Some unenlightened souls from foreign lands and other parts of New Zealand might think otherwise, but the people who reside in the Tasman province never doubt they live close to paradise.
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, 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, outdoor 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 of the country’s best wines and are open most of the year for tasting.
With the region’s hills, sea and 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 “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 a 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”.
- Streaking across Nelson’s inner harbour, Boulder Bank is a unique, naturally created landform. The 13km 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 8km long!
- Off the road from Richmond to Mapua, Rabbit Island is bordered by a long grey beach and plenty of shady day-time parking on the grassy sand dunes. A favourite with the locals for picnics and walks
- Cable Bay is 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 is a magnificent 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 illustrates what Nelson life would have been like between 1880 and 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 site
- Miyazu Japanese Garden is a lovely spot for a bit of solitary contemplation among the zen garden, pathways, pools and bushy arbours
- Lined with dinky little cottages opening straight onto the pavement, South Street is the cutest street in town. Now classified as an historic precinct, some cottages are people’s homes, others are rented to visitors.
- The restored Fairfield House (circa 1883), and the seven-acre woodland that surrounds it, is the pride of Nelson
- Nelson Cathedral is the city’s most imposing building with its commanding 35m-high tower
Eat, drink, be merry
- Melrose House and Garden is a grand Victorian home featuring a café in two magnificent rooms, spilling out onto a verandah that overlooks an impressive sweep of garden
- From the outside, the Royal Theatre is historically interesting, with its handsome Edwardian façade painted a startling pink and mauve. It’s thought to be the oldest theatre in New Zealand on its original site, opened in 1878
- Guyton’s on Wakefield Quay has long held first prize for the city’s best fresh fish selection.
Edited extract from Road Trip (Bauer Trader, RRP $14.90). Available from bookstores and supermarkets.