New Zealand South Island's north coast: The best-kept secret for travellers

The north coast of South Island is a version of New Zealand that New Zealanders keep for themselves.

While various European accents are everywhere on the country's walking trails and the tour boat captains on Milford Sound say "Good morning and welcome aboard" in Mandarin, most of the travellers between Picton and Golden Bay, the east and west brackets of this coast, are New Zealanders.

The reason is icons. This coast has nothing to rival the spurting wonders of Rotorua, the cloud-piercing mountains that ring Milford Sound or the glaciers of the Southern Alps. What you'll find, though, is a treasure trove of lesser glories – rainforests, mountains, trout streams, a serene coastline and other backwater wonders along its slowly winding roads.

Starting from the east, Marlborough Sounds is a filigree of broad waterways separated by forested knuckles of land and one of the most flagrantly gorgeous parts of New Zealand.

This is some of the country's finest sea-kayaking and home to the Queen Charlotte Track, a heart-strumming roller-coaster of a walk, with plush lodges and a chilled sauvignon blanc from nearby Marlborough vineyards waiting at the end of every day's march.

At the centre of the north coast, the city of Nelson sits deep in the cup of Tasman Bay, protected from the sea by the wavering tentacle of the Boulder Bank and with the Richmond Range rising from the far shore.

Arts and crafts are Nelson's forte. Every second shop is a gallery selling decorative items that will gladden your heart for years to come. It's also spectacularly endowed with dining opportunities. Wander into town in search of dinner and your nose is taken on a world tour of cuisines, from Turkish to Asian street food and Korean. As a base camp for the region's wild glories, Nelson is hard to beat.

A one-hour drive away, Abel Tasman National Park is a pocket-sized paradise, rising steeply from the coast to more than 1000 metres. The smallest of New Zealand's national parks is also one of its most popular. The sandy bays and granite headlands of this shoreline are tailor-made for bobbing around in a sea-kayak. Seals and dolphins will pop up for photo ops and little blue penguins, the world's smallest penguin, are sometimes spotted on the surface.

Gateway to the park is the tiny settlement of Kaiteriteri, from where you can choose from a menu of single or multi-day kayak adventures. Abel Tasman is also one of the few national parks in New Zealand with a private lodge inside its boundaries.Tucked into bush just back from the beach, Torrent Bay Lodge is a comfy base from which to explore the park's coast and forests.

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Rooms are simple but perfect considering most guests fall into bed at about 9.30pm in a state of deep exhaustion. Food is wholesome and fresh, perfect for appetites honed in the great outdoors.

Most guests are on a guided walk along the 60-kilometre Abel Tasman Track, although there are water taxis from Marahau and Kaiteriteri to the lodge, bringing the park's wilderness experience within the reach of the most hurried travellers. Even they won't escape the beauty of their surroundings.

In the evening, I paddle a sea-kayak down the coast and across the bar to Awaroa Inlet, catching the sheet of mirroring water at its still point on a turning tide. In the dimming light, sea and sky dissolve to meet one another and a flock of seabirds standing on a sandbar float on a seamless nothingness.

WHAT TO READ

Craig Potton's New Zealand is a collection of moody and sumptuous images by a hugely accomplished Nelson-based landscape photographer and crusading conservationist.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale June 21.

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