Nelson: Revelling in the bounty of Tasman Bay

By Don Kavanagh

Marchfest, Nelson. Photo / Supplied
Marchfest, Nelson. Photo / Supplied

If you had to pick a place to visit for a beer festival, it would have to be Nelson, wouldn't it?

Apart from being home to New Zealand's entire hop production, the Nelson region is also home to a dazzling group of breweries and craft beer bars, all ploughing their own furrow and making Nelson very much the brewing capital of the country.

Add to that the abundance of locally produced food and wine and you have all the ingredients necessary for a brilliant festival.

Nelson could legitimately call itself the foodbasket of New Zealand, with a blinding array of local produce from fruit to seafood to meat. Artisan producers abound and the Marchfest site at the beautiful Founders Park, offers everything from freshly baked bread to whitebait fritters and venison sandwiches to help soak up the beer. The music helps too, being off to one side of the main beer areas, so it doesn't drown out the excited babble of conversation as beer freaks get their fix from a dozen or so local breweries.

Organisers Eelco Boswijk and Mic Dover have hit on a real winner with Marchfest, managing to satisfy even the most snobbish of beer geeks while maintaining a genuinely friendly, family safe festival. This isn't the place to come and get hammered, instead it is a place to try new brews and make new friends in a convivial atmosphere that is so laid back there is little need for the unobtrusive security guards.

And the beer is excellent, with each brewery coming up with a special festival brew, all containing a secret ingredient that drinkers had to guess. From marmalade-infused ales to bourbon-cask stouts, there was something for everyone.

My own favourite from last year was Sprig and Fern's Bluegrass Bounty, with its bourbon sweetness and hint of coconut offsetting the austere bitterness of the original stout.

It was while trying this that I caught up with Dave Barrett from the brewery and after we'd been through all the beers at Marchfest, we ended up sampling the entire Sprig and Fern range at both of the outlets in the town. It's that kind of a place.

And visitors to Marchfest should make the most of their time, because Nelson offers everything you could need to fill in a few days either side of the beer celebrations.

Restaurants and great bars abound, as do vineyards, breweries, nature walks, arts and craft experiences, fishing opportunities and pretty much anything you fancy.

A must-see is the WOW Museum, something I never thought I'd enjoy, but found enthralling. It's a permanent collection of costumes from the World of Wearable Arts extravaganza, which was born in Nelson, before being kidnapped by Wellington.

I'm not a huge fan of fashion, generally, but to see these incredible creations up close really adds a new dimension to it all. And it's an ideal couples venue, because it also houses a classic car collection that will keep petrol-heads in heaven for hours. I spent a long time gazing in wanton desire at a Jensen Interceptor and wondering how I could possibly smuggle it home with me. It broke my heart to leave it.

Accommodation is plentiful in Nelson but, to make the holiday really special, try treating yourself to A Culinary Experience, which is the name of a very classy bed and breakfast just outside the city.

Owned by expat American couple Kay Pastorius Waller and Joe Waller, this luxury hideaway overlooks the serene expanse of Tasman Bay from an elevated section where the couple offer a truly spellbinding stay.

Joe offers naturopathic massage and tends to his pinot noir grapes in the garden and Kay offers not just sumptuous feasts in the large welcoming kitchen area, but also teaches you how to do the same.

The accommodation is not only luxurious, but elegant and surprisingly private, with a visitor's lounge that boasts a television the size of a billboard. There is also a mouth-wateringly well-stocked wine cellar and I can personally attest to the utter deliciousness of the breakfast.

A Culinary Experience boasts that you'll arrive as a guest and leave as a friend and that is certainly the feeling you get. I haven't stayed in many places where I got a hug before leaving and it was impossible not to enjoy the company of Joe and Kay and their adorable dog.

Nelson is easy to get to and easy to navigate, making it the ideal spot for an autumn break. Making sure your break coincides with Marchfest is a must for anyone who loves beer. Get your tickets early.

Further information: See marchfest.com.

- Herald on Sunday

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