The top of the South Island doesn’t get quite the amount of tourist attention as some of New Zealand’s most iconic spots, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t heaps of cool stuff to see. Some of the highlights include snow-capped (in winter and spring) mountains in Nelson Lakes National Park, the unspoilt beaches of Abel Tasman National Park and the clear blue waters of the Marlborough Sounds. I’ve laid this post out in a sort of itinerary format – it’ll take anywhere from a week to a month or more to see all these places so if you only have a few days at the top of the South Island you’ll want to pick and choose where you go.
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If exploring some of the most breathtaking coastal landscapes in New Zealand sounds good to you then you need to visit the Marlborough Sounds. The Marlborough region also includes Kaikoura, where you’ll find whales and a beach backed by mountains.
Picton is the town you’ll arrive at (or leave from) if travelling between New Zealand’s two main islands on the ferry. For many it’s a transit town but stick around for a while and you’ll find some great short walks. The Tirohanga Track is my favourite, but the Snout Track is also nice. You could do these (and have a quick look around town) in half a day, so spending a night there before or after your ferry is good idea.
Driving to Titirangi Bay
The best way to see the Marlborough Sounds (if you don’t want to shell out for a boat tour) is to drive down one of the roads which takes you alongside (and above) the sounds. The drive out to Titirangi Bay is incredible – there are heaps of places to pull over and admire the views and there are a few short walks to do too.
This is a good place to stop when driving between the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson. It’s located between the turnoffs to Titirangi Bay and French Pass and you can have a quick walk to see the highlights and be back in your car within 30 minutes. In the right weather and light this section of river is crystal clear and extremely inviting – they also filmed some scenes of the Hobbit in this area!
The Road to French Pass
Another scenic drive in the Marlborough Sounds, the road to French Pass is even more scenic than the one to Titirangi Bay. Once out at French Pass, you’ll get great views of D’urville Island and it’s worth doing the detour to Bulwer where more awesome views await.
READ MORE: Check out my post about driving through the Marlborough Sounds!
Kaikoura is in southern Marlborough and is a bit of a detour from the main route I’m laying out here. It’s more of a place to stop when travelling south towards Christchurch from Picton, so you can either go down and back up or try and hit it on the way back down the island after visiting Golden Bay etc (it’ll still be a bit of a detour though). The main things to do in Kaikoura include a whale watching tour and the surreal coastal scenery of the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway.
READ MORE: The Ultimate Two-Week New Zealand Itinerary
Where to Stay in Marlborough: Picton is the obvious choice – there are heaps of accommodation options and the town is well set up for tourists. Other options include Havelock, staying at camping grounds along the scenic roads I mentioned earlier or staying in fancy lodges on or near the Queen Charlotte Track.
The next logical step after exploring the Marlborough Sounds is to drive to Nelson, the biggest city at the top of the South Island. If you’ve spent a few days in the Marlborough Sounds it might be nice to spend some time in a city, and there are some worthwhile things to do in and around town.
Cable Bay Walkway
This is my favourite walk in (or very near to) Nelson. The view above Cable Bay and Peppin Island is amazing on a nice day and you only need to do a short section of the track (from the Cable Bay end) to see it.
The city centre in Nelson is decent place to explore. There’s a river area, some old buildings and a really nice burger place (Burger Culture – try the donuts too!). The Centre of New Zealand walk is nearby too (there’s a view over Nelson from the top) and Founders Park, with its collection of relocated and recreated historic buildings is a good place for a stroll and a bite to eat.
There isn’t that much to do in Nelson and you’ll probably want to be moving on after a day or two, but there are some nice beaches close to town and one of them would make a good base for exploring the area. Tahananui Beach, a short drive from the centre of Nelson, is home to heaps of motels, cafes and restaurants and has a real holiday vibe. If you prefer to stay in one place and do day trips this could be a good option – from Tahananui it’s only an hour or so to Nelson Lakes National Park and the same to Kaiteriteri / Abel Tasman National Park. Other beaches nearby include Rabbit Island and the stony beaches of the Ruby Coast. Also check out Mapua (around 30 minutes from Nelson towards Motueka) – it’s a cool place to eat by the sea.
Nelson Lakes National Park
This small national park is home to some incredible hikes as well as some scenic lake-front areas.
There are two main lakes in Nelson Lakes National Park, with Lake Rotoiti being the best one to visit. You can hang out by the water (there’s a photogenic pier which is popular) or do one of the hikes which take you above the lake. The two most popular options are the St Arnaud Range Track and the Mount Robert Circuit. The St Arnaud Range Track is pretty steep and is mostly through the cover of the forest, although it does eventually open out to some incredible views over Lake Rotoiti. I did this hike in winter and there was heaps of snow around – such a fun experience! The Travers-Sabine Circuit, a 4-7 day trek (where you stay in huts along the way) also starts at Lake Rotoiti — it could be worth looking into if you want to get really off the beaten path.
