Nelson road trip: things to see and do

All New Zealanders know of Nelson’s long hours of sunshine, the good food and wine, and its reputation for attracting and fostering some of the nation’s best artists. It hardly seems fair, then, that the city and its surrounding area should also have a landscape of wonderful beaches, river valleys, hills, and parklands and shady forests.

Locals are also quick to tell you that within the city’s boundaries is the very centre of New Zealand. Although this fact is disputed, there are many who are adamant that the geographical midpoint of the country is the trig on Nelson’s Botanical Hill. Others point out that even if that were so, the core of the country isn’t confined to a survey mark. New Zealand’s heart beats steadily throughout the whole Nelson region.

They have a point. Nelson consistently rates as New Zealand’s sunniest spot and, although it is cold in winter, outdoors activities are the way of life for much of the year.

The climate also smiles on the sea. The Nelson region lays claim to being the seafood capital of the country, with Port Nelson yielding a high proportion of the total New Zealand catch of fish, scallops, crayfish, and mussels. Fruit and vegetables grow in abundance. Grapes hang heavy on the vines. Nelson wineries produce some the county’s best wines and are open most of the year for tasting.

With the hills, the sea, and the light as their inspiration, many of Nelson’s artists have forged successful careers and gained local and international recognition. The area also supports the sort of individualistic pursuits that no one could exactly call art, but are of a highly creative nature. There are many people in Nelson who pay more than lip service to their ‘doing their own thing’ and that lends the place a feeling of optimism and opportunity.

In summer, the Nelson area is crammed with people who come for share of the good life. If you prefer peace and quiet, the best time to go is when the crowds have dwindled. Plan to stay a while to make the most of the wonderful walks and beaches, the gardens and historic sites, and the food and wine in the ‘Top of the South’.

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Local knowledge

Boulder Bank: streaking across Nelson’s inner harbour, this is a unique, naturally-created landform. The 13-kilometre bar of rocks and pebbles stretches from Mackay Bluff to the Cut in the Nelson Harbour, and separates Tasman Bay from Nelson Haven. You can walk it but it’s eight kilometres long!

Rabbit Island: off the road from Richmond to Mapua, this is bordered by a long grey beach and plenty of shady day-time parking on the grassy sand dunes. A favourite with locals for picnics and walks.

Cable Bay: the terminus of the first telegraph cable between New Zealand and Australia (1876) and interesting for the natural stony causeway that links it to Pepin Island. There’s a good walkway along the cliffs from here and the area is a marine reserve.

Isel Park: a magnificent, a 12-acre sanctuary of enormous trees in Stoke, planted by pioneering couple, Thomas and Mary Marsden in the 1840s. The extensive brick and stone Marsden homestead is also open for visitors to inspect.

The Provincial Museum, in the centre of Nelson, is one of the oldest museums in the country and it displays a large range of items that demonstrate Nelson’s human history of both Maori and pakeha.

Founders Heritage Park: the rehashed village illustrates what Nelson life would have been like between about 1880 to 1930, both replica and original period buildings line the streets. Some have static displays, others are still in use. A small diesel train runs in summer and there’s a working bar-brewery and café on the site.

Miyazu Japanese Garden: acknowledging Nelson’s sister city, this is a lovely spot for a bit of solitary contemplation among the zen garden, pathways, pools, and bushy arbors.

South Street is the cutest street in town, lined with dinky little cottages opening straight onto the pavement. Now classified as an historic precinct, some cottages are people’s homes, others are rented to visitors.

Fairfield House (circa 1883) is a restored homestead, and the seven-acre woodland that surrounds it, is the pride of Nelson.

Nelson Cathedral: Nelson’s most imposing building with its commanding 35-metre-high tower.

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