Queenstown to Nelson: A West Coast Odyssey
Queenstown to Nelson
Est Driving Time11-19 days
The best way to do so is to rent a motorhome and take your time on the journey. Stop where you wish, make a cup of tea and enjoy landscapes like you have never seen before. Oh, and make sure you've brushed up on NZ road rules before you set off! Now you're ready for an epic journey. #LetsGoMotorhome
Leg 1 Queenstown to Haast
Est Driving Time3 hrs
Discovering Queenstown is like coming across a quintessential snapshot of everything that New Zealand’s South Island stands for. Sheltered between the jagged peaks of the Remarkables and the shores of the serene Lake Wakatipu, it’s the ultimate picture postcard destination. It’s not just about looks though - Queenstown has a wealth of experiences waiting for holidaymakers of all stripes.
There’s a reason they call this town the adventure capital of New Zealand. Not satisfied gazing at the majestic scenery? Perhaps shooting past it may be more to your liking. If that’s the case, Queenstown has plenty of adventures in store for you. For those just itching to throw themselves off something, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to bungy jump sites around Queenstown - but for a real adrenaline fuelled experience, none of them can top the Nevis Bungy. This is the highest bungy jump in the country, coming in at 134 metres. That translates to eight and a half seconds of pure freefall, enough time to look around and feel like you’re soaring through the gorge. Skydiving is also popular as thrillseekers are treated to a picture perfect view while they plummet (and then glide) down toward the beautiful landscape below. NZONE Skydive is your best bet when looking for an adrenaline fuelled sky diving experience in the Queenstown region. If heights have you feeling a bit funny, you can still walk on the wild side when you plunge down rapid filled rivers in an inflatable raft, or hold on white knuckled as a jetboat navigates impossibly tight turns. This is barely scratching the surface of the Queenstown attractions on offer to adrenaline junkies - the best way is just to go there and find out for yourself!
Some small towns can present problems for families, as there’s not a lot for children to see and do, but Queenstown is certainly not one of them. The Kiwi Birdlife Park is the perfect place for kids to get a good look at reclusive kiwi birds in the Park’s specially constructed nocturnal houses. Ask the staff when feeding time is, it’s certainly worth sticking around for. There’s a lot more to the park than just New Zealand’s national bird however. There are dozens of different native species to discover, including the Tuatara - extremely rare reptiles more ancient than the dinosaurs. If your kids need something a bit more active to keep them occupied, try Alpine Aqualand at the Queenstown Events Centre. Sunday is a particularly good day to head to Alpine Aqualand - visit between noon and 4pm, and the kids can enjoy a giant inflatable obstacle course while you relax with a lunchtime BBQ.
If all you want from this leg of the journey is to unwind and socialise in one of the most gorgeous spots on the planet (which sounds like a brilliant idea, incidentally) then Queenstown is more than happy to accommodate you. The restaurants here are world-class - they have to be, with the huge amount of international visitors this town gets - offering a wide selection of cuisine choices for the discerning palate. And when you’re after something that just fills your belly and excites your tastebuds without breaking the bank, Queenstown has that too. For example, Fergburger is known nationwide as one of the best burger joints in the entire country - even if you’re not normally a burger fiend, this is still worth a try. Trust me.
Those anxious to sample Queenstown’s nightlife certainly won’t be disappointed. The ice bars are a particular favourite for many (that’s right, they really are carved from ice) while others prefer the more low key boutique craft beer dens or partying with people from all around the world in the town’s nightclubs.
You could spend years exploring Queenstown and all its secrets, but with an entire road trip ahead of you, there will come a time that you’ll have to move on, no matter how much you want to stay forever. Don’t worry, the South Island has many more amazing locations in store for you.
In fact, just an hour away lies Wanaka - in some ways a mirror image of Queenstown: another quaint town on the shores of a beautiful lake.
With Mt. Aspiring National Park and Treble Cone to the northwest and Cardrona to the south, Wanaka is surrounded by natural wonders. Depending on what time of the year you visit, this can be the ideal hub for those who crave the fresh powder of the ski slopes. Both Treble Cone and Cardrona Alpine Resort, ski fields with shining international reputations, are within a short 35 minute journey, allowing skiers to get there and back.
