Visitors to this tiny South Island village might think all the action is down at the lake until they take a look around town and dip into St Arnaud’s secret charms.
The gateway to Nelson Lakes National Park, St Arnaud is primarily an outdoors destination. On the shore of Lake Rotoiti, it’s just a step away from some of the nation’s best tramping, fishing, hunting and mountaineering. The locals ski at the Rainbow and skate on the Teetotal pond in winter and go swimming, boating, mountain biking and hiking in summer.
In the 2018 census, St Arnaud boasted a population of 111 souls and growing. I can see why. A little over an hour from Nelson and Blenheim on sealed roads, it feels much more remote than it is. Attracted by the peace and quiet, nowadays there are around 180 permanent residents from all walks of life – artists, retirees, young families, and many more holiday homes.
We arrived at St Arnaud in our camper late on a warm afternoon. At 650m above sea level, it cools down fast at sundown and it was a relief to plug into power at the Kerr Bay DOC camp and turn on the heater. The alpine climate drops occasional snow on the town in winter and paradoxically heats up to over 30° in summer, bathing it in plenty of sunshine.
Formerly Lake Rotoiti, a name change was suggested in 1921 to avoid confusion with the other Lake Rotoiti near Rotorua. Locals objected and many still refer to the town as Rotoiti despite the new moniker being officially gazetted in 1951. A glacial lake, Māori legend tells us Rotoiti was formed by chief Rākaihautū, who went about the land digging holes with his kŌ (digging stick) and filling them with kai for those who followed.
European sheep farmers settled in the area and by the early twentieth century people were holidaying on the shores of the lake. Cottages sprang up and the intrepid began to explore the mountains leading to the creation of the Nelson Lakes National Park in 1956.
Stay and play
There are three DOC campsites close to town, with Kerr Bay providing all the amenities you could expect from any good motor camp. West Bay and Teetotal are less luxurious but just as gorgeous. A ten minute drive away, the historic Tophouse Inn welcomes self-contained campers and caravans with the added attraction of a restaurant and a resident ghost.
A variety of walks take you into the park from a gentle, lake edge stroll to multi day ramps. It pays to pop into the Nelson Lakes Visitor Centre on the west side of town before embarking on any of the longer walks. They’ll let you know about weather and track conditions and you can even hire a personal locator beacon.
If you’d rather not walk, Rotoiti Water Taxis offers an on-demand service from Kerr Bay. The Whiskey Falls tour is their most popular and details can be found on their website, rotoitiwatertaxis.co.nz.
At the Kerr Bay jetty, we met a pair of DOC rangers launching a boat for a day’s work across the lake. The Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project, a joint pest control programme with local volunteers has been reducing the numbers of introduced pests to allow native species to recover and has seen the reintroduction of Roa, the great spotted kiwi to the area.
You feel a bit like a billy goat gruff trip trapping on the jetty. Underneath is not a troll but a swarm of long finned eels. Growing slowly in the cold water, at 90 years old, some are almost as ancient as trolls. Splash your fingers in the water and you’ll be rewarded by their whiskered muzzles breaking the surface.
There’s much more to St Arnaud than its natural attributes, though. The annual NZ Antique and Classic Boat Show is held on the lake but if you missed it, check out the collection of power and sail boats in the Classic Boat Museum on Beechnest Drive. Entry is a steal at only $5 per person with more than 30 craft on display as well as a collection of historic outboards. Back on the main road, follow the signs to Korimako Studio on Range View Road. There you’ll find landscape artist Jan Thomson who left Wellington 13 years ago to call this “landscape painters’ paradise” home. She captures “our beautiful country and some of its inhabitants” in both watercolour and acrylic and runs a variety of painting workshops. Korimako Studio is open most days 10am-4pm and visitors are always welcome. Get a preview of Jan’s artwork at janthomsonart.com.
St Arnaud has all the basics – a store, fuel pumps, primary school, church and a vibrant community. Don’t forget your camera and remember to explore the town. If you’re lucky, their fish and chip shop might even be open.