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Driving from Kaikoura to Picton (or Picton to Kaikoura) is one of the lesser-known road trips on the South Island. With that said, it is an important route because the ferry to the North Island leaves from Picton.
Luckily, the road trip from Kaikoura to Picton is a very scenic route. In fact, it’s one of my favorites not only because it’s off the beaten path but the coastline here is magical.
The drive from Kaikoura to Picton is a short two hours without stops, but I highly recommend allowing at least 4 to 6 hours to complete this road trip. Some of the best stops between the two destinations include Kaikoura Lavender Farm, Black Sand Beach, and the Blenheim wineries. Of course, if time allows, spending the night in Blenheim is highly recommended.
In this blog, I list 10 of the best stops on the drive from Kaikoura to Picton so you can easily plan your trip!
About the Drive from Kaikoura to Picton
The drive from Kaikoura to Picton is 155 kilometers (96 miles) and should take two hours without stops. The route follows State Highway 1 (SH1) the whole way and is an easy, stress-free drive.
If you want to drive this route in one day and stop at some of the stops listed below, I recommend allowing at least 4 to 6 hours. However, taking your time and spending the night along the way is the best way to do this road trip from Kaikoura to Picton. I recommend Blenheim town in the heart of the Marlborough Wine Region
During winter, driving from Kaikoura to Picton is a safe route. This is largely due to its northern location, however, the region can still receive snow. With that said, it’s often cleared quickly and poses no major problems. Still, it’s best to be prepared for delays if you plan to drive this route between June and August.
Best Places to Stop on the Drive from Kaikoura to Picton
Kaikoura is probably one of the prettiest places in New Zealand. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and backdropped by the Kaikoura Mountain ranges – it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations on the South Island. That’s because it’s teeming with wildlife with the opportunity to see hundreds of fur seals, dolphins, blue penguins, and even whales.
One of the best and most popular things to do in Kaikoura is to head out on a whale watching tour and see this impressive animal up close. Or, if you’re after a truly unique experience – swim with dolphins! Yep, the bucket-list-worthy activity of swimming with wild dolphins is available in Kaikoura.
Sticking to water-based activities (when you visit Kaikoura you’ll understand why all the best things to do in Kaikoura involve the water) – one of my favorite things I’ve done in Kaikoura is a half-day kayaking tour to see the native dusky dolphins and blue penguins. We did the sunset tour, and it was magical – the wildlife is typically more active at sunset/dusk, so we saw lots of dolphins and whales. On this tour, we also learned a lot about the history of Kaikoura and the Maori culture here.
The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway to Point Kean is a 50 minute (each way walk) that starts at the South Bay parking lot and ends at Kean Bay. There are many information boards along the way which tell about the wildlife in the area. This walk is one of the best opportunities to see fur seals.
People from all over the world come to Kaikoura to surf, which surprises me because the water here is cold, averaging about 13 degrees Celsius (55 Fahrenheit)! So, make sure to pack a cold water wetsuit! Some of the best surf spots are only known to locals so ask at popular local cafes like Beach House Cafe or Food Company Kaikoura (both on Beach Rd) for their tips. I have heard that Mangamaunu to the north of the town is one of the best surf spots for intermediate to expert surfers.
Where to Stay in Kaikoura
If you’re on a budget there are some great choices but for me, I love staying at the Dolphin Lodge when I’m looking to save a few dollars. What I love most about the hotel, is the awesome location and ocean views. On top of that, they have a communal kitchen which always saves me a lot of money.
If you enjoy a little more comfort, then the Kaikoura Waterfront Apartments are a top choice. The best part is they are located in the heart of Kaikoura and you’re only steps from the beach. They have 1 bedroom and 2 apartments that can sleep up to 4 guests.