Right on the doorstep of Mt. Aspiring National Park, Wanaka is a gateway to sparkling skifields, majestic peaks and lush forests. This small New Zealand town has many points of interest - if you have the time, pull over and get a taste for what Wanaka has to offer. Wanaka skiing is extremely popular - Cardrona Alpine Resort and Treble Cone are both within a 35 minute drive, and both of them have a stellar reputation among local and international skiers.
For an utterly unique Wanaka experience, take a visit to Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. Children and adults alike will find the fascinating blend of visual illusions, logic puzzles and brain teasers intriguing and enlightening - it doesn’t matter what age you are, there will be more than one moment when you simply won’t be able to believe your eyes.
One cultural institution in Wanaka that you won’t want to leave without experiencing is the Cinema Paradiso. Even if there are no films on that you’re excited about, you should still go. What’s so special about this movie theatre? The chance to watch a movie while sitting in an antique car, for a start. Or a comfy lazy boy. Or a couch. Who needs orderly rows of identical seating when you can take your pick from a far more eclectic (and comfortable) bunch? And here’s the kicker: halfway through the feature, they have an interval where they sell ice cream and freshly baked cookies!
If you’ve got something a little less sedentary in mind for your time in Wanaka, you certainly won’t be short of options. Opportunities for kite surfing, mountain biking, hiking and the aforementioned skiing are plentiful, all within a short distance from Wanaka. And while Wanaka isn’t a scheduled stop on this itinerary, just remember: you’re travelling in a motorhome - you have the flexibility to alter your plans to get the best possible experience.
Leaving Wanaka, you’ll drive along the shores of both Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea before heading straight through the heart of Mt. Aspiring National Park. You won’t even have to look carefully to catch all the amazing photo ops along the way - the biggest challenge will be holding yourself back from stopping for a scenic shot after every bend in the road. Providing you can prevent yourself from doing this, you should make good time to your last destination of the day, just beyond the far side of the National Park - Haast.
Leg 2 Haast to Franz Josef Glacier
Est Driving Time2 hrs
While adventure activities and stunning scenery are Queenstown’s strong suit, Haast glories in its wildlife and untouched natural environment. The Gates of Haast, the wider area around the township, has been classified as a World Heritage area by UNESCO, and no wonder: aside from all the outdoor activities, the Gates of Haast is one of the best places in the country to see a few of New Zealand’s most rarely encountered creatures. Take a guided tour starting from Haast to see little blue penguins, fur seals, Hector’s dolphins, and maybe even the rarest penguin in the world: the Fiordland crested penguin.
However the only way to really get a handle on the majesty of the west coast landscape is to take a scenic flight high above the region. Greenstone Helicopters take those hunting for the ultimate scenic experience over several different locations, from Franz Josef and Fox glaciers to Milford Sound and Mt. Cook.
The road from Haast
Once you start driving north from Haast, your west coast journey will have begun in earnest. This truly is stunning country, with the Southern Alps in view to your right and ocean stretching out to your left. This is recognised worldwide as one of most beautiful coastlines on Earth, so even between destinations you’ll be treated to unparalleled views. Look out for Knight’s Point Lookout, just 20 minutes from Haast. Taking a quick break to admire the sights and sea breezes before heading away from the coast for a little while.
You’ll soon come across the hidden gem of Lake Moeraki. If you’re taking the trip between July and November you won’t want to pass this by, this is your best chance to see the vanishingly rare Fiordland Crested Penguin. If you can time your stop for late afternoon or early morning, that’s the optimal time to see these precious birds.
You won’t have far to go from Lake Moeraki before you come across the first of two giant icefields that you’ll see on your journey: Fox Glacier. Between Fox and Franz Josef, most people will only visit one - they’re not exactly the same, but they do offer pretty similar experiences. Fox Glacier doesn’t have as challenging a gradient as Franz Josef, and it’s slightly longer, but Franz Josef… well, Franz Josef has its own charms.
