New Zealand South Island Road Trip: Part 1 Marlborough/ Nelson

In February this year we hit the road in our good old camper Benny and started our road trip around New Zealand’s South Island! This trip took over 5000km, 67 days to complete and included over 30 campsites so there was absolutely no way I was fitting it all in one post without it turning into my magnum opus. I’ve thought about how best to do this and I’ve decided to document each district, what we did there and where we stayed. I’ll be sure to link any individual posts I’ve written on different areas throughout. Ok, here we go – Part One: Marlborough/ Nelson!

Marlborough District


Where we stayed: When we first arrived we stayed at the Queen Charlotte Tavern which cost us $10 each for the night and included free Wi-Fi. We were actually looking for cash for a cheaper DOC site however we saw we could stay here so decided to do that instead. Honestly it’s nothing special but it had $5 showers, clean flush toilets, a bar and a restaurant. We were actually the only ones here and the owners were really welcoming and friendly.

At the end of our trip we spent two nights in the DOC Whatamango Campsite which cost $8pp and only about 10/15 mins outside of Picton. This was a really nice site with clean toilets and lots of space for campers.

What we did: I feel like people undersell poor old Picton because it’s just associated with getting the ferry. I thought this was such a beautiful little town. We did the Tirohanga hike which was a 45min hike up a viewing point looking out across the entire bay and the Marlborough Sounds. We also completed the Upper and Lower Bob’s Bay walks which are two shorter walks along by the waterfront. Upper Bobs Bay leads to a secluded little pebble stone beach which is a great spot for lunch and to enjoy the bay.


Where we stayed: We stayed at the Wairau Diversion Scenic Reserve which was a free DOC campsite. It was a massive wooded area right next to a (FREEZING) river. It was fairly basic with no running water and just drop toilets but the views were amazing and there were no sandflies (bonus points)!

What we did: We didn’t actually end up spending much time around Blenheim instead we headed straight to Renwick to do the wine tour.


Where we stayed: We meet up with some friends here and all stayed in Watson’s Way Lodge. This was a gem of a campsite with a really nice owner. We had an unpowered site which cost $39. There is also a hostel onsite so you can book into a room too. The place had a great atmosphere, good showers, free tennis courts, really nice gardens and well stocked kitchen. They also rent out bikes for $30 each per day so you can complete the Renwick Wine Trail.

What we did: We drank wine. Lots and lots of wine. Although we did cycle to all the vineyards so surely that has to counteract all the alcohol right? We had an absolute scorcher of a day which made the cycle seem a little long at the start but it was worth it. We went to Cloudy Bay, Giesen, Nautilus and No 1 Family Estate. I have to call out Cloudy Bay and Giessen in particular for having the best staff! The people who helped us were so funny and well up for the craic.

In comparison the staff member we got at No. 1 Family Estate was so unfriendly and apparently decided we weren’t worth her time. She even went as far as giving the other older group who were also there the “better more expensive taster”. Needless to say we did not buy anything and would not be recommending it to anyone.

We got a top tip from the owner of our campsite to head down Jefferies Road to a swimming hole in the Wairau river as a pit stop during our cycle around the vineyards. When we initially got there we didn’t think there was much but if you continue down the side road you’ll see swing ropes to jump into the water. Given it was so hot this was BLISS. The water was so nice and warm and the current acted as a natural jacuzzi.

Robinhood Bay

Where we stayed: We got this as a recommendation from one of the guys we met in the campsite in Renwick. This is back up near Blenheim but because we had time to kill we decided to head up here before going any further south. We stayed in a free DOC site called Robinhood bay. There is a small area right beside the toilet however just up the road is a wide open field that is also a DOC site so we camped here and had 360 degree views of the bay, the mountains and the woodland. It was about a 10 minute round trip to the drop toilet but worth it for the views.

What we did: Absolutely nothing, which was such bliss. We wandered down to the water to cool off (which was easy because it was friggin freezing) then sat back for the day and read our books. Downside, the gravel road to get to the site is very poor and it’s easy to skid and there are a lot of flies around so arm yourself with plenty of repellent. On the other hand there were only three other campers in the entire area and with no phone reception this was such a nice place to completely unwind.

Nelson District


Where we stayed: We spent two nights in the Waitapu River Bridge Campsite which is a great free campsite a 5min drive from the town centre. There were bins and a couple of clean portaloos. This is a really popular site so you need to get there early to secure a space. Also as it’s by the river it can get muddy and flood during heavy rainfall.

What we did: This place was recommended to us by so many people and it hasn’t got the nickname stay-kaka from nowhere. It’s a busy little town that is full of great bars, restaurants, independent shops and is driving distance from amazing beaches and the national park – it’s easy to see why people end up staying for weeks. There are some really nice short walks in the area worth doing. First up we headed to Wainui Falls which is a 1 hour return walk through forestry along a river bank to a waterfall.

