Marlborough & Nelson

The northern region of the South Island beckons visitors with its sunny climate, inviting coastline, food, wines, marine reserves, and three national parks: Nelson Lakes, Abel Tasman, and Kahurangi. Marine life watching at Kaikoura, winery tours, and Nelson’s Suter Art Gallery are well-known attractions. Nelson is home to craft artisans and is an excellent base for boating and adventure tours. Walking, tramping, and cycling tracks are spread throughout the national parks and other areas, including the Marlborough Sounds, a unique geographical feature of the region.



Set in the upper reaches of Queen Charlotte Sound, Picton is the South Island terminus for the ferries that cross Cook Strait. The buzz of port and railway activity dominates this pretty town nestled between the sea and the hills. Ferries and water taxis mingle with pleasure boats in the region, popular for its safe anchorages. Picton is a good base to explore the history of the Marlborough region. The Picton Museum tells stories of the whaling era, beginning in the 1820s, and of the 1770s visit of Captain James Cook to Queen Charlotte Sound. At each end of the foreshore, the scow Echo and the sailing ship Edwin Fox provide a fascinating look at New Zealand’s shipping history. Built in 1905, the Echo is an old cargo scow that shipped around 14,000 tonnes of freight per year between Blenheim and Wellington. The Edwin Fox, the last Australian convict ship in existence, is an internationally significant link to the era of colonial settlement, having brought convicts to Australia and migrants to New Zealand. Built from teak in India in 1853, the ship is now being preserved in a dry dock beside a purpose-built museum. Along the Picton, Waterfront is EcoWorld Aquarium and Terrarium, featuring the local species to be seen throughout Marlborough Sounds. A number of walks and cycling tracks in Picton begin near the Echo or at Shelly Beach on Picton Harbour where a lookout affords excellent views of the town. A short uphill walk from the Echo leads to Victoria Domain, a bushy reserve named after Queen Victoria. A longer walk past Bob’s Bay passes a panoramic view of Queen Charlotte Sound and leads to The Snout, the headland between Picton and Waikawa bays. Maori know the Snout as Te Ihumoeoneihu (nose of the sandworm). The Tirohanga and Essons Valley tracks allow exploration of the forest behind the town.


The best-known road in the Marlborough Sounds, Queen Charlotte Drive is a scenic route connecting Picton and Havelock. With stopovers, it can take up to half a day to complete the 21.5-mile journey on the sealed but narrow and winding road. Leaving Picton, the Queen Charlotte Drive passes lookout points above the town and at Governors Bay, 5 miles from Picton, with excellent views up and down Queen Charlotte Sound. Beaches and pleasant picnic and swimming areas can be found along the route that passes through the picturesque settlements of Ngakuta and Momorangi bays. At Ngakuta Bay, Sirpa Alalääkkölä’s Art Studio showcases her large, bright paintings, many of them inspired by the Sounds. Continuing west, a turn-off 8 miles from Governors Bay leads to historic Anakiwa, where the Queen Charlotte Track begins. A shelter and picnic area are provided and an easy stroll along the track leads through beech forest to Davies Bay. The Queen Charlotte Drive route continues through Linkwater with the road following the waters of the Mahakipawa Arm, the innermost reaches of Pelorus Sound. The walking tracks and viewpoint at Cullen Point provide another perspective on the waterways below, before the road’s final descent into Havelock.


The self-styled green lip mussel capital of the world, the village of Havelock receives a growing number of visitors attracted by its history and the success of its mussel farming industry. The main street still retains something of its pioneer character. Highlights of a walk around the waterfront are the stately 1880s home of timber miller William Brownlee, the stone St Peter’s Church, and the old primary school (now a hostel). A number of cafés can be found in the town along with many interesting shops selling antiques, jewelry, carvings, crafts, and Maori art. Tours and activities such as sea kayaking begin in Havelock, with the scenic mail run (where mail is delivered by boat) being perhaps the easiest and most popular way to get to the outer sounds. The Havelock Museum preserves relics from the pioneer era and Rutherford’s time. The annual Mussel Festival takes place in March.


