The Nelson-Marlborough region, at ‘the top of the South’, was one of the first settled by Maori 700 years ago. When Europeans, in 1841, founded their first settlement in the South Island, they also chose this site, and still today, Nelson is one of the most popular places to live and visit in the country. The climate is certainly favorable, mild and temperate, as Nelson is sheltered by the Grampians rising to the southeast. Many Europeans immigrants appreciate that Nelson, unlike subtropical Auckland on the North Island for instance, has four very distinct seasons.
What I love most about New Zealand’s art and shunshine capital however, is not the climate or city itself, but its proximity to three national parks, unspoiled sandy beaches, and Golden Bay. Equally close by are the Marlborough Region wineries and vineyards, filled with rows upon rows of grapevines spreading a dark green leaf canopy across New Zealand’s largest winegrowing region and producing world-renowned Sauvignon Blanc. The spectacular scenery around Nelson also forms stunning filming locations for scenes from Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’.
I feel very comfortable talking about Nelson. I lived there myself for four years before moving back to Europe at 19 and my Mum, a Nelsonian of more than 20 years, knows this place inside and out. Nevertheless, I was keen to hear a native-born Kiwi’s opinion on Nelson, tourism in New Zealand, and the locals’ favorite outdoor spots and activities in the region. When I told my Mum, she immediately suggested I meet with her friend and manager, Annette.
Born and raised as one of seven children in Southland, Annette trained in teaching, then nursing, and in 1989 founded INP Medical Clinic, an award-winning women’s health and family planning clinic in Nelson.
For the past 30 years, she’s supported girls and women in the area through the clinic, in addition she has also acted as Clinical Director for Women, Child & Youth Services in the Nelson-Marlborough District Health Board. Having lived in the area for so long, she had lots of favorite places she shared with me.
Our combined top 20 places & restaurants to visit in and around Nelson
In Nelson and up to 30min drive from the city
1. Maitai River
Go swimming in a waterhole along the Maitai River (near the Centre of New Zealand). There are several, like Girlies, Black, Denne’s and Sunday Holes. Also it’s a great place for running and walking.
2. + 3. Tahunani Beach
A few minutes’ drive or walk from the city center, Tahunanui Beach is very popular with the locals, especially kite surfers, and has wonderful views across Tasman Bay as well as great, award-winning ice cream at the Appleby Farms food truck.
4. + 5. Rabbit Island
A 20-min drive from Nelson, this island is in large parts covered in pine plantation forest, that provides shade to the sandy tracks for runners, walkers, and bikers crisscrossing the island. On the way back, stop at Berrylands for the world’s best real fruit ice cream.
6. Centre of New Zealand
The Centre of New Zealand on Botanical Hill has sweeping views of the city and Tasman Bay. It’s an easy 30 min walk starting at the Botanical Reserve.
7. Mapua Wharf
Situated by Waimea Estuary, a 30-min drive from Nelson, Mapua Wharf has lovely restaurants, cafes, galleries and local art stores.
An internationally renowned design show and competition, that was started in Nelson in 1987, but has since moved to Wellington to accommodate tens of thousands of visitors. The Museum of Wearable Arts however is still located in Nelson.
By far the best restaurant in town
10. Melrose House
Gorgeous historic home and cafe with delicious brunch and afternoon tea.
Beautiful craft and food market 8am-1pm; Doris has the best bratwurst in New Zealand.
Hacket track, starting in Aniseed Valley, makes for a great half-day hike to Hacket Hut (5.7km one way; 6 bunks) or Browning Hut (8.1km one way; 8 bunks). You can also stay overnight in either hut with no prior booking required.
Up to 1 hour drive from Nelson
13. Pelorus Bridge
This beautiful scenic reserve was a filming location for scenes from Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’. The Pelorus River is a little chilly but has wonderful rock pools for swimming
14. Kaiteriteri Beach
This is arguably New Zealand’s most beautiful beach. An hour’s drive from Nelson, the golden sand beach with its stunning turquoise water is a great place for swimming, kayaking, boat trips and hiking in nearby Abel Tasman Park.
15. Abel Tasman National Park
The Abel Tasman Coast Track, 51km in total, is one of 10 Great Walks in New Zealand, and among the most popular overnight hikes in the country. The track can easily be broken up into shorter sections suitable for day walks as water taxis and cruises ferry passengers to several points along the route.
A 70km multi-day hiking track in the Marlborough Sounds. Unusual for tracks in New Zealand, the Queen Charlotte offer Pack Transfers, allowing you to hike with your daypack while your heavy luggage is transferred by water taxi.
1-3 hours drive from Nelson
17. Nelson Lakes National Park
There are many hiking trails at Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. Lake Rotoiti Circuit is either a 23 km (river crossing), or a 31km (swing bridge crossing) loop walk, estimated 7-10 hours.
18. Golden Bay
Don’t let the 2-hour drive across the Takaka Hills deter you from a weekend trip to Golden Bay. Farewell Spit, Wharariki Beach, Salisbury Falls, and Te Waikoropupū Springs are well worth the drive.
19. + 20. Marlborough wine region
Wine tastings and lunch at one of the vineyards are very popular and in high season, reservations are required even on weekdays. Close to the wine growing region, Whites Bay is a fairly off the beaten path sheltered bay, with a gorgeous sandy beach.
