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Picton To Christchurch: Best Car, Train and Bus Options 2024

If you’re planning to explore the South Island of New Zealand and fancy a combination of stunning scenery, fantastic wine and animal encounters, then the journey from Picton to Christchurch is a great choice.

This route is more than just a way to get from A to B; it’s a journey filled with beautiful landscapes and loads of opportunities for detours to natural wonders. Whether you’re behind the wheel, on a train, or taking the bus, this route offers something for everyone.

In this ultimate guide, I’ll break down everything you need to know to make this trip a memorable one. From the freedom of driving yourself to the comfort of taking the train, and even bus options for those who prefer to leave the driving to someone else, I’ve got you covered. So buckle up, because we’re about to dive into the ins and outs of travelling from Picton to Christchurch!

Section 1: Overview of the Picton to Christchurch Route

Before you rev up the engine or book that train ticket, let’s get the lay of the land. The route from Picton to Christchurch is approximately 208 miles (337km) long. However, there are plenty of places for you to stop, detour, and explore on the way for photos, wine tasting and even whale watching!

Estimated Travel Time by Car

The journey by car is the most flexible option, allowing you to stop whenever you want. The distance is manageable in a single day, but you could easily stretch it out over a couple of days to make the most of the sights along the way.

If you’re going non-stop, you’re looking at a travel time of about 4-5 hours. However, we recommend planning for at least 6-8 hours to allow for breaks and sightseeing or add an overnight stop if you want to go whale watching in Kaikoura.

General Road Conditions

The road conditions are generally good, with the majority of the route on the well-maintained State Highway 1. However, it’s worth noting that weather conditions can change rapidly, especially during the winter months.

Always check the weather forecast and road conditions before setting out. New Zealand’s smaller roads can be winding and narrow in places, so if you’re not used to driving in these conditions, take it easy and allow extra time.

New Zealand drives on the left-hand side of the road, so if you’re coming from a country where driving is on the right, this might take some getting used to. Speed limits are strictly enforced. Keep an eye out for signs and adjust your speed accordingly.

Section 2: Driving from Picton to Christchurch

Driving from Picton to Christchurch offers the ultimate freedom to explore the South Island at your own pace. With a car, you can take detours, linger at your favourite spots, and discover hidden gems that you might otherwise miss. Let’s dive into how to make the most of this road trip.

Section 2.1: Preparing for the Drive

Before you hit the road, make sure you’re well-prepared. There are several car hire options available in Picton, ranging from budget to luxury. Ensure you have all the necessary documents, like a valid driver’s license and insurance. Also, consider downloading a few navigation apps to keep you on track.

Tip: Look into hiring a car from Wellington on the North Island and then taking the Interislander Ferry to Picton. It can be a lot cheaper than hiring in Picton, and there are frequent crossings. From personal experience, I can tell you ferry crossing can be bumpy so consider your options if you tend to suffer from motion sickness and can’t manage a few hours on the ferry. 

Section 2.2: The Route

Picton Habour with boats in the water, a town on the waterfront and hills behind the town

Picton

Situated at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, Picton offers a blend of natural beauty and local culture that sets the tone for your South Island adventure. 

If you do choose to take the ferry to Picton then you’ll have seen a good amount of Queen Charlotte Sound already. If you’ve flown in from Wellington or arrived another way, then taking a boat or kayak tour of the Sound is a great way to start your exploration of the South Island.

The marina is a focal point offering various water-based activities like kayaking and fishing. If you’re a fan of hiking, the nearby Queen Charlotte Track provides stunning views and a good dose of fresh air. The full track takes several days to complete but you can travel by car or water taxi from Picton to do shorter sections for a few hours. 

For history buffs, especially those with an interest in maritime history, the Edwin Fox Ship and Visitor Centre is a great choice. The ship is the only surviving vessel that transported convicts to Australia and is also the oldest merchant ship in the world.   

Don’t miss out on the local cafes where you can enjoy fresh seafood and local produce. Whether you’re passing through or staying for a couple of days, Picton is the perfect starting point for your journey through the South Island.

Shakespeare Bay/Kaipupu Sanctuary

Kaipupu Sanctuary is a predator-free haven for native plants and animals. Although it is part of the South Island mainland, a predator fence has been created for the safety of endangered animals. This ‘mainland island’ can only be accessed by water taxi.

It is free to visit but donations are encouraged to help continue the conservation work. Some of the species protected in the sanctuary include Kererū (New Zealand Wood Pigeon), Tūī, Karearea (New Zealand Falcon), Weta and glow worms.

