A road trip around the northern part of New Zealand's South Island is guaranteed to be full of memories. From rugged mountain ranges, to ancient temperate forests, pristine beaches, and wild rolling plains – the Northern South Island Exposure road trip will be a holiday highlight.
Along the way, you'll also have the chance to experience unforgettable activities, including whale watching, bathing in natural hot springs, and sampling amazing wines at world-class vineyards.
A great way to make the most of this magical corner of New Zealand is to travel in style in your very own campervan. Starting out from Christchurch, all your destinations are an easy self-drive on good roads. However, it does pay to keep an eye on the weather, especially when travelling through mountain passes, where road surfaces can be slippery. Also, although distances may seem short, some roads include hilly, narrow or winding terrain, so it pays to take your time and drive safely. Check out our exciting 5-Day Northern South Island Exposure road trip itinerary.
Christchurch to Christchurch
Best Time of the Year
All year round
- Hanmer Mountains
Christchurch to Hanmer Springs
Distance 133km - Driving Time 1 hour 30 mins
Begin your journey by picking up your campervan at the airport in Christchurch, the South Island's largest city. Take some time to visit the city centre and see the renaissance that is taking place in this centre of history and culture, which was rocked by a series of earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. The enchanting Avon River is still the city's central feature, but Christchurch's historic buildings now sit alongside exciting contemporary developments, with creative new structures popping up all the time.
Travelling north on SH1, you'll pass the idyllic beaches of Woodend, Waikuku, Leithfield and Amberley. If you're an avid golfer, you might also want to pack your clubs and try out Amberley's picturesque seaside golf course.
At Waipara, which is known for its vineyards and olive groves, SH1 joins up with SH7 heading for Hanmer Springs. The highway continues through charming farm land and gentle hills, crossing the Hurunui River and then running alongside the Waiau River for the best part of the remaining journey.
Pull in for the night at the Top 10 Holiday Park, located a short 5 minutes' walk to the Hanmer Springs thermal hot pools.
Hanmer Springs to Murchison
Distance 175km - Driving Time 2 hours
No visit to Hanmer Springs is complete without taking time out for a soak in the natural hot springs at the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa. Formed as a result of rainwater that fell 180 years ago, the springs bubble up through fractured rock in the Hanmer Mountains from a depth of about two kilometres.
However, it's not just the relaxing thermal waters drawing visitors to this alpine resort town. Hanmer Springs has also become something of an adventure destination, with its proximity to the Waiau River making it ideal for jet boating, rafting and kayaking. Extreme activities such as bungy jumping and off-road vehicle adventures are also on offer.
Once you've had your fill of everything Hanmer Springs has to offer, hit the road for Murchison. Travelling through the Lewis Pass across the Southern Alps, you'll pass tranquil beech forests on your way to another spa destination, Maruia Springs. Heading north through the Maruia Forest, keep an eye out for Kakariki, the New Zealand native parakeets (or red-crowned parrots) who call the forest home.
Upon reaching Murchison, head for Kiwi Park Motels & Holiday Park, which is located on a working farm and offers stunning rural and mountain views.
Murchison to Blenheim
Distance 162km - Driving Time 1 hour 45 mins
Surrounded by an array of rivers, including the Mangles, Matiri, Matakitaki, and the impressive Buller, Murchison is a canoeing and kayaking paradise. Take the time for a relaxing morning paddle, or if you're feeling a bit more adventurous, venture over to the Buller River for a whitewater rafting experience with Ultimate Descents. Before you leave town, stop in to the district museum and find out about the huge earthquake which nearly destroyed the town in 1929.
Follow the Buller River out of town to the east, and sixty kilometres up the road you'll reach the alpine village of St Arnaud. Perched on the edge of Lake Rotoiti, St Arnaud is the perfect base for exploring the Nelson Lakes National Park, where excellent hiking and trout fishing adventures await.
Continuing east towards Blenheim on SH63, look for a riverside lunch spot on the Wairau River where you can stretch the legs. Further down the road you'll hit wine country, as vineyards start popping up all around you. Once you reach your destination, look for the Blenheim Top 10 Holiday Park or the Spring Creek Holiday Park. Head into town tonight and try out one of the many cafes, restaurants, and bars Blenheim has to offer.
Blenheim to Kaikoura
Distance 128km - Driving Time 1 hour
The heart of the Marlborough wine-growing region, Blenheim has over 20 wineries within easy driving distance of the town. With the majority welcoming visitors for wine tastings and cellar door sales, you may want to (safely) sample a few drops before you leave town, and grab a bottle or two to take with you.
Turn south onto SH1, travelling towards Seddon. You'll pass through the quaint farming communities of the Awatere Valley before coming across a series of huge white mounds, surrounded by ponds which turn pink in summer. Known as the Lake Grassmere Saltworks, they are the result of natural salt production, and are well worth a stop and a few photos.
Not long after Lake Grassmere, SH1 hits the coast, and the road continues to hug the shoreline the remainder of the journey to Kaikoura. You may want to stop for a late lunch at the Ohau Stream Walkway. A short ten-minute walk will lead you to the picturesque Ohau Waterfall, where during the winter months, you could be lucky enough to see seal pups playing in the waterfall's pools.
Once you reach Kaikoura, which is famous for the abundant marine life that inhabits its coastline, book yourself in for an afternoon whale watching tour with Whale Watch Kaikoura or a dolphin swim with Encounter Kaikoura.
Consider spending the night at Kaikoura's only beachfront caravan park, Kaikoura Peketa Beach Holiday Park.
Kaikoura to Christchurch
Distance 181km - Driving Time 1 hour 30 mins
The final leg of your five day northern South Island tour takes you back to Christchurch. Travel south through rugged coastal ranges, and an hour down the road you'll see the turnoff for Gore Bay. Stop here to view the fascinating cliff formations, including The Cathedrals, a collection of imposing eroded siltstone pillars. A one-hour return walk starts at the beaches in Gore Bay, and if you have time, the town also has an excellent surfing beach.
Before you reach Christchurch, a turnoff will lead you to the charming country town of Rangiora, home to a collection of wonderful heritage buildings, including one of Canterbury's oldest wooden churches. As you return to Christchurch's outer environs, you'll cross the Waimakariri River, before you head south-west towards the airport to return your Britz campervan.
Feeling inspired? To get started on your New Zealand adventure, book a Britz campervan today.