Driving from Christchurch to Marlborough: What to See and Do

The road trip part of my New Zealand adventure began in Christchurch. I’d already picked up my super comfy and spacious Mitsubishi Outlander from the Hertz desk at Christchurch airport when I arrived a few days previous. So I hit the road early to make the most of the day driving from Christchurch to Marlborough.

For more on what to see and do in Christchurch you can check out my Christchurch 2 or 3 day itineraryThe Best Christchurch Sightseeing Tours. The Best Day Trips from Christchurch, Things to Do in Christchurch or this post about Spring Time in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.

Our transport through New Zealand, a Mitsubishi Outlander - Driving from Christchurch to Marlborough - The Trusted Traveller

Distance from Christchurch to Marlborough

I decided before leaving home not to plan the driving days too much, leaving me plenty of time to make lots of unexpected stops along the way. I had a full day to make the drive, which driven straight without stopping should only take around four hours, give of take the inevitable road works along the way.

North of Christchurch

Once you’ve left Christchurch behind the road north begins long and straight with stunning mountains, some snow capped, on the horizon. I passed farm after farm full of cattle and sheep, some still with their woolly winter coats and others freshly shawn ready for summer.

First stop for was a short morning walk on the beach at Waikuku. The beach is littered with drift wood, with pieces big and small that have made the journey across the South Pacific Ocean from South America.

Back in the car and it’s not long before I reached the town of Amberley, which is said to have some of the best coffee on the coast. Nor’wester Cafe is on the highway and is housed in a converted cottage with front sun terrace surrounded by fragrant lavender. While I’m not a coffee drinker, I did indulged in a hot chocolate which was divine.

The Nor’wester Cafe in Amberley - Driving from Christchurch to Marlborough - The Trusted Traveller

Gore Bay Detour

I decide to take the 20km loop road detour out to Gore Bay for more beautiful beaches and to see the Cathedral Cliffs. The road is winding and hilly surrounded by more farms and the odd farm house. It’s simply stunning countryside.

The Cathedral Cliffs at Gore Bay - Driving from Christchurch to Marlborough - The Trusted Traveller

The final descent into Gore Bay winds down to sea level on the way passing the Cathedral Cliffs. The lookout point isn’t clearly marked so if you are doing this drive yourself, keep your eyes peeled for the sign. I’ve since been told that the best time of day to view the Cathedral Cliffs is just after lunch when they are bathed in full sun.  Nevertheless they are still impressive in half sun.

The tiny township of Gore Bay is home to mostly holiday homes with very few permanent residents. It is just a stones throw from the road and holiday homes to the beach. I found a sunny picnic table by the water and sat and enjoyed a morning snack and drink before a short walk along the beach.

The loop road brings you back out on the main highway north at Cheviot, a small farming town.

Kaikoura Coast – Highlight of the Drive

From here the highway makes it way back to the coast and the drive into Kaikoura is quite simply breathtaking. There are lots of safe places you can pull over on the side of the road to enjoy the view and take a few photos.

When I arrived in Kaikoura, the first thing I did was to head to Peninsula Lookout. I’ve seen pictures of the view from this lookout, it’s that iconic image of the turquoise water in the foreground and snow capped mountains in the background.

Seeing images previously didn’t quite prepare me for that moment my car pulled into a parking spot. I was so taken aback I may have shed a little tear (ok, maybe a few). I can’t find the words to truly do the view justice. Even my photos don’t quite fully capture the moment and incredible view for me.

After pulling myself together I realised it was lunch time and I was hungry. I’d done a little research about places to eat in Kaikoura which is an area known for its delicious crayfish. So I took the short drive down from the lookout to the World Famous Kaikoura Seafood BBQ.

It’s located in a small caravan on the side of the road that leads to the Fyfe Quay Seal Colony. You pick your fresh Cray from a cooler box and pay based on the weight. I got one whole Crayfish (yes I am a pig, but when in Rome!) for just NZ$40.00 which comes with garlic bread, salad and rice. There are a few tables and chairs to sit and enjoy your meal too. It’s a popular place and I was lucky enough to get my order in and find a seat before another half dozen cars arrived.

When the Cray was brought to the table it looks delicious and beautifully presented. Sticking my fork into the soft flesh I found the meat easily pulling away from the shell. Perfect! The first bite was to die for, sweet and juicy with a slight taste of the ocean further cementing it’s freshness.

I finished demolishing my lunch and continued on the road to the Fyffe Quay Seal Colony. The road between the main town and the seal colony hugs the coast and is lined by a boardwalk which is part of the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway. The section of walkway from the town centre to the Point Kean carpark where you can view the seals is an easy 4.5km walk on mostly flat boardwalk. Because of my limited time I chose to drive rather than walk.

As soon as my car pulls into the carpark at Point Keen I’ve already spotted a few seals lazily hanging around on the rocks. There’s a few other cars with people inquisitively watching the seals but for the most part it is quiet.