There is a walking track to explore so you can see the animal and plant life without the risk of damaging any of the protected species.

Pollard Park Rose Garden with pink and yellow roses in flower beds and trees behind them.
Pollard Park Rose Garden

Blenheim

Blenheim, often overshadowed by its reputation as a wine hub, has a lot to offer. One of the highlights is Pollard Park, a beautifully landscaped area perfect for a leisurely stroll or a picnic. The park features a range of exotic and native plants, a rose garden, scenic pond, and even a small golf course. Another option is the river walk along the banks of Taylor River which runs through the town.

For history enthusiasts, the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a must-visit. This museum offers an immersive experience into the world of aviation, with a special focus on World War I and II aircraft and memorabilia. For the serious plane enthusiast you can even experience a flight on one of their historic planes, however, these joy flights are quite expensive.

If you’re interested in art, the Marlborough Art Gallery showcases contemporary art from local and national artists, offering a cultural touch to your visit.

Rows of vines at sunset in Marlborough New Zealand with mountains behind.

Marlborough Wineries

Marlborough isn’t just another region in New Zealand; it’s practically synonymous with world-class wine, particularly Sauvignon Blanc. If you are buying New Zealand wine in other parts of the world, chances are it’ll be from Marlborough.

Located at the northeastern tip of the South Island, Marlborough boasts an ideal climate for viticulture—long sunny days, cool nights, and well-drained soil create the perfect conditions for grape growing.

The region is home to over 150 wineries, each offering a unique experience for visitors. From large, internationally recognised brands such as Villa Maria and Brancott Estate to smaller, family-owned vineyards such as Wairau River, the choices are abundant.

Tasting rooms and cellar doors are generally open to the public, offering guided tours that often include a walk through the vineyards, a behind-the-scenes look at the winemaking process, and of course, tastings of their finest vintages.

But it’s not just about Sauvignon Blanc; Marlborough also produces excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling among others. The wineries often feature on-site restaurants where you can pair your wine with local produce for a gastronomic experience.

Whether you’re a casual wine drinker or a connoisseur, Marlborough’s wineries offer an immersive experience that goes beyond the bottle, making it a must-visit for any wine enthusiast.

If you don’t have a designated driver, then I recommend booking a wine-tasting tour from Blenheim, to make the most of the local wines without worrying about your consumption. You can find half-day and full-day wine tours. There is even a self-guided bike tour which can pick you up from your hotel and provide bikes, helmets and a winery map.

Book a full-day wine tour or a self-guided bike tour here.

Spherical boulders with waves crashing on to the beach behind them at Ward Beach in New Zealand's South Island

Ward Beach

Ward Beach, located south of Blenheim along the coastal route to Kaikoura, offers a unique and tranquil experience away from the tourist crowds. This rugged coastline is not your typical sandy beach; instead, it features a mix of pebbles and rock formations, making it an intriguing place for exploration.

Although Moeraki, further down the east coast towards Dunedin, is particularly famous for its spherical boulders, Ward Beach also has a number of these unusual rocks.

One of the standout features of Ward Beach is its geological significance. The area is known for its fossils, and if you’re keen on a bit of amateur palaeontology, you might even find a fossilised leaf or shell embedded in the rocks.

The beach is also a popular spot for fishing, with locals often casting lines in hopes of a good catch. The backdrop of cliffs and the open ocean make it a fantastic place for photography, especially during sunrise or sunset when the light plays on the water and rocks.

Whether you’re interested in geology, fishing, photography, or simply soaking in the natural beauty, Ward Beach offers a peaceful and unique setting worth a visit.

Kekerengu

Kekerengu is a small coastal settlement located along State Highway 1, between Blenheim and Kaikoura. Though it may be small in size, it packs a punch when it comes to natural beauty and outdoor activities.

The area is known for its stunning coastline, where the mountains meet the sea, offering breathtaking views that are a photographer’s dream. The Kekerengu River, which flows into the ocean, provides opportunities for fishing and kayaking, making it a hit among outdoor enthusiasts.

A new cycling and walking route (the Whale Trail) is currently being developed between Picton and Kaikoura, and Kekerengu will be a key stopping point, just over halfway along the route from Picton.

One of the highlights of Kekerengu is the Kekerengu Store, a local establishment that serves as a café, restaurant, and general store. It also has its own campsite. It’s a popular stop for travellers looking to refuel and enjoy some local produce. The outdoor seating offers fantastic views of the ocean, making it a perfect spot to relax and take in the scenery.

Seals lying on rocks by the ocean at Ohau Point, with waves crashing on to rocks behind them.

