New Zealand may appear small on the map, but its distances are often deceiving. While on paper Wharariki beach is only 400 kilometers and a six hour drive away from Kaikoura, in reality it can easily take much longer. There’s no high-speed motorways and with all the gorgeous scenery awaiting at every turn it is very difficult to ignore the temptation to stop and explore a little. Yet picking the best among so many beautiful and interesting locations may be a daunting task. So in this article I will give you my own selection of absolute top spots. From rugged coastline to tropical jungle, these are the four places I think you definitely should not miss.
Let me preface by saying that, while incredibly beautiful and scenic, New Zealand’s roads are also narrow and often sinuous. Not to mention that left-hand traffic might be a stressful novelty to a lot of people. Therefore, driving all the way from Kaikoura to Wharariki in one go can be quite challenging. If you have time I urge you to split it into more manageable chunks across several days. Unfortunately, with only two weeks in New Zealand and loads of amazing places yet to visit, this was not an option for us. For those of you in the same boat, I can only offer one simple advice – have a good night’s sleep and start early, it’s going to be a long day.
Ohau Point Look Out
As you leave Kaikoura heading north, you will be driving one of the most breathtakingly beautiful roads of the South Island of New Zealand, in my opinion. In the country with so many scenic roads, that’s saying a lot. With mountains on the left and rugged ocean coastline on the right, the views are truly stunning and I won’t blame you for wanting to stop on more than one occasion to snap a picture. That’s what I did too!
The place you definitely should not miss though is Ohau Point Look Out, just 26 kilometres away from Kaikoura. You will have no trouble finding it, as there is a newly completed pull over area with lots of parking room and a walkway that follows the shore. Ohau Point Look Out is home to a fur seal colony and while there are also seals in Kaikoura, I found the animals here much more fun and enjoyable to watch as they climb the rocks to soak up the sun.
Previously, it was possible to go ona short hike from here to Ohau Stream waterfall where baby furseals could be seen playing in the pools of water. While it used to be a hugely popular attraction, sadly, the track was damaged during the earthquake in 2016 and has not reopened since. Still, even without it Ohau Point Look Out is a very cool spot to take a little break. There’s other wildlife to observe, too. The sea birds in particular were quite happy to pose for a picture.
Wine tasting at Yealands Estate
As you travel further north, you will soon find yourself in the heart of the Marlborough Region, a part of New Zealand known world-wide for its Sauvignon Blanc wines. And so, not paying a visit to one of the many incredible wineries in the area would almost be unforgivable. There are likely dozens of good options around Blenheim, but I am suggesting Yealands Estate winery simply because that’s the one we went to and really liked. It was recommended to us by the locals and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
What I especially like about Yealands Estate is their focus on sustainability, which is a topic near and dear to me, but their wines are impeccable as well. We even bought a few bottles to take back home (and I’m happy to report that all them made the journey alive!). The unusual history of Yealands Estate makes for an entertaining addition to the wine tasting process and their mascot sheep Dolly is plain adorable. They even offer a half an hour self-drive excursion around the winery grounds that we were told features some quite spectacular views. Unfortunately, I cannot verify the latter as by then we were falling behind schedule and had to move on.
Queen Charlotte Drive
When driving from Kaikoura to Wharariki, most navigators suggest getting to Blenheim, then following the road west before turning right towards Havelock. Indeed, this is probably the fastest and most efficient way. However, to those fond of breathtaking views and scenic roads I highly recommend a detour via Queen Charlotte Drive up north. It’s a longer route, for sure, but also undeniably one of the most beautiful drives in New Zealand. The scenery you will witness is simply spectacular.
Queen Charlotte Drive follows the coastline of the Marlborough Sounds from Picton to Havelock, passing numerous sleepy bays and sandy beaches. The views are so fabulous that some even compare it to cruising the Marlborough Sounds without a boat. Just remember to keep your eyes on the road! It is very sinuous and while I didn’t necessarily find it dangerous or frightening, it does require a certain degree of confidence and concentration. Oh, and don’t expect the journey to be quick, an average speed of 30 kph is quite the norm in these parts.
There won’t be any shortage of incredible vistas on Queen Charlotte Drive, so feel free to pull over whenever one presents itself. My personal favorites are the viewpoint just before the Governors Bay and of course Cullen Point Lookout at the western end of the scenic road. The latter will require an easy 10-minute hike to get to the best spot, but with a sweeping view of the entire sound as the reward it is well worth the effort.
The Grove Scenic Reserve
As we continue our trip north, we enter the part of New Zealand that is so rich with incredible landscapes that it becomes increasingly hard to just pick one. The area around Takaka in particular is so incredibly diverse that it would be easy to spend a couple days and barely get to know it. The Rawhiti Cave, Te Waikoropupu Springs, Wainui Falls – there’s any number of truly awesome places to explore. And then of course there’s the entire Abel Tasman National Park with its amazing hikes and endless golden beaches. This region is really worth a visit of its own. But, if you only have time for one short stop, I would definitely recommend the Grove Scenic Reserve.
What I love about the Grove Reserve is how small and compact it is (the entire track will only take 20-30 minutes to complete at a leisurely pace), but also how entirely different it is from what we have seen of New Zealand so far on this journey. As you enter the trail, it feels like you are suddenly thrown back in time and space into the primordial tropical forest where dinosaur might just be lurking behind the next bend of the path. The Grove is completely surreal and incredibly stunning all at once. It is also a great place for photography where one can play not only with composition, but also light, color and overall mood of the scene.
As I said in the beginning, getting from Kaikoura to Wharariki Beach in one day is not an easy feat. With so many amazing places on the way it is insanely difficult to plan ahead with any degree of accuracy. One short stop here, another quick pull over there and before you know it you are hopelessly behind schedule. My advice therefore is to do some research and figure out in advance which locations are of most importance and interest to you. Then allow yourself plenty of time for those and be prepared to skip the other less significant ones.
If you found this post useful, feel free to take a look at my YouTube video with even more details about all the locations and also check out my other articles about New Zealand – I think you might enjoy them as well. Next time we will be heading to the incredible Wharariki Beach, but meanwhile, if you have any questions or remarks, please let me know in the comments below – I’m always happy to chat!