Te Waikoropupū Springs in Golden Bay are a must-do. Photo by Jo Percival.

Road trip: Wellington to Golden Bay


With each violent gust of wind my car feels like it might tip over. Clouds sprint across the sun like a time lapse, their shadows creating a strobe effect on the wharf. I am waiting in the queue to board the Interislander ferry with growing unease, watching spray from Wellington Harbour fly in horizontal sheets.

But it turns out that crossing the Cook Strait in gale force winds is a breeze – as long as it is blowing from the north. It is certainly wild out there, but the Kaiarahi takes on the crossing, rising and falling like a giant lung, smooth and rhythmic. The sea whips into white surf peaks and spray flies over the outside decks. Inside, people read and eat and chat, accents and languages from around the world swirling through the ship. The constant throb of the engines becomes soporific and passengers doze, while the wind wails outside.

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Reaching the calm of the Marlborough Sounds onboard the Interislander. Photo by Jo Percival.

From Picton, I pick the scenic route through the top of the South Island. Queen Charlotte Drive is tightly coiled and storm scarred, a narrow, sinuous road winding along the edge of the Marlborough Sounds, through ponga-filled bush with glimpses of turquoise bays below. I pull over and walk down to the sea at Governor’s Bay, a thin rind of coarse, golden sand between the sapphire water and jade bush.

On the outskirts of Nelson I deviate from the coast to find Miyazu Japanese Garden. A pocket of zen tranquility, the garden marks the sister city relationship between Nelson and Miyazu in Japan. Fountains trickle serenely. Fragrant wisteria sways in the breeze. A curved red bridge is doubled with the blue sky in a still pond.

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Miyazu Gardens in Nelson. Photo by Jo Percival.

The heart of Nelson City is its striking cathedral sitting at the top of the granite Cawthron Steps. My visit coincides with the tail end of the Nelson Arts Festival and inside the cathedral I find an installation – Luminary |Luminare – that adds a touch of sublime to the spiritual space. It’s a piece by Auckland artist Karen Sewell, that’s not just visual but multi-sensory, incorporating scents from essential oils, and quiet music. I am soothed from sitting in the stillness, breathing in, breathing out.

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An exhibition in Nelson Cathedral as part of the Nelson Arts Festival. Photo by Jo Percival.

On a Saturday morning, the place to be is Nelson Market in the city centre. There’s woodwork and blown glass, textiles and artworks. Bacon sizzles for butties, people queue for pastries and dosas and venison burgers. The sound of coffee grinders mingles with music from buskers. People meander in the sunshine with big, beautiful bunches of peonies and orchids, carrots and kale. It’s like stumbling across the distilled essence of the region’s creative and bohemian spirit.

Back on the road, I stop again at the Smoking Barrel in Motueka – a celebration of slow-cooked American barbecue meaty goodness. But that’s not what I’m here for. They also sell the most famous doughnuts in the land. An enticing array is displayed in a glass-front cabinet – naughty Snickers with bourbon cream, passionfruit and fresh cream, Toblerone cheesecake... I choose a cinnamon dusted, biscoff-cream-filled sugary treat and enjoy every bite.

The Tasman district is bountiful land. It seems like the asphalt I’m driving on is the only non-productive strip, sandwiched between orchards and vines in neat rows, as if a comb had been dragged through the landscape. Roadside signs advertise lemons, apples, eggs, walnuts and artworks for sale.

At Kaiteriteri Beach the sand is so golden it’s almost garish. I pad barefoot to the edge of the water; it ripples tantalisingly at my toes, but it’s way too cold for swimming today.

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The golden sands of Kaiteriteri Beach. Photo by Jo Percival.

Next up is The Hill; the vast marble mountain that is Tākaka Hill. An ear-popping tangle of corners is the only way in to Golden Bay. Not far from the summit I pull over to Hawkes Lookout, walking through water-sculpted marble and beech forest to an expansive vista looking back to Motueka and Nelson.

Golden Bay has been known by many names over the years. Māori have always known it as Mōhua. When Abel Tasman came along, he referred to the area as ‘Moordenaarsbaai’ or Murderer’s Bay after several of his crew were killed in a battle with local iwi in 1642. Following the discovery of coal at Tākaka, the bay was named Coal Bay for a while, but was renamed Golden Bay when gold was found near Collingwood in 1857.

It is an area rich in natural opulence – marble and gold, bordered by the jewel-like ocean,­ and isolated, being sandwiched between two National Parks – Abel Tasman and Kahurangi.  

I arrive at my accommodation, Ratanui Lodge in coastal Pōhara. After several hours on the road, it is a pleasure to sit in the sunshine with a cup of tea while vintage jazz drifts from the nearby dining room.  

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Ratanui Lodge at Pohara in Golden Bay. Photo by Jo Percival.

In the morning, in between Pōhara and Tākaka I find the network of canyons and crevices that create the ready-made maze known as Labyrinth Rocks. It’s a fascinating spot, but also a bit intimidating if, like me, you make the mistake of not picking up a free map at the entrance.

As the mossy walls of the labyrinth narrow, my heart rate speeds up. Passageways separate into multiple directions, leading to other winding paths or dead ends. I realise there’s a very real chance of getting lost here, so begin back-tracking, following my route with relief, back to the car park.

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The incredible Labyrinth Rocks in Golden Bay. Photo by Jo Percival.

Nearby Te Waikoropupū Springs is wai tapu – a sacred place. It is astonishingly beautiful. The currents from the springs form whirlpools and eddies, adding texture to the surface of the water as if someone is finger painting. The hues are neon blue mixed with the emerald of aquatic plants, clearly visible under the water. A juvenile trout swims lazily just below the surface, or maybe it is metres deep – the water here is some of the clearest in the world; you can see right to the stony bottom. Groups of chatting tourists emerge from the bush track and fall silent, absorbing the wairua of this sacred place, lingering, contemplating.

It’s not compulsory to order mussels at The Mussel Inn, but it would be a bit rude not to. The historic roadside pub in Onekakā has wide wooden verandas and a garden courtyard dappled with shade from jungly trees. A fossicking weka stalks around – and on – the tables. My steaming bowl of mussels is plump and plentiful, served with wedges of buttery garlic bread.

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Wind-sculpted sand dunes at Wharariki Beach in Golden Bay. Photo by Jo Percival.

The best time to visit Wharariki Beach is at low tide to get up closer to the elephantine islands just off the beach. Today, the surf surges and sloshes around their feet. I feel completely dwarfed by the landscape here compared to the vast expanses of powdery white dunes and soaring islets clad in the beach’s namesake – Wharariki flax.

It’s strange to think that standing here in this iconic spot I’m further north than I was at the starting point of my road trip in Wellington. But my proximity to the aptly named Cape Farewell makes it a fitting point to finish my journey.


Story by Jo Percival for the Autumn 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Jo Percival is the Digital Editor of AA Directions magazine. 

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