South Island, Pt. 1: Queen Charlotte goes to Nelson Town

The ferry from the North Island arrives at the port city of Picton, which is mostly notable for housing the ferry terminal. I had no business with, or in, Picton, so I grabbed a rental car and scootled on over to Nelson.

For the car-curious, my rental was an old Nissan Sunny, pouplar for being dirt-cheap and little else. It’s one of the models rebadged as the Sentra in the US. Its most favorable feature to me was that, being already pretty beat up, nobody at the rental place seemed overly bothered about what condition it was returned in. When traveling on the South Island, this feature is not to be underestimated.

Anyway, there are two main routes to get to Nelson from Picton. Your GPS will likely try to take you down Motorway 1 (New Zealand seems to generally ignore the Cook Strait, so this is the same Motorway 1 that runs through Auckland) to Spring Creek and then have you cross over to hit Motorway 6 up. This goes well out of your way but does bypass the ranges which I cannot find a name for to the Southwest of Picton. The clearly better answer is to take the Queen Charlotte Drive right along the Marlborough Sounds, which shaves several km along the journey and rewards you with fantastic views.

The fjords around the Marlborough Sounds are lovely, providing a great introduction to the charms of the South Island.

Please do avoid the temptation to sightsee while driving, though. There are plenty of spots to pull over and take photos, which will produce better photos and less vehicular carnage.

The built-up area there on the left is the little town of Havelock.

The South Island is a huge tourist destination for reasons which are no doubt already obvious, so each of these tiny towns probably has surprisingly decent accommodation. You could (and some do) spend a whole year just touring these little places and seeing what they have to offer.

En route I even found an official lookout with a trig mark on top! Achievement Unlocked!

The short ‘n’ easy walk to the lookout also featured some stairs.

The scenery breaks up the drive, so after not much time at all I arrived in the town of Nelson!

Seeing this photo, you could be forgiven for thinking Nelson is a town in Switzerland, but nope, it’s right here in New Zealand. Nelson is actually the second-oldest European settlement in New Zealand, founded just shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. It is, as are many things in New Zealand, named after a dead British person. It’s also very, very pretty.

Being quite small, Nelson proper is eminently walkable. After my drive, I walked through much of the town.

With mountains to the South and East, Tasman Bay to the West, Nelson Haven and Port Nelson to the North, and the Maitai River running through the middle, Nelson is geographically optimized for picturesque views.

Sadly, there’s also quite a lot of this. Rutherford Park to the North is almost completely fenced up, and the gardens as well have barriers out in places. I suppose this is the price of progress.

South of Rutherford Park is the beautiful ANZAC Park, which is not closed. New Zealand seem even more obsessed with the wars they fought than the US are, though the kiwi view seems to resonate more because their remembrance is focused less on “look at how awesome we were” and more on “let’s not have to do that again, OK?”

Sometimes navigating is as simple as “find the most visible structure and walk toward it”. This is the bell tower in Trafalgar Square (having a Trafalgar Square in a town named after Horatio Nelson is like having a Ford’s Theater in Lincoln, Nebraska. But the Battle of Trafalgar was a resounding victory for British people not named Nelson, so I suppose it’s fair).

Trafalgar Square is also home to a super ornate church (given the Anglocentricism evident so far, it will likely not surprise you that this is Anglican, not Catholic).

Nelson seems like a generally chill place to live. There’s a surprisingly vibrant block of restaurants off Trafalgar St which offer decent variety, lots of parks, and enough locals that it seems you don’t have to work in a tourist-centric industry if you don’t want to. For laid-back outdoorsy types who don’t mind living far away from any real urban areas, Nelson could be a veritable paradise.

We’ll get to see a bit more Nelson next time! See you then!


2 thoughts on “South Island, Pt. 1: Queen Charlotte goes to Nelson Town

  1. Still trying to figure out what the watercraft in the 2nd and 3rd pictures is–the one making the wake–and also wondering whether that was the voice of experience cautioning us to pull over before ogling the scenery.

    • Not sure about the watercraft — I would guess speedboats, but definitely not my area of expertise.

      I’m thankfully smart enough to not try and sightsee (or, even worse, take photos) while driving. So not the voice of direct experience. Maybe the voice of common sense!

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