Catherine Milford discovers that paradise reigns beyond the South Island’s marble mountain.
You’ll never end up in Tākaka by accident. And for those who have encountered this magical spot, that’s just how they like it. It had been on our bucket list for years, though, so, intrepid Aucklanders as we are, we roughly planned the trip, staying in Taupo with friends en route, and braved the inky-black drive from 2am to reach the Wellington ferry terminal by dawn. This meant we crossed the Cook Strait into Picton on a glorious sunny morning, taking in the majesty of Queen Charlotte Sound as we sailed. Changing islands by ferry was new for us; we normally opt for speed, and hop on a flight, but this time we had all our camping gear in tow, and were looking forward to slowing down. It was looking very promising.
To get to Golden Bay requires a drive over Tākaka Hill, or ‘Marble Mountain’. The steep, winding road is the only way in and out of the area. It was originally built in 1900 by the settlers in the region to access the promising lower reaches of the valleys of the Tākaka and Aorere Rivers, and today’s route follows the same road. This exciting drive is always interesting in rain or shine (or snow), takes all traffic (motorhomes are fine) with plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view. The road is dramatic in its incline in some areas, and features some crazy hairpin bends that might have your passengers covering their eyes and holding their breath. The unusual elevated landscape includes spectacular marble karst rock formations, and panoramic views over Tasman Bay, Golden Bay and the mountains of Kahurangi National Park. There are plenty of pull-in spots for trucks, motorhomes and slow vehicles so traffic can flow easily; where the road is being repaired, traffic lights keep things manageable.
Once over the other side, breathe again, because Golden Bay lies before you – and it’s worth the thrill ride you’ve just survived. We were staying at Golden Bay Holiday Park, situated right on the beach in the centre of Golden Bay. This flat, popular holiday park, with several sites no more than a few steps from the beach, gets very busy over summer, as does the nearby Pohara Beach Holiday Park, a bigger campground a few kilometres up the road. Our smaller holiday park was perfect for our needs; my husband delighted in visiting the German bakery a five minute walk up the road where the rules were simple, according to the owner: “If you can see me; we’re open. If you can’t, we’re closed”. We learned quickly to head up early if we wanted a loaf of his fantastic bread.
On arrival, we quickly made ourselves at home, and over a glass or two of locally-made Sprig & Fern beer, started checking out our options. Golden Bay is a playground for travellers of all kinds; there are plenty of fantastic walks, including the much-vaunted Heaphy Track, a 78.4 walking and cycling track that meanders through expansive tussock downs, lush forests and nikau palms to the roaring seas of the West Coast.
Our plans, however, were a little less energetic. Golden Bay is an oasis for those in search of a less cracking pace; it’s an area that insists you slow down a little, and enjoy the many delights the area has to offer. First up was food, so we headed into Tākaka township to see what was on offer. With several recommendations including Dangerous Kitchen, Roots Bar and several others, we took our place in line at the Wholemeal Cafe. Located on Commercial Street, the cafe is situated in the old Tākaka Theatre building, where locals used to gather for film screenings, balls and concerts. The building has now been restored to its former glory, and The Wholemeal is an eclectic jumble of theatre memorabilia, local art and artists’ creations on the colourful walls, and locals and tourists tumbling through the doors to enjoy the plentiful food and coffee. In keeping with the town vibe, ingredients are sourced locally, are organic where possible, and the ethical coffee is from three small East Timor villages in the highlands – a personal project by Wholemeal’s owner Wayne Green.
Fully sated, we were ready to blend with the locals and adjust to ‘holiday mode’. For such a small town, there’s a lot to do in and around Tākaka. The area is very popular with freedom campers, and many locals embrace an alternative lifestyle, so expect to see lots of beautiful wood carvings, colourful loose clothing, and lots and lots of art. I fell in love with a stunning concrete hand-carved basin on the second day, but my husband Trev managed to talk enough sense for me to realise it probably wasn’t going to fit in our already-full-to-the-gills truck. Next time.
Art is a way of life in Golden Bay, and you’ll find a delightful array of creativity. Sculptures, jewellery, weaving, potters, painters, tattoo art, ceramic, glass, jade, paua, pounamu… you name it, it’s there. Up from our campground, Living Arts Gallery is a typical Tākaka art space, with an eclectic range of things that look, feel and smell fantastic; it helps that the gallery is next to Living Light Candles, where I bought a clutch of divine-smelling body balms and candles that I’m still using very sparingly, despite their being on sale throughout New Zealand – every whiff of their aroma takes me back. Every day we passed a sign for a trug-maker; finally we discovered a trug is for carrying your garden fruits. I think I can safely say I don’t know anyone in Auckland who makes a living from trug-making.
Art lovers wanting to see it all may want to try the Golden Bay Art Galleries Trail, which showcases eight of the best professional fine art galleries and their resident artists. The trail meanders along the coast road from Ligar Bay to Collingwood, and is perfect for a day tour.
Even if you’re not artistically-minded, it’s hard not to be inspired by the clear azure blue of the water in and around the area. 7km from Tākaka is home to Te Waikoropupu Springs, the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand, and the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere. This water truly has to be seen to be appreciated.
