Winter days are perfect for the natural beauty and the light festival, writes Kirsty Johnson.

Deep in the bush of the Abel Tasman National Park, four trampers are scuffing their feet along a sandy path, eyes intently scanning the canopy above.

Our guide, Lucy Hodgson, picks up a stick and knocks it against a tree trunk, "tap, tap, tap".

"They should be just here," she says. "Keep making a scratching sound, and they'll hear us."

We are looking for South Island robins, sweet but slightly ridiculous little birds with legs too long for their bodies.


A group was recently reintroduced to Pitt Head, a small point about a 45-minute boat ride from Kaiteriteri, in the hope they would flourish among the regenerating bush and the remnants of an ancient Maori pa.

The walk, about an hour round trip, is a small section of the Abel Tasman track, one of the country's Great Walks in an extremely popular national park.

It is short but, if you only have a weekend, like us, proves just enough to get a taste of the park's bird-filled bush, spectacular ocean views and shining golden bays.

We have come to Nelson for an early winter getaway on the last weekend of May.

Although driving rain upon arrival casts initial doubt on our destination choice, we wake up to the year's first dusting of snow on the Kahurangi Ranges. It is beautiful, and the day cold and clear. We are told the weather will remain like that for much of winter.

Hiking in Abel Tasman National Park. Photo / Nelson-Tasman Tourism
Hiking in Abel Tasman National Park. Photo / Nelson-Tasman Tourism

After rugging up against the cold, we head to the popular Nelson Market for breakfast. Stalls are filled with local cheeses, chocolates and raw foods. There are waffles and crepes, but a local at the ATM machine points us towards the fried-bread stand. Not content with plain, we order our rewana with bacon and banana, and eat it, maple syrup dripping, while inspecting the other stalls. I buy local liquorice, and consider a metal sculpture of a sheep, but realise it's probably not practical to take in my carry-on.

At McCashins Brewery, the restaurant has had a fit-out, and we almost regret not leaving room for lunch. Instead, we have a tour and tasting, escorted by Emma McCashin herself.

Emma has married into the respected brewing family, and now helps run the operation. She takes us through the history, from the factory's days as the Rochdale cider factory to its place in the craft beer industry today.


We smell hops, taste beer straight from the tank, and experience the chiller with its lack of oxygen, just long enough to feel light-headed.

The tasting is extensive, with six beers and a seasonal apple cider made with local fruit. When we leave the factory and drive north to Kaiteriteri, we pass orchards, and feel somehow, like we've connected to the land.

Our afternoon boat ride to the national park is with Wilsons, another business run by a family considered local royalty.

Lucy, our guide, explains how its founder, John Wilson, began by giving rides to friends and expanded into a full commercial operation that now offers luxury overnight lodge stays, guided tours, and kayak hire alongside the water taxi service. In-between, we look for the South Island robins. I listen so hard I almost trip as we walk, but they never appear. It doesn't matter.

The track is empty apart from two other groups, and quiet, and it makes you wonder why more people don't choose to go tramping in the colder times of the year. The hope for those who rely on tourism is, of course, that eventually more people will come in the low season. Not just for the natural beauty, but for the events - festivals and art shows - held in July and October.

Perhaps the biggest excitement is around the Light Nelson festival. Artists have been working on their pieces for months. Last time it ran in 2014, 40,000 people attended over two nights, swamping the paths at historic Queens Gardens to view the brilliant light installations with their families, despite the cold.

This year's festival, from July 8-12, will also feature illuminated bike rides, encouraged as something daring and romantic in the dark.

Cycling is making a comeback in Nelson, thanks to the network of paths known as Tasman's Great Taste Trail. The loop stretches from the city to Kaiteriteri, through vineyards and past cafes and galleries, 175km of nature, food and art.

The next day we hire bikes at Wheelie Fantastic in Mapua. Cycle enthusiast Elizabeth Bean leads us through 15km of safe, wide, easy-going paths fit for even the most novice riders. At one point, we stop and feed tame eels, and the child with us and our inner children are delighted as they lunge blindly out of the water for their food.

Elizabeth tells us how she and her friends often make a game from the produce stalls, buying ingredients for their dinner as they go. Last time, it was eggs and apples and pears, turned into omelettes and a crumble.

Today, we choose the Jellyfish Cafe at the Mapua Wharf, feasting on fresh fish and chips and local beer.

The Nelson Market. Photo / Nelson-Tasman Tourism
The Nelson Market. Photo / Nelson-Tasman Tourism

On our way out of town, we stop at the World of WearableArt Museum, a tribute to one of the city's greatest ideas. The costumes are beautiful and elaborate. Clearly, its loss to Wellington still stings. But maybe, a festival of light could help fill the void.



Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Nelson. One-way Economy fares start from $53.


Light Nelson is on from July 8-12.