4 Days Exploring Around Nelson, New Zealand
Four days in Nelson. A road trip itinerary with a home base of Nelson, full of hiking, boating, beaches, wine, and eating! If you want to avoid crowds, this underrated part of New Zealand is an ideal stop.
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Day Three: Marlborough Vineyards
Day Four: Picton and Marlborough Sound
Optional Day Five: Nelson Lakes National Park
Day One: Nelson
Start your first day exploring the immediate Nelson area. We hiked a short neighborhood trail in Tasman Heights in the morning. Then we stopped at Pic’s Peanutbutter Factory. You can do a factory tour here or just stop in the factory store to stock up on peanut butter for the rest of your road trip. We bought small peanut butter packets useful for hiking and regretted not buying some of the various peanut butter flavors as gifts to bring home for people. We bought more Pic’s throughout our time in New Zealand but never saw the same selection as at the factory. Then we drove to Forsters Moutere Hills to experience a Nelson vineyard. In the afternoon we relaxed at Tahunanui Beach and walked around town.
We went back down to the waterfront area at night for a relaxing dinner. See Where to Eat for restaurant suggestions.
Day Two: Day Trip to Abel Tasman
It is a 45-minute drive on a relatively flat road to Abel Tasman. There are lots of options for strategizing a day in Abel Tasman. We planned our day to fit in hiking, kayaking, a boat ride, and some beach time to fully experience the Park. That national park runs along the coastline and has limited accessibility via car, so it’s common to ferry to a hiking starting point and then ferry back from where you end your hike.
Marahau Road and Kaiteriteri Beach are the two most popular parking areas for accessing the park. Kaiteriteri Beach is technically outside of the park, but has direct beach access near the parking area, a restaurant, an ice cream store, a playground, and kayak rentals and is a starting point for most of the ferry and tour companies, so it’s an easy location as a home base to park at.
We parked at Kaiteriteri Beach and then bought our ferry tickets there. Leave some extra time in your planning to get tickets, there were lines when we went. There are a few ferry company options. You can pick a company depending on your preference of boat size if boat bathrooms and snacks are important to you, and departure and return schedules. We took Wilson’s Abel Tasman to have bathroom and snack options on a bigger boat and were happy with the experience. A roundtrip ticket with Wilson’s costs USD 44. Other boat company options include Abel Tasman Sea Shuttles, Aqua Taxi, and Sea Kayak.
The ferry ride will be 45 minutes to one hour depending on where you are dropped off. There are many hiking options up and down the National Park coastline. Research which hikes you want to do ahead of time to determine what point you want the ferry to drop you off and pick you up from. We wanted to do a short hike to allow time to also kayak in the afternoon. A couple of options for shorter day hikes that still have worthwhile views are:
Pitt Head Loop Trail - A 2-mile looped trail that takes 1-1.5 hours to hike. Despite being short, it still gives stunning views of the Abel Tasman blue waters and coastline. This hike has minimal elevation gain (334 feet) and is relatively easy. It also allowed us some time to relax at Anchorage Beach while waiting for our return ferry. The Pitt Head Loop trail loops back to the starting point at Anchorage, so ferry drop off and pick up are from the same spot.
Medlands Beach to Anchorage Bay. This is a 6-mile hike that will take 3-4 hours. On this trail, you’ll cross the Falls River Swing bridge, hike around Torrent Bay and see Cleopatra’s pool. For this option, have the ferry drop you at Medlands Beach and then get picked up from Anchorage Bay. Make sure to be on the earliest ferry departure to fit in the afternoon kayaking.
Note that there are no bathrooms, restaurants, vendors, etc at Anchorage Bay. Bring all snacks and water that you will need with you. We also brought packable beach towels and sunscreen to lay on the beach after the hike. I’d recommend wearing hiking sandals for this day. Some parts of the trail are sandy, and sandals make it easier to transition to beach time.
After we were ferried back to Kaiteriteri Beach, we had a casual beach-view lunch at and then walked down to the beach to rent kayaks from Kaiteriteri Kayak. In the morning, check in with the kayak rental company before your ferry to find the available orientation times. Then you will know what time you need to return for kayaking. The check-in times when we went were every hour, with the last one at 3:30 pm. You can rent a kayak for one hour for $30NZ or up to four hours for $60NZ. Renting a tandem kayak with two people is required to kayak outside of the immediate beach area.
