Driving up the West Coast from Greymouth, my next destination was Nelson, the jumping off point for the famous Abel Tasman National Park and Track. I took Highway 6 in order to stop off in Punakaiki to see the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, noting the "Mind the Penguins" signs and keeping an eye out for one of the endearing little waddlers but never seeing any.
Pancake Rocks are pillars of stacked limestone rock, aptly named, interspersed with blowholes which are best demonstrated when the tides are high. A short and pleasant walkway in among thick vegetation loops around the sights, providing lookout points at the right spots. The Rocks are a small part of the Paparoa National Park which includes a larger wilderness area inland with many walking tracks – information is available at the Visitor Centre on the main highway.
My next stop was Cape Foulwind, not only because I’m always drawn to places with curious names but also because I had read that a fur seal colony thrives there. And since it was summer, the colony was full of ridiculously cute, month old babies tumbling over each other and practicing their swimming techniques in a safe nursery pool. The noise and smell wafting up on the strong breeze were considerable to say the least.
With difficulty I tore myself away from the seals and headed inland through the mountainous Buller Gorge on my way to Nelson. Clear morning light shone through the trees and illuminated occasional stacks of pastel coloured bee boxes in the corners of grassy fields. Further on I passed through the Motueka Valley, a lush agricultural region growing hops, green tea, flowers and fruit such as apples and kiwi. The scenery lifted my spirits but I made the mistake of buying an enormous bottle of caramel flavoured milk on the way, and between that and the twisty road, felt quite queasy for most of the drive.
In Nelson I checked into the Sussex House which is a beautifully restored home with 4 rooms and a very sociable orange cat named Riley. I had spent the day walking a tiny part of the Abel Tasman Track which follows the coastline in the National Park of the same name. The sun was shining and I enjoyed myself immensely listening to birds and stopping off at a few of the bays to sit on the beach. I found a large purple squid pulsating at the water’s edge in Coquille Bay and tried to resuscitate it (without success) by returning it to the sea.
It is possible to do the entire trek over 3 or 4 days and stay in the huts provided or camp along the way for a small fee – book first as this is very popular during the summer. Another way to see the park is to hire a sea kayak in the township of Marahau where the track begins.
Nelson itself is pleasant town with pretty beaches and an artistic, food-loving community. In early February, a festival of local food and drink is held and many other events occur throughout the calendar.
Continuing north, I took the Queen Charlotte Drive which curves around the edge of the Marlborough Sounds between Havelock and Picton, giving views of white boats moored on the turquoise waters. Picton is where the ferry from the North Island docks. A wildfire was still smouldering on the hillsides just outside the town as I drove through, a result of the hot weather and dry conditions.
My destination that day was Blenheim, centre of the island’s best known winemaking region and when I arrived, an art and food market was in full swing. I bought some bone and greenstone carvings for presents from one vendor, who told me the stories behind the pieces I chose – a whale’s tail, a hook of New Zealand and an adze.
Afterward I set off to sample some of the wines, working from a list given to me by a local friend who had worked in the business. Daniel LeBrun for sparkling, Huia for beautiful whites (pinot gris, chardonnay), Cloudy Bay for its world reknowned sauvignon blanc, Vavasour because that was where my friend had been employed. In the hot sun, the vineyards laid out on the flat valley floor surrounded by golden rolling hills vividly reminded me of Napa County in California.
All of what I experienced in the north end of the island was thoroughly enjoyable and I absolutely intend to visit the region again. In the meantime, I occasionally drink a glass of fine white wine from there and relive a pleasant memory.