Golden Bay, in the north-west corner of New Zealand’s South Island, is an area of extreme natural beauty. It was one of the first places in New Zealand where Maori and Europeans interacted (Dutch explorer Abel Tasman came here in 1642), and it still has a frontier vibe and a feeling of being somewhat ‘apart’ from the rest of New Zealand. With forested mountains surrounding the area that don’t meet the ocean, and only one access road, getting to Golden Bay is a bit of an adventure, but a highly rewarding one. Here’s what you need to know about visiting Golden Bay.
There are three ways to get to Golden Bay:
- By air from Nelson or Wellington to the tiny Golden Bay Airport just outside Takaka. Flights are generally quite expensive, and airplanes small.
- By car (or shuttle service) over the Takaka Hill road along State Highway 60 from Motueka and Nelson. Nelson is the largest city in the northern South Island, and many travelers spend some time here before driving to Golden Bay. The Takaka Hill road is the only road into Golden Bay. It is twisting and narrow in places and can be a challenging drive in wet or icy conditions, but experienced drivers making the trip when the weather is good are unlikely to have any significant problems. The views are also spectacular, and there are many places to stop to check them out.
- On foot. Golden Bay is bordered in the east by the Abel Tasman National Park, on the south by the Kahurangi National Park, and on the west by the North West Nelson Conservation Park. These parks contain some of New Zealand’s best-loved long-distance treks, including the Abel Tasman Coast Track (3-5 days) and the Heaphy Track (4-6 days) through the Kahurangi National Park. Travelers can either begin these walks in Golden Bay or end there.
If you want to travel between attractions in Golden Bay, having your own transport is essential. Like elsewhere in New Zealand—mainly rural areas—there’s limited public transport or shuttle options, and if you don’t have your own wheels, what you can do and see will be very limited.
Where to Stay
There are two main settlements in Golden Bay: Takaka and Collingwood. Collingwood is about 16 miles further along the highway from Takaka. Takaka is larger, with a range of accommodation options, and a main street with several cafes, shops, and other businesses. Collingwood is much smaller, with fewer sleeping and dining options but lovely views of the Ruataniwha Inlet. There are other small settlements throughout Golden Bay with some accommodation options, but these can't be called towns.
Whether you choose to stay in Takaka or Collingwood should depend on what you want to see and do. Staying in Takaka gives you easier access to the western side of the Abel Tasman National Park. Collingwood is better situated for access to Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach.
In either place there’s a range of accommodation to suit various budgets, from campsites to more upmarket boutique hotels (although no major chains here!)
What to See and Do
Farewell Spit feels like the end of the earth because it practically is. Anyone lucky enough to fly over Golden Bay on a north-south (or vice versa) flight over New Zealand is likely to have seen the spit from the air, reaching out into the Cook Strait and the Tasman Sea. The long strip of land is an important bird sanctuary and nature reserve, with more than 90 bird species found here, including penguins. As such, you can only travel along the spit on a Department of Conservation-approved tour.
Redefining the word "windswept," Wharariki Beach is an enormous sweep of beach and dunes on the northern edge of Golden Bay, just west of the start of Farewell Spit. If you go at low tide, you can walk along the beach (if you can withstand the wind!), or horse treks can also be arranged. Even at high tide, you can admire the views from further up in the dunes. Getting to the beach requires an easy 20-minute walk over farmland, which helps build a sense of anticipation for visiting what is one of New Zealand's most beautiful beaches.
Te Waikoropupu Springs
While New Zealand is famous for its bubbling hot springs, these spectacular cold springs are quite different, and perhaps more surprising. Pupu Springs (as they’re known) are a short drive from Takaka and are sacred to the local Maori people. There are signs asking visitors not to touch the water, which you really should obey. From the carpark, a boardwalk through forest and over streams leads to the springs, which are deep blue and turquoise, extraordinarily clear and vibrant with underwater plant life that thrives on the bubbling freshwaters.
If you’re dazzled by Pupu Springs and want to see more, the Riuwaka Resurgence is another similar, though smaller, spring of cold and clear water. It’s the start of the Riuwaka River. While the Resurgence itself isn’t far beneath the summit of Takaka Hill, on the way into Golden Bay, you can only drive there along the Riwaka Valley Road, north of Motueka, on the Tasman Bay side.
Abel Tasman National Park
New Zealand’s smallest national park is also one of its most popular. Many people access the park from the eastern, Tasman Bay side, but trekkers who complete the full three-to-five-day Coast Track normally exit the park on the Golden Bay side. There are many gorgeous gold and white-sand beaches throughout the park, and as well as hiking, kayaking is a popular way to tour the coastline.
At the top of the Takaka Hill on the way to Golden Bay from Motueka, there’s a sweeping view of Tasman Bay by the Ngarua Caves sign. Many people just stop here to admire the view, but if you continue down the track, you’ll come to these lovely caves, which offer daily guided tours in season, and by appointment at other times. As well as the expected stalactites and stalagmites, visitors can also see ancient animal and bird bones.
Quite different from the Ngarua Caves, the Rawhiti Caves have some of the most diverse entrance flora of any caves in New Zealand, as well as stalactites that grow towards the light at the entrance. The carpark to the caves is about 15 minutes’ drive from Takaka, and you’ll need to hike for about an hour to get to the caverns themselves, along a reasonably rough track (avoid going in the wet).
Wainui Falls Track
The hiking track to Golden Bay’s largest waterfalls, on the northern end of the Abel Tasman National Park, is especially popular with families, as it’s not too challenging and quite short (about 90 minutes return). It provides a sample of the longer forested trails of the Abel Tasman National Park that family travelers may otherwise miss out on if they’re unable to do a multi-day trek with kids. The trail passes through beautiful native bush, including nikau palms and ferns. The falls themselves are about 65 feet high.
Eat and Drink at Mussel Inn
There isn’t a huge range of dining options in Golden Bay because of its small population (only about 5,000 inhabitants). But, the Mussel Inn is famous, and one of the best places to eat around here. A few minutes’ drive from Collingwood, the cozy inn has a crackling fireplace for colder days and lots of outdoor garden seating for sunny weather. The menu is simple and consists of local delicacies like green-lipped mussels served with garlic bread. They also brew their own beer and host frequent evening live music events.