It’s possible to fly to Nelson, our first destination on the South Island, from either Auckland or Wellington very cheaply on Air New Zealand. For $100 you can be in Nelson from Wellington in only 40 minutes but that isn’t very adventurous.
The other alternative is to take the ferry across the Cook Strait. It takes just over three hours to cover the 92 kilometers. The distance is so short that you can see the North and South Islands on a clear day from the opposing shore. Wine Spectator called it “one of the most spectacular ferry rides in the world”. There are two ferry services – Interislander or Bluebridge. If you have a rental car, you can drop it at one end and pick up another at the other. If you want to take your car, they can accommodate that too.
The highlight of the ride is passing through the Queen Charlotte Sound. The views are beautiful. It’s a very relaxing way to pass a morning or an afternoon. (Captain Cook made five visits to Queen Charlotte Sound between 1770 and 1777. It was his favorite place to stop for repairs and to provision his ships. He named the sounds after Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III.)
The 9:00 a.m. ferry will arrive in Picton in time for lunch. With its ferry and cruise ship traffic, Picton is a busy, successful harbor town. They have wisely developed the harbor for walking, shopping and dining. There is a walkway along the harbor that links up to some wilderness trails along the Victoria Domain for hiking and a bit of mountain biking. Ask at the Picton tourist office for a map. Picton is also the launching point for the Queen Charlotte Track, one of New Zealand’s most popular hikes. The Queen Charlotte Track is also open for mountain biking with some restrictions in the peak summer season.
Picton is part of New Zealand’s Marlborough Wine Region which produces over 60% of New Zealand’s wine so if wine is part of your agenda, Picton is a great choice.
We have opted to settle in Nelson to explore this area. It is a 100 kilometer but 1 hour 45 minute drive from Picton. With the dramatically windy roads of the South Island, it always takes longer to cover the distance than one would expect. Taking the secondary road, Queen Charlotte Drive, rather than the state highway, is the recommended route as it hugs the coast line offering long vistas across Queen Charlotte Sound.
The area is also known for its green lipped mussels. Havelock, a town halfway between Picton and Nelson bills itself as the green lip mussel capital of the world. (On the ferry you will have passed many mussel farms in sheltered bays along Queen Charlotte Sound.) The Mussel Pot is the recommended spot in Havelock to sample the local delicacy. It was closed the day we passed through but we weren’t disappointed with a tasting platter of six different varieties at Captain’s Daughters Restaurant.
An interesting Canadian connection exists in Havelock. In 1908, native son, Ernest Rutherford, was New Zealand’s first recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the chemistry of radioactive substances. This research was undertaken while he worked at Montreal’s McGill University and is also considered Canada’s first Nobel Prize. He is even featured on a 1971 Canadian stamp celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth. Information panels about Rutherford and his discovery are on display on the main street in Havelock.
Tasman’s Great Taste Trail
Once in Nelson, there is lots to enjoy for the cycling enthusiast – either the Tasman’s Great Taste Trail, the Dun Mountain Trail, or urban cycling in Nelson itself.
Dennis and I spent one day on the Great Taste Trail. (There is a total of four days to choose from and you can find the trail map at Great Taste Trail). Heading out of downtown Nelson, the first section follows a re-purposed rail line through the suburbs and then into the town of Richmond, before heading to the ocean. The remainder of the route follows the Waimea estuary, the largest estuary in the South Island and an important area for shore birds. At the time of our ride, the tide was out. It is remarkable how far the ocean recedes from the shore. Historically, it was an important Maori farming area before European contact. One information panel discusses how the Maori altered the soil composition through the addition of charcoal (ash), sand and gravel, increasing the productivity of the soil. The land now is primarily cultivated as apple orchards.
The last third of the ride is on Rabbit Island which is accessed via a bridge on its southern shore. The island which is primarily a commercial forest, features a spectacular beach and views of Nelson. Forestry is big business in New Zealand. We have seen commercial forests wherever we have traveled, identifiable by their uniform rows of trees of a consistent height.
The quirky bit about this section of the trail is the Mapua Ferry crossing at the western end of Rabbit Island. For $12 round-trip, you get a two-minute ferry ride to the tiny town of Mapua. A bit of a steep price for the length of the journey. You can probably throw a rock from the ferry dock to the far shore. Just consider it the price to be paid to relax, enjoy lunch and a cold beer before turning around to make the trip home.
There are a few different restaurant choices. The Jellyfish Cafe is right on the harbor offering the best views. Next door, the Apple Shed Cafe has a better rating on TripAdvisor, but the view isn’t quite as good. Take your pick. While you are waiting for lunch to arrive, sneak into the Manuka Historical Museum right next to the Jellyfish to get a flavor of the local history. Note in particular the mural painted on the floor showing the contours of the shoreline in the area.
After lunch, catch the ferry back and head home. The ferry advertises an hourly schedule but it seems to run whenever there are enough people milling around to motivate the driver to start the engines.
The ride, there and back, is an easy, flat 70 kilometers.
Dun Mountain trail is for serious mountain bikers. I don’t count myself in this esteemed group so I opted for a day of “touring” (a code word for shopping) Nelson and left Dennis to tackle the mountain. Accessible from town, it’s is 38 kilometers with a summit at 878 meters. It is not super well marked, so be careful not to get lost as it is a rather remote ride. Though near the city, it is not well traveled and doesn’t have cell service, so if you run into problems, you will need to find your own way out. The map is accessible at Dun Mountain Trail
Abel Tasman National Park
The Tasman’s Great Taste Trail continues onto to Moteuka and then Kaiteriteri at the edge of Abel Tasman National Park. With a limited number of days on our trip, we opted to drive to Abel Tasman and stay overnight in Kaiteriteri rather than riding the trail. Kaiteriteri boasts a large mountain bike park which you can do independent of the Tasman’s Great Taste Trail.
Abel Tasman is one of New Zealand’s smallest national parks but one of its most loved. It’s primarily known for its tramping (New Zealand English for hiking) and sea kayaking. Unlike the Queen Charlotte Track outside of Picton, you can’t cycle here. We spent two days; one day hiking and one day kayaking. Kayaking gives you views of Split Apple Rock, an iconic feature in Abel Tasman, seal colonies and if you are fortunate, blue penguins. (Kayaking is arranged out of the town of Marahau, about 15 minutes from Kaiteriteri. We used Abel Tasman Kayaks and would recommend them. Find them at Abel Tasman Kayaks)
If you are only going to hike for one day, you can avoid covering the same territory as an out and back hike by taking a ferry to an outward point and hike back. This can be arranged at Abel Tasman Aquataxi in Marahau. A full day’s hike would start at Torrent Bay or Anchorage Bay. With a detour to Cleopatra’s Pool with its natural water slide, this would amount to 25 kilometers of moderately strenuous hiking. There isn’t any water or food available along the route so you will need to carry your own. (Fortunately, there are toilets). The views are spectacular.
In total we spent seven nights in Nelson and the Abel Tasman area, though we hardly covered all the region has to offer. One could easily spend twice that time. A great start to the South Island.
This is a bit of a cheater post. We actually are back in Canada but with all the fun things to see and do on the South Island, I didn’t make time to put the finishing touches on this or the posts yet to come on New Zealand. Not that it really matters, but I didn’t want anyone confused as to where on this big blue planet I actually am right now.