Driving from Picton to Christchurch, or vice versa, is the perfect way to explore the northeast coast of the South Island! There are so many awesome stops on this drive, not to mention the drive itself is very scenic.
The best part about this road trip is you really get to experience quite the variety in a short distance. You’ll have the opportunity to see the beautiful coastline, marine life, vinyards, and even see the land from a different perspective (via ATV!).
The drive from Picton to Christchurch is just a little over four hours without stops. I recommend giving yourself a full day to complete this road trip though so you can enjoy each stop at your leisure. With stops like Black Sand Beach, wineries, and a lavendar farm, I think you’re definitely going to want to take your time!
In this blog, I list 15 of the best stops on the drive from Picton to Christchurch, as well as some other pertinent information, so you can easily plan your trip!
About the Drive from Picton to Christchurch
The drive from Picton to Christchurch is 336 kilometers (209 miles) and should take around four hours without stops. The route follows State Highway 1 (SH1) the entire way, making it a simple for a road trip for even those who are navigationally challenged (guilty!).
You can spend as much or little time as you’d like at each stop, but I recommend allowing yourself to have at least a full day to experience each of these stops and what they have to offer.
If you have more than one day to allot to this road trip from Picton to Christchurch, I even recommend stopping and staying a night in a few of the cities mentioned. Waipara, Gore Bay, or Blenheim town are all great options! There are also a few amazing wineries along this route, so be sure to book a place to stay near the wineries if you plan on drinking.
Note, that when you’re making your way through Kaikoura (in the middle of the road trip) there may be route delays due to roadworks. In 2016 an earthquake destroyed much of the town of Kaikoura, as well as severely damaged 200 km (124 miles) of road in and around the area. Efforts are still being made to this day to improve the roads’ safety. You can check the latest updates at the NZ Transport website.
Another good thing about this road trip from Picton to Christchurch is you can do it in any season. Because of its northern location, this section of the highway typically receives little snowfall. The snowfall that it does receive, is usually cleared pretty quickly. That being said, you can still get some delays, so be prepared for that if you’re doing this road trip between June and August.
15 Best Stops on the Drive from Picton to Christchurch
Picton is a popular starting point for any road trip on the South Island since it is the small town where the ferry from the North Island arrives. Besides being conveniently located, there are plenty of fun things to do in Picton too!
The most popular activity in Picton is to cruise the Marlborough Sounds. From a boat out on the water, you’ll have the best view of the amazing scenery. You’ll also 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 a place you definitely visit. Here, you’ll find 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.
Related Read: Another popular road trip is the drive from Picton to Nelson – it’s stunning!
2. 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 Picton.
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 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.
3. 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 in Blenheim for food-lovers is visiting Makana Confections on Dwyers Roads, a short 8 km (5-mile) 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 (3.1 miles) 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!
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Black Sand Beach
One of the prettiest sights on the drive from Picton to Christchurch is the Black Sand Beach, about an hour and fifteen minute drive south of Picton.
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!
7. Paparoa Point Rest Area
A 35-minute drive from Ohau Point, Paparoa Point is a culturally significant stop between Picton and Christchurch. 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.
8. Ohau Point
Ohau Point is one of the best places to see fur seals between Picton and Christchurch.
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 (0.6 miles) 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.
9. Lavendyl – Kaikoura Lavender Farm
Lavendyl Farm, a Lavender Farm growing over 50 different varieties of lavender, is just a 15-minute drive from Ohau Point. 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!
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.
Whale watching in Kaikoura is very easy. 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
Kaikoura is the perfect place to stop and spend a night or two along your road trip from Picton to Christchurch. I love staying at the Dolphin Lodge when I’m looking to save a few dollars. It’s cheap and comfortable!
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.
11. Kaikoura Marine Resting Area
One of the best places to see fur seals (and lots of them) in New Zealand is at the Kaikoura Marine Resting Area, approximately a 20-minute drive from the center of Kaikoura. From the viewpoint, you get fabulous views – think turquoise water in the foreground and snow-capped mountains in the background.
