Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Beach Country - Nelson

After spending a few good days sightseeing in Christchurch, it was time for us to start heading back up north towards the ferry. Everyone wanted to see less of the inside of the car and to find a place to sit back and enjoy the 6 days remaining in our South Island trip. Nelson seemed like a perfect idea!

Rabbit Island Beach

Nelson is the name of both the region and the largest town in the region. It is on the northwest coast of the South Island and is known as consistently having the best weather in all of New Zealand. It receives on average 2420 hours of sunlight per year (compared to 1730 in Palmerston North, 1860 in Montreal and 2038 in Toronto).

Many visitors pass through Nelson on the way to Abel Tasman National Park, the smallest yet most visited of New Zealand's 14 national parks.

Nelson is also known as an area rich with artisans and painters and apparently many of the props and costumes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were made by Nelson craftspeople.

We arrived on January 18, 2010 and checked into the Pallazzo Motor Lodge - another Trip Advisor recommendation. The motel was impeccable and very close to Trafalgar Street, the main drag in Nelson. I asked for the family apartment but we ended up with ...

the Presidential Suite!
It was an awesome place - huge! We paid dearly for it, but it was a very luxurious space. The accommodations set the tone for the next 6 days - leisure.

This was a change from the previous weeks where it had been go-go-go from morning to night. Once we were settled in our accommodation, Kiara, the Irish owner of the Pallazzo, quizzed us on our intentions in Nelson and instantly set out to organize our entire stay, even to the point of making restaurant reservations and booking excursions for us.

Trafalgar Street - our destination is to the right
We set out to explore Nelson, but happily we were thirsty and it was late afternoon. An appealing pub on the sunny side of Trafalgar Street had a large table out front with an umbrella that was beckoning us. Score! Nobody seemed to care that we had walked about 90 seconds.

Enjoying the chilly weather
Does this count as a vegetable?
Cocktail hour stretched into dinner hour and we didn't budge. The kids got up to play on the sidewalk of the mostly pedestrian street and Trish and I soaked up the scene. Flat whites (Kiwi for Latte) to go and a stroll around the CBD (Kiwi for downtown, formally 'Central Business District') and universally closed shops. Then it was back to the motel and a movie night to finish the day.

On Kiara's recommendation, the next morning we picked up hot dogs and buns and set out to have a picnic by the beach on Rabbit Island, a short drive out of Nelson. The clouds drifted away by noon and the kids amused themselves on the beach while Trish and I oscillated between naps and a vague interest in the newspaper. Very relaxing.

The kids were responsible for gathering firewood to stoke the BBQ pit supplied at the beach and 30 minutes later, our picnic lunch was set.

After lunch, it was more beach stuff. We ambled through the surf, Cassandra gathered sea shells and Harrison and I braved the chilly water (similar to the coast of Maine) to go body surfing.

After plenty of sun, we headed home to ... well, relax some more. On the way, we made a pit stop in the artsy town of Mapua to browse through some galleries, pick up ice cream and beer.

Artisinal beer - honest!

As far as meats go, I love lamb, but the rest of my family won't touch it unless it's heavily slathered in Madras sauce. We'd been in New Zealand for over a week and I'd been denied long enough. So that evening, we set out to find some lamb for me and other stuff for the rest of the family. We settled in at Ford's Restaurant. I was not disappointed. The waiter recommended an awesome Central Otago syrah and I almost convinced Trish to try the lamb. Almost.

We had hoped to get out onto the Tasman Sea in Abel Tasman National Park, so had inquired about renting sea kayaks for Harrison and I while Trish and the girls took a catamaran tour off the coast. However, despite hot sunny weather, the seas were too rough and BOTH were canceled. So we unexpectedly had a free day on our hand.

Lunch in the vineyard at Weimea (with wine pairings of course)
We lazed around in the morning trying to figure out what to do. We managed to get organized in time to go grab lunch among the vines at Weimea winery in Richmond. Kiara had managed to book us an activity for later in the afternoon, so to kill some time, we toured a few art galleries in and around Nelson. There was some good stuff, but nothing that we absolutely couldn't live without, so we kept the plastic safe and sound in our pockets.

At around 3:00pm, we headed out to what remains as the kids' favorite activity of the entire trip so far. Horseback riding! I had tried to cue this up in North Carolina when we were there during the summer of 2010, but nobody there would take children less than 12 years old. No problems like that here. Mackenzie rode a pony and my horse had apparently starred in the Lord of the Rings. I have my doubts about the truth of this tale as my horse's truly impressive flatulence would have better cast him beside Peter Griffin (of The Family Guy) than Peter Jackson. My now disowned daughter Cassandra, who had a front row seat to this demonstration of equine grace uttered "Like horse, like Daddy." Hmmm.

However, despite the frequent loud distractions, for the kids it was 90 minutes of bliss. They loved it! We've done a lot of traveling since then and they still talk about their horseback riding experience.

Saturday morning farmer's market
The next morning we snacked our way through Nelson's large Saturday morning farmer's market. We were going to spend the rest of the day at Nelson's Kaiteriteri Beach, but the kids managed to convince me to visit the petting zoo beside the beach first. I ruminated on the fact that I had spent $25 on stale popcorn while they delighted in trying to aim the popcorn at the shy black sheep while hurling stern reprimands at the greedy aggressive white sheep.

Mackenzie feeding the monkey
Every parent who has traveled with kids knows that this is the stuff they adore - water, animals, space to run and ice cream. Whether you're visiting the Eiffel Tower or Disney World, kids will let you know that they can't wait to get back to the hotel pool.

Once we got to the beach, the kids refused to leave the large park opposite the parking lot. I wanted to go for a walk along the beach, but it played out as:
  1. "Dad, the water is too cold for swimming."
  2. "Let's go on the swings."
  3. "Can I have two scoops of ice cream instead of one?"
 I was solo on the beach walk.

Cricket on Kaiteriteri Beach
The next day we made our way through the fog and rain back to Picton to catch the ferry back to the North Island. We had been lucky with Nelson's promise of sunny hot weather - we had had 5 days of beautiful sunshine.

At the time, Trish and I both thought how much we would recommend Nelson to visitors of New Zealand. We had a great time there. But as the intervening weeks have passed and our travels have extended to other parts of New Zealand, our enthusiasm has also faded.

No doubt, Nelson is a great beach town, but it is quiet. If you're in the mood to regroup in a sleepy sort of place, you'll enjoy yourself in Nelson. We didn't have any bad experiences there.

However, a few weeks later we visited Napier, the crown jewel in the wine region of Hawke's Bay. It's as art deco as South Beach in Miami. It has beaches (although the beach right in town is a pebble beach). It has culture. Imagine seeing Sting performing at the Mission Estate Winery. It has great restaurants and food and wine.

We had a great experience in Nelson. Certainly it was great for the kids. But if you're pressed for time, skip Nelson and go to Napier on the North Island. I'll post a blog about our visit there in the weeks to come.

So that was the end of our South Island trip and everyone felt ready to unpack the suitcases and unwind after 27 days of traveling. Back in Palmerston North, I started work and the kids started school. A little splinter of reality injected itself into our adventure. It still feels like vacation despite the shifts at the hospital. I still spend most evenings researching places to visit in New Zealand and the South Pacific and on the weekends we're eating at restaurants and sleeping in hotels. The kids' homework is the way it was for me growing up - 30 minutes max then out to play before the sun goes down.

Next post: A tourist at home - traveling in Manawatu.

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