Walking and Wining: The Northern Tip of New Zealand’s South Island
The top of the South Island is paradise for adventurers and foodies in gorgeous countryside and with some of the best weather New Zealand has to offer. It has enough to satisfy calorie burners and calorie consumers with something to suit every level of holiday. Last March, in the middle of a glorious Kiwi autumn, we decided to take a week away from family and explore the region. To satisfy our outdoor adventurer, we hiked and kayaked Abel Tasman National Park. For inner tranquility we tasted our way around the Nelson and Marlborough wine regions.
On the western side of the South Island, Abel Tasman’s coastal track was the site for our calorie burning adventures. The track is a well graded path that meanders along the coast through native forest, golden sandy beaches, estuaries, rocky outcrops, and swing bridges with views out to a sparkling clear blue sea and the mountains of the North Island beyond.
To tackle the 51km Abel Tasman coastal track would require 3-5 days, staying in Department of Conservation huts along the way and negotiating the tidal crossing points. We chose to use the nearby town of Motueka as a base and do day hikes including one walk where we were dropped off by a water taxi and picked up again deeper in the park. To give our legs a break, we took a half-day-long guided sea kayaking trip which took us to Tonga Island to see the seals and their young seal pups who swam up to the kayaks to inspect us. This trip just whet our appetite, and going back to spend more time in the park is high on the list.
After four days in the western Abel Tasman area, we drove over to the eastern side of the South Island, which took a little longer than we thought. NZ is a country of country roads. And by country roads we mean those of the twisting, winding, car-sick inducing variety. After lunch in the town of Nelson and a visit to its World of Wearable Art and Car Museum -—because, hey, wearable art AND cars!—we set off for the second half of the break: putting the feet up and the calories on.
On the other side of Nelson, the Marlborough region is known for its Sauvignon blanc. According to Wikipedia,”New Zealand is home to what many wine critics consider the world’s best Sauvignon blanc. Historically, Sauvignon blanc has been used in many French regions in both AOC and Vin de Pays wine. The most famous had been France’s Sancerre. It is also the grape used to make Pouilly Fumé.” It was this link to Sancerre that brought us to the region.
One of our local New York restaurants had introduced us to Henri Bourgeois, a French winemaker from the Loire Valley, who makes a delicious Sancerre. In an effort to move to pastures-new, the winemaker identified a site in the Wairau Valley of the Marlborough region which had suitable soil (terroir) and climate for winemaking.
In France, Henri Bourgeois is sited in the village of Chavignol and the local church spire is often a common feature on its wine labels. In New Zealand, the vintner found a disused church and moved it to the vineyard to create a link with the vineyards in France. The restored church is the visitor centre for Clos Henri and there are detailed displays of the varying terroir to be found on the site. Our tour of Clos Henri was led by a French winemaker who described the varying soil types of the region and the importance of soil in the development of wine character.
This was a brief one-week encounter with a region which has temperate weather, an enviable number of sunshine hours per year, and plenty of activities to help you take advantage of the weather all just a ferry ride away from the capitol, Wellington. It can be done on any budget and has something for everyone, from families to the independent traveller. Our one caveat: hire a car or camper van. Buses exist, but unless you have lots of time on your side nothing beats exploring with your own set of wheels.
Kiwis know that the majority of their visitors come for a month or so and are on a long-haul budget so there’s an abundance of backpacker hostels and hotels with self-catering facilities. NZ is still a predominantly agricultural economy evidenced by active family farms, local butchers, fishmongers, green grocers, and roadside stands, so why not take advantage of its bounty? Eating in NZ is by default local and fresh so we tend to self-cater.
Our tip: If the Kiwis didn’t invent muesli/gorp/trail mix, they certainly perfected it. It is a great breakfast/hiking staple and cheap at the major supermarkets in their “pick and mix” section.
Near Abel Tasman National Park:
For our foray into Abel Tasman, we stayed in Eden’s Edge, a backpackers’ lodge with a common kitchen and some private bathrooms. The owners, Liz and Chris were very personable and knowledgeable. In mid-March, we were surrounded by orchards groaning under the weight of their harvest—fruits destined to show up on our NY supermarket shelves. The other guests were mostly students travelling around the world who were in the region picking apples in the local orchards. In the evenings, we were treated to a Dutch backpackers versus German backpackers bread-making or cake-baking contest. The only downside of Eden’s Edge: they don’t have a website and you’ll need a car to get there, it’s a ways out of town. You can read reviews on TripAdvisor here.
137 Lodder Lane, Riwaka,
Motueka RD3, New Zealand
Marlborough Wine Country:
In Blenheim, we stayed on a farm where the outbuildings had been very tastefully converted into lodges —ours was the former shearers’ quarter which was just right for the two of us. With its own kitchen, we were able to buy local produce and enjoy the best of the region’s fish, meat, fruit and vegetables. Always on the look-out for ideas for our next home, we took oodles of photos. The outbuildings had been converted using the original structure as a frame—keeping details like the floors shiny from a century of sheep lanolin and doors with the shearing totals written in chalk, but enlivened with salvaged fittings such as windows and doors from local buildings which were being torn down.
Telephone: +64 3 577-8328
Facsimile: +64 3 577-8329
Mobile: +64 27 686-1636
The kayaking trip that we chose was the Torrent and Tonga Hike and Paddle which was run by the Sea Kayak Company based at the entrance to Abel Tasman National Park. This gave us a half day hike and a half day kayaking trip. They also run trips lasting up to five days in the Park as well as providing just kayaks and gear if you want to go it alone.
Marlborough Wine Country:
In Marlborough wine country, we had a fabulous day out with Na Clachan tours lead by the knowledgable Helen. We started with a superb lunch at Rock Ferry Vineyards. Helen will tailor your vineyard tour to accommodate any specific requests you may have. In our case we requested the Bourgeois vineyard and a stop at the organic Huia Vineyards.
Odd factoid: the Huia is an extinct NZ bird that had uniquely shaped bills according to sex: the male’s was short and round for chopping away at dead wood and the female’s long and fine for burrowing in for food.