Perhaps more than any other part of the country, the Nelson Tasman region offers a rich amount to be discovered within a relatively short distance - meaning it's possible to get by without even a single "Are we there yet?" from the backseat commentators.
Cliched it may sound, leaving behind a grotty Auckland day to land in sunny Nelson was certainly a mood-lifter. Unjustly, I wished for the rain clouds to remain over Tamaki Makaurau throughout the week of our absence (the garden, you know), while the sun gods smiled contentedly on the top of the South Island.
We were met at the airport by Hamish of Road Abode, who collected us in our home for the next week: a four-berth Fiat motorhome. Hamish gave us a quick how-to at their depot and we packed all our luggage away in the many handy compartments - this thing had more storage than our house. And we were off. Almost. One dash back to the airport (laptop left on flight - quick turnaround flight schedules can be a blessing sometimes), just a few wrong turns later (maybe next time, Westport) and we were rolling down the pretty Appleby Highway towards Mapua. We spent several days pottering around the region clocking up experiences, and we're already plotting our next visit.
Here's my guide to happy family roadtripping in and around Nelson.
EAT AND DRINK
There are so many things the climate and soils of this region excel at producing - chiefly produce like berries, stonefruit and vegetables, grapevines and hops. The region has a 150 year-long tradition of growing hops and it's known the world over for the quality and variety of beer produced. Stunning fresh produce can be bought from roadside stalls with honesty boxes and orchard shops up and down the main highways and back roads. Many also offer fresh fruit icecreams made with cherries and berries - the perfect punctuation for a hot afternoon. On our last day, en route to the airport, we called into Berrylands on the Appleby Highway for one last treat and a quick PYO session, coming away with a kilo of raspberries and karaka berries (a delicious cross between a boysenberry and a blackberry).
Many of the wineries have cellar doors and some have restaurants, too. Mahana in Upper Moutere is a lovely small-scale winery with a very good bistro. And at Rimu on Mapua Wharf, you can taste many of the region's wines.
We felt truly spoilt for choice on the beer front. Before sitting down to a hearty lunch at McCashin's Brewery home of Stoke beer, the four of us took a tour of the brewery to whet our appetite. McCashin's really stirred up the brewing scene in Nelson at a time when the two big breweries had a duopoly, and paved the way for many later craft producers.
We loved the range of interesting beers from the region and around NZ on tap at The Free House where the kids picked from a whole room of toys and played in the sunny garden. Owner Eelco joined us for a delicious sour beer, and explained he loves that the place is popular with families as it positively modifies the drinking and behaviour of the adults.
Craft Beer Depot also offers a host of craft beers to enjoy by the pint onsite or take away.
Sunset on the terrace at Moutere Inn looking out to the mountains was special - enjoyed with a pint of Mussel Inn's Captain Cook, made with manuka honey, and a selection of dishes to share from its menu. When the current owners took over in 2008, they got rid of the pokie machines and TV screens blaring sports so the pub has a comforting hum of happy conversation and the feel of being a community hub.
And Hop Federation in Riwaka was a neat stop-off on the way back from a day in the Abel Tasman National Park, to taste their range and pick up a few cold ones. Riwaka hops are some of the most revered worldwide.
THINGS TO DO
Blessed with varied shorelines, Nelson Tasman offers a host of activities to get stuck into. Basing ourselves at Tahunanui meant the wide beach was right on our doorstep and the coming and going tide made each visit different. It also meant we caught the Tahunanui Summer Series, a free, family-friendly summer concert on the beach.
A trip to Mapua is a must. The historic wharf has developed into a lovely cluster of places to eat and drink and it's also home to Trail Journeys, where you can hire bicycles and book guided cycle tours or learn about self-guided trails. Co-owner Andrew was on hand to fit the four of us for bikes. Or three, as it turned out, after our 5-year-old successfully demonstrated her exhaustion and was offered the tag-along - a clip-on that went on the back of an adult bike. We had allowed only the afternoon so we kept things close and hopped on the ferry that crosses the estuary to Rabbit Island. We spent a few hours pedalling the trails, squashing big locusts on the path and exploring the driftwood huts along the shoreline before catching the last ferry back to Mapua. Our two watched in awe as the bigger kids did bombs off the wharf before we soaked up the last rays with fresh strawberry icecreams from the kiosk and a pint of Golden Bear Brewery's American Wheat beer.
The Abel Tasman is the country's smallest national park but offers a wealth of options for explorers of all ages. Longer walks with overnight stays in huts, campgrounds and lodges require booking well in advance in summer, as the park is fair swarming with visitors, but water taxis can be booked at the kiosks on Kaiteriteri's spectacular beach (we couldn't resist a quick swim before the boat departed). We booked a Wilson's boat in and out of Anchorage Bay and had time for the Pit Loop walk to a fantastic lookout and a refreshing swim at stunning Te Puketea Bay, plus another dip at Anchorage as we awaited the return ferry. A fourth swim was squeezed in, too, where we disembarked at Little Kaiteriteri. It was hard to bid farewell to this special corner of our country, with its turquoise water and peachy-hued sand.
We wanted to pack the entire Saturday market up and bring it home with us. Lucky city to have this weekly, filling central Montgomery Square with amazing fresh produce, artisan products and crafts, all made in NZ and most locally. We sampled and bought goodies like bulbs of garlic and Thai shallots, Urban Hippie's miso paste and miso dressing, big punnets of fat juicy berries, Wangapeka's horopito-flecked cheese, Pic's nut butters, macadamia nuts, a pounamu pendant and a few cheerful vintage toy cars to add to our collection.
The spectacular show that is World of WearableArt (WOW) got too big for Nelson some years ago, but this is its proud hometown, where founder Dame Suzie Moncrieff first took art to the stage in a community hall with 200 guests, in 1987. The WOW museum in Nelson displays a wealth of garments from previous years with lighting, music and footage to create a feeling of being part of a show. Wandering in among the garments for more than an hour, the kids were just as captivated as I was. Adjoining the WOW display and on the same ticket you gain entry to the Nelson Classic Cars Collection; this was also a big hit with our lot.
We spent the week mooching around in a four-berth Fiat motorhome from Road Abode. This was our first experience in the RV world, and opting for a small, family-run business felt right - personal service and all that, but also, as we quickly learned as Hamish familiarised us with our home on wheels, the bonus of the motorhome coming equipped with linen, duvets, pillows, crockery and cutlery, even salt and pepper; we wanted for nothing.
The layout meant the kids were secured side-by-side on the comfy sofa-style seating down the back. They had space on either side to keep books and snacks (and collapse for a nap, which happened often). With a good few metres between us and them, we were on the verge of being out of earshot; don't hate on me but this was undeniably quite relaxing.
Road Abode's owners Hamish and Jen also offer the first night of your hire period at their homestay, a beautiful sprawling home above the peaceful Waimea Inlet, looking out to Rabbit Island. The rest of the time we parked up on a powered site at Tahuna Beach Holiday Park a large campground just a few minutes stroll from the beach. It has an in-ground trampoline, mini-golf course and playground and they run buses to the beach and into the city.
Jetstar flies daily from Auckland to Nelson, with one-way fares starting from $49.