Ohau Point

Ohau Point, situated north of Kaikoura, is a must-visit for anyone interested in marine life and stunning coastal views. This location is most famous for its seal colony, making it one of the best spots on the South Island to observe New Zealand fur seals in their natural habitat. The viewing platforms offer excellent opportunities for photography and observation without disturbing the wildlife.

But it’s not just about the seals; the area is also renowned for its dramatic coastal cliffs and the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean that stretch as far as the eye can see. It’s a fantastic place for a scenic stop, where you can breathe in the salty air and feel the ocean breeze on your face.

Whether you’re an animal lover, a photography enthusiast, or someone who simply appreciates natural beauty, Ohau Point is a fantastic stopping point along your journey.

Lavender field with bright purple flowers and green stalks

Lavendyl

Located near Kaikoura, Lavendyl Lavender Farm is another popular stop along the east coast of the South Island. As you step into the farm, you’re greeted by rows of lavender plants stretching across the landscape, their purple hues contrasting beautifully with the green backdrop.

Lavender fields always make for great photos, so make sure to stop here especially if you are looking for the perfect Instagram shots. You can even pre-order a picnic lunch from their onsite cafe to take with you into the fields.

The farm offers guided tours where you can learn about the cultivation and uses of lavender, from essential oils to culinary delights. Don’t miss the on-site shop, where you can purchase a range of lavender-based products, including soaps, lotions, and even lavender honey.

Whether you’re interested in gardening, looking for some unique souvenirs, or simply want to enjoy a peaceful afternoon, Lavendyl Lavender Farm offers a charming and aromatic experience that’s well worth a visit.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura, located on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, is a haven for nature lovers and adventure seekers. Known for its dramatic landscapes where the mountains meet the sea, this coastal town offers a range of activities that make it a standout destination.

One of the major attractions is whale and dolphin watching; Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where you can reliably spot giant sperm whales, along with dolphins, seals, and various bird species.

Although there are several places you can go whale watching in New Zealand, Kaikoura is the most well-known destination.

But it’s not just about marine life. The Kaikoura Ranges provide a stunning backdrop and offer excellent hiking opportunities. Tracks like the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway offer panoramic views of the ocean and the surrounding mountains, making it a hiker’s paradise.

The town itself has a laid-back atmosphere with a range of cafes and restaurants, many of which specialize in local seafood. Crayfish is a local delicacy, and trying it here is a must. Whether you’re keen on wildlife, outdoor activities, or simply soaking in the natural beauty, you can’t travel down the east coast towards Christchurch without stopping in Kaikoura.

Gore Bay

Gore Bay, located near Cheviot in the Canterbury region, is a hidden gem that offers a peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle. It’s a short detour off of State Highway 1 from the town of Cheviot

Known for its long stretch of sandy beach, it’s a fantastic spot for swimming, surfing, and beachcombing. The bay is framed by striking limestone cliffs, adding a dramatic touch to the scenic landscape. These cliffs are also home to unique geological formations, making it a point of interest for geology enthusiasts.

For those looking to stretch their legs, there’s a walking track that offers panoramic views of the bay and the surrounding area. Whether you’re keen on water activities, hiking, or simply soaking up the natural beauty, Gore Bay provides a serene and picturesque setting that’s worth a visit.

Hanmer Springs – a little detour

Hanmer Springs is best known for its thermal pools and stunning alpine scenery. This resort town offers a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure, making it a popular getaway for both locals and tourists.

The thermal pools are the star attraction, providing a soothing experience as you soak in mineral-rich waters surrounded by native forests and mountain views. There are also kid-friendly pools with water slides.

But it’s not just about relaxing in warm water; Hanmer Springs also offers a range of outdoor activities including rafting and bungy jumping.

The Conical Hill Walk is a local favourite, offering panoramic views of the surrounding area from its summit. The trail is a bit steep in places and also gets very muddy if it has been raining, so make sure you have appropriate footwear.

Whether you’re looking to unwind in thermal waters, get your adrenaline pumping, or simply enjoy the natural beauty, Hanmer Springs offers a diverse range of experiences that make it worth the detour on your way to Christchurch.

Waipara

Waipara is a burgeoning wine region that’s gaining recognition for its unique terroir and high-quality wines. While it may be less famous than Marlborough, Waipara offers a more intimate and boutique wine-tasting experience.

The area is particularly known for its Pinot Noir and Riesling, which thrive in the region’s limestone-rich soil and unique microclimate.

