Nelson: Tasman's treasure

By Catherine Smith

Catherine Smith jumped at the chance to bike and hike her way through Nelson's stunning landscape

Boulder Bank Lighthouse.
Boulder Bank Lighthouse.

It wasn't fair, really - the others just didn't stand a chance.

The minute I heard of the invitation to explore Nelson's food and wine, by bike, I was elbowing my colleagues out of the way. My eyes had been opened to Nelson as a foodie spot a year or two earlier, when I'd been there for a food writers' conference, so I was keen to see just what was available for regular visitors.

Throw in a day in the Abel Tasman National Park and the perfect weekend getaway had my name on it.

The weather goddess had turned on a beaut, three days of a perfect winter climate: sunny, not too hot to be bothersome on the hiking and cycling days, clear enough you feel you could reach out and touch the surrounding mountains.

There's something about being in a town surrounded by craggy mountains that makes me come over all "this land is my land" patriotic. Its technically not the Southern Alps, but puts shame to those lumps we call mount-this-and-that in Auckland. It also makes for a region of interesting valleys and distinct country "neighbourhoods".

On Four Wheels

Moutere Artisans are one of the first groups to have really worked up a great day out around their village. Clustered around the Moutere Highway, Old Coach and Neudorf Rds are more than 20 wineries, food places, pretty B&Bs and galleries. Some are by appointment only. Some, like the strawberries, are only open in summer - but most are welcoming.

I wanted to move into the sophisticated Woollaston Estates at the start of the route. Named for one of the owners, painter Toss Woollaston's son Philip, the winery boasts a stunning setting, a striking building, enviable art and a pretty good drop, too. Oregon architect Laurence Ferar designed the concrete and sod-roof building to follow the contour of the hill, using gravity to move the grapes and wine through production to bottling.

No pumping means the fragile pinot noir and sauvignon blanc - certified organic - is disturbed as little as possible. From the magnificent Marte Szirmay steel sculpture at the gate to the medieval-meets-modern barrel room and function space, this was a breathtaking introduction to Tasman's wineries. No poor cousins to Marlborough, at all.

At the other end of the scale - and an equally desirable place to stay - is the restored villa of potters Katie Gold and Owen Bartlett. They too have a glorious entry installation. Their picturesque, tumbledown original settler house at the entrance to their cottage garden is now my computer's screensaver.

While Katie's clay vessels are surface printed and ornately layered, Owen's jugs and bowls are comfortingly utilitarian. His work is sold at the old Post Office over the road, now restored in vintage chic style to house Moutere Gold. Owner Joanne Costar makes jams and chutneys (her raspberry jam is summer on a spoon), sells the stunning Neudorf cheeses and a nicely curated range of vintage-style crafts. Her family's Harakeke Farm Wines is sold right next door, complete with gravel courtyard right out of France.

Completing the cluster is the Moutere Inn, the oldest pub in New Zealand (built in the 1850s but sadly chopped about in the last century). The good news is that the old girl is now owned by the chaps from Hops and Glory, early promoters of craft beers from the region, and is now winning gongs for its beverage selection. Since I wasn't able to eat five dinners in a day, I couldn't stop for their good-looking meals. A person has to press on.

Between the valley and the city is the famed Hoglund Art Glass studio. In true Scandinavian style, the clean, airy white space is a perfect showcase for the jewel-like glass.

Owners Ola Hoglund and Marie Simberg-Hoglund have the luxury of a winter gallery outside of Port Douglas, Queensland, so we didn't see them in action in their kilns, but summer visitors can see the studio in production.

Right in Nelson town, visitors can also check out more artisans and, if you time it right, blokes blissfully maintaining their old steam machines at Founders Heritage Park. A cross between Motat and a themed shopping village, this centre is buzzing in the summer with an on-site brewery and a couple of industrial-vintage buildings converted for function use.

Aware of all the glorious local produce and seafood fresh off the boats, I was hanging out for some great dining. Local legend Guytons Fisheries is brimming: scallops from Tasman and Golden Bays, salmon from Picton, turbot from the West Coast. As we arrived for dinner next door at The Styx, the sky was lit up with fireworks: no they didn't know I was coming, it was the start of the weekend's Blessing of the Boats, an ancient tradition to keep the fishermen safe as they head out at the start of the spring season.

