Suggested itineraries in the Top of the South

With scenery for miles and an endless variety of things to see, taste and do, the Top of the South Island lends itself perfectly to a road trip that stretches across the Nelson Tasman and Marlborough regions. Here are two suggested routes.

Coastal explorer

From the scenic seaside town of Picton to Collingwood in Golden Bay, the coastal roads promise incredible natural beauty and delicious treats along the way.

After a coffee on Picton’s picturesque foreshore, head straight into quintessential Marlborough Sounds scenery on Queen Charlotte Drive to Havelock, stopping for photos on hills and long jetties overlooking calm bays. Arriving in Havelock, giant Greenshell mussels hint at its status as the Greenshell mussel capital of the world. Enjoy a bowl of freshly steamed mussels at a cafe, or eat them at the source on the Greenshell Mussel Cruise.

Continuing west, stop at Pelorus Bridge spanning the deep, crystal-clear river, a drawcard for swimmers in summer, before another stop at the Hira Store, long known for its generous scoops of icecream and large variety of flavours. Here you’ll see the turnoff to Cable Bay, a detour promising swimming, kayaking and diving near a marine reserve, a hilltop walkway overlooking Tasman Bay and an adventure park offering one of the world’s longest flying fox experiences, quad biking, paintball, archery and more.

By now you’re just minutes from central Nelson, beyond which is the iconic seaside scenery of Rocks Road and Tahunanui Beach. Take time to enjoy the uninterrupted views from the sand to the mountains, go paddle-boarding around the bay, indulge in some seaside dining at Wakefield Quay or join the off-road pathway from the beach towards the city, passing murals and sculptures along the way.

Heading south, swap SH6 for SH60 in Richmond and discover the 22 cellar doors across the Waimea Plains and Moutere Valley. Then it’s a choice between the boutique shops and waterside cafes at beautiful Mapua, the artisan experiences and local cuisine of Upper Moutere or Motueka’s famous doughnuts at The Smoking Barrel – or, just do them all. Balance your treat indulgence with a walk or sea kayak in the nearby Abel Tasman National Park, or cycle some of Tasman’s Great Taste Trail.

Back on the highway, it’s a short sharp uphill to the summit of Takaka Hill, characterised by marble outcrops and ancient caves, then down to glorious Golden Bay. From the famous Mussel Inn to the fascinating Te WaikoropupÅ« Springs, historic Collingwood, Farewell Spit and beaches ranging from golden sand to wild and windswept, the bay really does have it all – so make sure to leave plenty of time to explore before the inevitable u-turn back to real life.

Inland splendour

The inland route from Marlborough to Nelson Tasman may often be the road less travelled, but its undiscovered beauty will not disappoint.

From Picton, cross the Wairau River into Marlborough wine country, where cellar doors abound. Stay and do a wine tour, or pop into wineries independently for a casual tasting and a platter or vineyard lunch.

The vines remain a constant companion until far up SH63 in the Wairau Valley, bordered by the rugged Richmond Range, which leads to St Arnaud in Nelson Lakes National Park. This popular spot is the perfect base to access Rainbow Ski Area but, if you’re not visiting in winter, there is plenty of hiking and mountain biking in this alpine wonderland – be sure to get a photo on the Lake Rotoiti jetty with the unspoilt mountain view. 

The highway continues to Murchison, a historic gold rush town with an edge of adrenaline on offer with jet boating and rafting. Try gold panning, stay at a luxury forest retreat, and admire pristine waterfalls.

Or, turn off before St Arnaud towards Nelson and journey via quaint Wakefield, where an award-winning steak and cheese pie from the bakery is a must. Then, join the Moutere Highway, taking in wineries and New Zealand’s oldest pub in Sarau Village, which is also home to the Moutere Artisans. Browse the art galleries and fill up on local gourmet treats before hitting the road again, back to the beautiful coast.

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