Nestled in the far northwest corner of the South Island, the Nelson Tasman region draws tourists to its diverse and stunning landscape, offering everything from snowy mountains to pristine beaches edged with turquoise water, with plenty of lush forest in between.
Nature lovers are treated to three of the country's impressive national parks, adventure seekers will find some of the best mountain biking and kayaking in the country, and food and culture junkies will love the locally brewed beer, organic food and festivals in the creative arts capital, Nelson.
Nelson Tasman is in the geographic center of New Zealand, and represents a good mix of the South Island's adrenaline-driven adventuring, mellowed residents and rustic sweeping landscapes, and the North's urban commerce, more temperate weather and palpably preserved Maori heritage. Because the landscapes and attractions are so compacted, the majority of the region's activities and sites are within a few hours drive of each other.
Nelson City provides a good base, sitting just south of Abel Tasman National Park and the coastal Great Walk therein. Nelson is also just a few hours drive from the alternative towns and succulent seafood of the Golden Bay, and cradled in a wealth of flourishing wine lands and orchards.
The region offers plenty of comfortable and budget-friendly lodging, from historic bed and breakfasts to backpackers near trekking routes and right in town. Check out Wotif for the best deals on Nelson accommodation.
Destination Nelson Tasman: Getting There
Nelson Tasman sits at the far North of the South Island, serving as a bustling and beautiful stopover for those heading to or from either island. From the South Island, buses run up the West Coast via the Franz and Fox Glaciers and all the way straight to Nelson. Direct roads connect Christchurch and Blenheim to Nelson as well. These are big drives - you're talking 6+ hours from the West Coast to Nelson and 5+ from Christchurch to Nelson. Consider breaking these journeys up as there is heaps to see inbetween.
If you're coming by sea, the ferry from Wellington will drop you at Picton, at which point you can hop a coach or grab a car and enjoy a two hour scenic ride through green hills. Air New Zealand offers frequent flights from every major city in New Zealand to Nelson.
Destination Nelson Tasman: Orientation
Making your way from the south to the north, the main towns in the Nelson Tasman region are:
Murchison and Nelson Lakes National Park :: South of Nelson city brings you to a little alpine village tucked away at the edge of Nelson Lakes National Park, called St. Arnaud. The park itself offers a smattering of opportunities to traipse through clear streams, bushy beaches, and impressive mountains.
Nelson City / Richmond: :: Nudged up against Abel Tasman National Park, the city is known as the creative arts epicenter of the country and boasts some of the sunniest weather, a climate that has given rise to a famous apple industry and thriving vineyards. The city is a hub of festivals in the summer months, featuring a showcase of local gastronomy at March's Taste Nelson, a celebration of the country's best microbrews at Marchfest, and a gathering of alternative wellness gurus and enthusiasts at the Festival of Opportunities in February.
The city itself is home to a few hip cafés and a small but diverse selection of restaurants. Tourist popularity has raised the prices in these parts, but for the budget minded, there's an Asian grocer and a bulk seller, as well as the Wednesday and famous Saturday farmer's market that offers the chance to buy straight from the producers that provide the city with its character. Rabbit Island and hikes to the Center of New Zealand provide abundantly green and watery escapes from town life - all on a shoestring budget. Richmond lies a short drive southwest of Nelson, a smaller urban center with a large shopping mall, cafés, handy shops and occasional roadside produce.
Ruby Coast / Moutere Hills and Mapua :: Towards the west, the Ruby Coast links Richmond and Motueka, offering both coastal and inland highways, and the opportunity to drive them as a loop in a day trip from Nelson. Here you'll find many of the sands, vineyards and artsy shops that the region is known for. The area is also home to the Waimea estuary, which is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, replete with sky blue waters and an important, abundantly populated home for birds, well worth a visit. Mapua is a small town, a good spot to enjoy a local beer on the wharf, or visit one of the many artisan shops.
Golden Bay :: Further North, just over Takaka hill, lies the golden sand beaches of the Golden Bay and a remote community of occasional farms, Buddhist retreat centers, cafés that brew their own beer, and plenty of alternative medicine options. It's also the launching point for the region's Great Walk, the Heaphy Track.
Destination Nelson Tasman: Things to Do
Looking for tours or activities in Nelson Tasman? Look no further than these Planit NZ recommended things to do.
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Destination Nelson Tasman: Hot Spots
Be sure to check out any or all of these spots during your time traveling in Nelson Tasman.
Abel Tasman National Park
Of New Zealand's 14 national parks, Abel Tasman is the smallest but boasts some of the most stunning coastline, and stays one of the most popular tourists spots for the diversity of ways you can approach the trek and its famous golden sands. Whether you have half a day or half a week, Abel Tasman offers a piece of itself to anyone looking for an escape filled with turquoise waters and enchanting views.
