The drive from Picton to Nelson is one of my favorite short scenic drives in New Zealand. For many travelers, it’s a familiar route because of the ferry to/from the North Island, which arrives in Picton. Visitors arriving will then either head east from Picton to Kaikoura or west to Nelson – the 3rd largest city on the South Island.
Although it is a short and easy drive (138 km/86 miles total) that takes around 2 hours without stopping, you’ll need at least a few extra hours if you want to stop along the way.
Some of my favorite places to stop between Picton and Nelson include Governors Bay Track, the quaint town of Havelock, and the clear waters of Cable Bay.
In this blog, I list 12 of the best stops on the drive from Picton to Nelson so you can have the most epic road trip (this blog also works in reverse if you’re driving from Nelson to Picton.)
About the Drive from Picton to Nelson
The drive from Picton to Nelson is 138.6 km (86 miles) and will take around 2 hours without stops. The route follows State Highway 6. However, this is a short drive, so I recommend allowing at least 6 hours if you want to stop at many of the places I’ve mentioned below. There is just so much to see between Picton and Nelson!
The drive from Picton to Nelson is considered a relatively easy drive. However, the 34 km (21-mile) section of road, called the Queen Charlotte Drive, is incredibly curvy and can be slippery in wet weather.
There is another slightly longer route you can take from Picton to Nelson, which is 200 km (124 miles) and is 2 hours and 30 minutes without stops. This route follows State Highway 63 (SH63) and passes through St Arnaud and Brightwater. But for the purpose of this blog, we are sticking to the Queen Charlotte Drive route which is the most popular and scenic route.
The BEST Stops between Picton and Nelson
The small coastal town of Picton is a commonplace to start any road trip on the South Island because it’s where you catch the ferry to the North Island (the ferry arrives in Wellington). But don’t rush off just yet, there are quite a few fun things to do in Picton that you should try and enjoy before you leave this beautiful coastal town.
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. This is where you can catch a scenic cruise around the Marlborough Sounds in search of wildlife like whales, dolphins, and fur seals. The Marlborough Sounds is easily one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand and you’ll easily see why once you’re out exploring it on the water.
Some other fun places to visit in Picton are EcoWorld Aquarium which houses and helps 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 actually used to transport convicts to Australia! You can visit the hull and see where the ship’s staff slept.
On top of that, you can join kayaking tours, wine tours, and even dolphin swimming tours.
The best bars and restaurants in Picton are located on London Quay – Le Cafe and Cortado Restaurant and Bar are two of the best restaurants here.
Related Read: Planning to visit Wellington? Be sure to read about all of the fun things to do in Wellington before you go!
2. Enjoy Queen Charlotte Drive
The best way to experience the tropical coastal scenery that Marlborough is known for is to drive the Queen Charlotte Drive, which is 34.8 km (21.6 miles) in length and includes many of the best stops on the drive from Picton to Nelson. You can start the Queen Charlotte Drive in either Picton or Havelock, and it is known as one of the most scenic drives in the country by New Zealanders.
Although driving it directly (without stops) will take under an hour, I recommend allowing plenty of time to stop at the stunning ocean viewpoints and beaches along the way.
Be mindful that the road is very windy in parts, so drive to the speed limit and be especially careful in wet weather when the road can be slippery.
Ideal stopping points on the road also include Cullen Point Lookout and Momorangi Bay – the Groves Arm Jetty here is a popular spot with locals who come here to swim and fish. Some other worthy stops on this stunning route include Governors Bay – which is just 15 minutes drive from Picton. And Cullen Point Lookout, which has two lovely walking tracks. I’ve included more detailed info about each of these places below!
3. Governors Bay Track
The Governors Bay Walking Track is one of the most popular stops on the drive from Picton to Nelson. That’s because it’s just a 15-minute drive from Picton. It’s a short and relatively easy walking track that leads to scenic Governors Bay. The walk to the bay should take less than 10 minutes each way, so it’s a quick ideal stop-off to stretch the legs.
Alternatively, why not turn it into a half-day activity and pack a picnic and some swimming gear and enjoy the peaceful surroundings of Governors Bay. Although the beach is small and surrounded by lush green trees, it tends to be a popular spot for locals who bring their boats and yachts into the bay. Worth noting is there is a public toilet located here, but no other facilities.