We met at Koush, one of the best coffee shops in town, and started off discussing, not Nelson or tourism, but architecture and arts in Chicago. As I have never been to Chicago and know nothing at all about art, it was actually less of a discussion than her telling me about ‘one of the most underrated cities’ in the world. Annette spoke with great passion and I was immediately taken with her infectious enthusiasm. She convinced me to read ‘The devil in the white city’, a historical non-fiction book about a serial killer set in Chicago in 1893, which initially lured her to the city. Far more interesting than the slaughter of women is the book’s vivid description of a vibrant, rapidly expanding city at the turn of the century. I added Chicago to our bucket list.
But why would someone like her, so passionate about art, galleries, culture and architecture, live in Nelson, a city of 50’000 give or take? ‘The lifestyle,’ she explained. Nelson may not offer a wealth of cultural attractions, but it provides what Kiwis value dearly: an abundance of recreational time, and 9-5-hour workdays. Unlike countries abroad, a healthy work-life balance is still the norm in Nelson. Already Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch are different I was told, more competitive and more stressed.
To enjoy vibrant big-city life and an endless choice of museums, galleries, shows and restaurants, one can travel, but not for a better work-life balance, she rightly pointed out.
Other than a lack of cultural activities, were there any downsides to living in Nelson then? She thought briefly and pointed at her grey hair. She explained that the city was fast ‘becoming a retirement home’, as the arty hippies of old were now ‘silver heads walking the streets’. Indeed, Nelson City Council projects ‘the number of Nelson residents aged 65 and over […] to more than double between 2013 and 2043, and […] make up a third of the total Nelson population by 2043.’
The city has experienced a steady influx in residents even before the earthquake hit Christchurch, and many New Zealanders started moving north. Young people and families however, struggle with the lack of job opportunities and particularly with a shortage of affordable housing supply in the city center.
As the young working force, is compelled into the rapidly expanding outer suburbs and neighboring towns, commuters to Nelson’s downtown, cause the city cardiac arrest twice a day, clogging the main traffic arteries running southwest. We witnessed the worst of it on an early morning run, along the Maitai River, towards Tahunanui Beach, up Moana Ave, Princess Drive and back through Washington Valley towards the Centre of New Zealand. This used to be one of my favorite running routes, especially the stretch along the seaside promenade on Rocks Road, but no more. Passing bumper-to-bumper traffic and almost choking on exhaust fumes despite a gentle sea breeze blowing inland, I wished I’d chosen the Maitai valley for a run.
I promised my Mum I’d write about freedom camping. It was impossible to get away from this controversial issue in fact. Even walking back from dinner at Hopgood’s restaurant one night, I was surprised to see a large number of rundown minivans packed tightly in a blue square painted on Montgomery Carpark. When I asked my Mum about them, she replied with a disapproving frown and distaste in her voice, that these freedom campers would spend the night in that blue square. There are 25 spaces for certified self-contained vehicles in Montgomery Carpark but most vans we passed did not display a self-contained sticker. It seemed freedom campers were tolerated but barely and reluctantly, so why? When only few countries like Norway permit wild camping, and most don’t, why should New Zealand?
Days later, having coffee with Annette, I got an answer. ‘Freedom camping is in our culture,’ she explained. New Zealanders have always camped wild. She herself lived in a van for some time and traveled the country with her partner. ‘But no one would ever have known we were there,’ she stressed, ‘we left no traces.’ Nowadays New Zealanders are afraid to freedom camp themselves because the population is tired of these visitors, mainly young Europeans, travelling the country on the cheap, too cheap in fact. While I’m a strong advocate for young people traveling, on the cheap if need be, there is some truth in Mum’s comment, ‘Why don’t they save the airfare and travel Italy!’
Freedom camping has always been allowed, but only recently has become a serious problem. I think it’s the very opposite of what is known as a policy of ‘high value & low impact’ tourism pursued by Bhutan. For one, the number of foreign freedom campers doubled in two years to 110.000 in 2017 (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) and white beat-up minivans are flooding the country. Also, their daily spending is only half that of average visitors to New Zealand (NZ Herald).
Much worse than the lack of value added to the economy though, many foreign freedom campers are completely oblivious to the fact (or simply don’t care) that their overnight stop is a local’s home. Nelsonians stumble across feces hastily covered with toilet paper in their front yards and nature reserves. After using a public toilet, they cannot wash their hands because the sink is stacked with dirty dishes. At Riverside Pool, regulars wait forever to use the showers that freedom campers mistook for a guest laundry. Such ignorance is insufferable and will eventually take freedom away from camping. Mum recounted a story in the newspapers about a French freedom camper, who boasted of traveling New Zealand cheaper than anyone else – by raiding honesty boxes (roadside stalls with home-grown produce operating like an honesty bar). I was appalled by such gross impertinence and reminded of a lengthy discussion at work with my former French manager. She had recently moved to Switzerland and was absolutely perplexed to learn that vegetables, fruit, eggs, honey, flowers and other homegrown and homemade foods were sold at honesty boxes. ‘So it’s for free then,’ she assumed. When we denied that, she was truly astonished. ‘In France, people would just take everything without paying,’ she said. I wouldn’t know but have in fact never seen similar roadside stalls in France. In New Zealand they’re a common sight but how much longer this Kiwi tradition will survive is anybody’s guess.