New Zealand | A South Island road trip from Christchurch to Picton

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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.

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