Leg 3 Franz Josef Glacier to Hokitika
Est Driving Time2 hrs
You’ve finally come to what’s sure to be one of the highlights of your trip - the imposing natural wonder that is the Franz Josef Glacier. The nearest settlement, the tiny village of Franz Josef, only has three hundred permanent residents but don’t worry: Franz Josef is well equipped to accommodate motorhoming visitors, offering a choice of two high quality holiday parks: the traditionally kiwi Franz Josef TOP 10 Holiday Park and the Rainforest Holiday Park, surrounded by lush native bush.
Accommodation aside, there are a few different ways to get up close and personal with Franz Josef Glacier itself. While you can walk up the valley to the glacier, you won’t be allowed to climb up onto the face of the glacier, as the unstable surface makes it much too hazardous to navigate. The best way to walk on the ice of Franz Josef is to join a guided tour and take a helicopter ride up on to the glacier. The tour will allow you not only to walk along glacier itself but also explore the deep blue twistings of the glacier’s otherworldly ice caves. When you’ve seen all you can of Franz Josef’s frozen wonders, you can round off the experience with a relaxing soak in the local hot pools, encompassed by native rainforest.
To get the ultimate scenic experience, you can opt for an extended heliflight that passes over the glaciers as opposed to just hopping up on to one of them. If you’re willing to pay a little more for a true scenic treat, this is perfect for you.
While the caves and icy expanses of Franz Josef, New Zealand will undoubtedly stay in your memory for many years to come, you’ll soon have to drive on - putting the glacier behind you and making the 2 hour trip to Hokitika, an old gold rush town on the west coast.
Leg 4 Hokitika to Westport
Est Driving Time2 hrs
*If you're beginning your trip in Greymouth, find your nearest motorhome rental depot here.
Founded by gold miners who came hoping to strike it rich in New Zealand’s gold rush of the 1860’s, Hokitika became a hub for the west coast gold industry. Since that time, as its original industries of gold, greenstone and coal mining have receded, the town has adapted to provide a host of ecotourism options and is a well known centre for the art of greenstone carving. Visitors will have no difficulty finding Hokitika campervan sites: the Hokitika Holiday Park offers an excellent little campground with decent facilities for campervan travellers.
There’s one particular event that Hokitika is famous for nationwide, and if you plan to head this way around March this is one festival you really don’t want to miss. The town’s Wildfoods Festival is all about food sourced straight from nature, whether that means local seafood pulled from the west coast waves or venison and wild boar sourced in the New Zealand bush. The Wildfoods Festival also has a reputation of serving up intriguingly strange dishes, from native huhu grubs to more exotic morsels like locusts and scorpions. It might sound bizarre but many who’ve reserved judgement have found new favourite dishes at this one-of-a-kind fest. But if you’re more comfortable looking at bugs than munching on them, Glowworm Dell (just at the northern border of the town, off the main road) will make for a fun nighttime excursion. This luminescent attraction is free to view and not hard to get to - just bring a flashlight to make the short walk down to the dell a little easier.
Only half an hour up the road is Greymouth, the largest town in the West Coast region. If you’ve just set out from Hokitika it’s unlikely that you’ll be wanting to stop here for long, but for those who want to stay a little while and get a taste of what Greymouth has to offer, there are one or two things you might like discover. Monteith’s is one of New Zealand’s most well known breweries and Greymouth is where it got its start as a small family owned operation. While a lot of the brewing is now done elsewhere, the refurbished original brewery is still there and offers tours with generous samples of Monteith’s beers. If a bit of fresh air is all you’re after, a riverside walk along Mawhera Quay is perfect - whether you just take a 10 minute jaunt or continue down toward the breakwater and Blaketown Beach, you’re sure to return refreshed and ready for the next leg of your journey.
40 minutes up State Highway 6 from Greymouth is the tiny community of Punakaiki. It’s the type of place that you’d usually pass right by, blink and you’d miss it. But make sure you keep an eye out for the town, because just south of the village lies one of New Zealand’s most well-loved tourist attractions. Pancake Rocks are a collection of heavily eroded coastal limestone formations where the sea bursts through holes in the rock to shoot spectacularly skyward at high tide. The rocks get their name from the very distinct layering effect of the limestone. There are several different walkways, some of them wheelchair accessible, that allow you to get close to the rocks - just be prepared to get wet if you visit at high tide!
Less than an hour northward from Punakaiki is your final stop of the day - exchange State Highway 6 for SH 67 and follow the signs to Westport.