The above itinerary was our independent, cost-saving way to see the Abel Tasman area. Tour/ferry companies like Wilson’s also offer full-day packages where they provide ferry rides, hiking, and kayaking all one tour booking. They run $150NZ-$190NZ.
Day Three: Day Trip to Marlborough Region Vineyards
The Marlborough wine region is an hour and a half drive from Nelson. There is some mountain driving required along the way. Many tour companies offer wine tours of the area, including some that will pick up and drop off in Nelson. We chose to drive ourselves to Marlborough. We then rented bikes to explore the vineyards. I would highly recommend this experience. It’s an inexpensive option relative to a tour and a fun way to see the area. We rented bikes with Wine Tours By Bike based in Renwick. The company is run by a local couple who couldn’t have been friendlier or more helpful. They give a brief orientation outlining the vineyards within a bikeable distance. They will also work to find the best vineyard choices for your group. They know which vineyards are kid-friendly, have casual lunch options, are known for their whites v. reds, etc. They provide a map of the vineyards, and each bike has storage for the wine bottles you buy. It costs $45NZ for a full-day rental.
We chose to go to vineyards close to the rental shop, and never biked more than 15 minutes between stops. The biking was not strenuous and was on flat roads and trails.
Our first stop was Wairau River Wines. It is a modern but simple tasting room with outdoor seating as well. They had our favorite wines of the day, and we all bought bottles. We continued to look for their wines throughout our month in New Zealand and regretted not buying more! Next, we stopped at Whitehaven Wine Company for snacks and more wine. The restaurant here, Vines Village Cafe, is an inexpensive, casual option relative to the other vineyards in the area. They had our least favorite wines of the day though. Then we biked to the Cloudy Bay restaurant and tasting location. They have a modern, picturesque outdoor area with bean bags and wicker swings. They offered a range of wine-tasting menus to choose from, depending on what price point you were interested in. Their restaurant would be a higher-end lunch option as well.
Our last vineyard of the day was a small boutique vineyard, Bladen Wines. We enjoyed our tasting with a friend of the family that owned the vineyard in a quaint indoor/outdoor tasting room.
Day Four: Picton and Marlborough Sound
Picton is a 2-hour drive from Nelson along mountainous roads. Picton is a small harbor town that is the base for ferries that take you to the Marlborough Sound hiking areas. This is a long day with a two-hour drive to and from Nelson, but after 30 days in New Zealand this remained one of our favorite days of the whole trip, so it’s worth it!
Marlborough Sound is similar to Abel Tasman in that it’s common to boat to a hiking starting point and then boat back from where you end your hike. There is one main water taxi operator, Cougar Water Taxi. Our round-trip water taxi ticket was 58 USD.
When you arrive in Picton, there is a small parking lot near the harbor, but if it’s full there is also a public lot up the road away from the water. We parked and then stopped to eat a croissant for breakfast at Posh Patisserie. Then we bought our water taxi ticket and our hiking passes for the Queen Charlotte Track. This was the only hike in New Zealand we had to pay for a pass to hike in the area, it was 8 USD per person. The hiking passes through private land so the fee goes to those owners. The water taxi company sold the passes at their office. Our water taxi ride was 30 minutes on a smaller boat on the way out and was an hour trip on a larger boat with bathrooms, etc on the way back. How long the boat ride will be and what type of boat you will be on will depend on your drop off and pick up points.
It takes 5 days to hike the entire Queen Charlotte Track in Marlborough Sound. For a day hike, you can pick various portions of the hike to do, as long as it aligns with water taxi drop-off and pick-up options. Some day hike options with a water taxi drop off and pick up would be:
Ship Cove to Endeavour Inlet - A 10.5-mile hike that will take 5.5 hours.
Endeavour Inlet to Camp Bay- A 7.1-mile hike that will take 4 hours hike. This is an easier hike option.
Torea Saddle to Mistletoe Bay- A 5-mile hike that will take 3 hours. There are some inclines on this hike, it’s rated moderate difficulty.
Mistletoe Bay to Anakiwa- A 7.7-mile hike that will take 4 hours
Hike from Torea Bay to Lochmara Lodge. A 3-hour hike that is around 4 miles. This is the hike we chose to do because it takes you to the highest point in all of Marlborough Sound for panoramic views on both sides of the peak. Lochmara Lodge is a fun, unique stop for ending the hike as well. This hike is straight uphill for the first hour, but there are lots of stunning (unmarked) viewpoints to stop and catch your breath at. This was one of our favorite hikes during our whole New Zealand trip! The mountain and water views with rainforest trails that changed terrain throughout the hike set a high standard for all of our future hikes.
