The Abel Tasman National Park, 60km north of Nelson, is stunningly beautiful with golden sandy beaches lapped by crystal-clear waters and lush green bushland, interspersed with granite outcrops and inhabited by an abundance of wildlife. Deservedly it has an international reputation that draws large numbers of trampers, kayakers and day-trippers from November to March. But don’t be put off. Despite being New Zealand’s smallest national park – just 20km by 25km – the Abel Tasman absorbs crowds tolerably well and compensates with scenic splendour on an awesome scale.
Most visitors come to see the coastline. Some come to hike the Abel Tasman Coast Track with its picturesque mixture of dense coastal bushwalking, gentle climbs to lookouts and walks across idyllic beaches. Abundant water taxis mean you can pick the sections to hike and get a lift back when you’ve had enough. Others come to kayak the spectacular coastline, spending leisurely lunchtimes on golden sands before paddling off in the late afternoon sun to a campsite or hut. Hiking and kayaking can be combined, and you might even tack on sailing the limpid waters or swimming with seals to round off the experience. You can stay in the park, either at one of the DOC huts and campsites, or in considerably more luxury at the ever-increasing number of attractive lodges.
With guided and advanced trip booking you can be whisked from Nelson straight into the park, missing potentially fascinating nights in the surrounding gateway towns. Motueka is best for organizing your own trip, but most kayaks and water taxis leave from tiny Marahau, at the park’s southern entrance. A few trips depart from diminutive Kaiteriteri, where a gorgeous beach tempts many to stay.
The park’s northern reaches are accessed from Takaka where Abel Tasman Drive leads to Wainui, Awaroa and Totaranui, all on the Coast Track.
Since around 1500, Maori made seasonal encampments along the coast and some permanent settlements flourished near the mouth of the Awaroa River. In 1642, Abel Tasman anchored two ships near Wainui in Golden Bay and lost four men in a skirmish with the Ngati Tumatakokiri, after which he departed the shores. Frenchman Dumont d’Urville dropped by in 1827 and explored the area between Marahau and Torrent Bay, but it was another 23 years before European settlement began in earnest. The settlers chopped, quarried, burned and cleared until nothing was left but gorse and bracken. Happily, few obvious signs of their invasion remain and the vegetation has vigorously regenerated.