New Zealand is more than the land of the long white cloud – it's also the land of the long cycling holiday. Or short cycling holiday.
With a multitude of routes officially mapped and promoted around the country, Anna Beck visited Nelson to ride one of their longer distance cycling trails that make up the ’23 Great Rides’.
We travelled to Nelson, the oldest city in the country’s South Island, to experience the recently opened Great Taste Trail. With promises of miles of enjoyable cycling-specific trail away from the road and multiple food and beverage stops, I was eager to sample all the region had to offer.
Nelson boasts the title of being New Zealand’s ‘sunshine capital’, with its temperate oceanic climate allowing for mild winters and warm, pleasant summers; a nice departure from many other parts of the country.
Trail Journeys Nelson were our hosts for the day, and Andrew Schwass from Trail Journeys had customised a route for us that took into account our experience as road cyclists and mountain bikers, as well as our excitement for experiencing as much of the region as possible, and our love of craft beer and good food. While our day of adventuring started off on a slightly overcast day, the clouds parted as we wove our way along the cycling route.
The Great Taste Trail (or GTT) is 175km long if completed as a loop, featuring both a Coastal side, and a Rail or Valley route heading back inland. While the entire trail is certainly achievable for the more experienced cyclist within a day, Trail Journeys offers a few packages depending on fitness and preference, with the four-day tour being the most popular option. After all, when riding the Great Taste Trail one needs time to take in all the sights, sounds… and tastes that the region has to offer.
The Journey Begins
In order to cram as much of the trail in on the day - as well as sample some fine food and beverages - Andrew drove us out from their shop front in Central Nelson to one of the main features of the Rail route. Located in Belgrave, south-west of Nelson, Spooners Tunnel was unveiled as a new addition to the Great Taste Trail last year, repurposed for foot and cycle traffic after 60-years of disuse.
The tunnel is 1.35km long and was dug by hand in 1893, with two teams of men that worked with the purpose of meeting in the middle. Created as a connection between Nelson and the West Coast, the project was disbanded in 1955 despite a significant protest, and the tunnel was boarded up and left to become dilapidated.
The tunnel itself is a slight descent if travelling eastward, back towards Nelson, and entering the dark arched entry is eerily cool and somewhat otherworldly - as if you had been transported back to the 19th century, and were experiencing a newly opened tunnel nearly 130 years ago.
Popping out into the light at the other end of the tunnel, an information board explains all of the history and maps the GTT route. Bring a vest or warmer clothing for this part of the ride, as the tunnel is cold regardless of the weather outside. Thankfully the Trail Journeys guys had some foresight to pack some flashing lights as we rode through.
We pause to read about, and immerse ourselves in the presence of the tunnel, before heading to Belgrove Inn, a few kilometres towards Wakefield, for a sneaky drink, and languish in the sun in the beautifully manicured gardens.
To The Brewery
With so much more to do, our Belgrove Inn pit-stop was a flying visit, before we headed onward on our journey. We rode through Brightwater and Richmond and then reached our second stop of the day in Stoke - McCashin’s Brewery Kitchen and Bar. This portion of the route does include some sections of road at this stage, although an off-road cycle path is expected to be completed in 2018.
We had worked up a bit of an appetite, as much with the cycling as all the banter, photographs and scenery-watching in the region, and it was time for lunch. Thankfully, McCashin’s didn’t disappoint. This brewery is a beer-lover’s mecca, with tastefully decorated interiors, a sunny, welcoming beer-garden, and in-house brewing. It’s all a discerning beer and food lover could ask for.
Whether an amber ale, wheat bier or an IPA is your favourite, McCashin’s have you covered. The menu was also done right and everyone was satisfied with their meals and accompanying taste-board of beer. Shared, of course, since we had the rest of the rail trail to conquer yet!
Their simple, dark interior is a sure sign to the rest of the world that New Zealand can compete with the rest of the world; whether it be cycling, a great feed, or a stylish brewery. Staff at the brewery were keen to give us the tour and brewery experience, and were quick to let us know about their sugar-free, sulphite-free offerings. There was certainly something for to suit everyone’s tastes.