For high-end travelers, there are a lot of great options in Kaikoura. The Shearwater Apartments really stands out if you want to be close to town. Imagine luxury apartments right on the water with ocean views. If you’d prefer a stay nestled closer to the mountains the Manakau Lodge is one of the best-rated hotels in Kaikoura. Or, for a really unique stay, consider the Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses and sleep above the forest.
2. Lavendyl – Kaikoura Lavender Farm
Lavendyl Farm, a Lavender Farm growing over 50 different varieties of lavender, is just a 5-minute drive from Kaikoura town. Not only is the bright purple lavender so pretty, but the farm is surrounded by Mount Fyffe and the Kaikoura Peninsula. So it’s the perfect backdrop for that Instagram-worthy shot!
I just love the smell of lavender, don’t you? If you want to bring a lavender memento home to remember your trip, you can purchase lavender oils, bath products, hair products, and even lavender flavored honey at the on-site shop. There’s also a cute on-site tea room serving up tea, coffee, and delicious cakes.
Worth noting is that you can watch the distillation process in action in January and February (when the lavender is at its peak for oil production). During this process, they extract pure lavender oil as well as rosemary oil to make up the oils and other products they sell at their shop.
You can even spend the night at the Lavender Farm in the attached Dylan’s Cottages, which offers two rustic-style cottages suitable for two people. The best time to visit is when the lavender is in full bloom in January and February, however, you can visit as early as November and still see some flowers.
Related read: If you want to visit my favorite lavender farm in NZ you need to check out the best things to do in Wanaka!
3. Ohau Point
A 20-kilometer drive from Kaikoura is the beautiful Ohau Point – one of the best places to see fur seals between Kaikoura and Picton.
Ohau Point viewing platform is in prime position to watch the fur seals lazing on the rocks below. They typically don’t make too much movement; however, summer is mating season, so you’re likely to see a lot more action from Kaikoura’s most famous residents. You can see hundreds of fur seals here!
About 1 km from the viewing platform is the start of the Ohau Point Stream Walkway. It’s a short and easy 300 meter (each way) track that leads to the waterfall. Here at Ohau Point Waterfall, is the only place in the world where you can watch little fur seal pups play in a waterfall. This happens every winter and you’ll likely see many baby fur seals swimming up the stream and into the waterfall to play. They are adorable and love to play-fight with each other. However, make sure to keep your distance, as they can be very inquisitive.
The Kaikoura earthquake in 2006 did cause minor damage to the pool beneath the waterfall, which you will witness when you visit. The walking track was closed for a while as they worked to make it safe after the earthquake, but it is now fully back open to the public.
4. Paparoa Point Rest Area
A 35-minute drive from Ohau Point – Paparoa Point is a culturally significant-stop between Kaikoura and Picton. It tells the story of Paikea – a whale rider popular in native Maori folklore. The viewing platform offers stunning views over the Hikurangi Trench and is incredibly photogenic on a windy day with the huge crashing waves on the rocky beach.
Interestingly, the viewing platform’s shape is based on the Hikurangi Trench’s strong connection between Kaikoura and the North Island’s east coast. Depicted on the viewing platform’s internal face is Ruaumoko (Maori god of earthquakes). It is there to honor the significant change of the coastline and the sea bed due to the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake.
The unique sculpture you see as you approach the viewing platform is of Tūteurutira (a historic Maori Chief). Each step leading up to the viewing platform displays a name from his whakapapa (family and ancestors). There’s also a beautiful intricately carved picnic bench on display.
You can also see New Zealand fur seals here.
5. Black Sand Beach
One of the prettiest sights on the drive from Kaikoura to Picton is the Black Sand Beach, about a 45-minute drive north of Kaikoura town.
The black sand is in stark contrast to the turquoise waters, and it almost looks like a scene from Hawaii. However, the water here is not as warm as in Hawaii. The average seawater temperatures in and around Kaikoura are 13 degrees Celsius (55 Fahrenheit)!!
So, if you plan on swimming here, definitely wear a wetsuit. This beach is made even more photogenic with the Kaikoura Mountain Ranges in the background. There are also lots of large pieces of driftwood strewn across the beach – perfect for photographers!
