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The East Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is often overlooked in favour of the more dramatic West Coast. So we were surprised by how much we loved our East Coast road trip.
The beaches and coastal scenery are spectacular, and it’s the best part of New Zealand to spot wildlife.
We swam with dolphins, saw hundreds of seals, strolled past sea lions, watched a little blue penguin parade, and got up close to massive albatrosses and their fluffy chicks. If you get lucky, you can even see whales.
In this post I share our favourite spots on a South Island East Coast road trip. You’ll find a map at the end—it’s hard to get lost as the route follows State Highway 1 most of the way with a few detours.
- 1) Picton and the Marlborough Sounds
- 2) Marlborough Wine Region
- 3) Ohau Point Seal Colony
- 4) Kaikōura
- 5) Christchurch
- 6) Lyttelton on the Banks Peninsula
- 7) Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula
- 8) Oamaru
- 9) Moeraki Boulders Beach
- 10) Dunedin
- 11) Otago Peninsula
- 12) The Catlins
- Continuing Your South Island Itinerary
- Map of East Coast South Island New Zealand
- More New Zealand Posts
1) Picton and the Marlborough Sounds
Picton is the obvious starting point for a road trip on the South Island’s East Coast. This is where the ferry from Wellington on the North Island arrives, and there’s also an airport with flights from Wellington.
Most importantly, it’s the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds, one of my absolute favourite places in New Zealand.
It’s just spectacular with 1500km of winding coastline, hundreds of secluded bays, and bush-clad hills leading to clear aqua water.
You can see dolphins, stingrays, and whales in the water and many native birds on land including the cheeky weka.
On our first visit we spent five days hiking the Queen Charlotte Track, a 72km trail through the Sounds—it’s one of the best things to do in the South Island.
This is one of the most luxurious multi-day tramps in New Zealand as you can stay in comfortable lodges and have your bags transported by water taxi every day. You can also camp if you are on a budget.
If you don’t want to do the full hike, you can take a water taxi from Picton for a day hike. Another less strenuous day trip is the Pelorus Mail Boat from Havelock—cruise to remote bays on the mail run.
The Marlborough Sounds are also a great place to relax and get away from it all. On two subsequent trips we’ve rented an off-the-grid house in a remote bay for a week swimming, paddleboarding, and enjoying the views.
Where to Stay: Picton is the most convenient base, but it’s worth a few hours’ drive on the winding roads to get to a secluded bay. We’ve stayed at St Omer’s Hideout twice. This remote 3-bedroom house above Kenepuru Sound has incredible views and it’s a 10-minute walk to the picturesque St Omer Bay.
Te Mahia Bay Resort is another good option—we’ve stopped here for a drink on their beautiful deck a few times. It’s only an hour’s drive from Picton.
2) Marlborough Wine Region
Just a 30-minute drive from Picton is New Zealand’s largest wine region, world-famous for its refreshing sauvignon blanc.
Although Blenheim is the biggest town here, the village of Renwick is a better base as it’s closer to more wineries and is easy to explore by bike. There are 15 cellar doors within a 5km radius of Renwick.
Some of our favourite cellar doors include Bladen, Forrest, and No 1 Family Estate.
3) Ohau Point Seal Colony
It’s a beautiful drive south from Marlborough through vineyards until you hit the Pacific Ocean and drive between the turquoise sea and rugged mountains.
The best stop between Marlborough and Kaikōura is the Ohau Point Seal Colony. We’ve seen seals in many places in New Zealand, but this is the best—it’s right next to the road so there’s zero effort and there are hundreds of fur seals.
When we visited in late summer, there were lots of active pups gambolling on the rocks, frolicking in rock pools, play fighting, and grunting.
The coastal village of Kaikōura has a scenic location between the mountains and sea and is one of the best wildlife destinations in New Zealand. Summer is best for enjoying the beach, but it’s most impressive when the mountains are snow-capped in winter.
You can take tours by boat or helicopter to spot whales, swim with dolphins, or kayak with seals. You can also see seals for free on the Kaikōura Peninsula Walkway—the whole trail is 11.7km but you can find seals just a five minute walk from the car park.
We did a Dolphin Encounter tour to swim with wild dolphins. Although the group was bigger than I would have liked (pre borders closing), it was a remarkable experience being in the water surrounded by a huge pod of dusky and common dolphins.
