It doesn't have the tourism icons - no cloud-piercers or gushing geysers. Instead the wider Nelson-Tasman region offers a dialed-back beauty and a front-row seat to some of New Zealand's best outdoor activities. It now rivals Marlborough as a gourmet destination, is a New Zealand mountain-biking mecca and can offer two Great Walks, three national parks and some mouth-wateringly good freshwater and sea fishing opportunities. And you can do it all in style, choosing from a handful of highly regarded boutique lodges.
Piece of the action
For avid mountain-bikers there’s something a bit ‘end of the rainbow’ about the Wairoa Gorge, near Nelson. US billionaire Ken Dart spent $19 million creating a world-class bike park in the Gorge’s bush-mantled slopes, 70 kilometres worth of hand-built trails that descend through stands of beech, other natives and exotics from an elevation of 1200 metres. Last year, he gifted the lot to the Crown, which has leased it to the Nelson Mountain Bike Club for the next 40-odd years.
The magnetism of The Gorge is not only about the quality of the trails and the beauty of the backcountry setting; it’s also that access is necessarily rationed. The club operates scheduled shuttle days for a maximum of 25 people and will organise a private shuttle and exclusive access for small groups. Alternatively, Helicopters Nelson offers a package that includes a scenic 15-minute flight in and three heli-shuttles. If you can’t tear yourself away, Gibbs Hut, at the park’s summit, offers comfortable accommodation for eight, with an outdoor pizza oven, hot showers and views to Farewell Spit.
As for the biking, it runs from single-track intermediate trails to spine-stiffening Grade 5 descents through an area known as the ‘Darkside’, with 30 to 90 minutes of downhill per run. Local operators such as Gravity Bikes offer guided experiences, including transfers, food and bikes.
The great and the good
Nelson has two of the country’s 10 Great Walks, and they’re a study in contrasts. The Abel Tasman is easy walking, largely coastal – take your togs. The Heaphy is a more rugged proposition, a path through the Kahurangi wilderness to the wild West Coast.
Even on a brief visit, you can easily sample both. Simply Wild Journeys can get you into the Abel Tasman on a private fast launch for some kayaking, an hour or two of guided walking and lunch on a beach. They’ll also chopper you into the Heaphy for an hour’s walking through rich kahikatea, rimu and rātā forest, followed either by a post-picnic uplift from Mid Point beach or a walk down the coast to the track’s end and a beer at the Karamea Village Hotel, then back to Motueka by fixed-wing aircraft.
On the water
Winter is a rewarding time to be out on the water in the Abel Tasman: no crowds, crisp blue days and little wind. Plus, seal pups. Abel Tasman Charters runs a couple of crewed charter catamarans in the winter months – the 11-metre Taranui and the 14-metre Torea, which has capacity to accommodate a handful of guests overnight. Combine cruising with walking a section of the track, then chopper into the Kahurangi to experience two national parks in a day.
If you want to get closer to the water, Abel Tasman Kayaks, based at Marahau, run an excellent guided half-day experience. Kayak to Observation Beach for lunch, then water-taxi back to base.
Owned by industry veterans Barry and Lynley Bird, Seabird Charters operates single and multi-day sea fishing and diving charters on the well-equipped, 13.5 metre M.V. Cappy. With 20 years of experience, they’re familiar with all the prime spots for blue cod, groper, snapper and kingfish around such fishing meccas as D’Urville Island, where they can also arrange accommodation at D’Urville Island Wilderness Resort. If diving’s your thing, they’ll get you into the Tonga Island and Glenduan Marine Reserves, or D’Urville Island and the Sounds.
For more of a high-end scenic boating experience with a little fishing for your dinner, the Birds also operate the 20-metre luxury charter launch Galileo, with onboard accommodation for six to eight people. Seabird Charters supports sustainable catch and release fishing.
Eat, drink, be merry
Nelson is gourmet country and discovering the region’s terrific wineries and food producers will take you into some of its loveliest parts, from the Moutere hills to the Tasman coast. If you’re planning to explore unguided, stop in first at The Junction, part of the ‘Old Factory Corner’ complex west of Richmond, where local artisan treats include award-winning cheese from Little River Estate and Thorvald, charcuterie from the Sausage Press and traditional French pates by Craft. You can happily fill a second picnic basket at Moutere Gold, which is located in the Upper Moutere village’s Old Post Office and is your go-to for small-batch preserves. Or dine beside the vines at Forsters restaurant at Moutere Hills winery.
Of the many cellar doors worth visiting the pick of the bunch is Neudorf, not only for its exceptional wines but also its role in pioneering winemaking in the Moutere Hills and the charming homestead garden setting.
For a bespoke private gourmet tour, check out Wine, Art and Wilderness. Owner-operators Zane Kennedy and Elissa Menzies offer transport by Mercedes van, expert guides and ‘behind-the-scenes’ access. As the company name suggests, they’re also about more than quaffing Pinot. Combine wine and food with a private cruise and guided walk in the Abel Tasman, or an art studio tour.
Tasman Helicopters offers a five-course lunch showcasing the best of Nelson food and wine, served on a mountaintop in the Kahurangi National Park or beachside in the Abel Tasman. Or Helicopters Nelson will fly you to a prime blue cod fishing spot on remote D’Urville Island, followed by a gourmet picnic on the beach. It’s calle‘D’Urville Indulgence’ for good reason.
Situated in a heritage building near the Cathedral steps, Hopgood’s has been in the front rank of Nelson dining since the early 2000s. Co-owner and chef Kevin Hopgood set the tone early, and current head chef Aaron Ballantyne has continued to deliver consistently excellent seasonally-inspired bistro cuisine. It’s about simple food done well, accompanied by a generous selection of local and national craft beers and a small but well-chosen wine list. Lamb, duck and venison are always worth a look, and there are four- and five-course tasting options for the indecisive.
Just around the corner is Michelin-trained chef Matt Bouterey’s buzzy Urban Oyster Bar & Eatery. The menu is tapas-style, with a strong suit in oysters and seafood and an emphasis on farm-to-plate produce. Good for cocktails and with enough craft options to satisfy the fussiest beer nerd. “No pretensions, no reservations” is the tagline.
Downtown cocktail lounge Kismet has a merchant navy feel – the bar top and shelving are by a local boat builder – but the emphasis here is not on rum, but whisky, with an encyclopedic list of Scotch and international whiskys, supplemented by a couple of dozen gins and well-chosen, expertly mixed cocktails.
In the lap of luxury
Edenhouse is a six-star luxury lodge in the Orinoco Valley, a 45-minute drive into the Tasman hinterland from Nelson airport. The style is English country homestead (co-owner Bobbie Martin, an alumna of the English Gardening School, designed the gardens), and guests can choose from two elegant garden cottages and one lodge suite, all in excess of 110-square metres and with two bathrooms. Edenhouse has featured in Tatler’s Travel Guide’s 101 Best Hotels of the World and sundry other prestigious international best-of lists.
If you leave Split Apple Retreat in a state other than zen-like calm, consider yourself a lost cause. This exclusive luxury lodge, retreat and wellness spa leaves no (massage) stone unturned when it comes to taking the edge off, from the location on the doorstep of the Abel Tasman National Park, to the fragrant gardens, saltwater infinity pool, meditation and private yoga sessions, and Chef Pen’s health-focused gourmet fusion cuisine. This year the Retreat is offering three- and five-night ‘Winter Wellness’ packages that include your suite, massage and yoga, daily meditation sessions and a one-day trip into the Abel Tasman.