Last updated 23 January 2021
New Zealand’s South Island is famous for its natural beauty and the Abel Tasman National Park and surrounding areas are no exception. Situated on the north-west of the island, the area has a multitude of natural treasures including golden beaches, blue lakes and rocky cliffs and coves.
The wider Nelson-Tasman region also has a lot to offer. With pretty towns and cities, spectacular natural scenery, and excellent wine and craft beer, there’s no shortage of things to do. Here’s what you need to know to explore this stunning part of the country.
Abel Tasman National Park may be New Zealand's smallest national park, but it's also one of the most beautiful. Home to one of New Zealand's Great Walks, the national park boasts white sand, secluded coves and the occasional waterfall, all nestled in lush, green bush.
Many of the park's visitors are here for day trips, spending their time doing a short section of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track or just relaxing at a tiny bay. However, there's also a range of accommodation options available if you want to stay longer or overnight. There's also a variety of outdoor activities to keep you busy, including kayaking between the bays and swimming in the clear water.
Being so close to nature is a peaceful experience and the scenery at the park is truly stunning. On a sunny day, the water in the little bays is so clear you can see down to the sandy bottom. Whatever you do at the park, your adventures at Abel Tasman National Park will be one of the highlights of your travels in New Zealand.
There are no cars allowed inside Abel Tasman National Park. That means you'll have to access the bays or tracks by water taxi, kayaking or walking. While there are a number of entrances into Abel Tasman National Park, be sure to pick one that works with your mode of transport.
Kaiteriteri is a beautiful beach 61km from Nelson and you can kayak or catch a water taxi into the park from here. It's a lovely way to approach the national park and is very popular with visitors, especially those doing a day trip. However, this is not a point you want to walk from, as it's a 7km from Kaiteriteri to the closest walking track entrance.
If you want to walk into the park, start in Marahau, the southern entrance. There's a DOC car park here where you can leave your car or campervan. It's 67km from Nelson and is the only entrance where you can walk directly into the park.
If you're coming from Takaka, the northern entrance, Wainui is probably the most convenient. There is a carpark here as well. Just keep in mind that the last 2km of road is unsealed and you'll have to walk for that bit of the journey.
Water taxis are available all year round and have a fairly regular schedule. You do have to book these in advance, but the day before or morning of your visit is usually fine. The scheduled water taxi pickup locations are Apple Tree Bay, Anchorage, Medlands Bay, Bark Bay, Tonga Quarry, Onetahuti, Awaroa and Totaranui.
Some of the water taxi and kayak companies will have a shuttle bus to pick you up from your accommodation and take you to one of the park entrances.
If you have a limited amount of time in the area, there's always the option to visit Abel Tasman National Park for a day. For a day trip, I suggest either kayaking or taking a water taxi into the park. Approaching the beautiful bays from the water is a magical experience and you'll pass the famous Split Apple Rock on the way.
Once you choose which bay to start from, you may decide to relax by the water or walk a section of the Abel Tasman Track before being picked up again. It's possible to visit a number of the bays by water taxi, depending on how much time you want to spend in the park. One of the most popular options for a day trip is kayaking into the park, doing a bush walk, then taking a water taxi back to your starting point. Some points of interest for a day trip include the swing bridge near Bark Bay, Tonga Island and Cleopatra's Pool.
After strolling through the beautiful, native bush, you may want to stop by a picnic near one of the turquoise coves or head to Akaroa Lodge for a delicious meal before taking the water taxi back. If you happen to be at the park in the evening, you may even see some little blue penguins on your way home.
One of New Zealand's Great Walks, the Abel Tasman Coastal track follows the coast through the Abel Tasman National Park. The walk takes 3-5 days along a shady track surrounded by native bush. There are multiple huts and camp sites along the track, usually at one of the tiny bays which are scalloped into the coastline.
Walkers usually walk in one direction, taking a boat back the other way. If you're a bit more ambitious, you can do a full circuit around the park, which takes about 5-7 days. Just keep in mind that the Abel Tasman Inland Track (which is part of the circuit route) is very steep and doesn't have the same beautiful viewpoints as the coastal track.
Most people walking the Abel Tasman Coastal track either camp in the park or stay in one of the DOC (Department of Conservation) huts in the park. Most of the campsites are simple and near the beach, however, as there's no vehicle access into the park, you'll have to bring all your food and camping gear with you on the water taxi.
If you're walking the Abel Tasman Coastal Track and don't want to carry as much with you, staying in a DOC hut may be a better option.
While there are a number of lodges on the outskirts of the park, the only backpackers in the Abel Tasman National Park itself is Aquapackers. There's just one catch - it's floating backpackers on a boat moored near Anchorage. Your nightly stay includes a BBQ dinner and breakfast, meaning you don't need to bring all your food with you.