We saw hundreds of them and they were so playful, jumping out of the water and doing 360º flips.
We went into the water with them four or five times, and when we managed to catch one of the dolphin’s attention (by diving, splashing, and even singing), they would circle around with us.
On the way back we even saw orcas and seals swimming in the sea.
2.5 hours south of Kaikōura is Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, known for its English heritage. If you have limited time, you might want to skip it and focus on the East Coast’s natural attractions, but we enjoyed the city more than we expected.
We spent a week outside the city on the beautiful Banks Peninsula and visited Christchurch on a couple of day trips.
In Christchurch don’t miss:
- Quake City – Interesting displays and moving stories of those who were affected by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes that devastated the city (80% of the city centre buildings were lost).
- Antigua Boat Sheds – Stripy boat sheds dating back to 1882 where you can go punting on the Avon River.
- Christchurch Botanic Gardens – Large beautiful gardens founded in 1863 with a wide variety of displays from English rose gardens to New Zealand ferns.
- New Regent Street – Pretty pedestrian street with Spanish Mission style shopfronts in pastel colours dating back to the 1930s.
6) Lyttelton on the Banks Peninsula
Lyttelton is a port town on the Banks Peninsula 20 minutes outside Christchurch (via a tunnel) and is a quieter, more scenic base to explore the area.
We enjoyed the creative vibe and plentiful vegan options in the pretty town that tumbles down a hillside to the aqua bay. We were surprised by how large the industrial port is but soon embraced watching the international cargo ships arriving.
In Lyttelton don’t miss:
- Lyttelton Farmers Market – On Saturday mornings you’ll find plenty of fresh produce and hot food stalls.
- Head to Head Coastal Path – For views of the turquoise bay and surrounding hills, follow the coastal walkway from Pony Point to Naval Point (and beyond into the centre of Lyttelton). It took us about an hour and then we had brunch before the return walk.
- Godley Head – Another great walk for spectacular views of the harbour and open ocean as well as interesting World War II coastal defence battery sites. We did a 45 minute loop along the cliff to the main sites or there’s a 9.3km loop around the peninsula.
- Christchurch Gondola – It’s touristy and expensive ($30) but the 360º views from the top of the Port Hills are stunning with the sprawling city, flat plains, and distant Southern Alps on one side and the beautiful Lyttelton Harbour on the other.
- Quail Island – High winds prevented us from making it here, but we planned to kayak to this island in the harbour. You can also take a ferry.
7) Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula
On the other side of the Banks Peninsula is Akaroa, the only French settlement in New Zealand. It’s a beautiful, winding drive from Lyttelton that takes 1 hour 20 minutes. We visited on a day trip but staying in one of the cute B&Bs is tempting.
The village is one of the prettiest in the country and the coastal scenery is spectacular. Akaroa Harbour is the flooded crater of an extinct volcano.
In Akaroa don’t miss:
- Strolling along the charming waterfront.
- Swimming with Hector Dolphins – These rare dolphins are the smallest in the world. We took a boat tour with Black Cat Cruises and although we weren’t able to swim, we did see some of these adorable dolphins.
- Nīkau Palm Gully Walk – A beautiful, unique and quiet hike (we didn’t see anyone else). It’s on private land from the Onuku Farm Hostel so you must get their permission. At first it follows the cliff edge with stunning harbour views and then you scramble down rocks to a gully of Nikau palm trees overlooking a small rocky bay. The 11km walk took us 3 hours.
The 3.5 hour drive from Lyttelton and Christchurch to Oamaru is probably the dullest on this itinerary, but we liked Oamaru more than we expected and wished we’d planned on an overnight stay.
On our quick stop we had lunch and a beer tasting at lively Scotts Brewing Co then wandered down Harbour Street in the Victorian Precinct.
It’s not like anywhere we’ve seen in New Zealand with grand limestone buildings from the 19th century and shops selling vintage clothes and antiques.
Steampunk HQ ($10 entry) is a unique museum housed in the Grain Elevator building from the 1880s. The quirky displays include bizarre contraptions from old machinery, light displays, and an old steam train.
If you stay overnight in Oamaru, you can also see yellow-eyed and blue penguins on nearby beaches.
Rather than continuing on Highway 1 south, we took the more scenic coast road via Kakanui—it’s not much of a detour (you’ll end up back on the 1) and is a beautiful drive.