The Waipara River provides opportunities for fishing and kayaking, while the surrounding hills are great for hiking and mountain biking. The region is also home to the Waipara Valley Farmers Market, where you can sample and purchase local produce, crafts, and of course, wine on Saturday mornings throughout the year.

You can also support local community groups at the market by buying items from their fundraising stalls.

If you want to do a Waipara wine-tasting tour, you are best to book this one that starts in Christchurch.

Christchurch's Cardboard Cathedral, in a triangle shape with stained glass windows. The final stop on this Picton to Christchurch trip

Christchurch

Christchurch, often referred to as the “Garden City,” is a vibrant and resilient urban centre that offers a mix of natural beauty, culture, and innovation. The city has undergone significant transformation following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, and what has emerged is a city that blends its rich history with a forward-looking spirit.

One of the highlights is the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, a sprawling green space that offers a peaceful retreat right in the heart of the city. It’s a perfect spot for a leisurely stroll, a picnic, or even a punt ride on the Avon River.

The Rose Garden is especially worth visiting in summer, and there are also a number of sculptures dotted around the gardens. Although I have absolutely no gardening abilities myself, I do love a rose garden and the one in Christchurch really is lovely.

Pathway leading through an archway with rose beds on both sides of the path. The roses are in various shades from white to pale pink and bright pink

The International Antarctic Centre is well worth a visit. Christchurch is the starting point for many scientific expeditions to Antarctica, and this centre offers a glimpse into the history of the exploration of the 7th continent. You can experience an ice storm and ride a Hagglund vehicle.

If you can’t get down to Oamaru to see the Little Blue Penguins there, the International Antarctic Centre has a small colony of penguins that aren’t able to survive in the wild and are cared for by specialists.

Foodies will appreciate the evolving Christchurch culinary scene, which ranges from high-end restaurants to food trucks, all showcasing local produce and flavours. The Riverside Market is a bustling hub where you can sample a variety of local foods and crafts.

Whether you’re looking for urban experiences, outdoor adventures, or cultural enrichment, Christchurch has a lot to offer especially as it continues to redevelop after the earthquakes.

Three Little Blue Penguins sitting on a rock at the International Antarctic Centre

Sub-section 2.3: Tips for the Drive

– Best Times to Travel: The route is popular year-round, but if you want to avoid the crowds, consider travelling during the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn.

– Road Safety Tips: Always adhere to speed limits and take regular breaks, especially on longer stretches of road. Drink driving is taken very seriously, so if you are planning to visit any wineries, make sure you have a designated driver or join a wine tour group.

– Petrol Stations: While there are plenty of petrol stations along the route, it’s always a good idea to keep your tank at least half full.

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of what awaits you on this road trip. Whether you’re into nature, keen on adventure, or just want to relax and take in the scenery, this route has something for everyone.

In the next sections, we’ll explore the train and bus options, so you can decide which mode of transport suits you best.

Section 3: Taking the Train

If you’re someone who enjoys sitting back and taking in the scenery without the responsibility of driving, then the train journey from Picton to Christchurch might be right up your alley. The Coastal Pacific Train offers a unique and comfortable way to travel this route, allowing you to relax and focus solely on the stunning landscapes passing by your window.

Train running along a coast line with bright blue ocean to the right and white waves coming in to the beach and clifts along the left side of the train

Section 3.1: The Coastal Pacific Train

Although cities like Auckland and Wellington have local train services, there is little in the way of cross-country trains in New Zealand. There are really only three major lines between cities, and they act more as sightseeing trains than typical public transport. These are the Northern Explorer, Coastal Pacific Train and the TranzAlpine.

The Coastal Pacific Train is operated by KiwiRail and runs between Picton and Christchurch. As it isn’t a typical train journey, it doesn’t operate every day of the year. The service only runs from September and April, and between September and December, it’s only 4 days per week.

This train service is renowned for its panoramic windows, outdoor viewing carriages, and onboard café offering local produce. It’s not just a train ride; it’s an experience, so keep an open mind when it comes to comparing it with the type of train travel you might be used to.

How to Book Tickets

The best way to book tickets is using the Coastal Pacific Train website. You do need to book in advance (a few weeks before, not just days), as the service is only once a day and can be popular in peak season.

Duration and Stops

The journey takes just under 6 hours and also stops at Blenheim and Kaikoura, but you’ll need to book tickets separately if you plan to spend time in those destinations.

Section 3.2: Pros and Cons

Pros

– Comfort and Views: The train offers spacious seating and large windows, making it a comfortable and scenic journey. You can move around, visit the café, or even step into the open-air viewing carriage for some fresh air.

