Thursday 11 July 2024

The ultimate Nelson to Queenstown road trip to do before you die

If you ever visit the South Island of New Zealand, one road trip you simply MUST do is the drive between Nelson and Queenstown. Taking you from the very northern part of Te Waipounamu, along much of its spectacular west coast, you’ll eventually land at the island's star attraction, within the guts of its lower section. The drive covers over 800 km and will take you about 10.5 hours to complete nonstop. But there is no fun in that! Instead, we recommend taking your time and savouring the journey for at least six days. In fact, the more time you can spare, the better!

Car Hire

To make this trip, you’ll obviously need a car, and if you have travelled from overseas or the North Island without one, you will have to hire a vehicle. Luckily there are plenty of operators in Nelson (or Queenstown, if you want to do the journey backwards) that offer one way car hire New Zealand rentals.

It’s a good idea to hire a 4WD vehicle, especially if you are attempting a road trip. This will enable you to navigate roads that might be affected by snow more easily.

6-Day Itinerary

If you have six days to spare and want to drive from Nelson to Queenstown, here is a terrific itinerary.

Road towards Queenstown, New Zealand
Photo credit Patrick McGregor via Unsplash

Day 1 - Nelson to Marahau (59 km distance - 1 hour driving time)

Once you’ve got your car, you should leave Nelson and head to the lovely town of Marahau.

Meaning ‘windy garden’ in the Māori language, crops were believed to have been grown here well before the European settlers arrived.

Today, it is best known for its lovely beach and for being the gateway to the wonderful Abel Tasman National Park, where you should spend the rest of the day exploring.

When you get hungry, head on over to Mapua for a meal at The Boat Shed Café. You can enjoy delicious seafood while taking in superb views of the Waimea Estuary. 

Day 2 - From Marahau to Westport (240 km distance, 3.5 hours driving time)

You might want to spend a bit of time on the morning of day two hiking and kayaking through the national park or relaxing on one of its golden beaches.

However, when the mood takes you to move on, you should make your way down the scenic West Coast towards Westport.

If you have a penchant for thrill-seeking, stop off at the Buller Gorge Swingbridge to enjoy a goosebump-inducing jet boat ride along Buller Canyon. Additionally, you might also want to traverse the swing bridge over the Buller River, which just happens to be the longest in Aotearoa. 

Westport is the oldest European settlement on the West Coast and boasts a rich coal mining history, which you can discover more about at its Coaltown Museum.

Day 3 - Westport to Hokitika (139 km distance, 2 hours driving time)

On leaving Westport, your next overnight stop should be in Hokitika. However, before you get there, make sure you check out Punakaiki, where you can witness the iconic Pancake Rocks and the incredible blowholes.

A little further down the road, you might also want to see the fur seals at Cape Foulwind, which you can do by strolling along a scenic coastal pathway. Have your cameras at the ready!

Day 4 - Hokitika to Franz Josef (134 km distance, 1¾ hours driving time)

If you arrived too late to do so the previous day, you should visit the Hokitika Gorge. There, you will be able to walk through a bosky forest to a scenic viewing platform that showcases stunning views of the turquoise waters.

Having seen that, carry on south towards Lake Matheson, which is situated near the Franz Josef township.

If it's a calm day, you’ll be able to see the Southern Alps reflecting magnificently on the water, which creates a breath taking image that will bring a lump to your throat. 

Day 5 - Franz Josef to Wanaka (284 km distance, 4 hours driving time)

You should explore the magnificent Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers either via a scenic flight or by hiking your way through them. Try to start early to see them at first light.

As you continue along the West Coast, be sure to detour over Haast Pass. Here, you can enjoy the sight of the fabulous Blue Pools, known for their pristine landscape and translucent waters.

Finish your day by arriving in Wanaka in time for dinner at Big Fig, which offers a delectable menu of Middle-Eastern-inspired dishes. 

Queenstown, New Zealand
Photo credit Omer Faruk Bekdemir via Unsplash

Day 6 - Wanaka to Queenstown (68.5 km, 1¼ hours driving time)

It is worth waking up early in Wanaka to hike up Mount Iron, which will reward your efforts with superb views of the surrounding landscape.

If you don’t fancy doing that, you can always indulge in some water sports at Lake Wanaka.

When you are ready to leave, go over the Crown Range to historic Arrowtown, where you can try to uncover a nugget while gold panning.

Once you get to Queenstown, here are some of the main things to do there.

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