Nelson New Zealand: A Crafty, Artsy Coastal Community

Scenic Queen Charlotte Sound, on the road toward Nelson, New Zealand. Max Hartshorne photos.
Scenic Queen Charlotte Sound, on the road toward Nelson, New Zealand. Max Hartshorne photos.

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

You can tell Nelson’s a serious art town when you glance at their Art Directory… it’s one-inch thick and full of listings for all of the various artists in the small city.

coffee nelson
Zatori, downtown Nelson’s chocolate bar.

From ceramics to jewelry to film & performance, Nelson is home to artists of every description. It’s a compact city that is easy to navigate with about 42,000 residents and many free spirits.

Nelson is located at the very north of New Zealand‘s South Island. We hopped across the windy stretch of sea between the two islands, the Cook Strait, about 90 kilometers, on the Interisland ferry.

This service can take cars as well as passengers. The nicely equipped ferry boat, with all sorts of amenities including a big bar and cafes on board, steams over amidst some of the strongest winds I’ve ever felt. Passing through the fjords on these vessels affords some very awesome scenery.

They have a service called Kaitaki Plus on 8:30 am sailing that offers free Wi-Fi, hot food, comfy lounge chairs and an overall plush environment. We choose to sail a little later, at 10:30 and visited a small room which is sort of lounge-like, but we expect not as nice as Kaitaki Plus.

It’s the Little Things

The harbor and boulder bank in Nelson, New Zealand.
The harbor and boulder bank in Nelson, New Zealand

Outside the window of our Nelson hotel room, we watched a ship and sailboats cruise into the inner harbor between Haulashore Island and the Boulder Bank.

This is an important part of Nelson’s history. It’s a 13-kilometer long shoreline composed of millions of eight- to twelve-inch rocks that looks manmade but it’s natural.

The Boulder Bank was recently made famous in a new book by Nelson author Karen Warren. People once stole rocks off of the natural formation, and in the 1930s, a hole was dynamited into the bank to create an entrance for ships, creating Haulashore island.

Wine Art and Wilderness Tours

Haulashore view apartment in Nelson NZ.
Haulashore view Apartment, Nelson NZ.

We joined Noel Kennedy of Wine, Art & Wilderness Tours for a chance to view some of the city’s art and cuisine. Noel has a background in landscape design, land conservation, and the wine business, and brings it all together as a tour guide in Nelson, a haven to artists and vineyards.

The lifestyle and climate appeal to the artists, while the soil, sun and ocean breezes provide the right setting for superb local wines.

Noel works with small, family-operated wineries that are able to provide an educational experience to guests. After an alfresco lunch at The Mapua Boatshed Cafe, we sampled Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and a stand-out Merlot Rose at the Kina Beach Vineyard, and finished out the day by visiting local artist Brian Strong, who paints striking landscapes filled with historical symbolism. website

The Mapua Boatshed Cafe, Nelson New Zealand.
The Mapua Boatshed Cafe, Nelson New Zealand.
Noel Kennedy, of Wine, Art and Wilderness Tours, Nelson.
Noel Kennedy, of Wine, Art and Wilderness Tours, Nelson.

Noel’s contacts with the local wineries and artists offer his clients a personalized tour and experience you’re unlikely to get on your own. Add in his knowledge about all things Nelson and it’s a day you’ll not soon forget!

Noel is an easy-going, unassuming guy who comes out with the most amazing facts and information… He’s a walking encyclopedia of knowledge of New Zealand’s plants, geology, local history, and especially the wine business. He shares it passionately and by the end of the day, we felt like family.

Bike Touring Nelson

I joined a local bike tour with Nelsonite Dave Judson as we pedaled down Trafalgar St. toward the hillsides where many city dwellers like to enjoy the trails for biking and hiking the outdoors. On steep wooded hillsides, we were greeted with the bald face of clear-cut patches, and others which were just about to be logged.

While it’s kind of jarring to see the giant bald spots among forested hillsides, the Kiwis think of these forests as the lawn. They plant 15-year maturing pines and cut small swaths at a time, neatly disposing of all of the litter and planting four-inch seedlings everywhere they cut.

Peanut vendor at the Nelson Market. photo Max Hartshorne
Peanut vendor at the Nelson Market. photo Max Hartshorne

Nelson has an extensive network of trails and soon it will be even better, said Judson. He works with youth offenders who are helping to cut a network of trails… one for beginners, other for medium, and a daredevil lane a little steeper than the others. Next year this will be an even better place to bike!

Our bike ride would lead us down a lovely path beside the Maitai river, cows along the route. There are well-designed paths that you can hike on here, the Maitai River Walk is a 1 ½ hour roundtrip that affords bush scenery and views.

Don’t Miss the Market!

One event that many people told us about in Nelson was the Saturday market. It takes place right smack in the city’s heart, the Montgomery car park. Here the famous peanut butter guy named Pip’s Peanut Butter sets up shop and offers some of the most magnificent PB I’ve ever tasted.

