By Lee Foster
The Nelson-Marlborough region at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island offers a visitor three of the most appealing aspects of the country—nature at its best in the Abel Tasman Park and Marlborough Sounds, wine and food in the country’s premier wine region of Marlborough, and a progressive artistic/cultural spirit for which Nelson is well known.
Devote a week to a trip here and much can be enjoyed.
Among many possible nature experiences, kayaking the coastline of the Abel Tasman National Park and swimming with dolphins in Marlborough Sounds were highlights of my adventures here.
Starting from Nelson, I sea kayaked on a guided trip from Kaiteriteri Beach to a land form called Split Apple Rock along the Abel Tasman National Park coast. The coast is wild and forested, with steep hillsides, and some wildlife, such as abundant cormorants. My kayak trip launched from Wilsons Abel Tasman ticket booth on Kaiteriteri Beach.
After the sea kayaking adventure, I boarded another Wilsons company watercraft, an excursion catamaran that goes back and forth on a fixed route along the scenic national park coast, offering what is called a Vista Cruise. The boat drops and picks up travelers where they wish along this wild landscape of golden sand beaches, native bush forests, stark granite outcroppings, and stunning coastal views. I dropped in at Tonga Quarry and hiked to a ridge to survey the wild bush landscape, full of silver fern, then returned to the beach to wait for my pick-up. At the beach I was able to get close to several resting cormorants that were relatively fearless.
A day later, after taking a scenic drive through the mountains and forests from Nelson to Marlborough, I enjoyed a “dolphin encounter” cruise out of Picton with Dolphin Watch Ecotours. On the cruise I was able to observe hundreds of bottlenose dolphins in the wilds along the waterways. Everyone on board our catamaran excursion boat who wanted to could don a wet suit and literally get in the water with the pinnipeds. There were four “drops” into the water, and on the fourth immersion a couple of curious bottlenose came up to our group and swam underneath, a few feet away. There are five main types of dolphins and seals which meet in Marlborough Sounds.
On another day in Marlborough Sounds I enjoyed a cruise out on Kenepuru Sound to savor the scenery and see the greenshell mussel farms, which flourish here. Not only is the waterway a thing of beauty, but the pristine quality of water allows for the farming of greenshell mussels on long ropes. Salmon are also farmed in massive pens. On the excursion cruise, I tasted some steamed greenshell mussels and grilled salmon, accompanied by good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wine.
Any cruise out on the Marlborough Sounds affords an opportunity to enjoy the extensive marine waterways and their mountain backdrops, which compare favorably with the fjords of Norway or other great meetings of steep landscape and the sea.
Wine and Food
Salmon and greenshell mussels, plus the abundant fruit and produce grown in the relatively warm climate around Nelson, complement a New Zealand specialty, lamb, that should be relished freely during a visit here. There are about 50 million sheep in New Zealand. One good dining option in Nelson is the Boat Shed Café, located along the waterfront.
Whatever is enjoyed in food should be accompanied by the wines of Marlborough and Nelson. Marlborough is the main wine-producing region in New Zealand. Sauvignon Blanc is the favored white wine varietal, followed by Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Among red wines, Pinot Noir is the notable varietal.
Nelson and Marlborough complement each other for the wine explorer. Nelson is known for several small family wineries, such as Seifried Winery and Neudorf Vineyards, where touring and tasting can be arranged. Seifried was the first winery in the area, dating from 1976.
Marlborough is the largest wine-producing region in the country, with major corporate vineyards, such as Nautilus Estates, Cloudy Bay Wines, Wither Hills Winery, and Wairau River Wines. These producers have enough output to participate in the worldwide wine distribution system. Each winery can be enjoyed at its tasting room, where food is also available. Marlborough has 103 wineries, 43 with tasting rooms, and produces about 75 percent of all New Zealand wine, including about 95 percent of the Sauvignon Blanc varietal for which the country is most famous.
Beyond wine production, the Nelson-Marlborough area is also a major fruit, herb, and vegetable growing region. Many orchards with apples and other fruit can be seen around Nelson. In Marlborough, there are organized half-day food tours that can take you to Stantons to appreciate olive tree cultivation, Hedgerow hydroponics to see strawberry production, Scotts Farm to peruse asparagus growing, and Thymebank Herbs to view how lettuce and herbs are raised in large hydroponics operations.
Art and Culture in Nelson
From the founding of the country in the 19th century, the town of Nelson has been a special cultural center. There is a spirit that is called the “Nelson vibe,” a certain flair for art and culture that is exceptional, considering the small population of only 43,000 in the city.
One illustration of this special Nelson Spirit is the World of WearableArt Museum (WOW), which celebrates art as human adornment. The museum houses a collection from the now-famous annual Wearable Art show, which became so popular that it was moved across the waterway to the larger city of Wellington. Besides art as clothing, the museum also houses a major automobile collection with about 110 restored vintage cars.
At the Nelson Provincial Museum I was fortunate enough to meet Brian Flintoff, who carves bones into traditional Maori instruments. The Maori were the first people of New Zealand, arriving about a thousand years ago. Flintoff carefully studied Maori culture and consulted with today’s Maori people. He then devoted decades to re-creating their musical instruments, mainly from carved bone, the Maori traditional material for making musical instruments. Today, much of his work can be seen at the museum. A book cataloging Flintoff’s creations and the lore surrounding them has been produced.
A parallel cultural stop in the Marlborough area can be made at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, which focuses on the World War I aircraft collection of movie producer Peter Jackson. You’ll see some interesting artifacts, such as American ace Eddie Rickenbacker’s flight suit, and many well-constructed replicas and re-enactments, such as a scene depicting the final fatal moments of the German ace, the Red Baron, who accounted for 80 kills of American aircraft before being shot down.
Tips for Travel to New Zealand
Bring a rain jacket to protect yourself from the frequent rains, which tend to blow through quickly.
Remember that the seasons are reversed, with New Zealand’s spring during the North American autumn and its summer during the North American winter.
Air flights from North America leave from San Francisco and Los Angeles for the direct, long-haul flight of about 13 hours to Auckland, the major city of New Zealand. Air New Zealand is the national airline. Small aircraft then fly south from Auckland to Nelson and Blenheim, allowing for exploration of the Nelson-Marlborough region.
For an immersion in New Zealand’s nature, wine/food, and culture, a visit to Nelson-Marlborough would be a good choice.
Nelson-Marlborough: If You Go
Dependable lodgings include the English-village-like Grand Mercure Nelson Monaco, in Nelson, and the Mercure Picton Marlborough Sounds, in Picton.
Another special hotel near Picton, accessible only by water, is the Lochmara Lodge, which emphasizes art and environmental restoration. This lodge’s Wildlife Recovery Center is breeding and releasing an endangered New Zealand bird, the kakariki.