The black sand is unusual but is surprisingly common on the South Island as it was formed by the run-off of heavy minerals from the Southern Alps and then built up on the beach by vigorous wave action.
You will likely see the resident fur seals lazing on the sand here too – seriously they are everywhere on the east coast of the South Island!
6. Ward Beach Boulders
The unusual Ward Beach Boulders are several large spherical rocks dotted along Ward Beach. They are a little similar to those found at the famed Moeraki Beach, although not quite as impressive as the Moeraki Boulders, which are considered one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
The boulders are located an 800-meter walk from the parking lot at the end of Ward Beach Road. The boulders are located towards the end of the beach in an area known as Chancet Rocks. The best time to see them is at low tide.
At the northern end of the beach, the 2016 earthquake unveiled something very cool and unique. This area exposes the K-T Boundary (also known as the Cretaceous-Palaeogene Boundary). This signifies the event that led to the extinction of dinosaurs. It is believed the rocks found here are over 65 million years old!
The 2016 earthquake also created a new surf break at Ward Beach, and so this spot has become very popular with local surfers. However, if you want to try surfing here, be sure to wear a wetsuit as the water here is cold!
Whilst exploring, be mindful of any fur seals lazing on the beach and keep your distance.
7. Visit the wineries in the Marlborough Wine Region
The largest and most famous wine region in New Zealand is right here in the Marlborough Sounds. There are over 500 winegrowers in operation in Marlborough, across a massive area of 26,000 hectares.
The climate here is ideal for wine-growing as it’s one of New Zealand’s sunniest and driest regions. In fact, the weather gets so warm here (especially in summer) that the Maori refer to it as ‘Kei puta te Wairau’ which translates to ‘the place with the hole in the cloud’.
Did you know – Marlborough put New Zealand on the world wine map in the 1980s with its delicious Sauvignon Blanc.
The most famous wine grown here is Sauvignon Blanc, and I’m almost certain you will have tried a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, as it is readily available in supermarkets worldwide. It’s one of my favorite wine varieties I’ve ever tried and typically has tropical fruit notes like passionfruit or melon. Yummy! Other popular grape varieties grown in Marlborough include Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
You can book a guided full or half-day wine tour that includes tastings at several cellar doors and typically a delicious lunch. Or why not hire a bike in nearby Blenheim and cycle between each cellar door (there are over 30), and all are just a few minutes bike ride from the next. It’s an easy flat cycle too!
Some of the best cellar doors to visit in Marlborough include Villa Maria Estate, Nautilus Estate, Yealands Estate, and Saint Clair Family Estate.
8. Explore Blenheim
Known as the foodie capital of New Zealand – Blenheim is a must-stop for food and wine lovers!
One of the best activities for food-lovers in Blenheim is visiting Makana Confections on Dwyers Roads, a short 8 km drive from the town center. Here, chocolate lovers will be amazed by free chocolate tastings and the chance to watch (and smell) the chocolate-making in action. As for restaurants in Blenheim, you must visit Gramado’s on Main Street and Rocco’s Italian on Dodson Street.
Another great thing to do in Blenheim includes a walk or cycle through Wither Hills Farm Park, a working cattle and sheep farm 5 km from the town. There are several walking tracks here all varying in difficulty and length. The views from here are incredible, with rolling farmland and vineyards to be seen in the distance. For bike lovers, there’s a mountain bike park featuring grade 2, 3, and 4 tracks.
Some other great places for a walk in Blenheim include Pollard Park, which features 64 acres of wooded park as well as rose gardens. It’s very popular with local families. Grab a coffee from Watery Mouth Cafe on High Street and take your time to admire the gardens here.
Harling Park near Wither Hills Farm is another great spot for a walk or picnic and features stunning Japanese gardens.
