Adele Thurlow gets an all-encompassing look at the diverse delights of the Nelson Tasman region.
Abel Tasman Eco Tour
An absolute guru in the field of marine biology and immensely passionate about Nelson Tasman marine preservation, Stew Robertson knows exactly how to create an unforgettable experience for his tour passengers beyond the magic of Abel Tasman's golden sands, lush native forests, crystal-clear waterways and thriving marine environment.
Ecology and environmental protection underpin Stew's ethos for his business, Abel Tasman Eco Tours, which means not only does he know where and when to find a pod of Hector's dolphins, for example, but he can also share his knowledge of the natural history and ecology of the area and the work that is being done to save it.
As well as being involved in a long-term reef restoration project and running a marine education programme, Stew also organises annual beach and seabed clean-ups. He transports dozens of volunteers (who he describes as Abel Tasman "whanau") by chartered boats to locations where they collectively remove hundreds of kilograms of rubbish — the divers collected 750kg alone last year. The result of the preservation work is evident in the flourishing marine life.
"Crayfish are around seven times more abundant in the marine reserve than when it was created in 1992," says Stew. "And blue cod are 40 times more abundant inside the reserve than out."
For his boat tour passengers, Stew customises the route according to the tide so they can reach to the best places on the day. Inlets such as Shag Harbour and Fall's River are stunningly beautiful and a must-visit on most trips.
Stew and his crew also know which beaches to avoid during busy times and, therefore, can always land their passengers on a deserted beach for coffee and cake, a simple pleasure which leaves a lasting impression for most.
Farewell Spit Tour
At 35km long, Farewell Spit is one of the largest natural sand spits in the world. Public access is restricted to the first 4km, but Farewell Spit Tours can take you on a comprehensive journey of this beautiful place. More than 9000 birds call this place home, earning the spit classification as a nature reserve, bird sanctuary and wetland of international importance. The 70-year-old tour takes visitors along the spit to the historic lighthouse, to New Zealand's fastest growing gannet colony, and exploring sand dunes (run down them at speed if you dare).
Between September and April, the Water Watch tour provides an opportunity to see an impressive number of migratory wading birds.
Fun fact: Bar-tailed godwits, knots and turnstones and other arctic waders visit the spit each year from destinations as far away as Alaska — a round trip of around 29,000km.
A golden opportunity
Gliding through pounamu-coloured water, under intense blue skies, bordered by golden sands and deep-green forest covered hills is like kayaking through a painter's palette.
Under the casual, calm guidance of our Golden Bay Kayaks guide Andrew (who, last year, escorted the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on a beach tour), even the rookie paddlers among us are soon navigating through narrow rock chasms and past seals lounging on islets.
Andrew's knowledge of the local wildlife is extensive. Just a few minutes into our trip from Tata Beach, Andrew points out one of New Zealand's largest colonies of spotted shags — they're in full breeding plumage during spring. They share the Tata Islands with pied shags and the secretive reef heron who patrols the water's edge.
In spring, when the whitebait start coming back to the rivers, Andrew says flocks of sooty shearwaters and fluttering petrels appear, scudding across the water as kahawai chase the poor whitebait from below. It's also the time when it's not uncommon to see eagle rays in the shallows of Wainui Bay, and Andrew says they occasionally see blue penguins and hectors dolphins too.
We keep our eyes trained on the clear water for the shape of ray but are soon distracted by significant splashing and thrashing a stone's throw away. It's a seal wrestling an octopus in a lunchtime battle. Within moments it's clear the seal got the feast it was searching for as it rolled, replete, into a (rather relatable) food coma position on the surface of the water.
World's longest flying fox
Less than 15 minutes from Nelson at Cable Bay Adventure Park is the world's longest flying fox. The 3.2km Skywire thrill ride freewheels over native forest from one side of a valley to the other — before doing it all again in reverse. Fear not, it's a tad more high-tech than clinging on to an old-school knotted rope — "flyers" are strapped securely into a purpose-built four-seater steel pod with five-point harnesses to ensure they're safe to enjoy the 100km/h speeds and incredible scenery.
Relax and recover post-ride on the wraparound deck at the Skywire cafe, with views across to Delaware Bay, D'urville Island and even Mount Taranaki on a clear day.
