During my trip through New Zealand I spent two weeks with a friend in Nelson. After hosteling for the past 6 months I wasn’t sure if the two weeks would be a disaster or loads of fun. Thankfully it was the latter. My time as a local was action packed with hikes, excellent food, and great people. I would consider Nelson to be the California of New Zealand. Known for its perfect weather, consistent calendar of events, and tasty food, being in Nelson was a little like being home.
Centre of New Zealand
To get a feel for your surroundings walk up the Centre of New Zealand and take a look around. Park in the botanical reserve and enjoy a 45 minute hike to the top. The top can be reached from either side, the Southern side being shadier and less crowded. There is a wonderful 360 view of Nelson and the surrounding Tasman Bay. Nelson has incredibly loud cicadas and they’re easy to spot on this trail, so if you want some entertainment try and catch one.
Being on a budget means staying in and cooking at the hostel. Since my friend knew all the best restaurants I splurged and indulged in eating out almost every day. Nelson is known for good food but at first I was skeptical. Spoiled by food back home I was never consistently impressed with the food on my trip (another reason I cooked my own meals). Thankfully I was in for a treat because the food around Nelson exceeded my food snob expectations.
If patios and gorgeous outdoor settings sound appealing head to T.O.A.D Hall, Jester House, and Grape Escape. Grape Escape is in one of the prettiest restaurant settings I’ve experienced and their chicken sandwich is to die for. T.O.A.D Hall has an excellent pumpkin salad and their smoothies are delish. Although we didn’t eat at Jester House it’s surrounded by a pretty garden with tons of cute knick knacks. We went here to check out the eels in front of the restaurant. Go inside and buy eel food for $1 and get ready for some eel entertainment.
Go to Cafe Max if you want to stay downtown and are craving tapas. Tapas never seem worth the price but every dish here was tasty. If you want to get a little fancy head to Hopgoods, the snazziest place in town. The dishes have a modern flair and are made from fresh, local ingredients. To top it all off stop at Penguino and try some insanely bizarre yet yummy ice cream. We indulged in the sample platter and tempted our palates with flavors like Watermelon-Mint and Cabernet. Of course this is the tip of the iceberg for downtown Nelson and it’s easy to get lost in the many restaurant options
Brook Waimarama Sanctuary
This 715 hectare area surrounded by a predator-proof fence is a native plant and bird sanctuary. Although it’s difficult to spot birds in this dense forest it’s still a nice place to lose yourself in nature. If you don’t have a GPS and want to follow signs to the sanctuary be sure to keep an eye out because the signs are very confusing. Still, if you feel the need to get away from the city this is a great option close to downtown.
Founders Heritage Park
New Zealand loves its Founders Parks and Museums. The Founders Heritage Park in Nelson is a great way to spend an afternoon with a mixture of outdoors and indoors. Meander through old-time shops on the lovely park grounds while taking in some history. Explore the inside of Bristol Freighter, taste some craft beer, and ride the train. Seriously there is a lot to see! We went here to kill an hour and ended up staying much longer. Check the schedule of events for live bands too.
If you need some excitement then Nelson Speedway has you covered. After hearing so many silly remarks about the speedway I reluctantly allowed myself to be dragged along. It ended up being a blast. Two hours of high speed crashes, dust clouds, and hilarious cars. It was the midget semi-finals and I really wanted to drive these adorable, speedy cars myself. Vroom Vroom!
Wendelton Guinea Pig Village
Let’s turn a silly direction and head to the Guinea Pig Village. “A guinea pig what?!” Let me assure you it’s squeakily adorable. Among the small village buildings are several adorable guinea pigs sure to make you go “Aww!” Walk around the village to get the full story of a guinea pig uprising and some history behind the town. You can buy food for the fuzz balls if you want to see them up close. Across the garden is a cute shop perfect for picking up a gift or two.
Nelson Wine Tour
Sure, Marlborough Wine Region two hours from Nelson is more famous, but instead of driving just stay in Nelson. The experience is mellow and the wine just as good. Nelson Tours and Travel gave us one of the best wine tours I’ve ever been on. Our guide was passionate about every wine and he certainly knew his stuff. Talk about a bang for your buck: five wineries, a filling lunch, and at least five tastings at each winery (seven at the last one). Needless to say our group was a bit tiddly by the end of the day. Nap time anyone?
Nelson Lakes National Park
Moving away from the city of Nelson and into the surrounding area, Nelson Lakes is a great place to go for stereotypical New Zealand mountain scenery. It’s an hour and a half from Nelson but the drive is enjoyable. The visitor’s center in St Arnaud is a great place for information and there are a plethora of hikes ranging from an hour to overnight. We spent our time at Lake Rotoiti, a deep blue lake surrounded by mountains. Be sure to check out the jetty where giant eels try to steal bread people throw for the ducks.
Nelson has a great beach but driving an hour to Kaiteriteri puts you on a postcard-perfect New Zealand beach. Burnt orange sand, giant tides, and sea stacks make up this lovely beach. Bring a paddleboard and spend the day catching some sun and floating on the bay. The town itself is small but the restaurants are funky and delicious. Walk 20 minutes to Breaker Bay for a nice view of the beach or ask for directions to the glowworms. Remember to drive 10 minutes to Split Apple Rock. Or if you’re feeling adventurous try and kayak from Kaiteriteri Beach to Split Apple Rock (only recommended if you talk to someone with experience).
Te Waikoropupu Springs
Two hours from Nelson, but on the way to Farwell Spit, Te Waikoropupu Springs is a 1km walk that wanders to the clearest springwater in the world. The water is incredibly clear and the colors vivid and beautiful. Visibility is up to 63 meters (200 ft)! The dancing sands are hypnotizing to watch as sand swirls underwater completely visible from several meters away. No contact with the water is allowed as Pupu Springs is sacred in Maori culture. So as tempting as it is to jump in it’s not recommended. Plus the water is a consistent 50F. Brrr!
After we spent the morning exploring Cape Farewell it was time to drive to Collingwood for our Farewell Spit Tour. Typically a giant strand of sand doesn’t intrigue me (unless I’m getting a tan) but the intention was to see wildlife. Farewell Spit Eco Tours turned out to be an incredibly informative and fun tour. Our guide was full of knowledge and very passionate about his job. The tour included a plethora of birds, seals and a walk around the lighthouse.
However the most exciting part was the gannet colony (large white and yellow sea birds). Australasian Gannets fly to Farewell Spit from July-March to mate and raise their young. I went in March, the very end of the breeding season when most chicks have learned to fly. It was incredible to see so many birds and observe their squawking, flying, preening, and feeding.
After a stop at the gannet colony our guide headed back down the spit. Farewell Spit Eco Tours certainly doesn’t rush and we made just as many stops on the way to the gannet colony as on the way back. We even saw a ship wreck buried under the sand which the wind had uncovered just enough for us to see the remnants. Our last stop was a giant sand dune where everyone took turns running down and getting unnecessarily sandy. The whole day was every exciting.
Abel Tasman National Park
This national park kept getting rave reviews so it was time to see what the fuss was about. Of course I had to dig out my hiking boots and do the 60km Abel Tasman Coast Track. I have done coastal hikes in the past but do not enjoy them as much as inland hikes. Nothing beats the drastic landscape of mountains. However Abel Tasman was loads of fun and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in beautiful coastline. How many overnight hikes give you the opportunity to swim every day? Every evening after setting up camp it was time to jump in the ocean. I’ve never felt so clean on an overnight hike before. After the 60km are over take a water taxi back to Marahau and get the off-shore view of where you walked. It’s the perfect cherry for the end of an ice cream sundae hike.