New Zealand is a small country. It’s easy to forget this until you stumble into cities of only about 90,000 people. Nelson is one of these. The Official Visitors Guide reminds me that it is the “second oldest city and the main urban hub of the Top of the South,” luring visitors to an artistic community with excellent vineyards and breweries to boot. Just don’t get it confused with the much larger cities of Wellington or Christchurch for liveliness.
We’re into our fifth week of travel now and reality has firmly set in. I think we might feel less like oddballs if we’ d met even one long-term traveller so far in New Zealand. Everyone seems to be on short holidays of a month or less. It’s been awhile since we’ve stayed in hostels so that’s been an adjustment as well. The biggest difference for us is…well, us. We’re older now and seem to be constantly among either very young newbie backpackers, many of them travelling in small to medium-sized groups with companies like Kiwi Experience or Stray, or much (much) older groups of senior citizens on package tours. Here and there we’ve met travellers our age and had some nice chats with them, which has been awesome. Why isn’t it as easy to meet like-minded people in person as it is online? We still have hope in this area, however, because we’ve only been on the road for a few weeks.
So what can I say about Nelson? We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and, after checking into our hostel, went out for a walk around town at about 5.30pm. The streets were dead. We saw only a few people in the couple of upscale restaurants and pubs and most everything else was closed. Had we accidentally boarded a ferry to Spain? Was it siesta time? No. We came to learn from some locals and other travellers that Nelson was a “funny” place where we’d be lucky to find much activity between five o’clock and 11pm, when all the teenagers flocked to the nightclubs. We witnessed the mass exodus from our own hostel each night from the old folks corner in the living room. In our past experience hostel-goers blended and everyone went out together no matter what the age differences, but the divide at present is palpable. Sometimes I think we frighten the young people when we smile and say hello (for those new to the blog, John and I are in our early thirties).
But the locals in Nelson are a friendly bunch. We’re starting to feel that Kiwi hospitality we dreamed about before coming here. After all, we’ve never met a traveller from New Zealand we didn’t like immediately. The South Island is known for its gorgeous scenery, laid-back approach and friendlier people. We’ve had a pretty good time in New Zealand so far but I have to say that we’re already averaging many more returned smiles after crossing the Cook Strait. Seeing that evening activities weren’t going to be the highlight in this pretty little city, we found our pleasures in the following three attractions:
The Abel Tasman National Park
This coastal national park is located about an hour and a half away from Nelson, but visitors can arrange boat or bus transport to Kaiteriteri or Marahau and take water taxis along the coast from there. The park has no roads within and a network of these taxis shuttle visitors from bay to bay. Many travellers choose to camp in or near the park as there are several excellent walking tracks throughout. We walked a section of the 53km Abel Tasman Coast Track from Tonga Beach to Torrent Bay. We were actually a bit disappointed by this experience due to the weather. We were promised sunshine but it was completely overcast and we got rained on for our last hour in the park. A perfect day in Abel Tasman National Park would allow for some easy hiking through the lush bush and along the cliffs that hug the coast, with stops for swimming and rest on the golden sand beaches and perhaps a little sea kayaking or sailing. It’s impossible to enjoy that when it’s less than 20°C. We were also supposed to be able to see some seals but our boat didn’t stop near the colony very long and we barely caught a glimpse of the few sitting on the rocks. It was a shame because I’d heard really great things about the park and I’m sure it’s great fun in the right weather. But for the cost of the trip out there (NZ$86 each), we hardly felt it was worth the money.
Nelson is famous for the aromatic hops grown here and as a result it’s home to several outstanding breweries and the epicentre for craft brewing in New Zealand. John’s pick for Beer of the Week last week was a tasty ale from Founders, but we also tried some from local microbreweries like Sprig and Fern. A very interesting venue for beer lovers is The Free House. Untied to any brewery, The Free House offers a wide range of craft beers and the only hand-pumped, cask-conditioned real ales in Nelson. It’s also just a cool place to hang out, with communal tables and a lively outdoor area that looks more like a schoolyard than a beer garden. We were greeted immediately at the bar and, after letting the woman behind the bar know what we liked, given several samples of the types of beers we were after. The place just has a chill, friendly vibe. And what more do you want when you're hanging out having a few pints?
We hopped on a tour with Bay Tours Nelson for what turned out to be one of the best wine tours we’ve ever taken. Our guide, Kyle was not only passionate about Nelson and the wine produced in the region, but also provided invaluable recommendations about what to try at each winery before we arrived. Most visitors to this part of the South Island choose nearby Blenheim as the hub for wine touring in the Marlborough region. Travelling from Picton to Nelson on the bus showed us why. I haven’t seen so many rows upon rows at vineyard after vineyard since my time in Northern California. Sauvignon Blanc is mass-grown in Marlborough, so much so that fruit is left to die on the vine because supply outstrips demand. Wine tasting in Nelson provides a more personal and boutique experience with some award-winning producers.
Nelson is home to 25 family run wineries that specialize in aromatic white varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. We visited Te Mania, Seifried, Golden Hills and Stafford Lane and tried some excellent wines, including special award winning Ice Wines (a type of dessert wine that is produced as a result of the grapes freezing). An interesting discovery on this tour was the answer to a question I’ve had for awhile about what it takes for a product to be officially considered ‘organic.’ While no rules exist in New Zealand requiring certification for labeling a product as organic, a real organic product must undergo certification within BioGro New Zealand Organic Standards. We enjoyed a fantastic day out and learned a great deal about the production of some of New Zealand’s most award-winning wines. The tour is an excellent value at NZ$78 as it includes not only all your tastings (the equivalent to a bottle of wine per person), but also a five dollar voucher towards the purchase of food or wine on the tour. Kyle also recommended some places for dinner and provided us with vouchers for a free drink each at some great establishments we wouldn’t have known about otherwise.