Idyllic. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think about the week we spent in the area around Nelson, New Zealand, in the country’s South Island.
It was a totally different vibe from the rest of the trip, which was (rightfully) trying to cram in everything we could in the time we had. Since we had to spend 8 days in Nelson for a church conference, we got to take our time and explore different nooks and crannies of the area. And even with all that time, we really only scratched the surface of this gorgeous region!
If you’re planning your trip to New Zealand, here are tips to help you along!
What to do in the Nelson area of New Zealand
I feel like this area often gets overlooked by visitors, with maybe the exception of Abel Tasman National Park. But there’s so much to see and do here and I believe it makes a great base for exploring the northern part of the South Island. We stayed in Nelson City, and had dozens of things within 2-4 hours’ drive.
Some of the main draws in this area:
- The beer and wine scenes (Nelson and Marlborough are well-known for these, respectively)
- Gorgeous scenery and road trip potential
- Adventure (such as skydiving)
- Tons of hiking (including nearby Nelson Lakes National Park)
- Exploring Abel Tasman National Park
- Easy day trips to places like Kaikoura, Punakaiki (pancake rocks), Chetwood Forest and Takaka Hill (Lord of the Rings scenery)
I’ll share some of my tips and favorite places, and at the bottom will mention some of the places we didn’t get to go. I’m showing things slightly out of order, because our visit was a little unstructured. We had church most mornings, so didn’t really get going most days til lunchtime. This post is pretty long because we did quite a lot, but think of this as a “choose your own adventure” itinerary, picking and choosing what appeals most to you.
Rent a super cute house or apartment as a base
Because we were staying so long (eight days) and there were four of us, we definitely wanted some space and for it to feel nice and comfy. I’ve talked about my process for choosing perfect accommodation, and while we rented smaller, more rustic rentals (“baches”) the rest of the trip, this was the time to go a bit bigger. And it was perfect.
Partly because we were 17 hours off our time, but also just because it’s how we roll, @sjems5 and I would be up very early every morning and so I’d make coffee and we’d sit out on the deck (FREEZING) and sip our coffee and watch the sun rise.
We loved our house and our little deck. Part of the beauty of renting a house or apartment is that you can not only stock your own wine (helps TONS with budget, since everything in New Zealand is expensive), but also cook amazing meals. We had a lot of expensive and just-okay restaurant meals, but some of our best meals the entire trip was when we just bought steak and veggies at the grocery story and grilled out.
Take the scenic route from Mapua to Ruby Bay to Moteuka
This was a very full day, and we actually came back and re-tread bits of this route another day as well. Driving this section of coastline is full of surprises, impromptu turn-offs, breweries and wineries, beautiful deserted stretches of beach, and charming little towns.
I cannot for the life of me figure out what beach this is, but we totally fell in love. It was one of those impromptu turn-offs, and based on where the tide was at that moment the entire beach was like a mirror. We felt like we were walking on water, and couldn’t resist a photography session 🙂
One thing that was definitely on our list for this route was Jester House, an odd, crazy, whimsical garden cafe that gives off an Alice in Wonderland vibe.
I mean, the sign advertises live tame eels, and it’s not lying. And that’s before you even walk in the door (and yes, you can feed them if that’s your thing).
We didn’t have specific plans at Jester House, just had a coffee and pastry and wandered through all the little oddities, play areas, and visual adventures. It’s a really lovely space and worth a visit if you’re there at the right time of year. They’ve won Cafe of the Year in New Zealand before, quite the honor. Do note, they close for a bit in the winter, and usually re-open at the end of August, so check that they’re open before going.
Another stop that has to be on your list is Mapua. We stopped at the wharf for an hour or so and fell in love with the bay’s turquoise water, that bird sitting on a post (he literally didn’t move the entire time we were there…is he real??), the delicious Golden Bear beer (more on that later!), and then stuffed ourselves with the best fish and chips of our entire trip.
We also stopped at Apple Shed Cafe & Bar for a pint of delicious Old Mout cider (passionfruit for me!) and some food, and then @sjems5 insisted on ice cream before we hit the road again.
It was solidly mid-afternoon by this point and we were driving back toward Nelson, but a sign for Rabbit Island had us taking a turn. I mean…we have to figure out what that is, right??
We drove across the causeway and took a few turns, and ended up on this long, pretty sand beach. It was super chill and pretty, so it made sense to just pull up a piece of sand and bask in the (chilly) sunlight for an hour. Rabbit Island is a popular local hangout for the beach, barbecues, biking, and the like, and it’s worth a visit if you’re in the Nelson area for more than a couple days. I’ve done a bunch of digging but can’t figure out why it’s called Rabbit Island, so that’s going to bug me for a while…
Suffice to say, the drive from Nelson up the coast to Mapua, Ruby Bay, and up to Motueka has tons of options for beautiful beaches, food, and more. It also had a lot of the breweries and wineries we visited throughout our trip, which brings us to…
Sample the local craft beers
The Nelson region is hops country, producing all of New Zealand’s commercial hops. As such, they have a thriving craft brewery scene, which we sampled whenever possible. It’s still fairly small compared to what we’re used to in the States (and their marketing, which makes it feel like there are tons of breweries), but the quality was great.