I loved visiting the Omaka Aviation Heritage Center in Blenheim to see vintage planes set up in unique displays. These displays were put together by none other than famed movie director Sir Peter Jackson!
9. Monkey Bay
Monkey Bay is another example of the gorgeous coastline on New Zealand’s South Island. Be sure to make the quick detour here on your way out of Blenheim.
The Monkey Bay Walking track is a short 20-minute return easy trail that starts at Rarangi beach’s northern end and ends at the beach at Monkey Bay. There are exposed and rocky patches on parts of the track, so use caution and keep any kids with you close by.
There’s a stunning viewing point towards the start of the track, which has excellent views out to Queen Charlotte Sound. There are also some information boards here that explain how Rarangi Beach was formed by sea currents over a period of thousands of years.
If you’re on a budget and looking for a scenic place to spend the night, then Rarangi Campsite (near the beginning of Monkey Bay Walking Track) is ideal. It’s located just 8 km north of Blenheim. It’s a relaxing place to sleep as you can camp right next to the beach and wake to the sound of crashing waves. You can pitch a tent or park up your self-contained vehicle- there are 55 non-powered sites here. The fee to stay here is $8 per adult and $4 per child per night.
This small coastal town of Picton is a top-rated stop on any road trip through the South Island because it’s where you catch the ferry to the North Island (the ferry arrives in Wellington).
The most popular thing to do in Picton is to cruise the Marlborough Sounds. I myself had a once-in-a-lifetime experience on a cruise here. As we set off the view wildlife two Department of Conservation officers boarded the boat to take two baby kiwis to a preditor-free island. When they tagged them we got to see them from only meters away.
On most cruises, this won’t happen but you’ll still get to see marine life such as seals and dolphins as well as tons of rare birds. The entire tour is amazing and well worth doing! It’s one of the best activities on the South Island.
If you’re traveling with kids, then Picton Beach should be your first stop as it has a pirate-themed playground, mini-golf, and a large shaded park – which is the perfect spot for a picnic. A short walk from Picton Beach is Picton Marina which is filled with luxury yachts and catamarans.
Some other fun places to visit in Picton are EcoWorld Aquarium which houses and helps to rehabilitate wildlife found in the area like blue penguins and tuatara reptiles.
The Edwin Fox Maritime Museum on Dunbar Pier is the oldest merchant sailing ship in the world. Visitors can climb aboard the ship to get a real feel of what life on a 19th Century convict ship was like – this ship was used to transport convicts to Australia! You can visit the hull and see where the ship’s staff slept.
Where to Stay in Picton
Picton may be a small town but there are a ton of great places to stay. The truth is, picking a great located hotel is important because Picton is not the most beautiful town. So, you really want to enjoy the natural scenery.
Budget travelers will love the Atlantis Backpackers. I stayed here once when I was transporting my car from Auckland to Queenstown and simply wanted a cheap place to stay. The hostel is fun and it’s easy to meet other travelers. It’s located close to the marina and right next to Picton Memorial Park.
If you can spend a little more then you’ll really get a nice upgrade. Harbour View Motel is one of my favorite hotels in Picton because of its location and views. Stare out at the gorgeous marina and enjoy sunset drinks on your balcony – my favorite!
If you don’t mind spending a little more, the Picton Waterfront Luxury Apartments are one of the most luxurious options in Picton. The hotel’s location is as waterfront as you can get and the rooms come with large balconies and ocean views.
Heading to Christchruch? Read my blog about the drive from Christchruch to Kaikoura!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to book a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
I’m sure you’ll agree that there are of things to see on the drive from Kaikoura to Picton for such a short road trip. That’s why I recommend making a vacation of it and spending the night along the way, stopping at all of the beautiful places I’ve suggested above. The drive from Kaikoura to Picton is one of my favorites on the South Island, and once you complete it, I’m sure you’ll understand why.
Thanks for reading. I really hope you enjoyed this blog! If you did then check out more of my in-depth guides such as: