Travel writer Lisa Jansen visits Nelson and finds the town is much more than the gateway to Able Tasman and Golden Bay
Nestled in the picturesque region of Tasman, Nelson city has long captured the hearts of travellers exploring New Zealand in motorhomes or caravans.
This vibrant city boasts many attractions catering to a wide range of interests. From its breathtaking natural landscapes to its thriving arts and culinary scene, a range of activities, and numerous campgrounds and freedom camping sites, Nelson offers a delightful blend of adventure and relaxation.
So, hop in your RV and get ready to embark on a journey to the beautiful city.
Stand at the centre of New Zealand
Begin your exploration by visiting the centre of New Zealand. Despite the name, the monument on Botanical Hill overlooking Nelson and the coast is not actually the geographical centre of New Zealand.
Back in the 1870s, Nelson’s chief surveyor, John S. Browning, was tasked with combining New Zealand’s then-isolated and independent land surveys. He chose Botanical Hill as his starting point, probably primarily for convenience. Ever since then, the spot has been known as the Centre of New Zealand, even though, the actual geographical centre is about 50km south-west in the Spooner Range (close enough in our books). Nevertheless,
it’s kind of cool to be able to say you stood at the Centre of New Zealand.
Regardless, the walk up Botanical Hill would be worth it even without that fancy title. There are numerous paths leading up the hill – all steep in parts, so a moderate level of fitness is needed. The most direct track starts at the Botanic Sports Field at the corner of Milton St and Hardy St. From there, it takes about 20 to 30 minutes to get to the monument. At the top, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the city and the stunning coastline.
Shop and eat at the Farmers Market
Nelson city takes pride in its reputation as a food lover’s paradise. For a taste of the region’s fresh and flavoursome produce, head to the Nelson Farmers Market. Held every Saturday morning at Montgomery Square, this bustling market is a sensory delight. There’s a reason why this market shows up on just about every list of best farmer’s markets in New Zealand. You’ll find fruits, vegetables, artisanal cheeses, organic meats, and baked goods, as well as arts and crafts, fashion, and much more. Engage with friendly local vendors, sample their offerings, and discover the unique flavours of Nelson.
After you’ve worked up an appetite, treat yourself to a delicious meal at one of the food stalls offering diverse cuisine options. Whether you’re craving a gourmet burger, a sumptuous seafood dish, or a mouth-watering vegetarian feast, the Farmers Market has something for everyone. Find a comfy spot, enjoy your meal, and listen to one of the street musicians that are another highlight of the markets.
Cycle along the Great Taste Trail
For those seeking an active adventure, Nelson city is the gateway to the Great Taste Trail, a renowned cycling route that meanders through the region’s picturesque landscapes. Hop on your bike and pedal along the trail, which takes you through charming coastal villages, vineyards, orchards, and lush forests. With various routes and distances to choose from, you can tailor your cycling experience to suit your preferences and fitness level.
Two-day trips are particularly popular. The first one takes you from Richmond to Māpua. Park at the end of Beach Road in Richmond (by the dump station) and follow the trail east along the Waimea Inlet. After about 10km, you will reach Rabbit Island. Another seven kilometres later, you’ll be at the passenger ferry to Māpua, which is an excellent spot for lunch and a wander through the shops and art galleries. Once ready, return the same way you came. However, check the ferry timetable before you leave to avoid disappointment or long waits (it runs only once per hour, and in winter, only on weekends).
The second popular day trip takes you through the 1.4km-long Spooners Tunnel. Start from Wakefield or from Wai-iti Domain, 5.3km south of Wakefield, for a shorter trip. It’s about 11km from the domain to Spooners Tunnel – the longest decommissioned tunnel in the Southern Hemisphere and the highlight of this trip. Spooners Tunnel is dark and chilly all year round, so bring lights and an extra layer. Continue to Kohātu for lunch or refreshments at The Flat Rock Café (about seven kilometres from the tunnel) before returning the same way you came or organise a pick-up with one of the local tour operators.
Go back in time at the Classic Car Museum
Automotive enthusiasts will find their haven in Nelson’s Classic Car Museum. Immerse yourself in a world of vintage cars and experience the nostalgia of a bygone era. This impressive museum houses an extensive collection of classic cars, showcasing the evolution of automotive design and engineering. From sleek sports cars to elegant luxury vehicles, each exhibit tells a unique story, and with more than 150 to feast your eyes on, you may wish to linger for longer than initially planned.
It’s a surprisingly modern purpose-built museum, complete with a carefully curated gift store as well as the Little Engine eatery.
Tour Pic’s Peanut Butter World
No visit to Nelson city would be complete without a visit to Pic’s Peanut Butter World. This beloved local institution offers an interactive experience that takes you behind the scenes of New Zealand’s most famous peanut butter brand. Take a guided tour to learn about the history of peanut butter making, see the production process in action, and even create your own unique peanut butter blend. And best of all, a tour of Pic’s Peanut Butter World is completely free – though you might walk away with a peanut butter addiction – and a greater insight into the mind of Pic’s Peanut Butter founder Pic Picot.
Get your adrenaline pumping at Cable Bay Adventure Park
Looking for a bit more action? Located about 20 minutes east of Nelson city, Cable Bay Adventure Park is the place to go for those who want to get their adrenaline pumping. The park offers a wide range of exhilarating activities, including ziplining through the treetops, tackling challenging mountain biking trails, and embarking on epic horse trekking adventures. With stunning panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and coastline, visitors can immerse themselves in nature while indulging in heart-pounding fun.
And so much more
- Take a leisurely stroll down South Street and explore its charming boutique shops, art galleries, and local cafés.
- Escape to the tranquillity of Queen’s Gardens, a beautifully manicured park with stunning floral displays, picturesque walkways, and a delightful ornamental fountain.
- Go bird watching at the Brook Waimārama Sanctuary, a 715-acre haven for native birds and wildlife.
- Delve into Nelson’s rich history and heritage at the Nelson Provincial Museum.
- Visit the Miyazu Garden, which celebrates Nelson’s relationship with its Japanese sister city and is an excellent place to relax and recharge.
- Relax or go for a refreshing dip at Tahunanui Beach, Nelson’s popular city beach.
Where to stay
City or beach, paid or free, no matter what type of campground you prefer, Nelson has an option for you. If you want to be right in the city centre, the Nelson City Top 10 Holiday Park is the way to go. If the beach is your thing, you will love staying at Tahuna Beach Holiday Park (ask for a site by the beach). Queen Street Holiday Park will be attractive to those coming for the Great Taste cycling trail, which passes nearby.
NZMCA members will also find several POPs on the mobile app, and all visitors can find numerous official freedom camping spots close to town on the CamperMate app.