The thriving city of Nelson, set on the coast in a broad basin between the Arthur and Richmond ranges, is beguiling. Low rent and rise, it is not much to look at, but its location – supremely placed for accessing Golden Bay, and Abel Tasman, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes national parks – warm sunny climate, access to good beaches and a cluster of worthwhile wineries in the hinterland are powerful lures to tourists, painters and potters alike, all drawn by the sunlight, the landscape and the unique raw materials for ceramic art that lie beneath the rich green grass. All this makes the city one of the most popular visitor destinations in New Zealand. You can even do an Abel Tasman day-trip from Nelson using early buses, which give you enough time for a water taxi ride and a few hours’ walking along the Coast Track.
Within central Nelson itself the Suter Gallery and the lively Saturday Market are good diversions, but you’ll soon want to venture further, perhaps to Tahunanui Beach or the suburb of Stoke for the fascinating World of WearableArt museum.
The Nelson Arts Festival (twelve days in mid-Oct; w nelsonfestivals.co.nz) includes theatre, music, readings and street entertainment, much of it either free or costing just a few dollars. The city also hosts the Nelson Jazz & Blues Festival (eight days from Jan 2; w nelsonjazzfest.co.nz) at various venues around the city.
Nelson is one of the oldest settlements in New Zealand. By the middle of the sixteenth century, it was occupied by the Ngati Tumatakokiri people, some of whom provided a reception committee for Abel Tasman’s longboats at Murderer’s Bay (now Golden Bay), where they killed four of his sailors.
By the time Europeans arrived in earnest, Maori numbers had been decimated by internecine fighting and the nearest pa site to Nelson was at Motueka, though this did little to prevent land squabbles, culminating in the Wairau Affray in 1843. Despite assurances from Maori chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, that they would abide by the decision of a land commissioner, the New Zealand Company pre-emptively sent surveyors south to the Wairau Plains, the catalyst for a skirmish during which Te Rangihaeata’s wife was shot. The bereaved chief and his men slaughtered 22 people in retaliation but the settlers continued their land acquisition after numbers were boosted by a wave of immigrants from Germany.