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Travel Guide

Travel to Nelson, things to see & do — trip guide, tips

In this Article

Meet one of New Zealand’s rock stars in the visitor experience market. Nelson is a great year round destination where visitors return for a second or third holiday to indulge themselves in magnificent Nelson.

Image a region where snow capped mountains frame vineyards and where gold sandy beaches showcase rock sculptures. Nelson’s natural landscape offers adventure, leisure and relaxation all within a stone’s throw of each other. The area is spoiled with a stunning backdrop where one of New Zealand iconic great walks Abel Tasman walk tempts visitors to further explore the horizons. Creative artists and crafts have made Nelson their home making the place a destination for visitors focused on culture and arts.

If that wasn’t good enough Nelson is blessed with a great climate. The weather is one of the sunniest in New Zealand. Sun drenched summers attract visitors to the beaches and the Great Taste Wine Trail. Winter offers relaxation and indulgence in spas, opportunities to explore the extensive art and craft trail and ski fields. As icing on the cake the area boasts one of New Zealand’s premier ski fields.

Nelson is a seasoned host with an extensive range of food / craft markets, cafes and award winning restaurants for visitors to sample. This mix is stirred and mixed in food and wine where the taste buds are tantalized by the bounty of the sea and land. No wonder Nelson is a perennial favourite place for a holiday.

Old St Peter’s-by-the-Strand Church served the Anglicans of the Atawhai area of Nelson from 1874-1983, when it was moved to Founders Park, Nelson, New Zealand

Nelson is ridiculously spoilt for beaches, you can hardly move from the regional airport and you are at one of the popular family beaches in Nelson city. The province is coast to coast fringed with long stretches of gold perfection, shallow safe waters for children and plenty of campgrounds adjacent to the perfect summer holiday spot.

Best time to visit

Year round

Weather

Nelson Weather Forecast and Observations

Getting there

By InterIslander Ferry (Picton), vehicle for South Island based visitors or the domestic airport located in Richmond. Nelson is connected, by road to both the west coast and east coast of the South Island.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN NELSON

BEACHES

NELSON REGIONAL AREAS

Motueka and Takaka are the great way to take a break on your way to and from the Abel Tasman National Park. There are vibrant cafes and craft main streets supporting the large numbers of visitors to the Abel Tasman National Park. The area is known for its strong focus on great food and sustainability. Local producers from the Moutere Valley are a vital part of the visitor food experience in this area.

Marahau, is a visitor focused settlement for the Abel Tasman National Park. Several water taxi companies are based in Marahau.

GEOTHERMAL HOT SPRINGS

Not surprising Nelson has its own hot springs at Maruia Hot Springs. This is a Haast Pass temptation to stop and soak in the warm mineral water at Maruia.

St Arnaud

This popular spot is the base to access the nearby Rainbow Ski Field, which offers a diverse selection of slopes and snow-based activities for all ages and skill levels. During the summer months, the Ski Area opens for hiking and mountain biking.

Maruia Hot Springs @Stuff

NELSON FESTIVALS

MarchFest in Autumn, Moveable Feasts in Winter and the Cider Festival in Spring. More recently, pop up markets and quirky side street fare has become a feature of the central city with a microbrewery on New Street and market stalls at Kirby Lane. The city has a very popular weekly Saturday Market. The market has been operating for 40 years and is a ‘must do’ activity for visitors and locals.

@nzciderfestival @nzciderfestival
@nzciderfestival @nzciderfestival

CULTURE & ART

Nelson supports numerous artists and galleries than most other places in New Zealand and is home to three of New Zealand’s cultural treasures – the Suter Art Gallery, the Theatre Royal and the Nelson Centre for Musical Arts.

GREAT TASTE TRAIL CYCLING ROUTE

Cycling is a popular visitor experience, encouraged by the network of trails known as Tasman’s Great Taste Trail. The loop stretches from the city to Kaiteriteri, through vineyards and past cafes and galleries, 175km of nature, food and art. Tasman’s Great Taste Trail is organised for bike hire, pickups and deliveries, a leisurely multi-day trail bike holiday or a holiday where it is shared with our activities. Urban Cycling Routes get up and biking as soon as you hit the Nelson streets.

Cycling along the Nelson Great Taste Trail @Dean McKenzie Cycling along the Nelson Great Taste Trail @Dean McKenzie

WINTER

Winter Skiing

Rainbow Ski Area is high in the north of this great mountain chain within the world famous Nelson/Marlborough lifestyle region. Reaching a height of over 1760 metres, Rainbow captures regular winter snow, complemented by extensive snow making, all superbly groomed to create a stunning winter playground.

Occasion: The ski area is serviced by St Arnaud Village, which is on the edge of the Nelson Lakes National Park and only one & a half hours drive from Nelson Airport 85 kilometres (52 miles), one & a quarter hours from Blenheim 100 kilometres (62 miles) and 35 minutes 40 kilometres (24 miles) from Murchison.

Rainbow Ski Area, New Zealand @a_frostie Rainbow Ski Area @a_frostie

HUNTING, FISHING AND BACKCOUNTRY EXPLORATION

Follow the link to our Murchison guide for inspiration on adrenaline adventures in Nelson’s backcountry including white water rafting, kayaking rapids, caving, multi-day tramps and walks in majestic National parks.