We felt there was limited signage on this route though so a few things to note for the trek are:
When the boat drops you off, you will need to hike up a steep road for 20-30 minutes to find the Queen Charlotte Track.
Once you find the track, follow signs toward Mistletoe Bay or Anakiwa. Lochmara Lodge is in between Torea Bay and Mistletoe Bay, so Mistletoe is the direction you need to head. Lochmara isn’t listed on the signs in the beginning.
There is no marking letting you know when you are at the highest point, but there is a bench, so when you find a bench with stunning views on both sides, after an hour or so of uphill climbing, you are there.
After the peak, there will eventually be signage that points you to turn off towards Lochmara Lodge and takes you off of the Queen Charlotte Track. It’s still another 30-45 minute hike to the lodge from that point.
There are no bathrooms or drinking water anywhere on the trail until you reach the lodge.
Once we arrived at the Lochmara Lodge we had lunch at their restaurant, visited some of their wildlife exhibits, and then relaxed on their beach while we waited for our water taxi back to Picton. The lodge has a vibe that is a mix of a tropical beach resort and jungle retreat. The restaurant is casual (fine for sweaty, post-hike dining) and has water views. In addition to their wildlife exhibits, they also offer kayaks and paddle boards to use at their beach. To experience any part of the lodge outside of the restaurant, you do have to pay a small fee for a day pass.
Back in Picton we walked around the town and waterfront and enjoyed ice cream at Indulge Ice Cream Parlor before driving back to Nelson.
Day Five: Nelson Lakes National Park
If you have time for another day in this region you could also explore the Nelson Lakes National Park. It is an hour and twenty-minute drive South of Nelson. A couple of well-known hike options in the area are:
Mt. Robert Circuit is a 5.5-mile loop trail that takes about 5 hours to hike. It has views over Lake Rotoiti.
St. Arnaud Range Track is another option, a more advanced 6.2-mile track that takes 5 hours to hike as well. At the top, there are views of Wairau Valley, Nelson Lakes National Park, and Mt. Richmond Forest Park.
Build an Itinerary
My stop in Nelson was my first destination in a part of a month-long trip throughout New Zealand. I will be posting articles for all of the other stops I made, so check back for them. Any of the South Island stops or Auckland would work as easy add-ons to make a longer trip. You could fly from Nelson to Queenstown, or drive down to the West Coast area straight from Nelson.
This Nelson itinerary is based on the concept of trying to have a main home base for lodging in Nelson, and day trips out from there. You could also do a continuous drive and stay overnight somewhere new every night. (Picton, Blenheim, etc).
We stayed in an Airbnb home in Nelson. Staying in a home rather than a hotel was the best choice for us because we could make our breakfast, easily pack hiking lunches, and do laundry regularly for our hiking clothes. It was fun to meet some of our friendly Kiwi neighbors on neighborhood walks too. Our rental was in the Tasman Heights neighborhood. It was a winding uphill drive on narrow streets to the home, but it had stunning panoramic views of the Nelson area at the top where the house was. The neighborhood also has a small trail system for hiking and running. I recommend staying there.
It’s easy to book excursions and activities online for New Zealand. We traveled during high season and were able to make bookings a couple of days out without issues of excursions or rentals being booked up. The one advantage to booking more last minute is that you can make decisions based on how the weather is looking those days. If you are planning to do one of the multiple-day treks in the area (not included in the itinerary below, but the Milford, Routeburn, Kepler, etc), the huts for those should be reserved months in advance.
What to Wear and Pack
Check out my Packing List for more recommendations on specific gear.
What to Wear
Comfortable hiking clothes that you can easily layer and take on and off.
A waterproof outer layer.
Waterproof hiking sandals
A hat for hiking. You can sunburn easily in New Zealand.
What to Pack
A lightweight daypack and a water bladder for all of the hikes.
Drybag- A small one for your wallet and phone in case you are caught hiking in the rain.
Motion sickness remedies-These are important if you are susceptible to car or boat motion sickness, Many of the drives are on windy roads and the boats could end up in high wave conditions too.
A packable beach towel you can bring with you on hikes
What to Eat
Salmon -- New Zealand’s mountain streams host alpine salmon, and it is some of the best I have ever had.
Lamb -- There is a reason you’ll see so many sheep during your drives: New Zealand is known for its lamb!