There were three main breweries we got to try. The first was Golden Bear Brewing Company at Mapua Wharf, which had a fun industrial vibe. The beer was good (though most NZ beers were hoppier than I like), and then we went across the street to get our epic fish and chips. Rumor has it they’ll let you bring the fish and chips back, so worth asking…
We found tiny Hop Federation accidentally as we were driving by, so I cranked the wheel and we managed to snag a spot in the tiny parking lot. When we visited in October 2014, they’d only been open a year, but the brewery actually just won a major award in 2018 for their lager and their visibility is growing. I’m super sad I didn’t get to try their chocolate stout (because it didn’t exist yet).
The one other brewery worth mentioning that we visited was a great tavern/brewery called The Vic in Nelson City, where they serve Macs beers. We ate here a few times during our trip…I was a big fan of the Black Mac, and their food was good as well.
Despite not finding any stouts in the breweries that we visited, I did have good luck finding my kind of beer at the grocery store (and still New Zealand-made). NOM.
Let Abel Tasman National Park “wow” you
This place is MAGICAL.
When we went, it was with the church group and our little boat trip was a charter since we had a big group (about 40 people). For less intensive time and effort commitments, there are aqui-taxis and other boat trip options that I highly recommend. At the bottom of the post I’ve uploaded a PDF with my research notes from when we went, which can provide additional info on Abel Tasman, because the options are endless. Many people will come here to do multi-day hiking as this is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”, for sea kayaking, camping, or many other activities.
The whole trip took a few hours, just sailing up and down the coast to see the views. We saw the famous Split Apple Rock and even saw some fur seals from afar. We couldn’t have asked for a more gorgeous day for sailing (though it was CHILLY on the water!), and I was totally obsessed with the different shades of teal and turquoise in the water, the bleached-white rocks, and basically everything we saw.
Abel Tasman National Park is named after the European explorer who sighted it in 1642. The park itself was founded in 1942, marking the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman’s visit. It’s the smallest of New Zealand’s national parks, covering only 92 square miles, and the coastal track is super popular among avid hikers because the views are unbelievable. Regardless of whether you plan a day-long or multi-day trek, or just a few hours out on the water, this is an absolute MUST in the Nelson area.
Sample the region’s best wineries
It’s no secret that visiting wineries is one of my true loves in life. New Zealand has been a well-known international wine producer for decades, but given how much effort is involved in getting there, many American wine lovers haven’t had a chance to explore the wineries.
We spent one day driving between a few of the many wineries around the Nelson area. You could go to Marlborough too, as a day trip (here are examples of wineries in the area, including names you may recognize). Similar to all our other days, we followed our hearts into impromptu stops…I think this is called Rarangi Beach.
We started our afternoon at Kina Cliffs (this beautiful view), but sadly they were closed that afternoon.
We lived in a much more innocent, less “Google tells me accurately when everything is open” kind of time in 2014…
Undeterred, we drove on to Kahurangi Estate, which had such a unique look and also offered to feed us, so we were totally down. We pulled up a seat on their lovely patio and ordered a couple pizzas, then tasted some of their wines. While my pumpkin, feta, and spinach pizza was cooking, we worked our way through a flight of four different wines (and made sure to get a bottle to take with us for later).
Then it was on to Moutere Hills, where we did a short tasting—little sips right down the line, then done. @sjems5 fell in love with their rosé, so we took a bottle of that as well. You may be seeing a pattern.
Finally we stopped at Waimea Winery on the way back into Nelson. Strangely (and very unlike me) I don’t have any pics from there, but it’s a beautiful setting and I highly recommend. Here’s a great list of 23 wineries in the Nelson area, if you’re looking to do a deep-dive. Make sure you check open days and times ahead of time, since they typically vary pretty significantly.
Take a hike
Like pretty much every part of New Zealand, the Nelson area has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to hiking. You can go to Abel Tasman National Park, but don’t overlook amazing inland options. Nearby Nelson Lakes National Park has tons of different options, from short little hikes to multi-day treks.
We drove to the visitor center and asked for their recommendation, then set off for the Pinchgut Track. I’ve done a whole post about our hike up Pinchgut Track and the beautiful Roitoiti Lake, which I highly recommend.
Do something extreme
While Nelson isn’t as known for extreme sports as Queenstown, it still has a lot to offer. We weren’t planning on going to Queenstown and I had always wanted to try skydiving—so I did it as a 30th birthday present to myself. I’ve shared a lot more about this awesome experience here, but it’s fair to say that I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and it’s a great option if you’re looking for something unique.
Nelson has other adventure options, from kayaking and canoeing to 4WD offroading to intense hiking, so definitely seek out whatever floats your boat.
So there you have it—all sorts of ideas for spending time in the Nelson area of New Zealand’s South Island. As promised, here’s a download of my research on Ideas For What To Do In Nelson, NZ in case it’s helpful for your own trip planning. The absolute biggest thing I really wanted to do in the area that we didn’t get to was a day trip to Kaikoura. It looks amazing but we really didn’t have the time.
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