In their honour, I gorged on a huge bowl of Cloudy Bay clams and pipi in a creamy, garlicy linguine. It was surprising I had room after my late lunch at Petite Fleur, on the grounds of Seifried Estate Winery. German chef Horst Wellmeyer sent out plate after plate of his own cured meats and cheeses, crab bisque, monk fish on the creamiest potatoes, while regaling us with his food tales and forcing just four tiny puddings on us as our attention started to flag.

Dine at the delectable Orangerie Restaurant.
Dine at the delectable Orangerie Restaurant.

Luckily, breakfasts and dinner on my last night was back in The Orangerie Restaurant in the grounds of my brick village-style hotel, the Grand Mecure Nelson Monaco, so I didn't have to stagger far. At that point a single diner, I loved how attentive the service was and how happily they packaged up my cheese platter to have back in my room (local Wangapeka Downs cheeses including a nettle gouda - too good to ignore).

On Water and Foot

I wish I'd realised earlier in my life how handy to civilisation the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park is. In less than an hour from my digs on a quiet Saturday morning I was having coffee on Kaiteriteri's golden beach (the brochures aren't lying) waiting to head up to Totaranui with Wilsons water taxis. Darryl Wilson's family have been hosting visitors to Abel Tasman since the 1840s, with an enticing array of hiking, cruising and kayaking and some great beachfront lodges. His father built Meadowbank Homestead in the 1980s, a replica of the 1860s house, and every bay and bach seems to have a great family yarn attached.

In addition, our hiking guide Lucy Hodgson, and Adam and Shay who motored us up, seem to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the land, the trees and the wildlife.

Getting the local foreshore plan sorted to balance the needs of wilderness, local iwi, long-time bach owners and visitors took 15 long years. As we dropped hikers and kayakers at each bay - with a satisfying array of languages - I thought these "soft adventurers" were the sorts of tourists we needed: folks prepared to get their feet dirty, rather than have civilisation laid on.

To make the point, I met on my hike new New Zealanders, an American family who settled in Nelson for its blend of outdoors, arts and good food. Wendy works as an educator for the Project Janszoon trust, a 30-year restoration project funded by the same generous benefactors as Hauraki's Rotoroa Island. They were thrilled to be on the ground floor of the heritage of this park.

A little like Milford, Kaiteriteri can be teaming with buses and cars in the peak summer period (the motor camp has a three-year waiting list for the top spots) but by this summer the Great Taste Cycle Trail (part of the national Nga Haerenga trail) will run completely off-road from Mapua to Kaiteriteri, through Motueka and Riwaka.

I can't wait to try that pedal-hike-water combination and I imagine the crowds of two-wheeled Europeans will be delighted, too.

On Two Wheels

With the promise of riding from the city to the wilderness by the summer, I was happy to be guided by Rose Griffin of the Gentle Cycling Company through the bits of the Great Taste Trail that were already opened. In the shuttle van first, we whizzed by the wineries and apple orchards of Brightwater and Wakefield (about 31km on easy flat trails). With plenty of cafes and, in the summer, dozens of roadside fruit stalls (Rose counted nearly 20 last summer) this will be a great foodie outing.

Spend the day on Nelson's relaxing cycle trails.
Spend the day on Nelson's relaxing cycle trails.

But we were pedalling from Mapua back into town. Naturally we had to potter for coffee (sadly no beer or we'd be drink-riding) and at my favourite Country Trading Store, before catching the boat for the shortest ferry ride ever across the estuary to Rabbit Island. Actually more of a peninsula off a causeway, this is one of Nelson's favourite beach spots. Everyone from tots to ancients were out on their bikes, enjoying the wide sandy paths through the pine forests.

You can see where our tax dollars have gone on the coastal route back behind Richmond to Stoke, with attractive boardwalks over tidal estuaries and a splendid bridge or two (thanks, John Key). Our end point was McCashin's Cafe in Stoke for ales on tap and one of their splendid pies.

A keen rider could go all the way to Nelson, but this seemed like a good way to finish off a perfect winter weekend. I was right to bags this one.


Nelson Checklist

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily between Auckland and Nelson.

Accommodation: The Grand Mercure Nelson is handy to both the airport and the city centre.

Online: nelsonnz.com


Catherine Smith was a guest of Nelson Tasman Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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