Nelson and Abel Tasman New Zealand
Located in the northwest of the South Island of New Zealand, the small city of Nelson and nearby Abel Tasman National Park are a beautiful and relaxing area of New Zealand. The region is best known for its relaxed vibe, sunny skies, sand and sparkling coastline.
Nelson has a thriving local arts scene, fresh food and wine, and a charming downtown. From Nelson, it’s a little over an hour’s drive northwest along the coast to Abel Tasman National Park. This park has one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which travels along a beachy, sandy coastline so it’s easier on the knees than New Zealand’s steep mountain hikes.
Even if you’re not a hiker, we highly recommend spending the day in Abel Tasman National Park for swimming, walking, kayaking and boating. It’s a unique place, accessible only by boat or on foot! As you ride a water taxi into the park, you’ll notice the turquoise, clear water matched by pale yellow sand. It’s an especially popular place to go kayaking, since the water is so clear and playful fur seals sometimes enjoy swimming circles around visiting kayakers.
What to Do near Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park
Yes, Abel Tasman National Park is well-known for excellent hiking, boating, swimming and kayaking. However, it’s not the only reason to visit here.
Around Nelson is a small but vibrant wine scene that gets better and better each year. Art galleries and professional art studios can be found throughout Nelson. The World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars Museum is world-famous, unique and stunning.
For adventure-seekers, consider mountain biking around Kahurangi National Park, and horseback riding on the open trail. Some of the best trout fishing in New Zealand is also nearby, in Nelson Lakes National Park.
If time allows, then we highly recommend heading all the way out to the farthest northwestern corner of the South Island, Farewell Spit and Golden Bay, as a day trip or overnight. It can easily take three hours to drive to Farewell Spit from Nelson and the road travels over a mountain range, but the journey is well worth it. Only those who truly want to go off the beaten path and experience relaxation in a provincial area of New Zealand travel here. Golden Bay has several long, wide, calm beaches and Farewell Spit is great for birding, marine life, horseback riding, and wind-swept beaches. There are a couple of good places to stay here, so if you’re really attracted to this sort of laid-back destination, then you may like to skip Nelson altogether and come here instead.
Where to Stay in Nelson, and for How Long
The city of Nelson makes for a good base to explore the region, and offers plenty of affordable hotels. However, we highly recommend considering a stay in the countryside outside Nelson, since there are so many wonderful accommodations there. As you travel the coastline between Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park, you find all sorts of bays and inlets with lodges, B&Bs, and home rentals that range from three- to five-star.
On the three-star end, you’ll find comfortable, clean, basic accommodations, especially ones that are self-contained, meaning they have kitchens or kitchenettes for self-catering and fewer staff or guest amenities. Many guests who stay in self-catering rental homes or apartments are locals doing long stays, so self-catering is preferable. However, don’t let the price fool you — some of these more affordable properties can still be found in gorgeous locations! Just don’t expect a lot of personalized service or amenities.
On the higher end, there are several excellent, charming, local and authentic B&Bs and lodges that offer a truly magical stay with full amenities. In fact, this area is home to two or three truly excellent five-star lodges with an all-inclusive, immersive experience in all that makes New Zealand great. (Check out our blog post on New Zealand’s luxury lodges for more on what these kinds of accommodations are all about!) If staying on the water is a priority for you, then you’ll likely want to be in one of these more luxurious properties, which are more likely to offer water access.
Wherever you stay, make sure it’s for at least three nights so that you have time to visit the National Park, local wineries, art galleries and museums. If your schedule allows, then we recommend staying five nights so that you have time for relaxation and self-exploration as well.
When to Go
Like everywhere in New Zealand, you can visit Nelson and Abel Tasman any time of year and enjoy all there is to offer. In fact, this is one of the sunniest areas of New Zealand, along with Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough.
If swimming is a high priority, then you’ll want to be here in summertime, between December and February. If swimming isn’t a priority, then we recommend avoiding the popular summer tourist season and instead, visit between March and November.
Autumn, which lasts from March through May, is a great time to go because not only have most of the tourists gone home, but the daytime temperatures (as well as the water temperatures) stay warm enough to enjoy some water activities. However, if hiking or photography are more your style, then consider Winter or Spring when the clear air and crisp temperatures make for ideal conditions.
When planning your visit here, do remember that most of the swimmable beaches are directly in Abel Tasman National Park, or even farther from Nelson up the northwest coast to the tip of Golden Bay. In other words, the city of Nelson itself doesn’t have much in the way of sand and swimming. For those experiences, you’ll have to travel farther from civilization.
How to Get Here
Nelson has a domestic airport with nonstop flights to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. However, many of our clients self-drive either from Marlborough (about 2.5 hours east of Nelson) or the West Coast (about 3.5 hours southwest of Nelson). Note that there’s no road connecting Golden Bay to the West Coast without backtracking through Nelson — the only way to go directly from Golden Bay to the West Coast is on a challenging four-day hike, called the Heaphy Track!
The area around Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park is one of our favorites in all of New Zealand. The vibe here is relaxed and friendly, and there’s plenty to occupy both hard-core adventurers and those who prefer to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground.
Whether you’re coming from New York City, Winnipeg, or anywhere between, contact a New Zealand travel expert today to start planning your trip!