A few rows down is the Vietnamese noodle stand, and the espresso for $1.99 stand, and a guy who roasts all types of nuts.

Nelson’s Market is booth after booth of one-of-kind taste treats, Kiwi style. We visited during a crappy rainy day and still the place was jumping with buskers, people huddling under tarps and booths doing brisk business.

Inside the Boat Shed, Nelson New Zealand.
Inside the Boat Shed, Nelson New Zealand.

Lunch and dinner choices are plentiful — hey, what arts town doesn’t have good food? A few stand-outs were the Boat Shed right on the water and the Café at the Suter Gallery.

The Boat Shed is famous for ‘sharing foods’ menus that present five or six small plates that two people share. We sat for a while with the chef Daniel Monopoli, who explained that food served this way encourages conversation and makes the evening flow easily, with a bigger selection of smaller plates to savor and enjoy.

He’s making a name for himself and putting Nelson on the foodie radar with ultra-fresh fish filets simply prepared and emphasizing the fish taste, not just the accouterments.

Read about Daniel Monopoli on Readuponit blog.

Brian plays a maori flute. photo: Max Hartshorne.
Brian plays a maori flute. photo: Max Hartshorne.

In a case in this museum are about a dozen very old Maori musical instruments. A local instrument-maker named Brian Flintoff told us that these were played in ceremonies, and made a sort of odd sound to the layperson. He makes instruments like these according to the ancient methods of the Maori.

Then he did something that took me by surprise. He had the museum guard unlock the case and we took out the instruments.

First, a tiny flute that had a teeny tiny tinny sound. Then a smaller bowl-shaped one. He studies these and documents the music they once played.

Founder’s Park & Abel Tasman

Nelson has several other interesting places well worth the daytripper’s visit. One is Founder’s Park, where the Founders Park Brewery churns out fine ales and lagers and the buildings are all vintage 1880s through the 1930s. A weekly farmer’s market and a series of festivals are held here among the restored old houses. An old-style windmill towered over us as we sampled the varieties of beer made by Founder’s brewery.

A Eurocopter Squirrel helicopter, at Heaphy Track.
A Eurocopter Squirrel helicopter, at Heaphy Track.

Nelson’s biggest attraction is the Abel Tasman National park. It’s located northwest of the city and is one of the most stunning places you’ll ever walk. You can view seals and occasionally, killer whales cavorting off the rocky shores.

Kayaking outfitters and cruise lines that will take you up to hiking starting out points are plentiful. Ask for Wilson’s Kayak, Walk, Boats and Lodges in the park.

The Abel Tasman Coast track can be tackled as a day hike for free, or you can join many others who set out for a 2-3 day tramp, the whole 52 kilometers of open beaches, bridged streams, and tidal crossings.

The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman himself never set foot in this gorgeous place that is named after him. He had an altercation with the local Maori and four of his men were killed. He named Golden Bay Murderer’s Bay and sailed north, later mistaking Cook Strait for a bight.

The vast Heaphy Track, gorgeous place to hike in New Zealand.
The vast Heaphy Track, gorgeous place to hike in New Zealand.

Today he’s remembered by Tasmania, the Tasmanian Devil, and a plant genus, Tasmannia. There’s also a glacier, a bay, and a big mountain named after him.

Heaphy Track Hike

Another popular hiking track is the Heaphy Track, accessible most easily by helicopter. We joined a local outfitter for an 8-kilometer hike on the trail through thick jungle and then opened up pampas. The fierce winds were reminiscent of the gusts that blew us on the ferry, the open areas were wild!

Part of Kelly’s tour includes gourmet food like grilled salmon, veggies and even dessert cooked up in the rustic huts on the track.

A giant plant on the Heaphy Track near Nelson New Zealand. photo by Max Hartshorne.
A giant plant on the Heaphy Track near Nelson New Zealand. photo by Max Hartshorne.

The Heaphy Track through Kahurangi National Park is one of New Zealand’s designated ‘Great Walks’. It meanders over expansive tussock downs to the lush forests, nikau palms, and roaring seas of the West Coast.

There are huts where hikers can overnight, sleeping in wooden bunks and preparing meals in generously appointed camp kitchens with woodstoves.

The track has a colorful history. The route connects Golden Bay in the North of the South Island with the township of Karamea on the West Coast.

Evidence of moa hunters at the Heaphy (Whakapouai) River mouth has been dated to the 16th century. [The moa were a flightless bird, now extinct.]

No other track has the diversity and number of plant species found on the Heaphy. Scenery and habitat range from montane Nothofagus-podocarp forest and sub-alpine tussock grasslands, mountain vistas, through to lush jungle-like lowland forest and Nikau palm-fringed beaches and pounding surf.

Nelson and Golden Bay are excellent choices to include on a visit to stunning and never disappointing New Zealand!

Disclosure: The New Zealand Tourism board provided air tickets and most expenses for our trip in November 2009 but the opinions are the author’s own.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top
Skip to content