Nelson to Wellington in 5 days

Driving Tour

Visiting the upper South Island of New Zealand? Or perhaps you are a local with some time off and an interest in exploring your home turf? Regardless of the overall length of your journey, this particular leg of the trip, travelling from Nelson to Wellington, is five days of easy driving through iconic sights.

While some people would want to find cheap flights from Nelson to Wellington, those folks will miss most of New Zealand’s best features. After spending a day in and around Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park, our trip takes us across to Wellington by the ferry. From there, we are going to head on an adventure around the lower North Island before finishing up in Wellington.

Confused? Don’t worry, we promise you it’s a great roadie. So let’s get GOing!


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  2. Trip itinerary

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1Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park

We’re kicking off this road trip by getting in touch with New Zealand’s beautiful natural features! After picking up your rental car from our Nelson branch, conveniently located in Nelson’s airport terminal, it’s time to hit the road and explore what Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park have to offer.

While you could absolutely spend a whole week exploring the park, we’ve managed to cut it down to one day of activities so you can keep on heading down south on time.

Abel Tasman National Park (60km, 59 mins)

Split Apple Rock-Kaiteriteri Kayak-Nelson

The roads are windy leading to the National Park, so make sure you allow enough time to drive the relatively short distance from Nelson of 60 kms. Like we said, there are so many activities to choose from, so it really is up to you how you plan your day. However, we’ve created a list of our favourite activities to help you choose:

  • 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. There’s nothing like gazing out across crystal-clear waters, and you might even catch a glimpse of the creatures down below the surface.
  • Sea kayak – if you’re feeling a bit more energetic and looking for a physical challenge, 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, especially if you take the time to peer down into the depths of the sea. Once you’ve had your fill of the Abel Tasman, get your fill of lunch on a secluded beach of your choice.
  • 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 but then jump off once you get deep into the park. That way you can follow the route back to get a look at the rugged coastline.

The 10 Great Walks of NZ (with photos from Instagram!)

Wainui Falls

The Abel Tasman National Park is so large that there are sights you can exclusively visit it for. The Wainui Falls are located within the park, stretching 20-metres tall as a welcome reward at the end of an easy bushwalk. The hike takes about one hour (return).

However, 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 surrounding Nelson. One of our favourites is to visit the Boulder Bank:

The Boulder Bank

Image of the unique Boulder Bank in Nelson

If you’re looking to pack your day with more of the South Island’s natural wonders, try the famous Boulder Bank. Over 13 km long, this 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 you see in front of you.

The lighthouse was made in Bath (England) and shipped in parts to New Zealand, then assembled in 1861. Sounds like a lot of work, huh? But the sight makes the effort more than worth it, even all these decades later.

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

The Snout Track

For those short on time in exploring the rich depths of the Abel Tasman National Park, but still wanting to get some exercise in, there are other options. A particularly great option for those who love to pull on the hiking boots and have a true Kiwi experience is a 3.5-hour return hike to awesome views of Queen Charlotte Sound – a great way to start your adventure. From the Snout Track car park, walk along the gravel road to reach the track, then follow the signs to the Snout Head.

From the Snout Track, it’s a short hop to the ferry terminal in Picton to catch the Interislander ferry across to Wellington. This is where the next stage of our trip begins.

Nelson Complete Guide

2Wellington to Napier (315km – 4 hours 3 mins)

Regardless of when you choose to catch the Interislander ferry (late on the first day, or nice and early on day 2), you have a long day of driving ahead of you. Luckily, this will give you a good chance to get to know your shiny new rental car.

Despite the length of the drive from Wellington to Napier, it’s a real scenic trip along the lower east side of the North Island. There’s even plenty of opportunities to break up the journey along the way.

Martinborough (80.1kms – 1 hour 10 mins from Wellington)

Although there are quicker drives to Napier, this detour up the east side of the lower North Island is a personal fav of ours. This way we can stop off in Martinborough for a great feed and a sample of some pretty awesome wines.

