Nelson is host to a bike path that meanders through beautiful countryside and stops at top food producers, finds Catherine Smith.

They had me at the name.

When a cycle trail is called the Great Taste Trail, then clearly, this is the one for me.

I'd been in Nelson a year or two ago when the first sections of the trail, part of the Nga Haerenga National Cycle Trail were just opening up.

The region was a perfect poster-place: it already the beginnings of a network of commuter trails in Nelson and there were some off-road walks.

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To help, it had an extremely active volunteer board and some deep tourism experience, so successfully pitched for government dollars to connect the dots.

It helps that the region is stuffed with fabulous food places, artists, wineries and artisan brewers, with mountains on one side and the golden beaches, bush and clear waters of the Abel Tasman National Park right there.

The trails, kicked off by one of John Key's jobs think-fests, are not just about making jobs building the infrastructure (although all those over-bridges, and board walks and gravel paths take a lot of work) but about building great tourist attractions.

I was there last weekend as the Great Taste Trail kicked off its ace card: an off-road path from Motueka through Riwaka to Kaiteriteri at the start of the Abel Tasman.

There would be few other national parks anywhere in the world that you can cycle to, off road, all the way from the main airport city.

I was there in glorious spring weather and was astonished to find nearly 300 people all togged up for the Saturday opening: kids, grannies, frockers, only the odd smattering of Lycra.

Our guide was Rose Griffin from The Gentle Cycling Company - her lovely company, launched five years ago, is gentle by name, gentle by nature.

The bikes are good city-discovery bikes (easy gears, we sit up in a skirt-friendly way, no Lycra although we do don the dreaded fluoro vest as we're being photographed).

Rose supplies the most detailed maps, with every eating spot, art gallery, brewery and sight-seeing spot marked, each with her Good Things recommendations.

There's even a little basket to stash your smaller purchases (or she'll arrange pickup if the wine buying gets into the case-load rather than by the bottle).

We were cycling with Darryl Wilson from the famous Wilsons Abel Tasman walks and lodges, his partner Lucy who guides, when she isn't writing up the company's fascinating stories and working on her novel, plus a few other friends.

Gentle Cycling and Wilsons have made the most of their local knowledge, creating a Pleasure Seeker's Triathlon: a two-day ride with Rose from Nelson to Kaiteriteri, before joining the Wilsons' Abel Tasman guided three- or five-day walking, cruising and kayaking explorations through the park.

It's on my summer to do list, pronto.


Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park's clear waters. Photo / Getty Images

Naturally Brooke, the eight-year-old in the party, on her happy little pink bike sped ahead, putting the grownups to shame.

We were too busy stopping to photograph the whitebaiters on the river outside Mot (I lost count after two dozen, the place was packed) and taking side-trips to check out pretty farm buildings.

The 16km of the Mot-to-Kaiteriteri section is meant to take an hour or two, but all timetables were abandoned when we got to Riwaka and discovered the Hop Federation, a brewery opened only last year by Auckland sea-changers Simon and Nicki Nicholas (he's ex-Hallertau).

Their brews have already picked up medals in the Beer Awards - they are in the heart of hop country, so it seems only right to support them (safe tastings only, before you write to the editor).

Along with a very hip cafe, Ginger Dynamite (his mandarin and rosemary ginger pop is essential cycling fuel) and produce/coffee shop, Mrs Smiths, these are the sorts of businesses that will prove Mr Key right: build a cycle trail and the innovators will come.

Sadly, the cherry stand won't be open for business until the fruit comes on at Christmas, but along the trail Rose reckons there are more than 30 different fruit stands as the summer progresses.

Like I said, my kind of trail.

The hardest bit of the trail is the hill up to the Kaiteriteri Mountain Bike Park, which is hilly and a bit hair-pinny, but not scary and probably only 20 minutes long (I'd long abandoned checking the time by that point).

You don't need a hard-core bike to do it, and the unembarrassable (me) can just get off and walk in the bush and take a zillion photos of the views from the top of the hills, pretending that was the plan all along.

The downhill bit is huge fun and then - boom - you're in Kaiteriteri and that heart-breakingly pretty cove.

We then joined a mini break, with a water taxi to the Wilson's Torrent Bay Lodge - more golden sand, clear water, sunrise over an empty beach - and a hike through the Abel Tasman back to Anchorage Bay.

Our lodge companions were a Scottish couple in raptures at the bush, the sea, the wonderful guides and so on.

Best of all, I had to breathe and not post a thousand gee-whizz moments on Instagram, as we were out of coverage. Perfect.


On the Great Taste Trail. Photo / The Gentle Cycling Company

Top eats on the trail

Nelson is rightly proud of its food reputation, and plenty of the best spots are on the Great Taste Trail.

On the Ruby coast section of the cycle trail, Jesters' gong as New Zealand winner of 2013 cafe awards barely begins to do the place justice. Since 1991, Judy and Steve Richards have been shaping their country lifestyle around the cafe, which was built with sustainable local timber and light-pressed earth.

The baking here is amazing, Steve's garden concoctions a delight, they run school holiday events, a mad 'boot' B & B (check the website), the garden is a standout (in a province of unbeatable gardeners) and the tame eels spooky-but-charming.

In town, the seafront locations of The Boat House and Styx (with the famous Guyton's seafood market in between) both feature seafood pulled straight from the fleet of fishing boats, with stunning sunset views.

Or take the trip over the Takaka hill, past Takaka township in Golden Bay to Ratanui Lodge, in Pahara. Owners Steve and Pete do a beautifully presented three-course dinner, for a mere $55. Not surprisingly the antique-filled dining room is packed every night. Worth a stop after your Farewell Spit tour.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Nelson from Auckland up to eight times a day with seat, seat + bag, flexitime and flexiplus fares available.

Details: Nelson Tasman have packaged themselves as the heart of cycling, with Great Taste Trail, the Dun Mountain Trail (serious mountain bikers) and the Maungatapu Track (even more hardcore) as well as safe cycle touring routes - something for every level. Clever.