Christchurch to Picton via Kaikoura: Driving the Coastal Road after the Earthquake
Just over a year ago a huge earthquake, cantered near Kaikoura, decimated parts of the coastal highway between Christchurch and Picton. The inland route, via the Lewis Pass, was a capable replacement, but the coastal road is now back up and running and it makes for a great drive. It takes around five hours to drive from Christchurch to Picton, but spend a bit longer and you’ll see some of New Zealand’s most spectacular coastal scenery. We did this journey a month ago over a couple of days — below are just some of the things you can see if you’re considering doing the same.
It’s hard to think of a less fashionable region of New Zealand to travel than North Canterbury. I had barely heard of any of the places we visited in North Canterbury before researching our trip, but it turned out to be well worth a look. The main reason we spent time in North Canterbury was that we wanted to camp somewhere between Christchurch and Picton, as we’d travelled all the way from Dunedin that day. Most people drive straight through, but hopefully I can inspire you to make a few stops.
We had a quick look at Waikuku Beach and Amberley Beach before continuing on to Hurunui Mouth, as we’d heard there was a good (and most importantly, cheap) camping ground there. It was a great place to camp, and there were some nice views of Hurunui Mouth from the road above the camping ground. It felt very off the beaten path – there were 5-10 other vehicles staying there, and this was in the peak of the tourist season.
The next morning we continued along dusty gravel roads to Manuka Bay. We hadn’t planned on going there (we’d never even heard of it before) but we saw a sign pointing that way and it was only a few kilometres from our route. It was a great little detour – the view from above the beach is awesome and the beach itself was the best we saw in North Canterbury. From there we drove to Gore Bay to see the Cathedral Cliffs and then headed back to the main road at Cheviot.
Driving to Kaikoura
The road to Kaikoura had only opened a few days previous, but apart from a couple of short delays it was a smooth journey to Kaikoura. Large parts of this road hug the coastline – the views are pretty good and there are lots of places to pull over and explore the rocky beaches. There are a few places to camp along this road but there’s very little in terms of tourist services (shops, petrol stations etc).
Kaikoura is most famous as a place to see whales, but since it was Christmas Day and most things were shut, we decided to focus on the town’s scenery. The best place to do this is on the Kaikoura Peninsula Track. It takes around two hours to walk from South Bay to Point Kean (or you can walk all the way from town if you don’t have a car). The surreal shades of blue and green water mixed with bone-white beaches (which are actually shells not sand) and rugged coastal formations make this one of New Zealand’s most interesting coastal hikes. You can also walk down to sea level to spot seals. The town itself isn’t anything special, but there is a nice black sand beach in front of the main street.
Kaikoura to Picton
The road continues to follow the coast past Kaikoura, eventually turning inland towards Blenheim. We stopped at a really beautiful beach between Kaikoura and the tiny village of Kekerengu. I spotted the glowing blue ocean and quickly turned down a deserted gravel road which led to the beach. It was one of the best black sand beaches I’ve seen anywhere in the world and it was completely devoid of people. Even in peak season it’s possible to have a slice of paradise like this all to yourself – you just have to know where to look.
Once you head inland you’ll start to notice lush wineries nestled between large tracts of barren earth. Marlborough is famous for its wine – if you’re a little more sophisticated than me you might want to do visit a few of the wineries in the region. We pushed on through Blenheim and then up to Picton, the biggest town in the Marlborough Sounds. It’s one of my favourite towns in New Zealand – there are some great hikes and it’s close to some incredibly scenic drives.
If you follow our route above you’ll encounter some of New Zealand’s less known scenic gems. We only scratched the surface though – there are so many detours you could take on this trip. That’s the beauty of New Zealand – no matter how many times you travel there there’s always something else to see – countless gravel roads leading to deserted beaches, lakes, rivers and forests.
FURTHER READING: A Road Trip Through the Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Which places are you most excited to visit? Let me know in the comments below!