Nelson to Dunedin in 7 days

Driving Tour

Looking to explore the South Island of New Zealand? This top to bottom, Nelson to Dunedin road trip itinerary is a great way to explore the very best that the South Island has to offer and whilst we can’t take you everywhere in just seven days, we have mapped out an awesome itinerary that will take you to some of the hottest spots as well as some hidden gems along the way.

765km separate Nelson from Dunedin and we plan to give you a driving tour to remember. Let’s GO!


  1. Route map with key locations
  2. Recommended vehicle for this trip
  3. Trip itinerary

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1Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park

The first day of this road trip will be spent in and around Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park. After picking up your rental car from our Nelson branch, conveniently located in the airport terminal in Nelson, it’s time to hit the road and get out to explore this beautiful part of the country.

The first thing we recommend is heading to the Abel Tasman National Park. Whilst it’s a place you could spend a whole week, we are giving you one day to explore this stunning region before we have to hit the road and start heading south.

Abel Tasman National Park (60km, 59 mins)

Split Apple Rock-Kaiteriteri Kayak-Nelson

The roads are windy so make sure you allow enough time to drive the relatively short distance of 60kms. Once you get to the park there are so many activities to choose from it really is up to you how you plan your day – these are some of our top tips:

  • Cruise and water taxi – if you’re after a fairly relaxed, laid-back day, there is no better way to see the park than on a cruise or in a water taxi. The crystal-clear waters of the Abel Tasman are a sight to behold so getting out on the water is a must.
  • Sea kayak – if you’re feeling a bit more energetic, we highly recommend hiring a sea kayak for the day and heading out into the park. You’ll be amazed at what you can see over the side of the kayak as you peer down into the depths of the sea. Park up (is that even a saying for a kayak?!) on a secluded beach and enjoy a spot of lunch – spectacular.
  • Cruise and walk – the best of both worlds if you want to get out on the water as well as walk through this beautiful national park. Take a cruise and get dropped off deep into the park before following the route back along the rugged coastline.

If you don’t fancy a drive all the way into the Abel Tasman National Park, there are loads of other things to do in the area. One of our favourites is to visit the Boulder Bank:

The Boulder Bank

Image of the unique Boulder Bank in Nelson The Boulder Bank is another spectacular example of the South Island’s natural wonders. The 13km long bank is one of the very few of its type in the world so you are in the presence of something very unique. It has been formed from large granodiorite boulders that have been moved by wind, water and tide to form the spectacular line in front of you.

The lighthouse was made in Bath (England) and shipped in parts to New Zealand, then assembled in 1861.

You can access the bank by turning off SH6 and driving along Boulder Bank Drive, 7km north of Nelson.

Wainui Falls

The Wainui Falls are located inside the Abel Tasman National Park and are 20-metre waterfalls, a welcome reward at the end of an easy bushwalk. The hike takes about one hour (return).

Nelson Complete Guide

2Nelson to Hanmer Springs (300kms – 4 hours 6 mins)

After spending your first day exploring Nelson, it’s time to hit the road once more. Spend a couple of hours ticking off anything you might have missed yesterday before heading to your first destination for the day – Blenheim!

Wine tasting and much more (257kms – 3 hour 34mins)

Marlborough Vineyard
Marlborough is New Zealand’s premier wine-growing region

Marlborough is a world-famous wine region and it would be rude not to sample some of the local delights on your way through to Hanmer Springs. There are plenty of wineries that will gladly take you through their wide range of vinos from a fruity pinot noir to the flagship wine of the region, Sauvignon Blanc. There are some famous vineyards down here like Cloudy Bay but we recommend sampling some of the more boutique wineries – a great way to get around is on a bike although be careful if you have a few vinos on the way as you may get a bit wobbly (Note – this is not for the driver – passengers only)! Wine tours by bike offer bike hire or guided tours which helps as they will transport you back to Blenheim.

Kaikoura (128kms – 1 hour 42 mins)

As you head south down SH1 towards your final destination of Hanmer Springs, make sure you take the time to stop off in Kaikoura.

