After our two weeks in Wellington, we had a four-day excursion to the top of the South Island, starting on Thursday 13th February. We were fortunate to have great weather for most of the trip. Many of the things we did reminded us of our first ever visit to this part of New Zealand, though we tried to fit in some new things too.
We took the 9 am ferry across the Cook Strait to Picton. Although we visited the South Island many times when we lived in Wellington, this was only the second time we’d taken the ferry. Flying is much quicker, and if you are limited to weekends off from work, it’s really the only option. However, when not pressed for time, the ferry is a cheaper and more relaxing alternative.
The ferry takes over three hours, but for most of the time you are cruising between the peninsulas which enclose Wellington Harbour, or the islands of the Tory Channel and the Queen Charlotte Sound. It is a scenic journey, and a good opportunity for photography – the only problem being that everyone is fighting for the best views!
In Picton we had lunch, collected a hire car and headed for Nelson, one of our favourite NZ towns. Our route took us along the picturesque Queen Charlotte Drive, and we paused to walk out to the Cullen Point viewpoint. In Nelson we discovered a new pub, the Free House, in a converted church, with comfortable seating inside and out. We had dinner at a pizza bar, followed by cocktails in Harry’s, two places we’d enjoyed on previous visits.
We continued west from Nelson to the small town of Motueka. Kahurangi National Park is the second biggest in NZ, but it is not easily accessible. There are multi-day walks, but these involve staying overnight in basic huts, and carrying all your equipment with you – not something that appeals to us. Just before we left NZ in 2010, we learned that there is access by road from Motueka to the Flora car park in the north of Kahurangi. It was too late then for us to explore, so we decided to do so on this trip.
The first part of the road is scenic, an easy drive with little traffic. But then… the last 11 kms is on an unsealed road, and for the final 7 kms the road is VERY steep and VERY rough. We have a lot of experience of NZ roads, but this one was frankly terrifying. We had doubts about whether our hire car (economy category, i.e. old) would make it. We were mightily relieved to reach the Flora car park, but concerned to see notices warning of many thefts from cars there. Since we were between motels, all our possessions were in the car.
We took the track up to the Mount Arthur Hut. We were walking mainly through interesting moss-covered forest, but views were limited. We’d been told that the best views were just above the hut, but unfortunately by the time we got there the weather had deteriorated and visibility was poor. While walking, there were two questions uppermost in our minds: 1. would all our things still be in the car? and 2. would we make it safely down to sea level? Luckily, the answer to both questions was yes.
The weather improved too, once we were out of the mountains. We could not believe how warm it was when were returned to Motueka. We had a restorative drink sitting outside in the sun. Later, we found the restaurants packed (because it was St Valentine’s Day?), but eventually we managed to get a table in a Thai restaurant.
After our experience in the mountains, we decided to stay on the coast, and enjoyed beautiful sunshine all day. First we drove a few miles west to Marahau, the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. We did the first section of the coastal track, as far as Coquille Beach: we’d done it twice before, but the scenery is so beautiful, it was well worth doing again.
From Abel Tasman we started to work our way back east, sticking to the coast as far as possible. First stop was Kaiteriteri, where we strolled along the beach. Our only previous visit was in the autumn, and we were amazed to see how popular it is in summer.
We took the ‘Ruby Coast Scenic Drive’, although we didn’t find it particularly scenic. We reached the village of Mapua just in time for the 2 pm ferry to Rabbit Island. We’d driven to Rabbit Island back in 2008, but the road access takes you to a different part of the island. From the ferry landing at the west end we went for a walk along the beach, and crossed back two hours later. Mapua Wharf has an attractive collection of shops and cafés, so we paused to look around. (It also has the Golden Bear microbrewery, so Sandie was able to sample their wares for the second time.)
Then it was back to Nelson: same motel, the Free House again, and an Indian restaurant this time.
The weather was grey and gloomy when we left Nelson, and headed back towards Picton, stopping for a short walk at the Pelorus Bridge. We decided to return via Blenheim, rather than taking the Queen Charlotte Drive: more miles, but a much easier road, because it is mainly flat. And because it is flat, the area is used to grow grapes – we passed endless rows of vines. When you drink Marlborough wine, this is where it comes from!
We stopped in Blenheim for coffee. Our only previous visit to the town was just before Christmas 2008, and we were not impressed – possibly because the weather was awful and we struggled to find somewhere to eat. This time, we liked it much better. The weather had improved dramatically by the time we got there, which undoubtedly helped. The town centre was attractive, and the flowers in Seymour Square Park were beautiful. We enjoyed our coffee sitting outside in the sun, and would have happily stayed longer in the town. But that was not possible, because we had a boat to catch!