Leg 5 Westport to Nelson
Est Driving Time3 hrs
*If you're beginning your trip in this area, find motorhome rental from Greymouth, Blenheim or Nelson.
Westport has a similar backstory to Hokitika (and many other West Coast towns) in that it started out as a gold prospecting settlement before shifting its focus to coal mining. These days though, the town is a centre for adventure activities and ecotourism.
Caving is one of Westport’s big tourist attractions, with options ranging from expedition style adventuring, to the much more gentle experience of floating through glowworm lit caves and past forests of stalagmites and stalactites. If going subterranean doesn’t appeal, head 15 minutes west of the town to experience the Cape Foulwind Walkway. Although Captain James Cook obviously had an issue with the place when he named it, it’s hard to see why. The walkway provides the opportunity for an ambling hour and a half walk, return trip, crossing the rolling hills between Lighthouse Road and Tauranga Bay. Toward the southern end of the walk you’ll see a fur seal colony, up to 200 strong, below the coastal path.
Getting back on SH 6 toward Nelson, you’ll find the town of Murchison less an hour and a half down the road. Thrillseekers would do well to make a pit stop here: the activities available around the Buller Gorge Swingbridge alone would be worth your time. The Comet Line is a 160 metre long zip line that shoots you across the Buller River at high speeds - there’s even a tandem option which goes even faster! But for those who really want to take the training wheels off there’s the ‘Supaman’ ride which launches you into the air for a seatless, adrenaline spiking ride. The Buller Canyon Jet is also world renowned for its thrills. Climb aboard a Chevy V8 powered jetboat and feel the rush as you shoot down the canyons of the Buller River at speeds of up to 85 kph. It’s a decent length experience to - 40 minutes of intense excitement!
When you’ve had your fill of adventure, hit the road one last time to cover the final hour and 45 minutes to Nelson.
There are countless places to enjoy a glorious holiday in New Zealand, but Nelson is without question among the very best of them. It’s one of the sunniest cities in the nation, surrounded by a multitude of vineyards and wineries, and it sits on the doorstep of some of the world’s most beautiful hiking trails and beaches.
To get a real idea of the natural riches that the Nelson region has to offer, put a day pack together and set out along a stretch of the Abel Tasman Coast Track. While the whole track is 51 kilometres of gorgeous coastline complemented by the native bush of Abel Tasman National Park, you don’t have to do the whole thing in one go. In fact, it’s really easy to do much shorter pieces of track, thanks to pick up and drop off services offered by local water taxi companies. If you have the time to walk the entire route though, it’s highly recommended. The full journey will take between 3 and 5 days, each one of them introducing you to a new secluded beach or spectacular coastal vista. Whether you opt for the full experience or just take a taster, any time spent on the Abel Tasman Coast Track will be time you’ll never want to forget.
For those who firmly believe that exertion is something to be avoided at all cost while on holiday, Nelson has just thing for you. If the idea of being driven around some of the region’s most prestigious wineries, tasting world-class vintages in a relaxed, casual setting while winemakers and tour guides impart fascinating tidbits of information doesn’t appeal… well, I don’t know what will. Make sure your tour includes Seifried Estate Winery - their ‘Sweet Agnes’ riesling, winner of numerous international gold medals, is a sweet treat unlike any you’ve ever tried.
And if it’s beaches you want, there’s a real hidden treasure in store for you: Golden Bay is a favourite holiday spot for Nelson locals, and even the shortest of visits will soon reveal why that is. The bay lives up to its name with long stretches of clean golden sand and weather that’s even better than Nelson’s. It’s a little under two hours to the Golden Bay area from Nelson, but every minute is worth it. You can also combine your side trip to Golden Bay with an Abel Tasman walk, as it borders the northern entrance of the track!
While this itinerary runs from south to north, it’s also possible to book a Nelson campervan hire and start here. This is an especially good option if you’re beginning your New Zealand visit in the North Island. Whichever way to choose to take it, the journey between Queenstown and Nelson is without a doubt one of the most spectacular road trip routes in the entire world.
- Snow chains (for the road between Queenstown and Wanaka in winter)
- Ski gear
- Warm waterproof outer layer
- Hiking boots
- Bathing suit
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