6-Days Around the Top of New Zealand’s South Island

Whether it’s a short trip in its own right or as part of a longer journey around New Zealand’s south island, this 6-day trip includes a visit to the wine country, a drive along the east coast, a road trip through the mountains, then a quick ride back to the northern port of Picton.

By Stuart Hill

It would be nice to have the luxury of 3-4 weeks to drive around New Zealand’s south. If you could, you might consider circumnavigating the island, from Picton heading south to Christchurch, following the coast to the southern tip, before arching round to the west coast to Queenstown, then Greymouth and then back north. But if that’s not possible you can make it in two or more combinations of 6, 7 or 8-day trips, crisscrossing between coasts and through the central mountains.

This trip started in the north island city of Wellington with a brief stopover after arrival by plane, then a ferry trip to Picton on the south island. Of course you could fly into any of the cities from the north, or perhaps a direct flight from Australia.

For example, try my 9-day drive starting from Christchurch and heading south. You could combine the 9-day plus this 6-day to create an unforgettable south island adventure, adding in a few extra days to round out 3 whole weeks and a bit more time at each stop.

Map of New Zealand South Island

This trip began in Wellington, from there headed to Picton, Havelock, Blenheim, Kaikoura, Christchurch, Lake Pearson, Arthur’s Pass, Greymouth, Punakaiki, and Nelson, (then briefly back to Picton and Wellington).

Day 1: A Short Stay in Wellington

Fidels Cafe

Wellington is a gateway to access both north and south islands. With its wealth of museums, galleries, markets, heritage buildings, restaurants, and cafes, it’s a cool place to explore, and many places are easy to access on foot. From Wellington you can take to the road heading north or catch the ferry to New Zealand’s south island.


Day 2: The Ferry to Picton

Wellington Picton Ferry

On a calm sunny day the 3-hour trip from Wellington to Picton is a pleasant journey along the picturesque coastline. It’s a friendly introduction to the beauty of the south island. But try to avoid cold and rough weather, where venturing onto the deck will be difficult and crossing the strait can be a stomach-wrenching experience. Meals and drinks are available on the ship, as is free wi-fi internet.


Day 2: A Quick Drink in Marlborough Wine Country

cloudy bay

With the region of Marlborough being the powerhouse of New Zealand’s wine industry, it is hard not to spend at least a little time to sample the local and internationally sought after produce. One of the most famous vineyards is Cloudy Bay, with its relaxing courtyard and tree covered lawn.


Day 3: Whales and Seals in Kaikoura

Fur Seals, Kaikoura

The south island of New Zealand was a rich ocean of whales, seals, and fish, from which many towns drew their livelihood, until the animals were driven to near extinction. Today, the seas around Kaikoura offer some of the best opportunities in the world for spotting whales and dolphins, while fur seals happily breed (and sun bake) in protected coves along the shoreline.


Day 3: Pits stop in Christchurch

Christchurch is still recovering from the collapse of buildings in the devastating earthquake of 2007. Yet there is a resilience reflected in the extensive reconstruction effort, pop-up buildings and public art.

Christchurch is still recovering from the collapse of buildings in the devastating earthquake of 2010. Yet there is a resilience reflected in the extensive reconstruction effort that’s happening across town, the numerous pop-up buildings, and public art.


Day 4: The Road Through Arthur’s Pass

Lake Peatson

Honestly, what’s a New Zealand road trip without a gorgeous mountain view? There are so many lakes and rivers to pass just by driving between cities that it is impossible not to have the opportunity to experience greatness at least once on your journey, such as Lake Pearson, on the way to Arthur’s Pass.


Day 5: Pancake Rocks near Greymouth

Pancake Rocks

The Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki, just out from Greymouth, are the result of limestone deposits layered under clay millions of years ago. Eroded by the sea to form blow holes, the waves pound up and against the rocks to form spectacular sprays of water. You can snack on pancakes (of course!) and coffee at the nearby cafes.


Day 6: Glorious Nelson

Nelson Cathedral

Nelson immediately gives you that sense of old money meets new. It’s obvious that this place is an historically significant city, denoted to a large extent by the existence of the Christ Church Cathedral perched on its hill overlooking the city. But the surrounding lands include lots of things to see and do, both cultural, culinary, and environmental. Nelson offers a slower, yet sophisticated pace, and it is worth spending a day or two here to enjoy them.

Some Places To Stay:

  • Marksman Motor Inn, 40-44 Sussex Street, Wellington
  • Buccaneer Lodge, 314 Waikawa Road, Picton
  • Picton Top 10 Holiday Park, 78 Waikawa Road, Picton
  • Panorama Motel, 266 Esplanade, Kaikoura
  • Christchurch Top 10 Holiday Park, 39 Meadow Street, Christchurch
  • Greymouth Kiwi Holiday Park and Motels, 318 Main South Road, Greymouth

More Information:


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