Roadside fruit -- If you travel during New Zealand’s summer, make sure to stop at one of the fruit stands that you’ll see by the road. Berries, peaches, and cherries fresh from the farm will Their produce straight from the farm will make it hard to go back to grocery store fruit at home.
Ice Cream -- New Zealand dairy products use milk from grass-fed cows that can graze year round, which makes for creamy, fresh ice cream.
Cheese – New Zealand also produces a variety of cheeses locally. I routinely saw gouda, cheddar, brie, goat, and blue cheeses in restaurants. The blue cheese is uniquely mild – I had never had anything like it -- so be sure to try it.
Honey- New Zealand is known for producing a wide variety of delicious honeys. Check out the Manuka honey, which is reputed to have healing properties.
Craft Peanut Butters – New Zealand also produces a variety of artisan peanut butters with flavors like “smoke and fire.” Pic’s Peanut Butter was my favorite brand!
Snack Balls – At grocery stores you can find date-based snack balls with additions like mango, salted caramel, chocolate, and peanut butter. These are great as healthy hiking snacks.
Passionfruit YoYos – Widely available cookies that consist of passion fruit frosting between two butter biscuits.
Afghan cookies – A local favorite and available in most grocery stores, these are made with chocolate and cornflakes.
Where to Eat
Forsters Moutere Hills- It is located 30 minutes outside of Nelson, but it’s worth the drive. The cheese boards full of local cheeses, fresh salads, and modern desserts here made it one of our favorite lunches during our New Zealand trip. They had a wide selection of local wines to taste as well. It is set in a modern space that flows seamlessly with the outdoors.
The Boat Shed Cafe- This restaurant sits directly above the water with views of the ocean. You can watch the boat traffic come in and out of the harbor while you eat. A higher-end, but still casual dining option with elevated classic New Zealand dishes.
River Kitchen- A casual lunch spot in Nelson with bean bag chair seating options and river views. They have boards, salads, fish n chips, burgers and sandwiches, and baked goods as well.
Indulge Ice Cream Parlor- A worthy representative of New Zealand’s creamy, well-flavored ice creams.
Posh Patisserie -A French bakery with flakey croissants that tasted like they were straight from Paris.
Vines Village Cafe- A casual vineyard day lunch spot within the Whitehaven vineyard complex. They offer fresh salads, deli sandwiches, and cheese and meat boards.
Jack’s Raw Bar- A more upscale lunch option in Cloudy Bay Vineyard. It is focused on fresh local seafood that pairs well with its wines.
For this portion of my New Zealand trip, we only shopped for wine bottles in the Marlborough region.
To do the itinerary below you will need a rental car. Reserve a four-wheel drive SUV so you can handle any gravel roads, stream crossings, or wet conditions. The roads in New Zealand are well-maintained and are well-marked. You will still need maps to drive around though. I would not recommend renting a GPS with the car. We rented one and it would not recognize trailhead names as points to drive to. We often had to use data or Google to find them. You should instead set up a data plan on a phone or download offline maps ahead of each drive.
In New Zealand, they drive on the left side of the road and many of their roads carve along the edge of mountains, so it's not easy driving. Whatever time your GPS or Google says for the drive, add a buffer to it for your planning. There's frequent construction and even animal crossings that will slow you down without warning.
You could also stay in Nelson and book with a tour group for each day trip outside of the city. This would be more expensive though and provides less flexibility, so I wouldn't recommend it.
When to Go
December, January, and February are New Zealand’s Summer and its high season. Hikes and drives are even more colorful because of summer wildflowers and you don’t have to worry about coming across snow on hiking trails. Temperatures are in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit) during the day. Summer also means crowded trails, overfull parking lots, and more expensive lodging. The local New Zealand Summer holiday runs from late December to late January so you will fight local tourism during those months as well. In Spring and Fall the weather will be much more unpredictable with chances of freezing temperatures and many trails could still be snow-covered.
Nelson is a less popular/famous stop in New Zealand though, so even though we traveled during high season we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of crowds.
Be ready to adjust your itinerary based on the weather. One advantage of road-tripping is that the weather may vary in each location you are going. We were able to move around what day trip we took each day to avoid any rainy days hitting us during our hikes.
Credit cards are widely accepted in New Zealand, the only times we used cash were at farmer’s markets and when we stopped to buy roadside fruit.
Clean, modern, (and sometimes even music-playing) public restrooms are easy to find in New Zealand.
Tipping at restaurants is not customary in New Zealand
Trip Dates: February 3rd- February 7th, 2020.