Buller Canyon Jet Ride, New Zealand @Buller Canyon Jet Reservations Buller Canyon Jet Ride @Buller Canyon Jet Reservations

GETTING AROUND

A vehicle / bike

A vehicle / bike  is needed otherwise during peak season (summer) there are public bus services linking beach and inland communities. Previously it was advisable to forward book transport during the peak season. In 2019 approximately 1.3 million guest nights in Nelson.

Water taxi

Bus service

TRAVEL PACK

Beaches in Nelson:
  • Grossi Point, Tahi Street, Mapua
  • Pinehill Reserve, Nelson
  • Stafford Drive, Ruby Bay
  • McKee Domain, SH 60, Ruby Bay
  • Tapu Bay Reserve, Tapu Place, Stephens Bay
  • Stephens Bay Reserve, Anawera Crescent, Stephens Bay
  • Alex Ryder Reserve (Little Kaiteriteri) Rowling Road, Little Kaiteriteri
  • Breaker Bay, Breaker Bay, Kaiteriteri
  • Ligar Bay Reserve, Ligar Bay, Golden Bay
  • Tata Beach Reserve, Tata Beach, Golden Bay
  • Patons Rock Reserve, Patons Rock, Golden Bay
  • Pohara Esplanade, Selwyn Street, Pohara
  • Miles Reserve, Parapara Bishops Road, Parapara, Golden Bay
  • Kings Reserve, Parapara Esplanade, Golden Bay
  • Tomatea Point, Pakawau Beach Road, Golden Bay
  • Wharariki Beach, Puponga Road, Golden Bay
  • Rangihaeata Esplanade, Rangihaeata Road, Golden Bay
  • Cornwall Place Reserve, Tata Beach, Golden Bay

From Geology and landforms  Carl Walrond, ‘Nelson region – Geology and landforms’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/nelson-region/page-2 (accessed 20 July 2020)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 7 Sep 2010, updated 1 Aug 2015.

GEOLOGY

Nelson’s limestones, marbles, granites, mudstones and ultramafic rocks are geologically part of rock groups found west of the Alpine Fault. These are quite diverse and complex compared to the greywacke mountains of the Southern Alps, east of the fault.

At Red Hill in the Richmond Range, there is an outcrop of ultramafic rocks, which have a striking red colour and are rich in minerals containing iron and magnesium. They form poor soils and support little vegetation. Similar rocks are found on the southern West Coast, some 480 km away – movement on the Alpine Fault has displaced them. The coarse golden-sand beaches of the Abel Tasman National Park are derived from granite.

Topography

Nelson is largely mountainous. The only extensive areas of flattish land are the Waimea Plains, the floodplains of the Motueka, Riwaka, Tākaka and Aorere rivers, and narrow coastal strips between Nelson and Motueka in Tasman Bay and Farewell Spit and Pōhara in Golden Bay.

Moutere Depression

South-east of Nelson city the Richmond Range rises to over 1,700 metres. Between these mountains and the western Arthur Range is a 25-kilometre-wide basin of lower hills, which reach 500–600 metres inland and 200–300 metres near the coast. This basin, known to geologists as the Moutere Depression, was formed by faulting. It was filled with gravel by rivers flowing northwards from the Spenser Mountains between 2.8 million and 500,000 years ago (the Buller River originally flowed north into Tasman Bay). The Motueka and Waimea rivers and their tributaries have cut into these gravel hills, creating many small valleys.

Tunnelling to Tākaka

A tunnel through Tākaka hill was first mooted in 1912. In the early 1990s a large white semi circle appeared on the rock face above Eureka Bend on the Golden Bay side of the hill – graffiti marking a proposed tunnel entrance. A 1992 investigation estimated that the cost of a 4.4-km tunnel would be uneconomic, at $200–435 million. The tunnel was never built.

Western landforms

West of the Motueka River are the Arthur Range and the Tasman Mountains. Mountains (typically 1,500 metres high) incised by rivers extend to the West Coast, making up Kahurangi National Park. Farewell Spit, New Zealand’s largest sandspit, stretches for 32 kilometres, protecting Golden Bay from Tasman Sea swells. On the western coast is Whanganui Inlet, a river system which was drowned when sea levels rose after the last glaciations. The Tākaka River valley separates the Tasman Mountains from the Arthur and Pikikiruna ranges (Tākaka hill) to the east. South of Mt Arthur, Mt Owen has New Zealand’s longest cave, Bulmer Cavern, which has been explored to over 50 kilometres in length.

Near Murchison, north of the Buller River, are huge marble and limestone outcrops in an earthquake-shattered landscape. In Kahurangi National Park many lakes have been formed by earthquake-triggered landslides blocking rivers. The Matiri Range, north of Murchison, has two spectacular plateaus – a rare New Zealand landscape. The Thousand Acres Plateau and nearby Hundred Acre Plateau (both considerably smaller than their names suggest) are unusual tussock-covered benches 800 metres above the surrounding valley floors.

Eastern landforms

Inland, the upper catchment of the Buller River dominates. Flattish land is found along the river and in tributary valleys, with settlements, farmland and roads along these narrow corridors. Nelson Lakes National Park – one of three in the region – contains Lake Rotoiti (the source of the Buller River), Lake Rotoroa, and mountains rising to over 2,000 metres in the south. These large lakes are flooded depressions carved by past glaciers, although glaciation here was less severe than further south in the higher Southern Alps.

The journey is worth it.

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