bays and inlets below. Anakiwa marks the beginning (or end) of the 70km Queen Charlotte Track that you can walk or mountain bike (depending on the time of year). Anakiwa is also home to Outward Bound, the global adventure personal development programme.

Back on the main road, head to Havelock, famous for green-lipped mussels. It’s also a great place to charter a fishing boat or water taxi to explore the Sounds and places not accessible by car. Further along from Havelock is Pelorus Bridge and River. The river and surrounding area is stunning and offers great walking tracks, and was chosen by Peter Jackson for filming some of The Hobbit.

Nelson to Takaka


Continue on to Nelson, known for its abundance of sunshine, artists and golden sandy beaches. Kaiteriteri is extremely popular with holidaymakers and tourists, not only for its tranquil beauty but also as the gateway to the Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s prized Great Walks, or you can sea kayak the journey. Wilsons Abel Tasman will ensure you get most out of your visit, with a range of tour options to suit all interests including single and multi-day kayaking experiences, scenic cruises, plus water taxi and walk combos. Be sure to delight in Nelson scallops when you’re over this way. Head over the Hill into Takaka and Golden Bay. Highlights include Farewell Spit (the northernmost tip of the South Island), Totataranui (part of Abel Tasman National Park and walkway), Te Waikoropupū Springs (Pupu Springs) which boast the clearest water in the world, numerous caves and the Heaphy Track (another Great NZ walk).

Activites to try:

  • Wings Over Whales, Kaikoura 
  • Scenic Cruises, Wilsons Abel Tasman 
  • Half day sea kayak, Kaikoura Kayaks

Motueka to Greymouth


Now backtrack to Motueka and drive along State Highway 6 heading to Greymouth on the west coast. Be sure to stop off at the Nelson Lakes National Park, Lake Rotoiti is simply spectacular, though be sure to have insect repellent on hand! Equally spectacular is the Buller Gorge.

As you reach the west coast, stop at Punakaiki, famous for the Pancake Rocks, limestone formations that began forming 30 million years ago and look like stacks of pancakes. Or rent a kayak from Punakaiki Canoes and explore the peaceful Pororari River and lagoon with its majestic limestone gorge and lush rainforest. The walk up the Fox River (15min north of Punakaiki) to the Ballroom Overhang, the largest rock overhang in New Zealand providing excellent shelter for campers, is quite an experience.

Arriving in Greymouth, the largest town on the west coast, you'll find an area steeped in gold mining history. Shantytown steps you back in time with a full working replica of an 1880 gold town, including panning for gold. Consider cycling part of the West Coast Wilderness Trail, tracks carved out by pioneering miners more than a century ago.

Greymouth to Christchurch


Leaving Greymouth, you'll now experience Arthur's Pass, the highest pass across the Southern Alps. Marvel the engineering of the viaducts, bridges, rock shelters and redirected waterfalls. Watch out for the cheeky Kea (alpine parrot), they can be quite aggressive and have been known to cause damage to cars! Nonetheless, they’re likeable rogues. You'll find walking tracks all along this route. Arthur's Pass takes you through some of the most beautiful scenery in New Zealand, as you journey back to Christchurch.

If you need more road trip ideas read our next article in the Avis Big Break series, "The Main Divide".

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