Take the 45-minute loop walk through forestry to a platform that sits partly over the water of ‘Pupu Springs’; this is the beginning of the spring, discharging a whopping 14,000 litres of water per second. This is the clearest water you’ll ever see; in fact it’s some of the clearest water ever measured. This water is used to create many of the local drinks, including Dancing Sands Gin in Tākaka, and Kiwi Spirit Distillery on Abel Tasman Drive. Kiwi Spirit Distillery is a family owned and operated distillery specialising in unique spirits handcrafted from homegrown ingredients. Let the team whip you up a cocktail from their range of whiskey, gins, liqueurs and more, and pick up a bottle to take home too.
Our trip wasn’t all about food and drink (honestly); with a teenager who carries an insatiable appetite for jumping, we soon discovered a few of the local spots where the brave (or the idiotic) can jump safely from rocks into deep, clear pools of ice-cold water. The 70km Tākaka River is a playground for these crazy souls, with dozens of places to swim, paddle and jump in the beautiful water. The walk to Wainui Falls, through the forest and over a suspension bridge is worth the climb; a 20-metre cascade of water that rolls over granite bedrock into a deep pool.
The more we ambled around Golden Bay, the more we fell in love. We stopped buying our milk from the stores, instead buying a reusable glass bottle and filling it with milk that has never seen a factory, at a farm outlet on Abel Tasman Road. Fresh salmon sounded like a good idea which ended up being the dish of the holiday; a single trip to Anatoki Salmon turning into three trips over our 10-day stay. The fresh fish was absolutely delicious, and the getting of said fish (and the fun of tickling a roaming trio of piglets and a Vietnamese pot belly, plus feeding the rather menacing-looking eels) such fun, it was worth doing again. Anatoki Salmon is free to enter, and you’re provided with the fishing gear, along with a fishing tutorial. After that, it’s up to you to bring in the catch. Once caught, you pay per kilo of your catch, and you can eat it on site, smoked or sashimi; or take it home to enjoy later. We managed to try pretty much every option possible; however the highlight for us – and for everyone else fishing – was watching my husband slip and fall headlong into the drink. He didn’t even bring up another salmon while he was down there. Disappointing.
Highlights are too many to mention, although the walk to Wharariki Beach is a must. Described as an easy walk, the track to this picture-perfect beach travels from the car park at Triangle Flat over farm paddocks (yes, the sheep are in it at the time) and through a section of coastal forest, before you emerge onto the windswept beach, decorated haphazardly with giant rock formations that reflect on the sand, sand dunes and massive swathes of soft, white sand. Plan your trip for low tide, as we did, and you’re likely to encounter seals and their pups playing in tidal pools. They are obviously used to visitors, but it’s common sense not to get too close to these beautiful animals.
There are several walking tracks from Triangle Flat car park, from quick strolls with kids to expert routes for the energetic: Puponga Hill Top Track is an 8km, four-hour one-way walk which takes you the full length of the track from Triangle Flat to the end of Wharariki Road. Fossil Point is an easy 30-minute one-way walk for those with kids eager to see more seals playing in the water; the Spit Track Circuit via Farewell Spit is a longer trip that crosses the Spit to Ocean Beach.
Golden Bay is magical. Over the course of our holiday we embraced the area for what it is: a spectacular, fascinating land that has retained its beauty, arguably mostly because it’s not easy to get to. While tourists are essential to the area’s economy, it’s the locals and the geography that create the spiritual essence of this remarkable land. Some places are great for a visit; Golden Bay is that place where, when we’re done with the grind of Auckland life, we muse, ‘One day, maybe…’
Why is it called ‘Marble Mountain’?
The road not only opened up the Tākaka and Aorere valleys for farming, but it also allowed a marble mine to be established on the hilltop at Kairuru, 10km from Riwaka, an area which developed a name for quality stone used in the construction industry at that time – hence the name ‘Marble Mountain’.
Eating & drinking
Eating and drinking in Golden Bay is both delicious and varied; for a small place, there are excellent options, and plenty of them. Toto’s Pizza is a must on a fine day; this little cafe/pizzeria on the steep gravel hill to Totaranui, has superb views of Wainui Bay, next to Abel Tasman National Park, 20km from Tākaka. With games on site while you wait for your pizza to be wood-fired, and an excellent drinks menu to enjoy, it’s an easy place to while away a relaxing afternoon. (I won at cards; the boys trounced me at Horseshoes.)
The fun feasting continued, with a spectacular night at Mussel Inn, a family friendly cafe, bar, restaurant and music venue that brews its own beer and ciders. These are well worth a try, if for their names alone: the Freckled Frog Feijoa is a fruit wine from the inn’s orchards; Apple Bee Cyser cider, an apple Roughy blended with Golden Bay mead; whatever your taste, there’s something here for you. In keeping with the Golden Bay way, the water from brewing comes from a small bush-filtered stream in the hills behind the inn, and all waste products are recycled on the property. Hops are grown on site and are picked by hand in March – an event that’s open to the public. The night we were there, a wedding was taking place in one half of the bar, while staff gamely tried to manage the hundreds of guests enjoying the music and overall vibe of this happy bar.
- Golden Bay Holiday Park has 210 powered and non-powered sites and gets very busy during summer; check availability at goldenbayholidaypark.co.nz. The holiday park has free Wi-Fi, and is dog-friendly from the beginning of February to the end of November.
- For more information on Heaphy Track, including trip options, visit doc.govt.nz/heaphytrack. Note mountain biking is only allowed from 1 May – 30 November.
- The Golden Bay Art Galleries Trail can be found at goldenbaynz.co.nz/directory-galleries-art-crafts.
- Living Light Candles at livinglightcandles.co.nz can be bought from a range of stockists nationwide.
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