From here we then headed to the Labyrinth Rocks. This is a 30min walk through a naturally formed maze. Inside various nooks there are little figurines as well as plenty of tunnels and unusual rock formations to check out. Its a great stop especially with kids – or if you’re easily entertained children like we are.

Another nice stop is the Te Waikoropupu Springs which contain the clearest water in the country. Unfortunately, the day we went was quiet cloudy so it wasn’t as impressive however, I imagine on a good day it would be similar to the Blue Springs we went to on our North Island roadtrip. Not far from the springs is the Rawhiti Cave. This was a 1 hour 20 min round trip hike up through forest to the mouth of the cave. There was a fair bit of climbing and as it had rained the night before the ground was muddy however it only took about 40mins to get to the top and it was so worth it!

The cave is enormous and one of those rare occasions where the pictures undersold it. If you have time this is a definite must do!

Takaka also has some great places to eat! We headed to the Mussel Inn which we had heard a lot about. The food was pretty medicore in my oponion and there was a fairly limited menu however I’ve heard it’s one of the best spots around for live music. Every night they have either a band, DJ or quiz as well as supplying plenty of really good local beers and ciders. One place recommended to us was Dangerous Kitchen and oh hot damn it was good! Although they do a variety of dishes the specialty is by far their homemade pizzas. We got a large to share and it was massive! This was probably up there with one the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten!

This was one of my favourite towns we stopped in on our trip and a place I would go back to again in a heartbeat.

Abel Tasman

Where we stayed: We decided to stay the night in the DOC campsite at Totaranui Bay which was $15pp a night. This is a ludicrously huge site stretching along the beachfront. There are free cold showers, toilets and shelters to cook in.

What we did: We weren’t sure how best to see Abel Tasman and eventually settled on the one of the Beach and Walk options from Aquataxi. This costs $77 each and included getting collected from the beach at our campsite, a 30min water taxi to Torrent Bay, a 1.5 hour hike from Torrent Bay to Bark Bay and a 20min water taxi back to Totaranui Bay.

This was a great way to see a couple of different bays and get out in the sunshine and do a hike. The hike was easy and had very little uphill. The taxis allow you plenty of time to get the walk completed so take your time. On the return trip our skipper spotted dolphins and slowed down so they could come right up to the boat and swim along with us. It was incredible and the perfect end to the day!


Where we stayed: We stopped off at the Kaiteriteri Beach Motor Camp. This was really just a stop to break up the drive back towards Nelson and Picton. It was $23 each so pretty pricey. The campsite itself is huge and really nice however you don’t get any free wifi and you still have to pay for the showers (50c for 6mins) and laundry ($2 for wash and $2 for dry) so you don’t really get much for your money. There is a bar and restaurant right beside it if you’re looking for something to do though.

What we did: As I mentioned before we only stayed here to break up the drive however we did stop into Harwoods Hole on the way. This is where some aerial shots for the Lord of the Rings movies were taken and is a 40 minute walk through some beautiful woodland to the famous cave. Be warned (in case the 6 caution and danger signs didn’t warn you enough) there is no barrier here and in order to see the cave itself you will have to climb across huge boulders where you’ll be met with a breathtaking view down into New Zealand’s deepest vertical cave at 176m.

Also in the forest you will have the option to turn off and go to Georges Lookout. This is absolutely worth doing. Again there is no barrier so you’ll need to be incredibly cautious when climbing across the rocks however the expansive view you get of the valley is worth it.


Where we stayed: We decided to stay in Pelorus rather than Nelson itself in order to save some money

What we did: Nelson is a really nice town and there is plenty to see and do. First off we walked up to the Centre of New Zealand monument. This involved MUCH more uphill than we expected but the views of the city were great and it felt like a staple thing we had to do while we were here.

We also decided to check out Founders Park which is a heritage town in the city. It was $7 each to enter and absolutely worth the money – in fact we ended up spending about 2.5 hours there. This place was so well maintained and really interesting.

The park includes original and recreated buildings from the 19th century including a firehouse, hospital, grocery store and church. All buildings have original items such as tinned food, toys, medicine etc. There is also a real plane, buses and a train you can get on. There is a great cafe onsite which also contains a brewery if you want to taste some local Nelson beer.

I really couldn’t recommend this place enough to pass a few hours – great value for money!


Where we stayed: We spent the night at the Brown River Reserve Campsite which is a small free site just before Pelorus. There’s rooms for about 12 campers so get there very early. It’s a really nice site although its near the highway so traffic can be noisy in the morning.

What we did: There isn’t really much here other than Pelorus Bridge. We stopped off here and did a short walk down to the swing bridge to see the river. In Summer locals have told me this is a great place to swim however by now it’s pretty chilly and way to cold for a dip!

Be sure to check out the Part Two: Canterbury here next week!

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