New Zealand is known for its diverse wine culture across the different regions, but the lower North Island can sometimes slip under the radar. Despite this, Martinborough has become the cuisine capital of the lower North Island, with over 30 local vineyards and local restaurants using locally grown produce.

Stonehenge Aotearoa, Carterton (28.7kms – 23 mins from Martinborough)

Stonehenge Aotearoa

Once you’ve exited Martinborough and continued north, we recommend a quick stop at the Stonehenge Aotearoa.

Just take Park Road out of Carterton and follow the signs to Stonehenge Aotearoa. You are sure to easily catch sight of a full-scale model of Stonehenge located on the hills of the Wairarapa, a strange sight for sure in the Southern Hemisphere. You’ll be able to learn a bit about astronomy, both ancient and modern methods, and find out more about Maori astrology too.

Mt Bruce Wildlife Sanctuary (40.9km – 30 mins)

A perfect stop for kids and adults alike as you make your way towards Napier. The Wildlife Sanctuary is home to a whole host of New Zealand’s wildlife, including the world’s only white kiwi in captivity, the Manukura. It also houses the Turua, a North Island Brown Kiwi, among other native fauna, making it a place like no other. With regular feeding sessions, talks and other activities to keep you entertained, it’s a great way to get in touch with the country you are travelling through.

Hastings (179kms – 2 hours 8 mins)

Devastated by a huge earthquake in 1931, Hastings was rebuilt using architectural styles of the time. This has led to a very art deco look and feel to the place. If you’ve not managed to grab a bite to eat since you left Wellington this morning, Hastings is a great stop-off point for a late lunch. With restaurants serving local produce, you’re in for more culinary delights on your first day of this road trip. Couple this with some great local vineyards and it may be tricky to drag yourself away from Hastings to your final destination of Napier (obviously just the soft drinks for the driver!).

Napier is just a short drive away (20.8kms – 23 mins) where you can recharge your batteries, have a wander and get ready for the next full day of exploring.

3Napier and around

As with Hastings, Napier was also hit by the devastating earthquake in 1931. It was registered as a staggering 7.9 on the Richter Scale. However, what resulted from this disaster was some fantastic building work, much of which was completed within 2 years.

Due to the art deco style this restoration was constructed in, Napier feels like a step back in time (even more so than the rest of NZ!), especially with its range of facades and fountains. So take your own step back, slow it all down, and spend the day doing exactly what you want to do – you’ve deserved it.

Here are some of our top tips for what to do in and around Napier:

Wine tour – Hawkes Bay truly is known as one of New Zealand’s most famous wine regions, along with Marlborough, so it’s simply a must to stop by. For those looking to earn their drinks, you can even hire a bike and cycle between vineyards.

Te Mata Peak

Image from the top of Te Mata Peak in NapierGO Snap Happy Photo Opportunity

The photo opportunity of a lifetime, Te Mata grants superb panoramic views of the Ruahine, Kaweka and Maungaharuru Ranges, as well as the Cape Kidnappers. Whether this is through bike, hike or ride, you can get all the way to the summit. For the more adventurous, you can even choose to paraglide back down to sea level.

Coastal walks – If heights aren’t your thing, the Hawkes Bay coastline provides some of the best walking tracks in the North Island. Take it easy as you wander along and admire the spectacular views.

Hawke’s Bay Complete Guide

Arataki Honey Visitors Centre – you may or may not have heard of Manuka honey, one of New Zealand’s most famous goods. Fabled for its medicinal properties, you can find out all about the bees that help to produce this delicious honey from the experts. You can even pick up a pot to take with you on the rest of your travels, just in case you need a little liquid gold to help you out.

Art Deco Guided Walks – if you’re not up to date on your art deco, but you want to know more about this fantastic architectural period, a guided walk is the perfect way to learn more. The tour includes an extensive history of the buildings in and around Napier, whilst providing a lovely stroll around the town.

