New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park, at the top of the South Island, is one of the country’s most accessible, as well as the smallest. It is extremely popular with both domestic and international visitors, especially in the summer, with around 300,000 people visiting annually. But, if you visit outside of the peak season (December to February), it’s much more peaceful.
It’s understandable why Abel Tasman is so popular: it’s located in one of the sunniest parts of the country, the sea is fresh and clear, and the sand on the beaches ranges from sparkling white to deep gold. It offers several of the things that visitors to New Zealand come to experience, all in an easy-to-reach location.
Just off shore is the Tonga Island Marine Reserve. All marine life here is protected and fishing is not allowed. The estuaries and other waterways within the park are almost pristine, and there’s an abundance of birdlife, particularly the native tui and pukeko. The Abel Tasman National Park is not an untouched wilderness due to its history as cultivated land in the 19th century, but it’s in recovery and offers rich and diverse natural rewards.
As a long-time British colony, many people wonder why New Zealand was named after a Dutch province (Zeeland, or Zealand, is in the Netherlands). The history of the Abel Tasman National Park gives some clues. In December 1642, Dutch navigator Abel Tasman was the first European to set foot on the land that became New Zealand, when he anchored his two ships in Golden Bay, just west of the park. His name appears throughout New Zealand and Australia, and especially so in this region of New Zealand.
The indigenous Ngati Tumatakokiri tribe lived in the area for several hundred years, fishing, hunting in the forests, and cultivating kumara (sweet potato). European settlement began here in the 1850s, leading to deforestation, quarrying, clearing of hillsides, and environmental degradation.
By the mid-20th century, conservationists in Nelson recognized that the area along the coast should be preserved. In 1942, 37,000 acres of crown land was turned into national park and named after the first European to set foot here, Abel Tasman. The name was fitting, as 1942 was the 300th anniversary of his visit. The park is now much larger, covering more than 55,000 acres.
What to Do There
Visitors to Abel Tasman can be as relaxed or as active as they wish. You can find a beach to lounge on for a day or two, or embark on the famous Coast Track: a three-to-five-day, 37-mile hike that follows the park's rugged coast. Somewhere in between, you can go snorkeling, take shorter day hikes, kayak around the coastline, go birdwatching, or take a scenic boat ride. While many of these activities are best done in the warmer months, many are also possible on the winter, when the park is much less crowded.
You won’t want to swim in the sea (without a wetsuit) in the winter, but you can still enjoy beautiful beach walks.
How to Get There
The nearest city to the Abel Tasman National Park is Nelson, about an hour’s drive away. From Nelson, you can get organized tours to the park, or drive yourself. Follow State Highway 6 from Nelson to Richmond, then follow State Highway 60 to Motueka. The park is well sign-posted—look for brown road signs.
To get to Nelson from other parts of New Zealand, you can fly directly from Auckland, Wellington, or Christchurch. Alternatively, many travelers come overland, taking the Interislander Ferry from Wellington to Picton, and then driving about two hours west, along SH6, to Nelson. There are various ways of getting there from the south: via Kaikoura on the east coast, Westport and Greymouth on the west, or Murchison to the south, further inland.
What to Expect
Abel Tasman is as popular as it is beautiful. If you plan to visit in the summer, it’s important to book accommodation, including campsites, well ahead of time. If undertaking the Coast Track, be prepared for all weather conditions. Although "the top of the south" is known for its hot summers and year-round sunny conditions, New Zealand is a small island nation in the middle of a vast ocean; so expect rain at any time. If it’s not raining, be prepared for hot conditions in the summer, and strong sun.
Weather and crowds aside, Abel Tasman is stunning, and you can expect to be impressed. The i-Site tourist information centers in Nelson and Motueka can provide a wealth of information for visitors to the park.
What to Do Nearby
The Abel Tasman National Park is in a very attractive part of the country, so there’s lots to see and do within a couple of hours’ drive of the park. Nelson is a medium-sized city by New Zealand standards, with good restaurants, markets, and cultural attractions. Golden Bay, to the west of the park, is a sparsely populated area of natural beauty, and Farewell Spit is an important wetland and bird sanctuary. The mountainous Kahurangi National Park is also a great place for long, rugged wilderness treks.
The Marlborough area, east of Nelson, is one of New Zealand’s premier winemaking regions.
Where to Stay
If you just want to visit the park on a day trip, Nelson and Motueka are good bases, with plenty of accommodation options for all budgets. There are also lots of campsites in the area with good facilities. To stay closer to the park, look for accommodation in the small villages of Marahau, Kaiteriteri, or Takaka. When doing a multi-day hike in the park, you will need to pre-book a place in a Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite or hut, which can be found throughout the park.