Tucked away at the top of the south, way off State Highway 1, Nelson is a town of 50,000 people working hard at enjoying themselves.
Despite a tendency towards political conservatism and a high number of retirees and rest homes, the city still lives up to its popular perception as an arty enclave of sun-obsessed semi-hippies with a strong community heart.
Nelson is the third-most ethnically diverse place in New Zealand, per capita; it’s the type of city that regularly attracts foreigners, who visit, fall in love and scheme ways to stay, often by opening a business.
Māori settled in Nelson about 700 years ago; in fact, Nelson and Marlborough have evidence of the earliest-ever settlements in New Zealand. Europeans found it similarly attractive, and it was among the first places settled by them too. Consequently, there are a lot of firsts, including the first rugby match in New Zealand at the Botanic Reserve in 1870.
Nelson retains a strong arty core; it was the birthplace of pottery in New Zealand, with fine local clays and minerals. As well as the many excellent local potters, craftspeople and artists, the institution that best reflects Nelson is the international phenomenon of the World of Wearable Art, an awards show that began in rural Tasman nearly 30 years ago and became immensely popular, growing to the point where it had to be moved out of the city to survive – across the ditch to a larger venue and supportive council in Wellington. That still smarts for old Nelsonians, but the show has truly thrived in the capital, and WOW’s base remains in Nelson. The World of Wearable Art and Classic Car Museum is the city’s most popular tourist destination and a chance to marvel at human inventiveness.
Rating high on lifestyle points, Nelson has lately become a mountain-biking mecca, with world-class riders choosing to visit or base themselves here to test nerve and skill on a huge range of trails, from urban family-friendly bike paths to downhills the equivalent of a ski run’s double black diamond.
Coupled with the health of the bike scene is the depth of the craft beer scene, which is incredibly well-served in multiple locations: several Sprig & Fern, the Bel-Aire Tavern, the Craft Beer Depot, and The Free House, all offering regional beers such as Hop Federation, Townshend Brewery, Totara Brewing, Founders, Golden Bear Brewery, The Mussel Inn, Dale’s Brewing, Horse Box, Stoke, Lighthouse Brewing Company, and Peckham’s Cider.
Out in Stoke is McCashin’s Brewery, descended from Mac’s Brewery, the small beer maker which launched a revolution as one of the original purveyors of craft beer in the country, breaking the two big breweries’ long stranglehold on the beer market back in the 1980s. It’s a welcoming place to visit, child-friendly and with regular live music and wood-fired pizza on offer as well.
Nelson is a gorgeous city, surrounded as it is by Tasman Bay, three national parks and protective chains of mountains. It’s also traditionally one which cares about its environment; it’s protected by the heritage-listed Boulder Bank, a fascinating and striking geological oddity. A brand-new bird sanctuary, the Brook Waimarama, takes up the best part of a city valley.
If you’re not up a mountain appreciating the scenery, it’s best shown off at Tāhunanui, a vast, calm, kid-friendly beach of white sands with a large playground. It’s very Nelson: relaxing, attractive, family-friendly, not often crowded, and with lots of food and drink options nearby. There’s heaps to do: mini-golf, a giant slide, petting zoo Natureland, bumper boats, kart racing, the Beach Café, BBQ areas, a beach volleyball court, and a pristine ride-on miniature railroad, which offers scenic rides around the beach area for a couple of dollars.
Nearby, the Sprig & Fern does a roaring trade in locally-brewed craft beer and pizza, and across the road from the beach is a small strip of shops offering fish n chips, frozen yoghurt, meals, drinks, and, at Raglan Roast, the cheapest, best coffee you’ll find anywhere: $3.50 for a fantastic flat white and you can add a gelato or kitesurfing gear to that as well. In summer, paddle-boarding vendors set up on the beach or in the adjacent park along with ice-cream, coffee and hot food trucks.
Proximity to rivers and the sea is one of Nelson’s greatest assets, but it hasn’t always been realised; now, however, the city council has been busy trying to sort this out, and a stroll along the lower urban Maitai River will show you what they’ve been up to. The Maitai has been a cherished swimming destination for decades, but water quality has been poor in recent years; efforts are afoot to find out why and to fix it. Landscaping has replaced what was once a pretty dismal area, scarred with industrial buildings, broken footpaths, trash and general provincial ugliness. It’s looking nice now, and there is lots more work to come. It’s not uncommon to see paddleboarders and kayakers cruising up the river on high tide to have coffee at waterside cafes River Kitchen or 7010 (the local postcode).
In fact, there are walkways all along the Maitai’s length, and it really is a jewel in Nelson city, a gorgeous place to run, walk the dog, stroll, bike, and stop off the Suter Café and the Centre of New Zealand. You can even continue up to the Maitai Dam, which is the town’s water supply, or to the golf course, and more swimming holes or walk and bikeways, depending on how keen you are.
Visitors often remark that they like Nelson because it has a defined city centre, and it’s true. Though some beautiful examples of Victorian architecture have been lost, there are still a few gems left, and nearby South Street is worth a wander for its restored cottages. Nelson’s six main streets are laid out in a grid and contain iconic stores such as Page & Blackmore Booksellers, much-loved for being 'a real bookshop' and consistently voted among the best independent bookshops in New Zealand. Jens Hansen Goldsmiths, the makers of the ‘One Ring’ for the Lord of the Rings films, continues to attract tourists today.
The top of Trafalgar St and its mix of gastropubs, bistros, and fine dining restaurants is a lovely place to sit, people-watch, and have lunch or a drink, though the ambience would be vastly improved by the removal of a handful of parking spaces – retailers insist that they don’t want to lose them, but everyone loves it when there’s a festival on, the cars are gone, and the space fills with people, music, and fun.
At Trafalgar St’s top, the Christ Church Cathedral is a surprising find in a smallish city – yes, the addition of a cathedral officially makes Nelson a city – and is everything a cathedral ought to be: cool, calming, quiet, and welcoming.
Visiting in October means the Nelson Arts Festival is on, together with its famous Masked Parade. Schoolchildren make masks and fill the streets with music and dancing, and together with its after-parties is a highlight of the year. It’s celebration of the coming warmer weather, art, family, and community – and when it comes to those, you can’t beat Nelson.