Stay overnight in an art gallery, paddleboard under the moon, then wine, wine, wine.
Hitting New Zealand for the weekend isn't as much of a faraway adventure as it seems — the flight's just over three hours from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. That's almost similar to visiting Canberra or Byron, and there's better wine at the end. And if you're looking for a holiday that ticks multiple boxes, Nelson is a strong choice.
An easy 35 minute flight from Wellington, Nelson is one of New Zealand's genuine all-rounders, with a bustling city centre, beautiful breezy seaside and those iconic misty mountains. Outdoorsy types can head for the Abel Tasman National Park, art lovers can find multi-million dollar collections and local galleries in one place, and if you're an enthusiast in the food and wine game, you'll have a hard time leaving. Take Friday off and spend 72 hours in one of New Zealand's most creative cities — heck, check out our Weekender's Guide to Wellington and make a double header of it.
If you're a wine lover, you'd better get yourself to Nelson quicksmart. There are no less than 28 wineries in the region, all nestled amongst the kind of insanely beautiful rolling hills you'd expect in a world class NZ wine region.
Take an easy drive out to Mahana, formerly Woollaston Estates, one of the region's best organic wineries with one of the prettiest cellar doors in the country. Run by vagabond winemaker Michael Glover, Mahana isn't your textbook winery — and they've got the next-level contemporary art collection to prove it. Sculptures, paintings and installations from countless famed Nelson artists are dotted through the cellar door and grounds. Come hungry, because Mahana boasts one of the best restaurants in the region, run by executive chef Alistair Forster. Picture yourself hoeing into a Mahana Riesling poached pear tart with pesto popcorn on the patio overlooking the vineyard across to Tasman Bay and the Southern Alps. Classic Instagram fodder.
Got a hankering for good ol' fish and chips? Let's take a little drive to Mapua, a gorgeous little seaside town where a cluster of local businesses draw quite the weekend crowd. Visit The Smokehouse for award-winning fish and chips, taste crisp craft beer from brewpub Golden Bear Brewery, have a hearty lunch at longtime Nelson favourite The Apple Shed, and stock up on local artisan cheese, meats and other yummo things at KETE deli.
Back in town, Nelson's got some serious restaurant game. If you're looking for the one restaurant everyone Instagrams, head for The Boatshed, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. After more hearty New Zealand seafood fare? Head for the Cod & Lobster on Trafalgar Street in town. Established by Nelson couple Nick and Kymberley Widley in 2015, this multi-storey brasserie focuses on fresh regional produce with a daily changing menu.
Saturday mornings in Nelson mean markets. Pay a visit to the Nelson Market, a bustling smorgasbord of local food, art, sculpture, jewellery, design and fresh, regional, seasonal and organic produce over 200 stalls. It's the perfect place to get a handle of Nelson's local food scene, as you'll find a lot of these products on menus and in stores across the city. Be sure to pick up a jar of Pic's peanut butter from the stall — America wishes this product was closer.
Head into a rather unassuming jewellery shop on the edge of the town centre, on a quest to find the One Ring to rule them all. Jens Hansen gold and silversmith has been a Nelson treasure for decades, then Peter Jackson tasked them with making the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings and they quickly became a hallowed stop on the LOTR fan crawl. The gold and silversmith made around 40 rings for the production, including a giant ring for close-ups. They sadly didn't get one ring back from the LOTR crew (come on, Jackson) but still sell at least one a day — you can watch on their website.
If you're an art and design lover, Nelson's got plenty for you. There are over 200 working artists in the city, from modernist ceramicists to abstract expressionist painters. Time your visit with the Nelson Arts Festival, Nelson Fringe Festival or make a trip to the World of WearableArt and Classic Cars Museum — the annual Wearable Art Awards began near Nelson after all. Drop into RED Gallery on Bridge Street, run by Caroline Marshall and Sarah Sharp, for a coffee and a peruse of the region's best local art and design — perfect for non-tacky-fridge-magnet souvenirs.
Outdoorsy types will have trouble fitting everything on a trip to Nelson. Surrounded by insanely beautiful mountains, lakes, forests and meadows, Nelson has all your mountain biking, kayaking, paddleboarding, surfing etc. etc. needs covered in one epic spot. If you're a camper or hiker, you probably already know the name Abel Tasman National Park, but if you haven't, consider this one for the bucket list. Sitting just an hour and 20 minute drive from Nelson, the park is a heaving natural cornucopia of activities, from overnight hikes to paddleboarding day trips, kayaking adventures to easy breezy picnic spots. If you don't have enough time to get to the park, you can always go paddleboarding right in Nelson or easy bike riding from Mapua (above).
Whether you're after a stunning seaside B&B by the bay, a cosy Coventry cottage, or an easy motel/motor lodge, Nelson's home to a host of accommodation to suit all budgets. We snuggled into our own little lodge at the Grand Mecure Nelson Monaco Apartments, which is like a little English village on the outskirts of town. If you're the type who likes to curl up beside your own personal fireplace watching a terrible late night movie with a big cuppa, this place is for you.
Looking for a truly local, luxurious stay? Nelson has a handful of genuinely stunning B&Bs worth spending a little more on. There's Te Puna Wai Lodge, and The Wheelhouse Inn and Captain's Quarters, but we'd pick Wakefield Quay House, run by larger-than-life pair Woodi and Johnny. They were married at the Nelson lighthouse, so can spin you quite a few yarns about the area. Woodi's one of the biggest characters around; she'll sit you down for a wine, some local cheese and ocean trout and while the sunset away with fantastically woven tales.
If you're a high roller and you're looking to stay in something worth more than your HECS debt ten times over? Mahana Villa. To put this place's importance in context, Charles and Camilla had this place on their itinerary for Nelson. It's an epic Pacific modernist palace sitting at the apex of the 25 hectare Mahana Vineyard, with four private ensuite rooms in the owner's house and two in the Loft. But the real drawcard of the villa? It's home to a multi-million dollar art collection that we can't believe you're allowed to bunk in with. Seriously, you'll be hanging out with some of the country's most impressive modern art while you're watching TV, cooking or doing yoga on the balcony. Just don't touch anything.
LET'S DO THIS, HOW DO I GET THERE?
Flights to Wellington from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are super short — around 3.5 hours on average. Jetstar have just launched a direct route from Melbourne to Wellington (from $159) and Queenslanders can fly direct from the Gold Coast (from $169). Air New Zealand fly direct from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Wellington (from $297).
From Wellington, flights to Nelson from on Jetstar and Air Nelson can go for as little as $55 (or there are indirect flights from Melbourne or the Gold Coast from around $170), just check the website for some sweet cheap deals.
Shannon Connellan travelled as a guest of Nelson Tourism. All images SC unless otherwise specified.