Home > The Road Trips > Picton - Nelson

Picton - Nelson

This charming route offers every incentive to dawdle along the way. Get sidetracked by apple orchards, vineyards and funky cafes. Explore smokehouses and studios, artisans' workshops and specialty boutiques. Break out your camera in the stunning Marlborough Sounds, and more than anything, take in the amazing natural world around you.

Picton to Nelson
Total Distance 662 Km
Approx driving time 13 hours
Today Picton23°

Your road trip begins in Picton, the South Island's base for the Interislander ferry service, which links the North and South islands of New Zealand. The area is rich in maritime and Maori history, which can be explored at the Picton Museum with its many historical artefacts. Picton has an eclectic selection of art and craft outlets and a fine choice of cafes and restaurants close to its stunning waterfront, offering alfresco dining all year round.

Marlborough Sounds

For those wanting to discover the Marlborough Sounds, Picton tourist operators offer scenic cruises, diving trips, adventure sea-kayaking, fishing trips and eco-tours. You can even take a dolphin cruise and swim with the dolphins! Take a catamaran out to the Queen Charlotte Track and experience the solitude and beauty of one of New Zealand's natural wonders. After walking this or another of Picton's numerous local tracks, relax and enjoy a chilled glass of Marlborough's world-famous sauvignon blanc, served with fresh, locally caught seafood - there is just no better way to kick off a road trip!

Enjoy a chilled glass of Marlborough's world-famous sauvignon blanc, served with fresh, locally caught seafood.

After spending some quality time in Picton and exploring the Marlborough Sounds, head for the charming seaport of Havelock. Once a thriving gold-mining town, Havelock now serves as a base-point for exploring further into the Sounds. While here try the local delicacy - Greenshell mussels, then follow the Nydia Track to Tennyson Inlet (this walk takes two days), or visit the tiny settlement of French Pass and offshore D'Urville Island.

Queen Charlotte Track - do it on foot or on a mountain bike - there's nothing like getting out and truly experiencing nature at its best.

Picton Waterfront.

Motueka Sandspit Scenic Reserve.

Nelson: Vineyards galore.

While travelling over Takaka Hill, check out the famous Harwoods Hole - it's a real treat, but stay away from the edge!

Te Waikoropupu Springs - one of the world's clearest springs.

Walk quietly to Esson's Valley Reservoir at night; about halfway up the track you'll be treated to a glowworm display.

It's well worth driving up the Kenepuru Sound; the winding road has abundant amazing views and resorts to visit.

Watch out for the wildlife when on the water in the Sounds - stingrays and shags are common sights near the shoreline, but always keep an eye out for dolphins and seals.

At Ecoworld Aquarium on Picton's foreshore, you can explore the hidden world of the Marlborough Sounds with hundreds of fish and invertebrates. Ancient tuatara, bright geckos and slinky skinks can be found within the reptile display.

Abel Tasman National Park

World-renowned kayaking and marine reserve

It may be the smallest national park in the country, but what it lacks...

Camping Country

Every nook and cranny hides a camping spot

In the days before easy air travel, summer camping was a national past...

Marlborough Sounds

A Sea Lover's Sanctuary

A maze of deep coves and secluded bays fringed by native forest, the M...

Farewell Spit

The south's super-size hook

If you have yet to wander onto the fish hook that's pinned to the top ...

The Queen Charlotte Track

Fit for a Queen

From Ship Cove to Anakiwa, the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71-kilometre t...

Murchison and St Arnaud

From here you've got a good drive ahead of you as you take SH 6 to Renwick, turn onto SH 63 and pass through small towns like St Arnaud, with side trips to Lake Rotoroa and Murchison. Murchison and St Arnaud are places where the vistas will render you speechless. The village of St Arnaud sits at the edge of Lake Rotoiti, and Murchison is a dream location for white-water kayakers and rafters.

If you're up for some tramping or fishing, Nelson Lakes National Park is a great spot to stop. Make sure your camera is ready to go and that it's got plenty of memory - there are millions of potential pictures along this road! Head north again, then leave SH 6, turning left at Kohatu and head for Motueka, then Takaka and Collingwood on your way around to Farewell Spit.

Collingwood and Farewell Spit

Collingwood is the northern gateway to Kahurangi National Park and the bird sanctuary of Farewell Spit. In every direction, the environment is spectacular. Curving into Cook Strait like a Haast eagle's talon, Farewell Spit is home to more than 90 species of native and migratory birds, who wander among shifting dunes and indigenous grasses. This fragile ecosystem is protected, and public access on foot is allowed only at the base of the spit. However, you can join an off-road tour of the spit with an approved eco-guide. Afterwards, find one of Golden Bay's campgrounds, pitch a tent and watch the setting sun cast an amber glow over the water.

As you travel back down towards Takaka, take a side trip inland down Collingwood Bainham Main Road and through the Aorere Valley, past the old-world atmosphere of the Langford Store to the Aorere Goldfields (where the first flush of gold fever happened in 1857). These goldfields are accessible via a three-hour walk (return).

Farewell Spit is home to more than 90 species of native and migratory birds, who wander among shifting dunes and indigenous grasses.

Before you reach Takaka, check out Te Waikoropupu Springs - one of the world's clearest freshwater springs. These, known as Pupu Springs, are Golden Bay's most popular and famous attraction. The spring system is New Zealand's largest and among the 100 largest in the world. The springs are wahi tapu (a sacred site) to Maori and the water from the springs has been used for healing and ceremonial blessings.