The best view of Governors Bay can be seen at the viewpoint at the start of the track, just after the car park.
Hot Tip: The car park here is small and tends to fill up quickly, especially during the summer months, so try to get here early to ensure you get a space.
4. Aussie Bay Campsite
If you’re a keen camper looking to break up the journey between Picton and Nelson, why not consider spending the night at the tranquil Aussie Bay Campsite, just a 25-minute drive from Picton town. It’s a small campsite – just six non-powered tent sites are located here, but it’s in a great location, just a short drive to other popular stops on the Queen Charlotte Drive including Governors Bay and Groves Arm Jetty.
Wake up to the sound of the ocean, and you can wake yourself up with a swim in the calm waters of the beach.
The Department of Conservation operates Aussie Bay Campsite, and you don’t need to make a booking to stay here as it’s first-come-first-served. Instead, arrive early in the day during the busy summer months to ensure you get a space for the night. The nightly rate is $10 NZD per adult and $5 NZD per child.
5. Groves Arm Jetty and Momorangi Bay
Groves Arm Jetty is located at Momorangi Bay, a short 2-minute drive from Aussie Bay Campsite. It’s a well-known local fishing spot, and every day of the week, you’re sure to see keen fishermen on the small jetty. If you want to try fishing for yourself – you can expect to catch kawhai, snapper, and even large stingray here! You can rent fishing equipment from Bow to Stern in the nearby town of Havelock (less than a 25-minute drive away) for about $20 NZD per day.
If you’re not keen on fishing, well, you can simply enjoy the stunning views of the lush Marlborough Sounds from the jetty. Or go for a swim – the water here averages 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit) in Summer, which is pretty warm for New Zealand!
There’s also a large campground at Momorangi Bay which has loads of facilities – showers, a communal kitchen, a playground and costs from $20 NZD per night. At this campsite, there’s an on-site glow worm cave! Seeing glow worms is one of those must-do things on the South Island and in all of New Zealand!
6. The Queen Charlotte Tavern
The Queen Charlotte Tavern at 1162 Queen Charlotte Drive is a classic Kiwi country bar and restaurant and the perfect stopping point for lunch or dinner on your road trip. I highly recommend the Steak Sandwich or the Fish and Chips from their food menu – keep in mind the portions here are large!
There’s something on most nights of the week – from live bands, comedy acts, and every second Tuesday is quiz night! During the summer, they typically hold music events in their large garden. Don’t forget to stop in for their delicious Sunday roast too!
The interior is best described as rustic and cozy, and it’s so easy to spend a few relaxing hours here. If you visit in the colder months, you can expect to see the fire lighting, which adds to the cozy and inviting atmosphere.
It’s also a popular stop for just a takeaway coffee if you’re in a rush. The coffee here is excellent, and I’ve heard the vegan lemon cake (available to take away) is incredibly delicious!
7. Cullen Point Lookout
Cullen Point Lookout is accessed via a short 600-meter (1,969-feet) walk, which should take under 10 minutes to complete. The walk offers incredible views of Mahau Sound and the Kaituna and Pelorus estuaries.
The trailhead is located at a parking lot, 4.5 km (2.8 miles) from the town of Havelock, and it is considered a leisurely walk with just 52 meters (171 feet) of gradual elevation gain. The track mostly follows through native forest. However, this is a popular walking track and can get very busy, especially in the summer.
There is a longer walking track located here too – the Cullen Point Coastal Track is a one-hour loop track with views of Havelock town and Pelorous Sound. The Coastal Track may be closed due to slips, especially during periods of high rainfall, you can check the status of the track on the Department of Conservation website.
A small town with approximately 500 people, Havelock is a historic town famous for its gold mining past and its Greenshell Mussels (more commonly known as Green-Lipped Mussels). This little town is known as the “Greenshell Mussel capital of the world.” At the Havelock Marina, you can join this half-day Greenshell Mussel Cruise, where you can taste the freshly steamed mussels whilst exploring Pelorous and Kenepuru Sounds.
You can also hop on a fishing charter from the Marina – there’s abundant fish to be caught in the waters near here. The most common fish to be caught here is snapper. Or, just go on a full-day scenic cruise of the stunning Marlborough Sounds. You’ll get to ride on a historic Pelorus mail boat that delivers mail, groceries, and supplies to remote areas. It only allows up to 9 people on board so it will be a more personal experience.