Swim with the dolphins
Kaikoura is a town on the up – after the devastating earthquake that cut off the town for 12 months, it has really been revitalised and is now one of the hotspots of the South Island – especially if you love nature. From whale watching to swimming with dolphins, Kaikoura offers some amazing opportunities to get up close and personal with some pretty amazing marine life.

GO Play partner Encounter Kaikoura offers a brilliant opportunity to get in the water in the south Pacific and swim with these amazing animals with tours operating three times a day.

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Mount Cook Ski Planes Scenic Flights

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It’s not just dolphins that pass through the waters around Kaikoura though and if you time things right, there is also the chance to see various species of whale as well as seals and birds.

From Kaikoura, it’s a couple of hours to your final destination of the day – Hanmer Springs where you should hopefully arrive in plenty of time to sample the famous thermal pools that the town is famous for.

Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa

Image showing the thermal pools at Hanmer Springs just North of Christchurch, New Zealand

The thermal pools and spa complex in Hanmer have been soothing peoples’ aches and pains away for the best part of 125 years and all those who have been before you can’t be wrong! Relax in one of 15 open-air pools or try out one of the 3 aquatherapy pools. Families and children are catered for too since a recent redevelopment has added three waterslides and a lazy river to keep even the liveliest of kids entertained.

3Hanmer Springs to Christchurch (134kms – 1 hour 55 mins)

Day 3 of your trip will take you on the short drive from Hanmer Springs to the Garden City – Christchurch. You should have plenty of time in the morning for another relaxing thermal spa but there are other things in town including the Wai Ariki Farm Park.

Wai Ariki Farm Park

If getting crinkly is not your thing, there are plenty of other attractions in Hanmer and one of the best is the Wai Ariki Farm Park. Offering a hands-on experience, Wai Ariki is home to some weird and wonderful animals which are sure to keep kids and adults amused for the morning. The Tibetan Yak are a particular favourite!

As it’s only a short drive to Christchurch, you will have plenty of time for exploring the Garden City today. Here are some of our highlights:

The garden city

Christchurch is a great destination for skiing in New Zealand

Christchurch was named number 2 on the New York Times’ top 52 places to visit in 2014 and there are plenty of reasons for that. Following the earthquakes of 2010-11, the city has now emerged as a vibrant city with plenty to see and do. Known as the Garden City, Christchurch has an abundance of parks and gardens including the gorgeous botanical gardens. Add into this mix the tranquil Avon River and you can see why people rave so much about the city.

Eat | Drink | Shop

Christchurch is a vibrant place for eating and drinking whether you are looking for 5-star opulence or a backstreet café. Re:START is an outdoor retail space opened in late 2011 made from shipping containers. Scattered with a mix of premium brands and homegrown products, Re:START is a quirky experience that tells of the city’s resilience and ability to come back following the destruction of the earthquakes. Located within Re:START you’ll also find Quake City, a multi-media attraction that tells the story of the earthquakes that hit Christchurch and the Canterbury region.

Check out the several Gap Filler projects that volunteers have created to temporarily “activate” sites left empty by the earthquakes – you’ll be able to see some unique and really creative work that is proof of Christchurch’s charm and resilience.

4Christchurch to Wanaka (427kms – 5 hours 51 mins)

As we near hit the halfway point of this 7-day road trip, day 4 is going to be a beast of a drive but it’s an absolute corker! We have suggested heaps of detours below but you can go a more direct route if time is of the essence to you.

Akaroa (81kms – 1 hour 22mins)

Stunning Akaroa on a perfect sunny day
Stunning Akaroa on a perfect sunny day

Located 80kms south of Christchurch and known by locals as the ‘Riviera of Canterbury’, Akaroa is a great stop off as you head south towards Wanaka (although it is a bit of a detour). This village is located on the Banks Peninsula within a harbour of the same name and is considered “the most French town” in New Zealand, as it was the only French settlement in the country. Spend some time exploring the small town and then head to the harbour for the best fish and chips meal of your life (at least that’s Akaroa’s claim so you be the judge and let us know).

Lake Tekapo (279kms – 3 hours 41 mins)

The next leg is a biggie. Just under 4 hours to Tekapo but your route passes through some stunning landscapes as you move from the Canterbury Plains to the heart of the Southern Alps.