Abel Tasman National Park

Return to SH 60 then, and head for one of the four car park entrances to the Abel Tasman National Park. From here, you can set off on one of the many walks in the park. After plenty of exploring and adventuring, bunk down for the night at a Department of Conservation (DOC) hut or in one of the many campgrounds found within the park (all have a water supply and toilets). The best way to get back to nature is to immerse yourself in it; Abel Tasman National Park is a place where the modern world can be completely left behind. It's New Zealand's smallest national park (22,530ha), but it's big on exquisite natural features. Spend your days in beautiful bays and coves. This is truly a nature and water-lover's paradise.

When you leave the park, get back on SH 60 and visit the town of Motueka. This is a good place to fuel up on food and drinks for the rest of your journey. While here, explore Motueka Sandspit Scenic Reserve. Heading to Nelson, you'll see small townships such as Mariri, Tasman and Mapua on the way.


Nelson, your destination, is home to more working artists per capita than anywhere else in New Zealand. Stay here and enjoy Nelson's creative buzz, visiting some of the studios and galleries. Then start on the eateries; there's no shortage of dining choices: fine-dining restaurants, pavement cafes, tasty pub meals and takeaways. Come to Nelson with an appetite; you're going to enjoy it!

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Imagine standing on a shaky swingbridge 17 metres above a flowing river ... You can do this at the Buller Gorge Swingbridge, in Murchison. At 110 metres long and 17 metres high, this swingbridge is New Zealand's longest. If you dare to stop halfway along, it's a great place to take photos of the Buller River and its pink granite gorges.

The swingbridge isn't the only thrilling activity here. In fact, the Buller Gorge has more than its fair share of adventure activities. You can ride a 160m-long flying fox over the Buller River, and experience the spectacular scenery and blood-rushing exhilaration of a jet-boat trip. And, with Murchison being the self-proclaimed 'white-water capital of New Zealand', you can bet that some of the best white-water rafting and kayaking awaits you here.

If you'd rather leave the thrill-seeking to the daredevils, then cross the swingbridge and head out on one of the fantastic walks in the area. Or, try your hand at gold panning - it just might be your lucky day!

It might sound like an ancient farewell custom of dubious etiquette, and it certainly doesn't sound like something you'd encourage your children to do, but Farewell Spit is actually a site of international ecological importance and a fantastic family adventure.

Known by Maori as Onetahua - meaning 'heaped up sand' - Farewell Spit Nature Reserve is a bird sanctuary and wetland with incredible rolling sand dunes and over 90 bird species. The thin claw-like stretch of land bids farewell to the northernmost point of the South Island, curling into the Tasman Sea and forming the northern side of Golden Bay.

Around 25km long, public access is restricted to the first 4km, however organised tours can take you further along the stretch of sand. Tours include the opportunity to jump off a sand dune, visit the lighthouse and witness the gannet colony. The Spit is so long and the waters shallow that pilot whales frequently strand themselves along the south side.

To say the Spit is special would be an understatement. In fact it's so special that it's on New Zealand's list of locations to be nominated for World Heritage status. Farewell Spit is more strictly protected than a National Park, with vehicle access granted only to supervised tours - so why not find out the allure of this natural landmark for yourself?

Mussels are on the menu in Havelock - the town is best known as the 'Greenshell Mussel Capital of the World'. So, it's only right that they have a party to celebrate this great honour! The Havelock Mussel Festival, held every March, is a fantastic day with something to treat all your senses.

Of course, you can taste these mouth-watering mussels in every way, shape and form, be shown how to cook them up yourself and learn about how they are grown. If you've got a competitive streak, show everyone what you're made of by entering one of the competitions - there's mussel opening, mussel munching, mussel hurtling and mussel tossing.

But it's not just about the mussels - the entertainment at this festival makes for an awesome day out.

Encompassing one-fifth of New Zealand's total coastline, the wild and majestic Marlborough Sounds were made for cruising. A maze of deep coves and secluded bays fringed by native forest, the Sounds provide an unspoiled wilderness to enjoy different types of cruises - there's something everyone will enjoy.

To see rare birds, dolphins, penguins and seals, join an eco-tour cruise and sail to the outer Sounds for close encounters with wildlife. It's likely that you'll even see endangered species such as the Hector's, dusky and bottlenose dolphins.

Mussel and salmon farms are common in the Sounds, and you can take cruises to see how the mussels are grown and harvested, taste fresh mussels straight from the sea, and enjoy them with a glass of wine - sauvignon blanc of course. Or if you're a keen fisher, you'll love the fishing cruises here.

A variety of sightseeing cruises are also available, with everything from joining the local mail run to twilight dinner cruises and private charters.

Many a Nelson holiday has been scheduled around a visit to the Nelson Saturday Market. It's here that you can experience the original creative spirit of the Nelson and Tasman region in one happening place.

Nelson is well known for two things - its vibrant arts scene and abundance of fresh produce. Therefore, there's nowhere better than the markets to sample the two in perfect harmony. Prowl the lanes between the hundreds of stalls for Nelson's best fresh vegetables, breads, fruit, cheeses, gourmet dips, smoked seafood, woodwork, jewellery, ceramics, visual art, fashion, crafts, treasure, furniture.

The Nelson Saturday Market is held every Saturday 8am-1pm (except holidays) in Montgomery Square.

If you're not about on a Saturday, there are plenty of other markets worth checking out.

The Nelson Farmers' Market at Fashion Island, Morrison Street is on every Wednesday from 11am-4pm, and the Motueka Sunday Market is definitely worth a visit.

Follow the Wainui Falls Track in Golden Bay and discover a secret waterfall revealed via a 30-minute walk through a forest of nikau palms, rata trees and ferns. Before you get there, enjoy the walk that encompasses farmland, granite and a narrow footbridge across the Wainui River.

The Rawhiti Cave, approximately 15 minutes' drive from Takaka, is well worth a visit. After an hour's walk from the car park, you'll reach this amazing cave with thousands of pretty coloured stalagmites hanging from its huge roof.

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