Abel Tasman's coastal track meanders past some of our most beautiful bays and beaches, writes Neville Peat.

Fancy a glorious day out tramping through the heart of a national park with only sunscreen and a water bottle on your back, and a taxi service doing the hard yards?

That's Abel Tasman National Park for you.

Our smallest national park is also our most accessible. It has just 54km of coastal track, which ties together a series of beaches and estuaries that are conveniently spaced out. You are never more than a couple of hours' walk from putting your toe in the sea.

And that's where the taxi service comes in — water taxis. Motor launches, small and large, and sturdy double-decker catamarans operate a timetable service from Marahau and Kaiteriteri. They stop at half a dozen bays and beaches inside the national park — Anchorage, Torrent Bay, Onetahuti, Bark Bay, Awaroa and Totaranui.

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On a sparkling day, the boats and the genial light of summer make you think of a Greek Islands experience. The main islands along the national park coast are Fisherman, Adele, Pinnacle and Tonga, and there are striking rock stacks everywhere.

Efficient access by water is what distinguishes Abel Tasman from all other national parks in New Zealand. Launches, including 8m-long, 19-seater Ospreys, can negotiate beach landings around the tidal range thanks to a push-button anchoring system that can winch them out of shallow sand.

This means you can jump ashore at any bay or beach early in the day, enjoy a walk to the next pick-up point or the one after that, and get whisked back to where you left your car later in the day. You can even go on a sea kayak excursion out of Anchorage.

Favourite walks are from Bark Bay back to Anchorage or north to Onetahuti and Awaroa. For overnight walkers there is a choice of accommodation at Awaroa — a Department of Conservation hut (26 bunks), a privately run backpacker complex and an adjacent luxury lodge. The stylish restaurant at the lodge is an unexpected pleasure.

Onetahuti is a postcard-perfect beach in the heart of the park.

The coastline for several kilometres north and south of Onetahuti Beach is a haven for marine life. For 20 years it has been protected by Tonga Island Marine Reserve, and the island itself, 1.5km off Onetahuti, is more or less in the geographic centre of the marine reserve.

On a warm day, with nikau palms adorning lush forest behind the strip of creamy-orange sand, you might be transported in your mind to the Tonga of tropical Polynesia.

Actually, there is a historical connection. In December 1642, the Dutch exploring expedition led by Abel Tasman, which put New Zealand (Staten Landt) on the world map, cruised into Golden Bay just north of the national park but the two ships were driven away by Maori with the loss of four men. The Dutch sailed north without landing in New Zealand and the first opportunity they had to take on fresh food and water was in Tonga, weeks later.

To mark the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman's visit, a national park was created in his honour in 1942. Occupying an indented promontory separating Tasman Bay and Golden Bay, it became New Zealand's fourth national park (of 14 to date) after Tongariro (1887), Egmont (1900) and Arthurs Pass (1929).

Whether you choose to tramp the whole of the coastal track (three or four days), do a day walk or cruise the coast by boat or kayak, you will be exploring New Zealand's "people's park".

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Nelson from Auckland up to four times daily. The southern and main gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park is Marahau, 67km from Nelson.

Lace up your tramping boots: See the Department of Conservation's website for details of walks in Abel Tasman National Park.

Further information: See nelsonnz.com.