The Mount Robert Circuit Track is a bit easier and is perhaps even more scenic. The track takes you up another steep hill (on the opposite side of the lake) and then across towards some of my favourite viewpoints in Nelson Lakes National Park.
If you’re after something a little easier (i.e. flatter) you could do the walk to Whisky Falls. The waterfall is worth the walk alone but there are also views of Lake Rotoiti along the way.
Lake Rotoroa is closer to the main road (the road which goes through the centre of the island between Nelson and Christchurch) but there isn’t as much to see there. The one short / scenic walk I found there was kind of annoying (the Porika FWD Track – great views but not many of them and it was hard!). It’s a good place to visit if you want to stretch your legs and maybe eat a picnic lunch on a pier.
Where to Stay in Nelson Lakes National Park: Most people visit as a day trip, but there are accommodation options. St Arnaud is the only town nearby (it’s right by Lake Rotoiti) – and there are a few places to stay. These include Alpine Lodge, Tophouse Mountainview Cottages and the Bach.
This tiny beach town is a local favourite and can get very crowded in summer. There are hills at either end of the beach where you’ll see it from above and there are a few other bays and beaches nearby. My favourite is Split Apple Rock Beach – it’s similar to the beaches in Abel Tasman National Park (it’s right next door) but you can walk there in about 10 minutes from the road. It’s a good option if you don’t have time to visit the national park, but I’d still visit even if you did.
Abel Tasman National Park
If you’re keen to see some of New Zealand’s best beaches, you’ll want to plan a trip to Abel Tasman National Park. There are a few ways to see this national park. You can do the coastal track which will take 3-5 days, or you can do a day walk, either from the Marahau side (closer to Nelson) or the Totaranui side (closer to Golden Bay). You can also do a kayaking tour or a boat tour, or a combination of all those options (depending on how long you’re there for).
A Day Walk from Marahau
If you aren’t heading to Golden Bay (or you don’t mind paying for water taxis) a good option is to drive to Marahau and organise a day walk. You could get dropped off in, say, Bark Bay, and then walk to Anchorage and catch another water taxi back to Marahau. There are heaps of options though – it all depends on how long you want to walk for.
The Totaranui Side
If you’re visiting Golden Bay anyway it makes sense to check out the Totaranui side of Abel Tasman National Park. From there you can walk to some awesome beaches meaning you won’t have to shell out for a water taxi. It’s a long drive over the hill to Takaka and then down a gravel road to Totaranui though (stop off at Wainui Falls along the way) – it’s far more convenient to do the Marahau side if you’re short on time.
READ MORE: 25 of the Best New Zealand Beaches
Where to Stay in Abel Tasman National Park: You can easily visit as a day trip or stay in Marahau. There are also camping grounds along the track, including a big one (which you can drive to) in Totaranui.
Takaka Hill separates Golden Bay from the rest of Nelson / Tasman. It’s got some tight curves and isn’t the easiest road to drive, but it’s worth it for the views. Once over the hill there is lots of explore in Golden Bay, including beaches, rock formations and a unique New Zealand road.
Te Waikoropupū Springs
A short drive from Takaka, the main town in Golden Bay, Te Waikoropupū Springs is said to have some of New Zealand’s clearest water. It’s certainly a surreal place to visit and the walk there from the car park is about as easy as it gets.
You’ll see this beach if you’re driving from Takaka to Totaranui (Abel Tasman National Park). It’s a beautiful beach and is a good option if you don’t fancy driving all the way to Totaranui. The beach is almost as good as the national park ones, but obviously isn’t quite as unspoilt.
Wharariki Beach / Cape Farewell
This is about as far north as you can get without doing a Farewell Spit tour (which is apparently well worth the cost). Wharariki Beach is famous for its rock islands sitting just offshore and attracts a decent amount of people at sunset. Cape Farewell is close by and is also worth a visit to see the dramatic coastal scenery.
The Drive to Anatori
From Collingwood (the town closest to Wharariki Beach) there’s an interesting (and fairly off the beaten path) road which leads all the way to the West Coast. This road takes you through farmland, a massive inlet and some exotic looking limestone hills. You’ll eventually reach the coast, where you’ll get more great views. It takes around 90 minutes (each way) and you can freedom camp at Anatori if you want.
Are you planning a trip to the top of the South Island? Was this post helpful? Let me know in the comments below!
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