– No Driving Stress: Forget about navigating, fuel stops, or parking. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Cons

– Less Flexibility: The train runs on a set schedule and makes predetermined stops, so you won’t have the freedom to explore off the beaten path.

– Cost: Depending on the class you choose, train tickets can be more expensive than the cost of fuel for driving, especially if you’re travelling with others.

– Availability: The Coastal Pacific Train doesn’t operate year-round. It usually runs from late September to late April, so if you’re planning to travel outside of these months, you’ll need to consider other options.

Overall, I would say that driving is preferable to the train for flexibility and availability, but for people who enjoy scenic train rides or are unable to drive, it is worth considering.

The Avon River in Christchurch with shrubs and trees lining both river banks and ducks swimming in the water

Section 4: Bus Services

If you’re looking for a cost-effective and straightforward way to travel from Picton to Christchurch, taking the bus might be the right choice for you. Buses offer a hassle-free way to cover the distance without worrying about navigation, fuel, or car hire. Let’s delve into the details.

Section 4.1: Available Bus Services

InterCity is the main bus service around the country. It is a good way to get around New Zealand if you don’t have access to a car and want to set your own itinerary rather than joining a group tour around the country. They even operate some day tours, for example, a round trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

I’ve used the InterCity bus around the South Island myself before I was able to drive, to get to locations that I couldn’t fly to. Specifically, the bus between Christchurch and Dunedin so I could stop at Oamaru to see the Little Blue Penguins (one of my favourite South Island experiences)

For this journey the InterCity bus stops at many of the same places as the road trip route, including Blenheim, Kaikoura and Waipara.

How to Book

Booking a bus ticket is a straightforward process online using the InterCity website. It’s advisable to book in advance, especially during peak seasons, to secure your seat. They also have options for bus passes if you are using buses to travel around other parts of the country.

Section 4.2: Pros and Cons

Pros

– Cost-Effective: Generally, bus tickets are cheaper than train tickets or the cost of hiring a car, making it a budget-friendly option.

– Convenience: Buses stop in towns that you can’t fly directly to, or aren’t on a train route. If you can’t drive then they offer more locations than other methods of transport.

– No Driving Required: Just like the train, taking the bus means you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the journey without worrying about driving.

Cons

– Limited Scenic Enjoyment: While the route is scenic, the vantage point from a bus window is not as panoramic as that from a train or your own car.

– Less Flexibility for Stops: Buses operate on a set schedule and usually make fewer stops than you might if you were driving, limiting your ability to explore along the way. The InterCity route has some great stopping points, but you would need to book separate tickets for each section of the route that you want to do. 

– Comfort: Depending on the service, buses can be less comfortable than trains or private cars, especially for longer journeys.

And there you have it—a guide to taking the bus to travel around New Zealand. While it may not offer the same level of freedom as driving or the scenic indulgence of a train ride, it’s a viable and cost-effective way to travel. In the next section, we’ll summarise all the options to help you make the best choice for your journey. Stay tuned!

Section 5: Making the Choice

So, you’ve now got the key info on driving, taking the train, and hopping on a bus from Picton to Christchurch. Each mode of transport has its own set of advantages and drawbacks, and the best choice depends on what you’re looking for in your journey.

Driving

– Pros: Ultimate freedom to explore, make unplanned stops, and take detours.

– Cons: Requires preparation, such as car hire and navigation, and can be more expensive if travelling alone.

Train

– Pros: Comfortable and scenic, with amenities like an onboard café and viewing carriages.

– Cons: Less flexibility for spontaneous exploration and can be costlier than other options.

Bus

– Pros: Cost-effective and convenient with multiple pick-up and drop-off points.

– Cons: Limited scenic enjoyment and comfort compared to other options.

Personal Recommendation

Overall I would definitely recommend driving (otherwise I wouldn’t have spent most of the post telling you about the best places to stop on the road!), but I know that isn’t possible for everyone.

Final Thoughts: Picton to Christchurch

And there you have it—your ultimate guide to travelling from Picton to Christchurch.

From the freedom and flexibility of driving to the comfort and scenic beauty of the train, and even the cost-effectiveness of taking the bus, your options are as diverse as the landscapes you’ll pass through.

Remember, the journey is just as important as the destination. So, whatever mode of transport you choose, make sure to soak in the views, enjoy the stops along the way, and most importantly, make the most of every moment.

In the end, it’s all about your needs and personal preferences. So go ahead, pick your mode of transport, and set off on an adventure that suits your travel style the best. Safe travels!

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