The first thing you will notice is the big signs warning you to stay at least 10 metres from the seals and rightly so. This is their personal space, and where they come to breed and raise their pups. It is ok to wander out from the carpark over the rocks so long as you maintain that distance for the protection of the seals and also for yourself as seals, especially the larger males, are unpredictable creatures.

I stayed mostly in the elevated carpark which gave me the perfect spot for viewing the seals lazing about and coming to shore from the the water. One seal waddled his/her way up to the edge of the carpark and enjoyed showing off to the camera for a while before slinking off into the water again. Its a pretty humbling experience enjoying the company of these interesting creatures.

If by chance you choose to spend a little more time in Kaikoura than I did, there are some wonderful tours on offer that allow you to get up close and personal with some of the incredible wildlife in the area. Here are a selection I recommend you check out.

North of Kaikoura

I bid a very sad goodbye to Kaikoura with the intention that I’d be back someday to experience this incredible part of the world in more depth, and headed north.

The highway continues to hug the coast with spectacular views of the ocean and shear cliff faces looming over the road. It’s not long before you reach the next stop, Ohau Stream Walkway and Falls. This spot is famous for its frolicking seal pups.

It’s a short easy walk on a track that runs by the river (keep your eye out for stray pups) and takes you to a simple waterfall where I found about half a dozen seal pups jumping in and out of the water, diving under the waterfall and inquisitively peeking out of the water to check me out.

The seal pups are born usually around November and December and make their way up the Ohau stream to the waterfall pool around mid April.  They enjoy the next six months or so hanging out in the waterfall and stream with their mothers, occasionally making their way up stream with food for them.  Once winter ends and the pups have grown more confident, they make their way to the sea to learn to survive on their own.

Back in the car and continuing along the coast I decide its time for afternoon tea at The Store at Kekerengu. This Kaikoura Coast icon has stunning ocean views and a menu full of local produce. I was there for something sweet and chose a delicious muffin and a hot tea to enjoy on the outdoor terrace in the sun.

Arriving in Marlborough

From there the road starts to head inland so I said farewell for now to the Kaikoura Coast and it was onwards to the Marlborough region. The scenery turns to rolling hills, farms and, as I neared Blenheim, vineyards.

My base for the next three nights was the tiny town of Picton right on the Marlborough Sound. The drive from Blenheim to Picton is stunning with the road winding and cutting through a forested mountain range.

Things to Do in Marlborough

Marlborough is famous for two things, the Marlborough Sounds and Sauvignon Blanc. So it is no surprise that the highlights of my time in Marlborough consisted of a cruise on the sound and a wine tour.

While I have a whole post on the things to do in Marlborough, (check it out here), and a post about the best tours you can take in Marlborough (check it out here), below is a short list of the highlights to get you started.

Where to Stay in Marlborough

Picton is a great place to base yourself when visiting the Marlborough region. It is a waterfront town, smaller in size to nearby Blenheim and gives you great access to the Sounds and vineyards.

The town itself is small, so very walkable in terms of visiting the waterfront from your accommodation and for evening meals at the lovely local restaurants.

Here are three options at different price points to help you decide where to stay when visiting Marlborough.

Budget – The Villa Backpackers

Mid-Range – High Street Living Motel

Luxury – Picton Waterfront Apartments

Over to you!

What would you most like to see and do on the road driving from Christchurch to Marlborough?

Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.

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23 thoughts on “Driving from Christchurch to Marlborough: What to See and Do”

  1. WOW! What a trip! So jealous! The photos just look amazing! This tourism radio is one I must look into. Is it only for NZ? All of these photos have me really really keen to visit NZ again

    • Thanks Rebecca. There are a few products similar to Tourism Radio out there that you can use in other parts of the world. It’s a great addition to a road trip.

  2. Well that makes me homesick! I’ve done the drive from Christchurch to Marlborough a lot over the years and it never gets old! Such a gorgeous part of the country and I always stop in to say hi to the seals haha

      • Hi Jen,

        My wife and I are doing pretty much the exact trip you guys did around the south island. what time of year did you go? we are going for two weeks last week of August and first week of December and can’t wait!

        • Hey Rich. So good the hear you are taking a road trip around the South Island. It is truly amazing. We were there for the first two weeks of October. So the weather will be much the same as when you’ll be there. Have a great time!

  3. how beautiful ! I love road trip and I have the filing that it is a wonderful destination for a road trip ! If everything goes as planned, I think I would be able to go there in 2 years 🙂

  4. On my last road trip around the South Island, I missed out on visiting the Cathedral Cliffs at Gore Bay. To be honest, I didn’t even know they existed and must of driven straight past them. Thank you for sharing your travels Jen, very inspiring 🙂

    • Thanks Annabella. We were using Tourism Radio which told us about the cliffs. I’m not sure they are well signposted unfortunately.

  5. We followed your plan almost exactly today including stopping at the same place in Amberley for coffee. It was a great plan and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We will give you a mention on our blog (once I write it)

  6. Thanks so much for your informative blog, it was so interesting. I am heading this way in early November and am really looking forward to it 🙂


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