There are a number of luxury lodges located within the park, all with spectacular coastal views. These provide full linen and have restaurants so all you have to bring is yourself and your clothes. If you're after a peaceful getaway with all the luxuries of home (and probably a few more), staying in one of these lodges could be the perfect option.
The major city in the region, Nelson is a much. With a charming, decidedly English town centre, you’ll find your choice of bars and restaurants. The city centre is small, but easily walkable, with a fun lively atmosphere in the summer.
Nelson is near the centre of the region and makes a great base for exploring the region – and for enjoying some civilisation before and after any multi-day hikes in Abel Tasman National Park.
If you want something a bit smaller with some local character, stay in Motueka. Its artsy shops and pretty little coffee shops will keep you entertained between your day trips to other parts of the region
For some serious beach time and to get away from it all, hang out somewhere around Golden Bay. You can enjoy a slower pace of life and centre your holiday around those golden sands.
With relatively mild winters across most of the region, you can visit the Abel Tasman National Park at any time. Go between November and May to make the most of the your time outdoors hiking, kayaking and camping in the bush. If you want to spend most of your time on the beach, keep your trip for the summer. As well as swimming in the secluded coves at Abel Tasman National Park, you can also swim and sunbathe at beautiful Golden Bay on the other side of the mountain range.
If you're visiting the national park in winter, and also enjoy snow sports , include nearby St Arnaud in your itinerary. The Rainbow Ski Field offers skiing and snowboarding options for all abilities. The Nelson Lakes National Park is also stunning in winter so enjoy those spectacular, snowy views.
Cable Bay or Rotokura is a beautiful spot only a 20-minute drive from Nelson City. With clear water and a rocky beach (with some sandy bits), the bay is perfect for swimming, fishing and kayaking. At low tide, rock pools form and you can see starfish, crabs and other fascinating underwater creatures. As it borders Horoirangi Marine Reserve, its a great popular snorkelling and diving destination.
About an hour south of Nelson, this beautiful national park marks the beginning of the breath-taking Southern Alps. With snow-capped mountain ranges, forests and valleys, Nelson Lakes National Park is a stunning place to visit. The highlight of the national park are the beautiful alpine lakes of Rotoroa and Rotoiti. Surrounded by mountains, with native forests, you can explore the area by following easy lakeside walking tracks or more challenging alpine hikes. There are also a variety of native birds living in the park.
In Maori mythology, the great chief Rakaihaitu created the lakes while digging holes with his ko (digging stick). The largest hole became Lake Rotoroa (large waters) and the smaller one was called Lake Rotoiti (small waters).
A beautiful alpine village on edge of Nelson Lakes National Park, the St Arnaud was named after the mountain range overlooking both the town and Lake Rotoiti. With the lake nearby, St Arnaud makes a wonderful base for exploring the national park. There are a wealth of activities to keep visitors busy from trout fishing and boating to ice skating and skiing in the winter months.
Just over the hill from Abel Tasman National Park, is the beautiful Golden Bay community. To get there, you need to drive over Takaka Hill (or the Marble Mountain) which is a rugged journey with a number of stunning lookouts and interesting stops. Eventually you'll arrive in Golden Bay, an expansive, golden stretch of beach, home to an artistic community of people who love nature. Spend your time in Golden Bay visiting local craft stores, trying artisan foods and exploring the beautiful natural surroundings, which include everything from bush to beach to waterfalls. There are also a number of Lord of the Rings filming locations in the area.
Stretching 34km long, Farewell spit is one of the longest natural sandspits in the world. The spit is a bird lover's dream, and has a remarkable wetland and bird sanctuary with over 90 species of birds, including bar tailed godwits, knots, curlews, whimbrels and turnstones. The spit is also home to a gannet colony. You can also visit the old lighthouse, first built in 1869, and surrounded by macrocarpa pine trees. The easiest way to explore Farewell Spit is on a 4WD safari - many leave from Collingwood, at the end of Golden Bay - just be sure to pick one that goes all the way to Cape Farewell, the northern tip of the sandspit.
It’s an easy climb up the hill to visit the beautiful gardens above Nelson. As well as beautiful views of the city, you’ll enjoy wandering through the pretty flowers and plants. It’s also a great, safe place for children to burn off some steam.
The Classic Car Museum is near the Nelson Airport and is a good way to pass the time on a rainy day. There's a good range of classic cars and you can spend a pleasant hour here, even if you aren't generally a car enthusiast. Previously, the World of Wearable Arts Award finalists were exhibited here, however that part of the museum closed in 2020. Watch this space, as there have been some indications that may be displayed somewhere else in the area instead.