Cable Bay Adventure Park, owned by multisport champion and outdoors fiend Richard Ussher, is undergoing a transformation with a vision to become the best adventure park in the world. The property has around 350 Hectares of native forest featuring towering old beech trees, giant matai, groves of ferns and nikau palms. A 15-hectare section of recently felled pine forest is being reverted to native plantings, and the riparian strip along the Wakapuaka River which flows through the park is also being planted with natives. "It's almost like a mini national park," says Richard.
In addition to the Skywire, the park's attractions include mountain-bike trails, quad biking, horse riding, paintball and an amphibious all-terrain eight-wheeled vehicle to traverse through mud, water and farmland — plenty of thrills for young and old.
Fun fact: The first telegraph cable from Australia to New Zealand came ashore at Cable Bay. In 1876, this international telegraph cable established a connection with the worldwide telegraph network, which meant communications to Europe took just four days, instead of up to six months for letters.
WALK IT OUT
It's a short, easy walk to Te Waikoropupū Springs — the largest freshwater springs in New Zealand and the largest cold-water springs in the Southern Hemisphere. Here you'll find some of the clearest water ever measured: last year NIWA monitoring found the visual clarity of the springs to be around 76 metres, and sometimes as high as 81, which is just two metres short of the theoretical maximum.
No need to pack your togs though — the springs are wahi tapu (sacred) and swimming, touching or drinking the water has been forbidden since 2007.
It's another easy walk to Te Puna o Riuwaka — otherwise known as the Riuwaka Resurgence. A path through mystical damp, ancient forest and moss-covered marble rocks leads to the tranquil spring where the Riuwaka River emerges from caves deep within the Takaka Hill. Understandably, this is also wahi tapu for the people of Te Atiawa and Ngati Rarua who've visited the site for centuries to heal their bodies.
Getting to windswept Wharakiki Beach, in the wild northwest corner of the Nelson Tasman region, is a 20-minute walk through farmland, coastal forest and sand dunes. Time your visit for low tide to get the best photographs of the beach's well-recognised Archway Islands and, even better, go at sunset. Keep an eye out for seal pups in late summer.
REST AND REFUEL
In a prime location overlooking the Aorere Estuary and beyond to Golden Bay and Farewell Spit is Collingwood's only luxury retreat. Established by a fourth-generation Golden Bay local, Tracey Walker, Zatori combines countless indulgent touches with that unique efficient, unpretentious delivery of hospitality that Kiwis do so well.
Travelling internationally taught Tracey about basic creature comforts necessary in providing decent accommodation. Accordingly, she fitted out the 13-room lodge with quality beds made in Nelson and beautiful linen, and keeps the lodge immaculately clean.
Whole foods and fabulous wine are also dear to Tracey's heart and an aspect of Zatori's hospitality she is proud of. The in-house menu includes home-grown and locally sourced ingredients all served fresh in front of one of New Zealand's best views. A commercial-grade coffee machine provides the perfect espresso to accompany the organic homemade muesli, toasted in local honey and coconut oil with a very generous serving of stewed home-grown feijoas.
The lodge was originally built as a maternity home during the gold rush and, subsequently, converted to a rest home, so holds a deep personal connection for most Golden Bay residents. Tracey, who is also a marriage celebrant, enjoys hosting weddings at the property. "There have been lots of births and deaths here, and now marriages. I think there is some kind of magic spirit energy here, it somehow embraces and encompasses all of life," she says.
Despite its rural location 12km from Collingwood, there's good reason why, on a cold, dark, wet evening, I need to queue to place an order at the Mussel Inn.
This is Golden Bay's treasured unofficial community hub and rather famous pub. The interior is a melting pot of curios, vintage signs, posters and coffee sacks. Owners Andrew and Jane weren't keen on stocking beer from breweries far afield so, instead, opted to produce their own artisanal beverages on-site.
Their range includes craft beers, ales, ciders and soft drinks — all made from locally sourced ingredients — with names such as Captain Cooker Manuka Beer, Pale Whale Ale and Freckled Frog Feijoa Cider. The water for brewing comes from a small bush-filtered stream nearby, and they grow and hand-pick their own hops — a harvest which the community are invited to help with and are consequently rewarded with a feast afterwards.
Perhaps the best course of action is to order a tasting paddle and some local kai — the Anatoki salmon with herb butter is a goodie — and sit back to enjoy rustic live music and a yarn with the locals.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Nelson. airnz.co.nz