The Marlborough Sounds region is a mass of bays, inlets, and hidden coves with numerous walking tracks, wildlife, historical sites, and unsurpassed views. Picton and Havelock are the Sounds’ main towns. Launch services from these two towns provide the best access to the secluded bays and accommodation by the sea. The best ways to explore the Sounds are by bicycle, sea kayak, or on foot.


The largest town in the Marlborough region, Blenheim’s importance in the Wairau Valley has grown along with the development of the wine industry in Marlborough. The annual food and wine festival is a major attraction. A number of arts and craftspeople also live and work in Blenheim and its environs. In the city center, Seymour Square has a fountain, pretty gardens, and the Clock Tower. The Millennium Art Gallery houses works by local artists and sculptors, while the Marlborough Museum is set beside the heritage streetscape of Brayshaw Park on the southern edge of town. The park has a miniature railway, boating pond, and a reconstructed colonial village, giving some insight into the way of life in Blenheim during that period. Nearby is Wither Hills Farm Park where a network of foot and cycling tracks have been developed for visitors within the working farm. The tracks are well marked and require average fitness.


The name Kaikoura means “meal of crayfish” and reflects the importance of the sea throughout the area. The first European settlers and whalers arrived in 1842. The town’s current tourism boom is also based on whales and other marine wildlife. The visitor center has extensive displays and an audiovisual show. Whale tooth carvings can be seen at historic Fyffe House, a colonial cottage from the whaling days. Nearby, at the beach-front, is the Garden of Memories with a walkway encased with pairs of whale ribs. Above the town, Scarborough Street has a lookout point, a remnant pa, and the Gold Gallery with wall sculptures gilded with gold leaf. On the southern edge of town, guided tours can be taken at the Kaikoura Winery and at Maori Leap Cave, a limestone cave formed by the sea, full of stalagmites.


Nelson was the second settlement developed by the New Zealand Company. The first settlers arrived in February 1842, but in 1844 the company failed. Some settlers persisted, and in 1853 Nelson became the capital of a province of the same name. A royal decree in 1858 made the small-town New Zealand’s second city. Today, Nelson is renowned as a vibrant art, crafts, and festival center with a superb climate. The compact city center includes numerous galleries, craft shops, and heritage attractions. A memorial to Dutch navigator Abel Tasman can be seen at Tahunanui, a popular swimming beach close to the center of the city.


This busy town serves the productive horticultural lands to its south and west. Highlights are the Washbourne Gardens, complete with 1862 jailhouse, and the Redwood Stables restaurant, built using bricks from New Zealand’s first racing stables. Visitors can observe the art of glassmaking at Höglund Art Glass where Ola and Marie Höglund create their renowned glassware.


Approximately 90 minutes’ drive from Blenheim or Nelson is the small town of St Arnaud, nestled on the shore of Lake Rotoiti, a trout fishing, boating, and water-skiing paradise. The nearby Lake Rotoroa also has good trout fishing but is more secluded and quiet. St Arnaud is the gateway to Nelson Lakes National Park and the closest town to the Rainbow Ski Area, where the terrain is suitable for novice and intermediate snowboarders and skiers. In summer, the ski field road continues through to Hanmer Springs.


The twin, glacier-formed lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa dominate this park at the northern tip of the Southern Alps. A water taxi is the easiest form of access to the area of high passes, forests, valleys, and basins. The lakes and rivers are popular for kayaking, sailing, boating, swimming, and trout fishing. Winter pastimes include ski touring. There are many trails for trampers and walkers, including the well-known 50-mile Travers–Sabine Circuit that includes two major valleys, an alpine pass, the wetland Speargrass area, and both main lakes. The two-day return walk along Robert Ridge to the beautiful Lake Angelus is also very pleasant but with high altitudes, caution is advised.


Motueka has a diverse horticultural industry and is the country’s most prolific orcharding area. Kiwifruit, apples, berries, hops, pears, and grapes are some of the produce grown here. The town is also a base for trips to the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi national parks.