If you are just looking to spend a half to a full day, your best bet is to take a water taxi to one of three bays—Anchorage, Torrent or Bark— and walk back to Marahau, the base of the the Great Walk, an option that provides a lucky combination of seaside views shaded by bush. For a more intimate encounter with coastline and its fauna, kayak companies offer a variety of options to combine walking, boating and rowing. Otherwise, if you are a keen tramper, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track takes three to five days and is classified as one of New Zealand's Great Walks. Inland routes are also available as a less crowded alternative.
Golden Bay is known as one of the meccas for alternative lifestylers in New Zealand, and Takaka is a pleasantly lively example of such a community. It's a dynamic town, a converging point for farming families scattered around Takaka hill and wellness-minded folks. The center of town is small but maintains a few excellent organic cafés and restaurants, bars with frequent live music and locally brewed beer, shopping, holistic doctors and Traditional Chinese Medicine amongst other alternative therapies, and a veritable selection of activities and retreats for yoga enthusiasts and those with Buddhist leanings.
Nelson Tasman is home to New Zealand's longest Great Walk, the Heaphy Track. Running 82 kilometers long, the track takes about four days to cover and crosses some of Kahurangi National Park's most spectacularly diverse plains of tussock dotte, the rugged beauty of the West Coast, and nikau palm groves that brand Kahurangi as something very different. A mountain biking trail is being trialed for a few seasons - we highly recommend the experience.
About a hours drive towards Farewell Spit, followed by a twenty minute walk through sheep farms, will land you at magical Wharariki Beach. The site is stunning—rock bridges, surreal high rising islands, massive near white-sanded dunes, and otherwordly caves and tidepools that emerge on either side of low tide. Seal pups use the coves and pools as a playground and don't seem to mind humans. Keep an eye on the tide chart to time your arrival as low tide times change daily.
Nelson is the only hop growing region in New Zealand, a tradition that has given rise to a vibrant culture of creative microbrewing.
In downtown Nelson you'll find a few pubs that serve an array of beer types from one brewery, and one special bar that sponsors a rotating roster of the best beers from all over Nelson. - it's our favorite. The Free House is located on Collingwood Street next to the Fresh Choice. Situated in an old church, they've featured over 330 craft beers served from 55 different breweries since opening in 2009. Last time we were there, they were serving pizzas and meat pies, yet were quite happy if you brought in your own dinner to have with your locally brewed beer.
There are lots of brewery and winery tours, but we suggest stopping in yourself and just asking the bartender. Chances are, that's who brewed the beer you're drinking.
The northernmost point of the quartz sandstone cliffs and bluffs that line the Tasman coast is a graduating, partially preserved area called called Cape Farewell. The cape grows long and thin at its end, extending into the Farewell Spit, a 15 mile eastward stretch that is part estuary for migrating birds and entirely formed of quartz sands.
The cape can be reached by walking from Wharariki Beach at low tide, and a few more hours will get you all the way to the spit (as far as you can go without trespassing on protected bird territory). A popular option is to hire a horse trek for a half day, and plod along the majestic shores that line Golden Bay near sunset.
Destination Nelson Tasman: Final Thoughts & Recommendations
North coasters on the South Island like to call Nelson Tasman the sunniest place in New Zealand, which is certainly what it feels like. With so much sublime weather and thriving culture, it's a gorgeous and stimulating place to be, with enough remote options so as not to be too constraining.
The pace of Nelson Tasman is a kind of lively plodding, a rhythm that won't sweep you up in a mad, action-packed whirlwind, nor will it bore you, but rather a invite you along on an eccentric ride that will wet your palate for the fruits of fertile New Zealand and remind you to stop and look around every once and a while.
Saturday Market in Nelson :: New Zealand celebrates a year long agricultural bounty, and much of it is available in Nelson for most of the year. There is a farmers' market every Wednesday, but the Saturday market is a sight to behold, a massive gathering of farmers and the artisans that give Nelson its reputation as the creative arts capital of the country. It's well worth a visit if you're anywhere near.
Culinary Tourism :: Nelson Tasman reaps the fruits of a fertile seaside and a lush inland microclimates, providing a gastronomic mecca of seafood, wine and creative culinary tourism. Be sure to try out the specialties of each region, like Nelson Chardonnay, the apples, olive oil, hazelnuts, and the quality artisan roasted beans of a competitive and artful coffee culture.
It's easy to get comfortable in a place like Nelson or the Tasman Bay, but don't stay put for too long lest you miss the variety that Nelson Tasman has to offer outside the edges of town. Nelson Tasman represents a platter of delight for every kind of traveler, from gritty trampers to gastronomes and junkies for majestic landscape. Like much of the rest of New Zealand, hitch-hiking is a relatively safe and easy way to get around thanks to hospitable locals and a long history of backpackers populating the roadsides.