Take your binoculars with you to see whales or dusky dolphins in the ocean beyond. The best time to spot them is from October to March. The famed fur seals are much easier to spot and you will likely see dozens of them resting on the rocks here.
The Kaikoura region is known as a wildlife mecca in New Zealand. What, you may ask, attracts so much marine life to Kaikoura? Well, there’s a continental shelf in the ocean, around 500 meters from the shore. This shelf plunges 2 kilometers below the surface and provides the ideal deep water that marine life thrives in.
12. Glenstrae Four Wheeler Adventures
Just 20 minutes outside Kaikoura is the perfect activity for adrenaline-junkies. This 2.5-hour quad biking tour with Glenstrae Four Wheeler Adventures, explores farmland with stunning coastal views. You may even spot fur seals on the beaches below during your tour! It’s a fast-paced tour with the quad bike reaching speeds of up to 45 km (28 miles) per hour!
The tour also includes refreshments at a hidden wooden cabin (about halfway through your tour). It’s an incredibly scenic stop-off point!
If you’ve never driven a quad bike before, fear not, you will be given a briefing and shown how to effectively operate the vehicle at the on-site training course before departing. If you’re still not confident, you can hop in their 8×8 vehicle driven by an experienced guide. This vehicle is used for younger family members (or those who can’t drive).
Worth noting – no driver’s license is required for this activity! However, I do recommend being comfortable behind the wheel as this is a high-powered vehicle.
13. Gore Bay
A short detour off State Highway 1 (SH1) is the small coastal village of Gore Bay, a very popular spot with surfers! Gore Bay is especially favored with Christchurch locals who escape to one of the many beachside bachs (holiday homes) for a break from city life.
Make sure to stop at the weird and wonderful Cathedral Cliffs on your drive in. These cliffs are siltstone pillars formed by erosion and are a great example of the American “badlands’ landscape we commonly see in Western movies.
The Jed Vale Cemetery Walk is a short and easy (just 45 minutes return) walking track that starts from the Children’s Playground in Gore Bay. The trail begins with a beach walk and then along an estuary, where you will see water birds before reaching the cemetery. The cemetery has a few information boards and marked graves. Please remember to be respectful here.
The beach at Gore Bay is a great place to stretch your legs too, and at low tide, you can collect stunning paua shells on the beach’s southern end. Important to note is that there are no shops or facilities (besides toilets) at Gore Bay so why not buy some food in Cheviot (the closest town) and have a picnic on the beach or at one of the picnic benches near the parking lot.
If you have a self-contained vehicle, Gore Bay is a great place to spend the night at the Gore Bay & Buxton Camp Grounds. Otherwise, Broadview Motel in nearby Cheviot ( a 5 km drive away) is a great option.
14. Waipara (wine region)
Just an hour’s drive from Kaikoura is one of the best wine regions in New Zealand. The climate here is perfect for grape growing because it has the highest summer temperatures and lowest rainfall of any of the country’s wine regions. Some of my favorite New Zealand wine is from Waipara with the best varieties grown here being Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
Waipara is considered to be the country’s “fastest-growing wine region.” Would you believe the first vines here were planted in 1975 and today, there are over 1,300 hectares (3,212 acres) of vines – that’s impressive! What I love too is that most of the wineries here are family-run. Of the 90 wineries in Waipara, most are smaller, family-run businesses.
My favorite wineries in Waipara include Waipara Springs (which also has an excellent on-site restaurant), Waipara Hills, and Terrace Edge Vineyard. If you want to taste the delicious wines, why not join a guided winery tour (so you don’t have to drive). Most tours depart from Christchurch and are between 4-5 hours in duration. These boutique wine tours typically include a light lunch like a sharing platter to be enjoyed at one of the scenic wineries. This half-day tour from Christchurch is highly recommended.