A great variety of native animals and plants live in the 4,510 sq-km (1,740 sq-mile) park. A highlight is the Heaphy Track, a four- to five-day walking track. Kayaking, hunting, caving, tramping, rafting, and fishing are all popular activities here. Alpine plants can be seen growing near the Cobb Reservoir. The major gateway is Motueka, but access is also possible from Karamea.


New Zealand’s smallest national park, at only 87 sq miles, Abel Tasman has a mild climate, golden beaches, and sandy estuaries fringed by natural forest. The park is best known for its coast track which can be walked one way, with the return trip made on a launch or water taxi. There are huts and a large number of campsites on the coast track to break the journey. Due to the park’s popularity, it is necessary to book walks and huts before visiting. Abel Tasman is also one of New Zealand’s better sea kayaking destinations and a day spent drifting in a slowly filling estuary or watching seals, penguins, dolphins, or birdlife from these quiet craft will not be forgotten.


Takaka Hill is commonly referred to as “the marble mountain” because of its large marble deposits that contrast sharply with the granite hills of adjoining Abel Tasman National Park. There are many caves and sinkholes to explore in the area, including Ngarua Caves near the summit of Takaka Hill, where a lookout offers views north to D’Urville Island and east towards Nelson city. Visible below the caves is Marahau’s golden beach, where marble from a local quarry was shipped to Wellington for use in New Zealand’s Parliament Building. To the west of Ngarua Caves, Canaan Road leads to Canaan car park, the starting point for walking tracks, including the Rameka Track, one of Nelson’s better mountain bike rides. An easy walk leads to the impressive Harwoods Hole, a 577-ft vertical shaft. A short steep side track leads to the Harwood Lookout with a fine viewpoint inland to the Tablelands in Kahurangi National Park. To the east of Ngarua Caves is Hawkes Lookout. A short walk leads to a platform perched over a precipitous 1,640-ft drop to the forest at Riwaka Resurgence.


Takaka is the main shopping and business area for the Golden Bay region and an access point to Abel Tasman National Park. The townspeople are a mix of “alternative life-stylers” and farming folk. Dairy farming is one of the largest industries in the region. The Golden Bay Museum is excellent, and best known for its displays on Abel Tasman and the story of Golden Bay’s many mining ventures. Several galleries operate in the area and many artists near Takaka show their work – painted gourds, pottery, and wood or stone sculptures – to visitors.


North of Takaka on State Highway 60, a turnoff leads to the Waikoropupu Springs Scenic Reserve. The waters here are exceptionally clear, coming from an underground cave system that is connected to the features encountered on Takaka Hill and at Riwaka Resurgence. In the past Waikoropupu was a place of ceremonial blessings for the Maori. The springs are best viewed using a large fixed periscope set on a viewing platform. An easy walk through beautiful forest leads to the platform. Beyond the springs (at the end of the road), the Pupu Walkway is a track that follows the line of a water race built to serve a gold mining claim. An impressive piece of engineering, the water race was later used (and still is) to generate electric power. The walk is about 2 miles long.


A quiet village at the mouth of the Aorere River, Collingwood was designated a port of entry in the 1850s gold rush and was considered as the site for New Zealand’s capital city. Despite several devastating fires, the courthouse, post office, original cemetery, and Anglican St Cuthbert’s Church remain to remind visitors of the town’s fleeting moment of glory. Collingwood acts as a base for tours to Farewell Spit and for buses serving the Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park.


At the northern tip of the South Island, a 22-mile sandspit sweeps eastward into the sea. Farewell Spit is a nature reserve with restricted access and has been designated a Wetland of International Importance. In late spring, tens of thousands of migratory waders arrive from the northern hemisphere, joining the year-round residents before returning home in autumn to breed. Black swans, Canadian geese, Australasian gannets, Caspian terns, oystercatchers, black shags, and eastern bar-tailed godwits are amongst the species to be seen in summer. As the region is a protected area, the only way to visit the spit is on a guided tour with one of the licensed tour operators based in Collingwood.