From the moment I landed in Nelson, I fell for South Island.
I’d never been anywhere so beautiful and yet so humble, but as we made our way along State Highway 60 to Golden Bay I started to realise I hadn’t seen the half of it.
Mountains became bigger and better, blanketed in an atmospheric mist. I turned to Hannah and pointed to a dark cave covered in vines: “That’s where the hobbits live, isn’t it?”
Original I know, but I was only half joking. If scenery this magical existed then I, too, was beginning to believe that anything else could.
We were staying at a friend’s cottage in the tiny hamlet of Westhaven.
The cottage stood on the edge of a jagged cliff face and the Tasman Sea shimmered in the distance.
The next morning it was time to explore the beaches.
Surfboards and trikes at the ready, we set off on the small dirt road to Paturau, stopping at a tiny cafe called The Nugget in Mangarakau for a breakfast of homemade muffins.
As we approached Paturau, a stunning sandy stretch on Golden Bay’s Tai Tapu coast, something didn’t feel right.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then it struck me — there was no one else in sight. The only creatures to greet us were a flock of seagulls who made a quick exit when the trikes revved up.
It was the perfect place for my first surfing lesson — no one to embarrass myself in front of and all the room I needed.
A couple of hours later we headed to Anatori, a beach further south, to find better waves.
Something even more unusual than fairies awaited us here — people.
A couple were camping right beside the beach, enjoying (until we arrived) a romantic retreat.
That evening we barbecued, drank too much, and passed out in the glorious silence of Golden Bay.
The following day it was time to travel back to civilisation, but not before we stopped off at Takaka, a delightfully laid-back town just west of the Abel Tasman National Park.
We had lunch at the Mussel Inn, a cabin filled with a fruity range of both beer and locals.
With live music and tasty grub, it’s no surprise it’s a popular drinking hole for the people of Golden Bay.
Our stay was meant to be a short one but when an American guitarist called Panda started an acoustic set we couldn’t leave.
And as a storm began thundering outside we settled in for the night.
Panda slapped his hand against the guitar, thumped his feet on the floor and growled into the microphone as the locals and odd traveller watched in awe.
It was the sort of performance that only belonged in that quiet corner of New Zealand.
Returning via the Takaka Hill to Nelson, I was thankful that I had gone off the tourist trail to discover this enchanting area of New Zealand.
The lowdown on Nelson
The small town of Nelson lies near the glorious Tasman Bay on the northern coast of South Island.
It’s 50km from the Abel Tasman National Park — New Zealand’s most popular national park.
Trips across the Cook Strait to Wellington are simple with boats leaving from nearby Picton.
With its perfect proportions, Nelson is the model town of New Zealand.
It’s big enough to keep tourists entertained all year round, but small enough for the locals to know one another.
While Kiwis are a friendly lot you can’t beat the warm smiles and gentle manners of Nelson folk.
Eat and drink
For a small town Nelson manages to serve up a delicious variety of food.
The cafe culture has also made its mark so there’s no shortage of good coffee or places to watch the world go by.
Hit Trafalgar Street if you’re looking for some late -night action.
Things to do
For a bit of culture visit Nelson’s Provincial Museum.
Entry is free and it’s a chance to learn more about the area’s history.
Feeling a little more adventurous?
Then there are plenty of high adrenaline activities to try out, including paragliding, hang gliding, kite boarding and rock climbing.
The market on Saturday morning is well worth a visit, with lots of food, fresh produce and fashion stalls to peruse.
Air New Zealand offers internal flights to Nelson’s diminutive domestic airport.
Other retreats on the South Island
With idyllic hideaways covering the South Island from top to bottom, it’s hard for travellers to know where to head first. Here are a few top South Island getaways:
Starting at the north of the South Island this extensive network of sea-drowned valleys is spectacular.
As you gaze out at the five-star scenery it would be understandable if you start to feel you deserve five-star accommodation to match the view.
Good job that there are many top range resorts and health spas in the area.
If you want to explore the sounds more, why not hop into a kayak and discover the remote bays, coves and inlets? See www.soundswild.co.nz
As 30 per cent of New Zealand’s land is covered by national parks it can be difficult to travel across the country without bumping into one.
Lying west of Christchurch is Arthur’s Pass National Park, a paradise for alpine lovers.
With towering mountains and rainforests it’s a great tramping area and good for skiing during the winter.
Camping is free at Klondyke Corner, 8km south of the pass, or camp at the basic public shelter.
To enjoy a stunning view of the national park, take a ride on the TranzAlpine train (www.tranzscenic.co.nz). Warning: there may be other people on the train but you can ignore them.
With its glaciers and frosted mountain top Mount Cook is the perfect place for a getaway (and those who studied geography at school will appreciate every glaciated valley and truncated spur).
Although the Mount Cook village is popular with tourists you don’t have to climb very far until you are alone.
Sir Edmund Hillary used the mountain to train for his Everest mission and in his memory the Alpine Centre pays tribute to one of the world’s most famous explorers.
If the Hermitage Hotel is outside your price bracket there are a range of B&Bs and hostels. Or you can even opt for a farm stay.
Glenorchy is a low-key and humble town.
About 25km from Glenorchy the tiny kinloch at the head of Lake Wakatipu is the launch pad for some of South Island’s best tramps.
For those on a budget there is a campsite at Kinloch Lodge or you could upgrade to a bunkhouse or more elegant 19th-century heritage room , which the lodge has on offer.