9) Moeraki Boulders Beach
Image by Simon from Pixabay
The next essential stop on the East Coast between Christchurch and Dunedin is Moeraki Boulders Beach, which is scattered with large boulders, each spherical stone up to two metres high.
It’s best to visit at low tide. When we visited at high tide we wouldn’t have been able to visit the boulders without getting our feet wet, so we enjoyed the view from the terrace of the Moeraki Boulders Cafe.
South of Moeraki there are a few worthwhile stops just off the highway that we were too tired for. At Katiki Lighthouse you can see seals, and if you are lucky, rare yellow eyed penguins. Shag Point is another rugged, scenic spot to see seals and colonies of shags.
Dunedin is the second most populous city on the South Island and is known for its Scottish heritage, university students, and nearby wildlife.
While most people stay in the city and visit the Otago Peninsula on a day trip, we did things the other way round and preferred having a quieter base out of town.
We didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city, but the city centre has some beautiful historic buildings including its iconic Railway Station (only used for tourist train trips now). We did find the comparison with Edinburgh a little overstated, though.
I highly recommend driving 15 minutes out of the centre to Tunnel Beach. A 20-minute walk takes you down a steep hill with views of rugged coastline, a rock sea arch, and the beach backed by sea-carved sandstone cliffs.
At the end of the track there’s a short tunnel that was hand carved into the rock in the 1870s—carefully walk down the steep, wet steps and you’ll emerge on the small but stunning beach.
There are caves to explore and boulders to clamber on, but the rough aqua waves aren’t suitable for swimming (although we did see a seal body surfing!).
The beach is best visited within two hours either side of low tide. Wear shoes with decent grip for the steep path and steps and allow around one hour for the 2km return walk.
11) Otago Peninsula
The Otago Peninsula quickly became one of my favourite parts of New Zealand. I love the wild sandy beaches, stunning coastal walks, and easy access to wildlife.
On the Otago Peninsula don’t miss:
- Allans Beach – This long wild beach feels far away from it all and is one of the best places to see sea lions lolling on the beach.
- Royal Albatross Centre – At the end of the peninsula is the only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross in the world. To get a proper look from the observatory, book an albatross viewing tour. It was absolutely fascinating learning more about these majestic birds, watching them fly, and seeing the fluffy chicks in their nests.
- Little Blue Penguin Tour – We did a combo albatross/penguin tour and at dusk watched about 30 little blue penguins come ashore and scurry up to their burrows in the sandy cliffs. They are adorable!
- Sandymount Track – A short and spectacular hike on the clifftops—it felt like the end of the world. The 2.5km loop took us 45 minutes.
- Sandfly Bay – Another wild white sand beach with the chance to see sea lions and yellow eyed penguins (although we didn’t). It’s a 500 metre walk down some slippery sand dunes.
- Larnach Castle – Built in 1871 by a local entrepreneur and politician, this is a small castle by British standards (it’s more of a grand house), but it’s unusual in New Zealand. You can explore the lovingly restored rooms, climb the tower for sweeping views, stroll the extensive gardens, and have a drink or high tea in the Ballroom Cafe. You can also stay at Larnach Lodge here, which I’m tempted to do next time.
12) The Catlins
We didn’t have time to continue down the South Island’s East Coast to The Catlins, but it’s on our list for next time.
You’ll find waterfalls, rainforest, beaches, lighthouses, sea caves, wildlife, and the South Island’s southernmost point, Slope Point.
Continuing Your South Island Itinerary
To complete the loop, head up the West Coast (Fox Glacier and Punakaiki are good stops) to Abel Tasman National Park and Nelson at the top of the South. From there it’s only two hours back to the ferry at Picton.
Our detailed post on the best South Island activities has lots more ideas.
Map of East Coast South Island New Zealand
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- 22 Best Things to Do in Nelson
- The Ultimate Guide to Abel Tasman National Park
- A Detailed Guide to Walking the Queen Charlotte Track
- 10 Tips for Visiting the Marlborough Wineries
- The Best New Zealand North Island Itinerary
- 22 Fun Things to Do in Wellington
- 15 Best Things to Do in New Plymouth and Taranaki
- Visiting the Magical Hobbiton Movie Set in The Shire
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