4Napier to Taupo (142kms – 1 hour 47 mins)

It was a full-on day yesterday, we know, but it’s time to hit the road again. For the early birds, we highly recommend hiking up to see the sunrise from Te Mata; it’s worth losing sleep over, trust us!

The world’s first sunrise: New Zealand

The drive up the SH5 to Taupo passes through some rugged landscapes for you to get your fill of, although not much else in terms of stops. So you’ll need to stock up on some treats for the road before you leave Napier. While the trip may be as eventful, our destination is sure to wow you.

Taupo is another one of New Zealand’s iconic stopover destinations, making it extremely popular with tourists. A lot of people come for adventure activities like skydiving, but there is plenty more to this lakeside town.


Lake Taupo Skydive

I know we said we’d be providing activities more off the beaten track variety, but we can’t not mention the skydiving over Lake Taupo! New Zealand is totally the adventure capital of the world, and it would be a disaster if we didn’t mention the numerous skydiving opportunities!

Lake Taupo is mentioned here because it’s a GO Rentals favourite and, luckily for you, Taupo Tandem Skydiving is a GO Play partner. You can get a 5% discount off your next jump. The views as you hurtle out of the plane towards the lake are spectacular and should be immortalised with a photo pack – just trust us on this.

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Huka Falls Jet Boat Adventure

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Golf challenge

We all know a golf friend. Or, maybe YOU are the golf friend. Either way, have a crack at Lake Taupo’s golfing challenge, including getting a shot to land on a green in the middle of the lake. Play big and win big prizes! Or for those of us here just to support that golf friend, hitting golf balls into the lake is actually more fun than you think.

Huka Falls

Huka Falls, Taupo

The Huka Falls is a great little detour as you head out of Taupo, and well worth it. After all, it’s not every day you get to see a river that is usually 100m wide get squeezed through a gap that is only 20 m wide, over a 20m drop no less! Apparently, 220,000 litres of water gushes over the falls every second (that is a LOT of water)! We haven’t as yet managed to see any salmon leaping up the falls and we’re not sure it’s possible – what do you reckon?

Huka Prawn Park

Next, stop at the Huka Prawn Park (Karetoto Rd) for a visit. You’ll need a couple of hours set aside if you want to take the tour and catch sight of the thousands of prawns growing up in the park, but otherwise there’s plenty of seafood deliciousness to go around.

Lake Taupo

Lake Taupo itself is a sight for sore eyes, and just a little jaunt outside the township along Desert Road. If you head out that way, don’t forget to keep an EYE out for Mount Doom, more locally known as Mount Ruapehu. There’s even some equally impressive volcanoes to flank this movie star.

Desert Road

Picking the Desert Road as your exit is worth it, as you won’t see surroundings like it anywhere else. This is because alpine deserts such as this one are a rare sight anywhere else in the world! Take your time and soak in the views.

5Taupo to Wellington (370kms – 4 hours 34 mins)

The final day of this 5-day road trip is going to be a long one as you make your way back down to Wellington.

Your day starts with a scenic drive around the shores of New Zealand’s largest lake, Lake Taupo, before taking you out towards the Tongariro National Park. If you are already familiar with Wellington, and don’t need to spend the last day of your trip exploring New Zealand’s capital, a stop off in the National Park is a great way to spend day 5 of this trip.

15 things to do in Taupo (the epic, exciting and extreme)

Tongariro Alpine Crossing (72.8kms – 57 mins from Taupo)

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often described as the best one day walk in New Zealand, if not the world. There are many places providing accommodation and a lift to the start of the trail which takes you up into the Tongariro National Park. The walk itself is 19.4km and takes between 7-9 hours on average to complete. It reaches altitudes of over 1800m and is covered in snow during the winter months.

Experience the Tongariro Alpine Crossing this winter

Make sure you book your return bus at the place you are staying – they will usually allow for a 10 hour day so people can take their time and enjoy the walk.

The weather can also change quickly out on the walk, so make sure you pack for all seasons; from the sun cream to the warm base layers. Even if it’s a lovely sunny day when you set out, things can soon change out on the track.