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island and the second largest in New Zealand (with Auckland taking first place). This incredible city has a population of just under 400,000 people, and as you can imagine, there are loads of great things to do and excellent places to eat.
One of the best things to do in New Zealand is to visit the National Antarctic Center near Christchurch Airport. It offers an insight into life in Antarctica and is one of the most popular attractions in Christchurch, especially with families. Be sure to experience the Storm Dome, which gives a natural feel of the cold weather in Antarctica. There’s also a Penguin Rescue Center, 4D Cinema, and the opportunity to ride a Hagglund (an amphibious Antarctic vehicle). Admission is $49 NZD.
A 15-minute drive from the CBD in Heathcote Valley is the Christchurch Gondola, which offers spectacular 360-degree views of the region and is a great family-friendly activity too. Once at the top, take a short hike or simply grab a coffee and enjoy the views. Tickets to the gondola are $55 NZD for adults and $25 for children.
A stroll through Christchurch Botanic Gardens with a coffee is a great way to spend an hour or two. And no visit to Christchurch is complete without visiting Quake City, which tells the story of the devastating 2011 earthquake. Other worthy sights to pay your respects to the victims of the earthquake include Oi Manawa National Memorial located on the Avon River in town, and the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, which was left a ruin from the earthquake and is currently undergoing a massive reconstruction. These are all free attractions in Christchurch too – bonus!
If you love hiking, be sure to check out the Godley Head Loop Track. This 9-kilometer (5.6-mile) loop takes you along the coast where you can spot whales, dolphins, and seals – it’s one of the best hikes in all of New Zealand! Other outdoor activities I love are the Christchurch Ziplining tour and the Adrenalin Forest Obstacle Course.
As for places to eat, one of my favorite restaurants in the city is 5th Street on Elgin St in Sydenham. For your coffee fix – C1 Espresso on 185 High Street can’t be missed – it’s one of the best coffee shops in Christchurch! Your food is delivered by pneumatic tubes, which you can watch overhead. It’s one of the coolest coffee shops I’ve ever been to (P.S. the coffee is fantastic too)!
Note: Christchurch is a huge hub for campervan companies. This is a great place to rent a campervan and start or end your road trip in New Zealand.
Want to continue on another road trip? Why not drive from Christchurch to Queenstown, or a shorter option, Christchurch to Lake Tekapo or Christchurch to Mount Cook?! All of these are awesome road trips well worth your time.
Where to Stay in Christchurch
Christchurch, although not a large city by international standards, is for New Zealand. As with any large city, picking the right place to stay for you is really important. There are lots of different areas to choose from when deciding where to stay in Christchurch. The two main choices are either out by the airport for a convenient trip back home or in the heart of the city where all the action happens.
One of the best places out by the airport is the Jucy Snooze Christchurch. It’s actually located within walking distance of the airport! Another cool hotel close by is the Commodore Airport Hotel Christchurch. Although a short drive away they offer a free shuttle and have amazing reviews.
In the city center, the Crown Plaza Christchurch is perfect for those wanting a typical luxury stay. It’s a large hotel with amazing views of the city. For budget travelers, the social but comfortable Urbanz is a good option. Although cheap, it’s located in the heart of the city and only a couple of minutes’ walk from Hagley Park.
Additionally, there are plenty of Airbnbs and holiday homes to rent for a few nights in Christchurch. You can’t pass up the opportunity to stay in a luxury 3-bedroom home (like this one) right near the beach with incredible views!
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. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- 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! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
As you can see, your road trip from Picton to Christchurch is going to be full with amazing stops! Charming towns, adorable wildlife, stunning viewpoints, and fun adventures await you! Even if you don’t do all of the stops listed in this post, I hope you do take the opportunity to explore this coast of the South Island.
I hope you enjoyed this blog, and hopefully it took care of much of the planning process for your road trip from Picton to Christchurch. Here are some other blogs you might be interested in: