Wellington to Nelson in 5 days

Driving Tour

This awesome coast-hugging 5-day road trip will take you from the world’s coolest little capital city, Wellington, up to Napier and Taupo and then all the way to Nelson. Stopping off at some unique spots, you’ll hike mountains straight out of the Lord of the Rings, explore Art Deco towns, learn about local history, eat regional seafood, get adventurous and swim at golden beaches, in blue lakes and under waterfalls.

Skip flying from Wellington for the more memorable, scenic route with a car ferry across the Cook Strait, between both New Zealand’s South and North Islands. If you’re lucky you’ll see dolphins, humpback whales and orcas along the way. With so many amazing spots to see, snap and soak up, get GOing by picking your travel dates and booking your hire car from Wellington today – we’re not one of New Zealand’s favourite rental car companies for no reason!


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1Wellington to Napier (315km – 4 hours 3 mins)

Once you’ve picked up your hire car and packed the boot, start up your ignition and let’s get GOing for your epic 5 day road trip from Wellington to Napier! The first day has you exploring Wellington on the North Island. It might be relatively small, but New Zealand’s cool capital is one of the most beautiful of the biggest cities and New Zealand.

Jam-packed with things to do and places to see, discover the best of Wellington at:

  • Museums – Wellington has a few great museums. Two of the best include the fascinating Museum of Wellington City and Sea in the old Harbour Board Bond Store and New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa – a futuristic multi-storeyed complex that forms one of the largest new museums in the world, with numerous interactive displays.
  • Mt Victoria Lookout – For the best panoramic views of the city and Port Nicholson all the way across to the Hutt Valley, head up to the lookout on Mt Victoria. The historic cannon on the summit was installed in 1877 and was fired each day as a time signal for many years
  • Get your coffee fix – Wellington claims to have the best coffee in New Zealand, so grab a cup 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 – A visit to Archives New Zealand on 10 Mulgrave Street allows you to see the Treaty of Waitangi (the document that is considered 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 weird and wonderful creations for film, including creatures, makeup and digital special effects for movies such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar and The Chronicles of Narnia among others.

Wellington is a place you could easily spend a few days exploring, especially with all the fun things to do in Wellington at night. However, you’d better hit the road and get to know your shiny new rental car on your drive from Wellington to Napier. Our 315km or approximately 4 hour scenic road trip to the coastal town of Napier on the lower east side of the North Island, with plenty of opportunities to break up the drive along the way.

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

Take a more scenic route with a slight detour up the east side of the lower North Island to stop off in Martinborough for a great feed and to sample some pretty awesome wines. New Zealand has such a diverse wine culture in the different regions and the lower North Island can sometimes slip under the radar. Martinborough has changed that by becoming the cuisine capital of the lower North Island with over 30 local vineyards and local restaurants stocking local, super fresh produce.

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

Stonehenge AotearoaContinue north from Martinborough for a great pit stop at Stonehenge Aotearoa. Driving out of Carterton, take Park Road and follow the signs to Stonehenge Aotearoa to see a full-scale model of Stonehenge located on the hills of the Wairarapa. 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)

This wildlife sanctuary is a great little stop for kids and adults alike as you make your way towards Napier. Home to a whole host of wildlife including the world’s only white kiwi in captivity, the Manukura as well as the Turua, a North Island brown kiwi. With regular feeding sessions, talks and other activities to keep you entertained, it’s a great way to break up the journey south.

Hastings (179kms – 2 hours 8 mins)

Devastated by a huge earthquake in 1931, Hastings was rebuilt using art deco architectural designs of the time that make it a great place to ogle and take photos. If you haven’t had a bite to eat since you left Wellington this morning, Hastings is an ideal 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 (21kms – 23 mins from Hastings)

As the first day of your trip draws to an end, stretch your legs around the picturesque streets of Napier. Fuel up your body and your car and recharge your battery at your accommodation to get ready for the next full day of exploring.

2Napier and around

Napier feels like a step back in time (even more so than the rest of NZ!) with its art deco 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. Like Hastings, Napier was also hit by the devastating earthquake in 1931, registering a massive 7.9 on the Richter Scale. What resulted was some spectacular new buildings, much of which was completed within 2 years.

Here are some of our top tips on what to do in Napier:

  • Wine tour – Hawkes Bay is one of New Zealand’s most famous wine regions along with Marlborough so it would be rude not to sample at least a couple of the local drops. If you’re feeling energetic, why not hire a bike and cycle between the vineyards – you’ll have truly earned your vino then! Or check out our complete guide to the Hawkes Bay region for more inspiration.

Te Mata Peak

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

Offering some superb panoramic views of the Ruahine, Kaweka and Maungaharuru Ranges and Cape Kidnappers, whether you bike, hike or ride to the summit of Te Mata, it’s well worth the trip. For the more adventurous, you can even choose to paraglide back down to sea level.

  • Lake and coastal walks – The Hawkes Bay coastline and around Lake Waikaremoana provide some of the best walking tracks on the North Island. Most of which are a short drive away, making it easily accessible to spend your time admiring the spectacular views.
  • Arataki Honey Visitors Centre – Have you heard of Manuka honey? It’s one of the things that New Zealand is most famous for. Fabled for its medicinal properties, you can find out all about the bees that help to produce this delicious honey and pick up a pot to take with you on the rest of your travels.
  • Napier Art Deco Guided Walks – If you’re not up on your art deco but want to know more about this fantastic architectural period, a guided walk is the perfect way to learn about the history of the buildings in and around Napier whilst taking a lovely stroll around the town.

3Napier to Taupo (142kms – 1 hour 47 mins)

After a full day exploring Napier, it’s time to hit the road again. For the early birds, we can highly recommend a morning hike up Te Mata to catch the sunrise. Trust us, the views are well worth it!

The drive up SH5 from Napier to Taupo passes through some rugged landscapes although not much else in terms of pit stops. So pack some treats for the road trip before you hit the road. Taupo is one of New Zealand’s iconic stopover destinations and is extremely popular with tourists. A lot of people come for the adventure activities like skydiving, but there is plenty more to this lakeside town.

Here are our insider tips on what to do along the drive from Napier to Taupo:


Lake Taupo SkydiveAlthough this is a guide to off-the-beaten-track activities on your way from Wellington to Taupo; it wouldn’t be right for us not to mention the amazing skydiving over Lake Taupo. New Zealand is the world’s adventure capital and skydiving opportunities are abundant all over the country. Lake Taupo is a GO Rentals favourite and luckily for you, Taupo Tandem Skydiving is a GO Play partner with a discount for this bucket list thrill. The views as you hurtle out of the plane towards the lake are spectacular and if you can, we recommend you get the photo pack – it’s well worth the extra dollars to remember this day.

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Golf challenge

For you budding golf pros out there, Lake Taupo Hole in One Challenge sparks your competitive fires by asking if you can land your golf ball on a green floating in the middle of the lake. If you can get a hole-in-one, your trip to Lake Taupo just got a whole bunch better as there are some big prizes up for grabs. Even if you don’t play golf, it’s pretty satisfying just whacking balls into the lake!

Huka Falls

Huka Falls, Taupo

This is a great little detour as you head out of Taupo and well worth it as it’s not every day you get to see a river that is usually 100m wide get squeezed through a gap that is only 20m wide over a 20m drop! Apparently, 220,000 litres of water gushes over the falls every second (that is a LOT of water)! Huka falls is a series of waterfalls along New Zealand’s longest river. Making it ideal for all kinds of water activities for all ages like swimming, kayaking and fishing. You can even ride a jet-speed boat right underneath a waterfall for that once-in-a-lifetime experience you can brag about.

Next, consider stopping at the Huka Prawn Park (Karetoto Rd) for a visit (you’ll need a couple of hours if you want to take the tour) and try some local seafood deliciousness for lunch.

Lake Taupo

Your day 3 journey from Napier to Taupo ends at the beautiful Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake that has lots of fun things to do and see. Along the Desert Road, not far from town, you’ll get to see Mount Ruapehu (called Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans) and its neighbouring (and equally impressive) volcanoes. Desert Road itself is worth the drive as the scenery is not something you’ll find anywhere else (alpine deserts such as this one are a rare sight anywhere else in the world) so take your time to soak in the views.

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

Today takes you all the way back down, from Taupo to Wellington, the starting point of this 5 day road trip. The day kicks off with a scenic drive around the shores of Lake Taupo, taking you out towards Tongariro National Park. If you are already familiar with Wellington and don’t need to spend this day of your trip exploring New Zealand’s capital, a longer stop at the National Park is a great way to spend day 4 of this trip.

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’s a lift to the start of the trail, which takes you up to Tongariro National Park. The walk itself is 19.4km and on average takes between 7-9 hours to complete. It reaches altitudes of over 1800m and during the winter months, is covered in snow. You could also book a round-trip bus to Tongariro National Park from your accommodation if you want to spend the day there.

The weather can change quickly out on the walk so make sure you pack for all seasons from suncream to warm base layers. A gentle start to the walk will soon be replaced by some gradual climbs before the steep ascent to Red Crater where you get some amazing views looking down to the Emerald Lakes. Keep your camera 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 (we won’t hold it against you if you’re not, we promise!) then Tongariro Crossing and the National Park are for you. Home to the sinister Mordor, you’ll soon start to recognise landscapes from the trilogy and a look over to Mt Ngauruhoe should bring flashbacks of the infamous Mount Doom. If you have the fitness and the equipment, climbing to the summit of Mount Doom is a possible add-on to your day but be aware that this is a steep climb and should only be carried out by experienced climbers.

Mount Ngauruhoe and neighbouring mountains Ruapehu and Tongariro offer some excellent ski slopes in the winter to visit with the whole family. Check out our New Zealand ski season guide for tips on how to plan your memorable trip.

Alternatively, if you’ve never experienced the world’s coolest capital city Wellington, then today is all about the drive back down. Your next stop is the quirky town of Taihape.

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

It’s not every day you get to stop off at the ‘gumboot capital of the world’, Taihape. The gumboot is New Zealand’s equivalent of the Wellington boot and each year the town hosts Gumboot Day, one of the many unique annual events in NZ. If you’re lucky enough to be passing through in March, check it out and get involved in a bit of gumboot throwing. It’s definitely one to tell the grandkids about!

Bulls (80.8kms – 53 mins from Taihape)

There’s not much to say about Bulls but you wanted quirky on this tour and quirky is what you’ll get. The only thing of note in this town is the clever (or not!) use of the town’s name by local businesses, ‘unforget-a-bull’ and ‘hospit-a-bull’ are two of our personal favourites. There are laugh-a-bull signs all around. Let us know your favourite!

Palmerston North (29.8km – 25 mins from Bulls)

The last stop of the day before arriving in Wellington is the small farming town of Palmerston North. Although it’s the biggest town between Taupo and Wellington, Palmerston is pretty quiet and this will give you a true insight into Kiwi life. With a plethora of cafes to pick from, this is a great place for afternoon tea and cakes to treat yourself with!

Wellington (143kms – 1 hr 50 mins from Palmerston North)

Heading down the west coast along the SH1, you may want to take a break or a swim at any one of the lovely beaches on the way including Foxton, Otaki and Waikanae beaches. Once you arrive in Wellington, you can spend the afternoon or evening hitting the town before heading across to Nelson on the South Island of NZ the next day.

5Wellington to Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park

Today’s the day you realise you can drive in between the North Island and South Island of New Zealand, with the help of a car ferry from Wellington to Nelson across the Cook Strait of course! The final day of this epic 5-day road trip begins with a 3 hour and 30 mins ferry from Wellington to Picton, described as one of the world’s most beautiful ferry trips. Then continues with a drive to Nelson, known as the sunniest place in New Zealand and famous for its National Park, fresh seafood, artist’s community and long sandy beaches. You can easily pack in a full day of exploring Nelson, Abel Tasman National parks and surrounding areas.

Here are some of our top tips for things to do on the South Island around Nelson:

Abel Tasman National Park (60km, 59 mins)

Split Apple Rock-Kaiteriteri Kayak-Nelson

The roads are windy from Nelson to Abel Tasman National Park so make sure you allow enough time to drive the relatively short distance. 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. Here are 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 for lunch.
  • 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.
  • Wainui Falls – take a hike on the Wainui Falls Track and you’ll soon be greeted by a 20m high cascading waterfall. Take a breather or enjoy a swim. The hike takes about one hour to return all up.

Nelson Lakes National Park (82kms – 1 hour 16 mins from Nelson)

There are endless walks and natural beauty to be discovered in Nelson Lakes National Park that could literally take you days – we’re not kidding! GO for a wander or take one of the 4 hiking trails. Then cool off with a swim in Nelson lakes. Choose Lake Rotoiti or any of the other pristine 15 lakes. For something extra special, take a water taxi from Lake Rotoroa Jetty to Sabine Hut to witness the beauty and swim in Blue Lake.

The Boulder Bank

Image of the unique Boulder Bank in NelsonThe 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. You can also take a ferry, boat or kayak there from Nelson.

Then, when you’re ready to end your epic road trip from Wellington to Nelson, you can drop off your rental car at our GO Rentals branch at Nelson Airport. Or, if you’re hooked by NZ’s beauty, then extend your trip from Nelson around the South Island with our complete guide. You can also take our guided trip from Christchurch to Picton.

We hope you loved your NZ adventure! Make sure you drive safely and reach out if you need our 24/7 on-road support. Plus share with us the photos you took along the way by entering our GO Snap Happy photo competition. You can win up to $500 of the cost of your rental back!

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