A gentle start to the walk will soon be replaced by some gradual climbs, before coming to the steep ascent to Red Crater, where you get some amazing views looking down to the Emerald Lakes. Make sure you have your camera at the ready as there are so many photo opportunities on the walk.

Tongariro Crossing Emerald LakesGO Snap Happy Photo Opportunity

Lord of the Rings Fans

If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan (and even if you’re just into nature) then this is the place for you. Home to the sinister Mordor, you’ll soon start to recognise landscapes from the trilogy. Just a glance over Mt Ngauruhoe should clearly remind you of Mount Doom. If you have the fitness and the equipment, you can even add on climbing to the summit of Mount Doom.  It is a steep climb, however, and should only be carried out by experienced climbers.

Finally, if you’ve never experienced New Zealand’s capital city, then today is all about the drive back down to Wellington. We have a couple more stops along the way, though, so enjoy the trip.

Taihape (93.9kms – 1 hour 5 mins from Tongariro Alpine Crossing)

Taihape Gumboot Day
Image of people throwing gumboots to celebrate the annual Gumboot Day in Taihape. In 2015, the event celebrates its 30th year

‘Gumboot capital of the world’ doesn’t sound like much, but the people of Taihape are more than proud of their town’s title. Proud enough to have an annual Gumboot Day to celebrate their equivalent of the Wellington boot. If you’re passing through in March, you might be able to catch a gumboot as it’s thrown your way.

Bulls (80.8kms – 53 mins from Taihape)

If you like puns, you’ll love the pit stop we have planned at bulls. While there isn’t much to see, their use of puns in local businesses are sure to have you cracking up. Nowhere in town is safe from the bull jokes, and we want to hear which is your favourite!

Palmerston North (29.8km – 25 mins from Bulls)

It’s hard to imagine a small farming town being a needed pit stop, but the quaintness and natural charm of Palmerston North is too hard to shake. Catch a glimpse of the Kiwi life as you take a load off at one of their many cafes. We recommend having a people watch while you enjoy handmade afternoon tea and cakes.

From Palmerston North it’s only 140 kms to Wellington, which will take you around 2 hours. If you need another break, we suggest stopping  at any one of the lovely beaches on the way, including Foxton, Otaki and Waikanae, which are all easily accessible from SH1.


It might be small compared to other country’s ideas of capital cities, but New Zealand’s cool capital is jam-packed with things to do and places to see.

  • Museums – Wellington has several great museums. The two best include the fascinating Museum of Wellington City and Sea in the old Harbour Board Bond Store, as well as New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa.
    10 of the best museums in New Zealand
  • Mt Victoria Lookout – For those hoping to catch a good view, head on up to this lookout to see the entirety of the city and Port Nicholson, all the way across to the Hutt Valley. The historic cannon on the summit was installed in 1877 and was fired each day as a time signal for many years
  • Coffee fix – It’s been a long trip, so grab one of Wellington’s famous coffees and visit the cool one-of-a-kind stores along Manners Mall and Cuba Street. When you’re on that street, notice the cool Bucket Fountain that doesn’t actually work the way it’s supposed to.
  • Treaty of Waitangi – Don’t forget to visit the Archives New Zealand, which displays the Treaty of Waitangi. This document is considered to be the foundation of the country. You can also take a tour of the Beehive, the country’s parliament
  • Weta workshop – If you have some free time, we suggest a visit to the Weta Workshop, nestled away in the Miramar suburb. Weta is known worldwide for its work in films, focusing on the effects, makeup and artistry of creatures. You may have seen their results in movies such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar and The Chronicles of Narnia among others.

We could keep going on about Wellington’s key tourist attractions, but this, sadly, brings our 5-day road trip to an end. From here, you can catch direct flights to see the rest of New Zealand, or maybe catch the ferry back across to the South Island.

Make sure you check out our guide to Wellington for tips on places to stay, where to eat and what to do. You can even take some inspiration from some of our Wellington blogs below.

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