Thanks to its past life as a gold mining settlement, the town is filled with historic colonial buildings which are now home to art galleries, restaurants, and boutique stores.
The Havelock Museum, which has been open since 1973, displays interesting memorabilia highlighting the town’s past as a saw-milling and gold-mining town. If you are interested in the gold rush era in New Zealand – a visit to nearby Canvastown (a historic mining town) is well worth spending a few hours. It is located 10 km (6.2 miles) from Havelock.
If you wish to break up your journey, then why not consider spending the night in Havelock. There are some great places to stay in Havelock, including Havelock Garden Motel and Blue Moon Lodge both conveniently located in the town.
9. Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve
The Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve is located 18 km (11 miles) from Havelock. Here you can enjoy one of many scenic walks – from short and easy to longer tramping-style tracks. It’s a great stopping point if you’re traveling with kids as they will love the forest scenery and there’s a river they can swim in on warmer days. There’s also a lovely cafe near the car park.
Two of the best walking trails at Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve include the Tawa Walk and the Elvy Waterfalls Track.
The Tawa Walking Track is a wide and easy trail that is a 1 km (0.6-mile) loop and should take approximately 30 minutes to complete. The track follows through native forest to ancient river terraces formed by the Pelorus River thousands of years ago. There’s a short trail off the Tawa Track that leads to a campsite and the river where you can safely swim.
The Elvy Waterfalls Track is a more challenging 1.5 km (0.9-mile) track that leads to two waterfalls. In total, this track should take 2 hours to complete. This track branches off the Tawa Track (as detailed above) and follows along the bank of the Pelorus River and up to Elvy Stream. The first waterfall you will come to you need to cross a stream to get to, so be sure to have suitable waterproof footwear. The second waterfall is shortly after, and both are very photogenic. You must return via the same track.
Related read: See more incredible scenery by chasing some of the best waterfalls in New Zealand!
10. Cable Bay Adventure Park
This is one for the adventure-seekers! At Cable Bay Adventure Park you can try quad biking, paintballing, archery, and much more! All the best adventure sports providers in the area have come together to open this massive adventure park – the largest in the region.
You can even try out the “Argo”, a unique 8-wheeled amphibious vehicle that will take you through streams, rivers, and up steep hillsides. Basically, the Argo will take you anywhere you need to go. Or, why not conquer the world’s longest flying fox while you’re here. The SkyWire Experience is a fast zipline-type experience that whisks you high above the forest, offering scenic views.
There’s an activity to suit everyone at Cable Bay Adventure Park, and for small kids or less adventurous adults, you can feed eels in the river or visit the small petting zoo. There’s also a large on-site cafe.
Cable Bay Adventure Park is just a 15-minute drive from Nelson and prices vary depending on the experience you book.
11. Cable Bay
Cable Bay is a short drive (6 km/3.7 miles) from the adventure park. The beach here is famed in the region for its crystal clear water. It’s a popular area for fishing, kayaking, and rock pooling – you will likely see starfish, crabs, and sea slugs in the rock pools here. Of course, you have to go swimming in the clear waters at Cable Bay Beach. With an average water temperature of 18 degrees Celsius, (64 degrees Fahrenheit) it’s ideal!
Cable Bay has a fascinating history and was occupied by Maori tribes up until the year 1150. There’s even archaeological evidence of 3 different breeds of Moa (an extinct wingless bird, only found in New Zealand) discovered here. More recently, the country’s first international telegraph cable was laid here in 1876 and transmits across to Sydney, Australia.
The Cable Bay Walkway is a 3.5-hour, each-way walking track that affords incredible views of Nelson, Cable Bay, and the Horoirangi Marine Reserve. The trail begins at the end of Cable Bay Road. There are a few steep uphill climbs on this track, so I only recommend it for those of a reasonable fitness level.
Unless you want to walk the same track back (it will take 7 hours total to walk each way), have a friend park their car at the other end of the trail at Airlie Street in The Glen. It is a particularly popular walk for sunset-chasers who come to watch the scenic scene as the sun sets behind Pepin Island. The skies here are truly beautiful at sunset.
Visible from Cable Bay and a 30-minute drive from Nelson is Pepin Bay, a unique working sheep farm that is connected to the mainland by a natural boulder bank. You can spend the night on the island and experience this unique way of farm life as well as explore the many hidden pebble beaches on the island. Pepin Island is the perfect romantic getaway in Nelson (just look at the photo above!)
Related Read: Learn about the most romantic getaways in New Zealand!
Nelson is the 3rd largest city on the South Island (behind Christchurch and Dunedin) and is a very popular tourist destination due to its proximity to Abel Tasman National Park.
In the city of Nelson itself, one of my favorite things to do is walk along South Street, home to Victorian-style cottages and cobbled streets. It’s like something from a fairytale! In fact, South Street is the oldest street in New Zealand!
A truly unique thing to do in Nelson city is the chance to see how peanut butter is made at Peanut Butter World on Saxton Road. Here, you can learn all about the manufacturing process, see it being made, and try out peanut butter and other flavors like chocolate, almond, and cashew.
If you enjoy biking you can actually stop at Peanut Butter World on this Self-Guided Nelson to Mapua Cycle Tour. It’s one of 6 stops that are recommended to make. A map, transport, and cycle repair kit are provided.
Also located in Nelson city is something for car lovers, with over 150 vintage cars on display at the Nelson Classic Car Museum on 1 Cadillac Way. Some of the cars on display include Cadillacs, Jaguars, and Ferraris.
For the more adventurous traveler, there’s skydiving with Skydiving Abel Tasman and mountain bike parks, as well as the unique opportunity to go canoeing in a Waka. A Waka is a Maori canoe, and you can learn all about the importance of the Waka in historic Maori life as well as all about Maori culture on a tour with Moana Paddle Nelson.
Interestingly whilst in Nelson, you can walk to the center of New Zealand. Okay, it’s not the country’s exact center point, but surveyors have used it since the late 1800s as the center point! To reach this point, follow the Maitai River Walkway up to Botanical Hill. This walk should take you just a few minutes. This area is also where New Zealand’s first rugby match was held!
Related Read: Check out all of the other amazing locations to go skydiving in New Zealand!
Where to Stay in Nelson
Now that you know just how much Nelson has to offer, it’s time to find a great place to stay so you can check a few of these things off your travel bucket list!
Luckily, Nelson has lots of choices whether you are traveling on a budget, or planning to splurge a bit. These are our top recommendations for various price ranges.
Bridge Backpackers – $
With its central location, Bridge Backpackers is the perfect spot to set out on your adventures around Nelson. The kitchen and dining area are spacious and there are free bikes, a fitness center, and a garden on the property. You can grab a bunk in a shared room for $30 NZD or a private room for $68 NZD – a great deal that leaves lots of extra spending money. Book your stay on HostelWorld.com or Booking.com to guarantee a room!
The Hotel Nelson – $$
In the city center, The Hotel Nelson is our pick for plenty of space with some nice extras like an excellent on-site restaurant, an outdoor heated swimming pool, and free WiFi. There are more than 70 studios and apartment-style rooms, so if you’re traveling with family, this hotel is a great pick. The rooms offer kitchenettes or full kitchens and there are even laundry facilities inside. Rooms start at $130 NZD and you can book your stay online here.
Beaches Nelson – $$$
If the beach is calling your name, stay just a 5-minute walk away from Tahunanui Beach at Beaches Nelson. It’s a quiet place to stay with huge, comfy beds and spa baths. It has a homey feel with apartment-style rooms including kitchenettes. The staff is really helpful and the location near the beach is a big plus! Rooms are around $215 NZD nightly. Book your stay online through Booking.com.
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!
My advice – don’t be in a hurry to get to Nelson from Picton, like other tourists! Take your time, savor the incredible scenery, enjoy the warm waters at the beaches, and spend the night at one of the places I’ve recommended above. Once you do the drive from Picton to Nelson, I’m certain you’ll agree with me that it’s one of the most scenic drives in all of New Zealand.
Be sure to check out some of my other guides before going!
Things to know about the South Island ferry
Friday 10th of March 2023
Great information. Picton to Nelson.
Tuesday 10th of January 2023
Thank you so much for this helpful (and thoughtful) info! Will follow your travel advice to the detail!
Sunday 15th of January 2023
Thanks so much!