Naturally Nelson

A quick 48-hour stopoff across the strait to Nelson was enough to give Vivienne Haldane the break she was looking for.

The aeroplane to Nelson from Wellington had to delay its landing for some unknown reason, which meant an extra sweep over Tasman Bay. That gave us the chance to take in the full measure of Nelson’s breathtaking beauty from above. Although I lived here many years ago, it was a sweet reminder of how spectacular this place is. I had several friends to catch up with whom I hadn’t seen in years, and I was keen to talk to them about their favourite places.

Tahunanui Beach

My first night was spent with my friend Louise who lives within sight of Christ Church Cathedral in central Nelson. That evening, on her deck with a glass of wine, I savoured the view of the church tower in its verdant setting on Church Hill.

Loading up the car the following day with Louise’s dogs, as well as two others she was looking after, we drove to Tahunanui, a popular beach suburb just 4.5 kilometres from the city centre. The beach has an area known as ‘back beach’, that is designated for dog walking. Our happy canines splashed in and out of the water and emerged, shaking themselves furiously. 

As walkers strode and runners flicked their heels along the sand, waves flopped lazily on an incoming tide. A beautiful place to stay, travellers can head along to Tahuna Beach Kiwi Holiday Park & Motel. A 4.5km drive from the city centre, the holiday park has been a favourite of holidaymakers for nearly nine decades. Set in picturesque 54km parkland, the park offers motel units, self-contained studios, cabins and 850 campsites with different zones that cater to visitors’ requirements.On-site entertainment options include three playgrounds, minigolf, croquet, sand volleyball, chess, Pedal Kart hire, and petanque. There’s also a café.

NZMCD Tahuna Beach Kiwi Holiday Park
Tahuna Beach Kiwi Holiday Park

Dining out

But I digress. After our morning exercise, Louise and I had worked up a good appetite. Nelson has no shortage of cafés and restaurants, but it was the quaint Harbour Light Restaurant, overlooking Wakefield Quay, that took my fancy. We chose an upstairs table, choosing fresh market fish, accompanied by a cheeky lunchtime wine. A fishing boat headed back to port on the harbour with its catch; tiny dinghies with red sails flitted over the water towards Haulaway Island: perhaps our future America’s Cup sailors are already honing their skills?

Later in the afternoon, we drove to Moturoa/Rabbit Island. The reserve is well-known for biking, hiking, swimming and fishing and has picnic and BBQ areas. Louise had a quick dip while I wandered along the beach to watch anglers cast their lines. A mother and her children were relaxing on the sand near a driftwood wigwam. The view to Nelson across the bay was a gorgeous mix of hazy shades of blue.

For keen walkers or cyclists who want to experience the region’s delights at a slower pace – art galleries, cafes, fruit stalls, craft beer and wineries- there is The Great Taste Trail. The 175-kilometre route, part of Nga Haerenga New Zealand Cycle Trails, runs from Nelson to Richmond, Motueka and Kaiteriteri Beach and can be enjoyed in bite-sized pieces or one go.

Mapua Wharf was once a place where they shipped vast quantities of apples, beginning in 1915. However, alongside this activity, a chemical factory was built in 1932. There were many protests over the factory because of the environmental contamination it caused. It closed in 1988, and cleanup began.

Consequently, there’s even more reason to feel happy that Mapua Wharf has since developed into a divine destination with cafes, restaurants, and trendy shops. Developers preserved the wharf and
some of the buildings. The Cool Store Gallery, as its name suggests, is one of these. We discovered many tempting pieces in here; I wanted to choose something to remind me of my holiday: would it be a piece of finely crafted jewellery or a screen-printed cushion? 

Tiny town: westbound on Route 99

Louise and I lingered as the late afternoon sunshine poured into the gallery before heading off in search of somewhere for dinner. With its view of the estuary, the Apple Shed Kitchen & Bar at Mapua Wharf was the perfect location to complete our day’s wanderings. Here we also caught up with our mutual friend, Trish, who lives in Motueka. When I lived in Nelson in the late 1970s: Louise, Trish and I had all trained as handloom weavers at Nelson Polytechnic. 

NZMCD Apple Shed Kitchen and Bay, Mapua
Apple Shed Kitchen and Bay, Mapua

Saturday Nelson Market

The Saturday Nelson Market has a reputation as a must-do for visitors. Originating in 1978 as The Nelson Flea Market, it has since developed into a high-quality marketplace. Whether artisan food, designer clothing, art, handmade chocolates or jewellery, the market showcases the region’s abundance and enterprise.

Artist and fashion designer Jill Alexander’s stall, Madcat Design, was filled with colourful screen-printed tee shirts and skirts. I asked her for her favourite spots, “Lambrettas Café Bar in Hardy Street makes fish chowder to die for. Zumo Coffee Roasters in Rutherford Street is excellent for locally roasted artisan coffee. The Mapua Smoked Fish stall in the market has delicious fish pate; the owner of a plant stall in the market imports seeds; she grows pansies and fuchsias that you won’t see anywhere else,” she told us. Jill also recommended Volume Books, an independent book shop in Church Street, and for history lovers, Founders Heritage Park in Atawhai on the outskirts of Nelson, where you can learn more about Nelson’s early history and visit artisans, including Jill, who work from their studios.

A sweet melody arose from the crowd, and I watched as a young pianist passionately played his battered piano. A little knot of people had gathered around him; some threw donations into his music case in appreciation of his talent.

Since my hostess had requested Sri Lankan rotis for lunch from the Taste of Sri Lanka food stand, I headed there to place my order too. They were delicious! 

The Saturday Nelson Market
The Saturday Nelson Market

Insider tips

Annabel, who visited Louise while I was there, has lived in Nelson for many years, so I was keen to hear about some of her favourite places. But she didn’t want to give away too many hidden gems because, she told me, “Part of the joy is to discover them for yourself.” 

However, some secrets are so good they got out. She told me that the award-winning Hopgoods Café in Trafalgar Street has an excellent chef and features locally produced, seasonal food and wines. A favourite coffee shop is Sublime Coffee in Haven Road Cafe. For art, The Refinery Artspace Gallery on Hardy Street. For books, Annabel recommended Page and Blackmore Booksellers in Trafalgar Street and Volume Books.

Annabel mentioned that she thinks we’ve somewhat lost the art of travel because everything is now handed to us on a map, saying, “When I was in Paris once, I discovered The Shakespeare and Company bookstore, purely by chance. I hadn’t read about it previously, so it was kind of cool that I discovered it accidentally.”

Nelson has a temperate climate, and it’s an easy city to live in, according to Annabel. As an art lover, she also likes the region for the many artists who live here. “Nelson has a long history of artists who have worked and lived here, such as Toss Wollaston, Doris Lusk, Rita Angus and Colin McCahon. Often, they came to pick tobacco or apples during the 1930 and 40s. After World War II, many people moved from Europe, such as Danish-born jeweller Jens Hansen and Eelco Boswijk, from the Netherlands, who started the first coffee house, Chez Eelco. Nelson had good clay that attracted potters, and winemakers came here too.”

The Golden Days of Cromwell

Lyn and her husband Ross, who I know from Waiheke Island, moved to Nelson a few years ago. While we caught up over coffee in their charming courtyard, Lyn told me about her favourite eateries, including Broccoli Row on Collingwood Street, who do all their own baking; she also recommended dining at the Boatshed Cafe on Wakefield Quay. And for the best cheese scones, Yaza Café in Montgomery Square. 

The Coolstore Gallery
The Coolstore Gallery

Historic homesteads

Tackling the many steps to Christ Church Cathedral was worth the effort. Once inside the cathedral, I settled in a pew and soaked up the fine architecture and peaceful atmosphere. The glowing cross at the head of the altar, backlit by LED lighting, turned different shades of pink, blue and green. It’s a spectacular and recent addition to this historic place of worship.

Further up, Trafalgar Street is the former home of renowned NZ landscape artist, John Gully who lived in Nelson during the 1800s. The stately house, painted pale lemon, has been immaculately restored.

Melrose House, nearby, is another of Nelson’s historic homes. It was gifted to Nelson City in 1973 and is a venue for weddings and functions. It also has a café. Its former owner’s influence remains today through the garden filled with established trees and plantings of some of their perennial favourites. 

Last in a trio of grand old mansions is Fairfield House. The story of its ‘rescue’ is interesting. In the late 1970s, Fairfield House had fallen into disrepair, and demolition looked likely. But a last-ditch stand by a local toymaker, Alan Stanton and the Friends of Old Fairfield, as they became known, helped restore the historic building to its former glory. Today it is a hub for many events. Alan died in 2014, but before he did, he wrote a book about Fairfield titled ‘Anything Is Possible.’ 

NZMCD Take a walk up the steps to Christ Church Cathedral
Take a walk up the steps to Christ Church Cathedral

Matai River Walkway

A trail that’s popular with walkers and cyclists is the Matai River Walkway. It extends from the Matai River mouth near Nelson’s CBD and finishes at the Matai Motor Camp, eight kilometres away. Our doggy pals, keen to explore one of their favourite spots, snuffled their approval as we walked along the sun-speckled path. From here, it’s also easy (5 minutes from anywhere in central Nelson) to get to the ‘Centre of NZ’ on top of Botanical Hill. 

Queen’s Gardens and Suter Art Gallery & Café

Queen’s Gardens was opened in 1892 to celebrate the jubilee of Queen Victoria. The classical theme still endures, and the park contains a collection of notable plants and a cupid fountain, sculptures, a formal rose garden, a water wheel and an oriental bridge. The Suter Gallery Café, an extension of the Suter Art Gallery, is an excellent place to eat and relax on the deck overlooking the pond and gardens. 

NZMCD The Suter Cafe overlooks Queen's Gardens
The Suter Cafe overlooks Queen’s Gardens

Find Out More Information

Dog-Friendly walks: 

  • Back Beach -Tahunanui
  • The Grampians walkway begins at the top of Collingwood St, central Nelson.
  • Branford Park, Corder Park, Railway Reserve, Marsden Valley Dog Park – from the Nelson City Council website

Cycle Trails:

Bike hire: Kiwi Journeys in Mapua

Tahuna Beach Kiwi Holiday Park and Motel, 70 Beach Road, Tahunanui.

For more information on Mapua Wharf: 

The Nelson Saturday Market, Montgomery Square.
8am-1 pm, every Saturday, rain or shine. Check Covid restrictions.

The Matai River Walkway:

Vivienne travelled by Air New Zealand from Hawke’s Bay to Nelson via Wellington.

Looking for motorhomes or caravans for sale in NZ? Browse our latest listings here. 

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on print

Related Posts

Tales from the road: Tāupo

Tales from the road: Tāupo

Keen traveller and writer Peter Mead has spent extensive time motorhoming in NZ and Australia. Now permanently settled back in Aotearoa, Peter shares one of his more recent adventures to Tāupo.

Read More »