Mt John Observatory/Lake Tekapo (200km – 2 hours 40 mins from Wanaka)

The view from the top of Mt John looking down over Lake Tekapo
The view from the top of Mt John looking down over Lake Tekapo

Stargazers all over the world know Mt John and Lake Tekapo, in the Aoraki/Mount Cook Mackenzie region, as one of the absolute best places to look at the stars (and even catch a glimpse of the Southern Lights – Aurora Australis).

Lake Tekapo is also famous for its unique turquoise colour, as well as its beautiful starry nights – if you can park here for the night, you will not regret it. Mt John, just above the Tekapo township, is considered one of the most accessible observatories in the world, home to 6 telescopes, including New Zealand’s biggest telescope, which can observe 50 million stars each clear night (yes, you read that right).

Even from here, it’s still 202kms to your final destination of Wanaka which will take you around 2.5 hours. Buckle in for the last leg of this beast of a day – we’re going to give you a nice relaxing day tomorrow we promise!

5Wanaka to Queenstown (69kms – 1 hour 12 mins)

Whilst Wanaka is not the final destination for your day, you only have an hour of driving today so you can spend the whole day chilling out in Wanaka which is an awesome place to kick back and relax. Whether you want to take a stroll around the lake, sit back in a café or do something a bit more energetic, Wanaka has got you covered!

Rob Roy Glacier

If you do fancy a stretch of the legs, there are over 750km of walking tracks in and around Wanaka whether you want a short stroll or a full day hike. About an hour’s drive from Wanaka is Rob Roy Glacier, an ideal entry point to the Mt Aspiring National Park. From the Raspberry Creek car park, you will find a stunning walk up the valley that brings you outstanding views of Rob Roy Glacier. It’s about a 4 hour round trip so this one is not for the faint-hearted.

Puzzling World

A trip to Wanaka is just not the same without a trip to Puzzling World and it’s a definite favourite of the GO Rentals team. With 1.5km of passages in the ‘Great Maze’, it’s a great place to get lost for a few hours and act like a big kid as you race your mates to the four corners and back to the middle. It’s also really funny when someone gets themselves lost! Throw in a few weird and wonderful illusions like water running uphill (what’s that all about?!) and this makes for the perfect start to any day.

Wanaka Beerworks

Beer fans take note! For something a bit different, why not have a drive out to the Wanaka Beerworks where you can sample the local beers and ales as well as take a tour and find out about the history of beer making (it’s actually harder than you think!). Make sure you take home a sample selection to keep you going throughout the rest of your trip.

Cinema Paradiso

Image showing the inside of Cinema Paradiso in Wanaka New Zealand with old sofas and a seat made out of an old car

This small classic movie theatre located in Wanaka is a real find. With comfy old sofas and 3 seats in an old Morris Minor, this is a truly quirky place to spend a few hours unwinding. There is a cafe and bar serving delicious meals before, during or after the movie, homemade ice cream and some world-famous hot cookies baked fresh for every intermission. Expect a warm and friendly welcome from the staff to boot.

Mercure Oakridge Resort

After another full-on day, it’s great to relax and unwind and there’s no better place than the Grand Mercure Oakridge resort where you can make the most of the heated outdoor rock pools and spa complex. We’ve heard this sort of thing goes down really well with the ladies so why not treat the special one in your life to a day pass (you can always take the beer tour!) or even better, splash out and stay the night. Win-win.

Speight’s Ale House

A perfect place to grab a bite to eat is at the Wanaka Speight’s Ale House. A traditional Kiwi experience awaits along with the full range of Speight’s ales. Highly recommended come the fish and chips served in a traditional paper bag washed down with a pint of Speight’s Summit Lager – delicious! You wanted the full-on Kiwi experience – it doesn’t get much more Kiwi than that.

After a relaxing day, head over the Crown Pass to Queenstown which will take just over an hour.

6Queenstown and around

To put it simply, there’s not much that Queenstown doesn’t offer as a holiday destination. Great scenery, incredible food and wine, adventures, thrills and spills – the list goes on.

Sadly we can only spare one full day in Queenstown in this itinerary so to make the most of it, you’ll have to be selective. That’s why we’ve done the selection for you with our top highlights that offer a bit of everything for your visit below:

The wild and wondrous

As promised, we’ve chosen to cover a range of experiences from the wild to the wondrous. In most cities, you’d be lucky to get one or the other but Queenstown gives you both!

AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge Bungy
1) AJ Hackett Bungy – The pioneers of the Bungy Jump have 3 different locations to choose from (if you’re brave enough). The 3 options are The Kawarau Bridge, The Ledge and Nevis (the highest in NZ at 123 metres). Ooph!
2) Skyline Gondola – For great views (without the thrill) you can’t beat a peaceful ride on the Skyline Gondola looking over the city and the Wakatipu Basin. You’ll reach a summit of 450 metres by the end of the journey, the views from which are simply unforgettable.
3) Skiing (seasonal) – Queenstown has some fantastic slopes all within close proximity to the town centre. This includes the likes of The Remarkables, Coronet Peak, Cardrona and Treble Cone. It has a great festive atmosphere during the ski season too which is great to enjoy.

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AJ Hackett Bungy Jump

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Some more great ideas

Those three were just to get you started and we’ve got three more cracking options below.
4) Queenstown Hill – a 3-hour walk to the peak of Queenstown Hill through an amazing pine forest is a great way to get your fix of nature. There’s also a great sculpture near the summit to grab a few selfies too.
5) Jet Boating – One of the biggest and most successful tourist attractions is the jet boats in Queenstown with a number of operators offering rides at ridiculous speeds with equally ridiculous manoeuvres. Awesome fun!
6) Kiwi Birdlife Park – You can also enjoy amazing animal encounters at the Kiwi Birdlife Park, one of the highest-rated places in the city. The Kiwis are the main stars but they also do a great conservation show during the week and have many other native species of bird too.


Queenstown has a thriving nightlife with over 150 cafes, bars and restaurants to choose from. It’s a great place to be able to unwind, especially given how active you’re likely to be throughout your day of adventuring. Everything from busy clubs to quiet wine bars and late-night coffee can be found so you’re completely covered!

Related Blog Posts

Queenstown Complete Guide

7Queenstown to Dunedin (282kms – 3 hours 41 mins)

So, the final day of this epic road trip from north to south has come to an end. We still have a decent drive ahead of us today and there are plenty of great stop-offs along the way depending on what time you need to get your rental car back to our awesome team in Dunedin. It’s just under 4 hours as a straight drive, but we definitely recommend taking some of these stop-offs.

Arrowtown (21kms – 20 mins)

The first stop of the day is a short 20-minute drive from Queenstown in the quaint town of Arrowtown. Arrowtown has strong roots from the Gold Rush Era, much of which can still be seen today. The main street of this quaint little town is a great tribute to the period with restored European and Chinese buildings from the time. Autumn is an especially nice time to visit as the tree-lined street turns a beautiful amber courtesy of the leaves all around.

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Cromwell (47kms – 39 mins)

I nice photo of Cromwell

Another great little town to discover, just under an hour’s drive from Arrowtown is Cromwell, an iconic former gold mining town that’s since been reinvented as the stone fruit capital of New Zealand. You’ll find no shortage of things to do here including walking through the Heritage Precinct, visiting the Gold Mining Centre, going on an orchard tour or even watching some racing at the Highlands Motorsport Park if dates coincide. The wineries in the region aren’t too shabby either!

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Roxburgh (72kms – 54 mins)

Roxburgh has a number of great walking trails for you to stroll including the Roxburgh Gorge Trail and the Clutha Gold Trail. It is also home to the Roxburgh Dam, the first hydro dam built on the Clutha River. This has a great lookout point with great views to admire and appreciate. There are also plenty of places to eat in Roxburgh including Jimmy’s Pies, famous throughout the country.

From Roxburgh, it’s about 2 hours to Dunedin and your final stop off of this epic road trip. Hopefully, you will have some time in Dunedin to explore – if you’re looking for some great ideas, make sure you check out our Dunedin City Guide which has plenty of tips for things to do and places to stay.

Dunedin Complete Guide

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