A few chicken burgers and a pot of mussels devoured, and with satisfied stomachs, it was time to press on; this time along the Coastal side of the GTT.
Down the Rabbit Hole…
Heading towards Richmond, we took the Coastal route to Mapua, around a 20km trip from the brewery. The GTT features multiple boardwalk sections looking out across the water, and this would be a good section to complete with a group or family. There are plenty of places to take in the scenery, and as we head towards Rabbit Island, we begin to ride through some rural pastureland in addition to the coastal beauty we have already experienced.
Large inquisitive doe-eyed cows come across to say hello as we scoot past on the trail. This section of the GTT is predominantly a separate bike path away from the road; featuring only a couple of short road sections, and is predominantly flat.
Coming towards Rabbit Island we experience a suspension bridge swaying slowly in the wind, and once again the terrain and nature changes. Rows of pine forest greet us as we cross the bridge to the island, as fellow rider and Sydney ex-patriot (now Nelson local) Zoe King explains that the island is a getaway destination, and for public holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Day it can get incredibly busy.
The island itself is 8km long, and is home to mountain bike tracks, squirrelled away in the pine forest we ride past, and also hosts a huge equestrian centre. Today we take our cyclocross bikes right to the beach, which rivals any in Australia in terms of beauty. Stopping for a breather, a quick bottle refill, and some photos, we continue along the length of the island towards Mapua Ferry.
The short ferry ride crosses from the island to the hub of Mapua, where our journey comes to a close with the Trail Journeys bus waiting to take up back to Nelson. Mapua features a number of cafes and restaurants ready to quench all thirsts or grumbling stomachs for those who have worked up an appetite cycling along Rabbit Island.
New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I can say that having experienced many parts of it while engaging in various exciting exploits. In addition, Nelson is a gem of a town for those with a thirst for beer and/or adventure.
Nelson’s economy is based upon five industries; seafood, horticulture, forestry, farming and tourism, and through our travels on the GTT we have been able to experience each and every one of the region’s offerings, from the fish on our plate to failing in our attempt to pat the livestock that flank the sides of the trail between Stoke and Rabbit Island.
As a tourist, one of the best ways to experience any destination is by bike or foot. Slowing down, using all your senses and really living the experience is a world apart from a Contiki-style tour, and we were really able to take advantage of this with our time on the Great Taste Trail.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Nelson’s rainfall is fairly evenly distributed throughout the year; there is no specific wet season, though the summers are warm while winters remain brisk.
Nelson has an average total of over 2400 hours of sunshine annually.
The highest recorded temperature in Nelson is 36.3°C, while the lowest −6.6°C, so be prepared for a wide range of conditions depending on the time of your visit.
Flying to Nelson
While there are no direct flights to Nelson from Australia, a flight to either Aukland or Christchurch and a quick internal leg will get you there in no time. The airport is located a short drive or cab fare away from the town and is the sixth largest in the country.
Trail Journeys can customise a route or journey and facilitate transfers from different parts of the GTT, but you can also be self-sufficient and ride the trail end-to-end or pick and choose which bits of the trail you want to do. With bike hire and pick-up options from retail frontages in both Nelson central and Mapua, Trail Journeys take the pain out of arranging a holiday with bikes.
While there are many food and beverage stops on the GTT (and ride snacks can be procured with a credit card and resulting local delicacy consumption), it’s always best to carry water, a phone and be prepared for weather changes, as it can be exposed and windy at times.
What bike for the Great Taste Trail?
While much of the path is sealed, there is equally as much of the ride which is smooth gravel. A road bike with fatter tyres could be a good option, but the best all round choice for the discerning cyclist would be a nippy gravel-grinding bike, or cyclocross bike. Trail Journeys also offer hire bikes to experience the trail: hybrid bikes which are perfectly suited to a more relaxing ride around the rail trail or a social family ride.
What else to do in Nelson?
Abel Tasman National Park: For some of the worlds most beautiful bushwalking, coastal cruising, or even river canyoning, check out the Abel Tasman National Park, a short hour drive north past Kaiteriteri.
Thrill seekers. Nelson is home to several mountain bike parks: Codgers, right in Nelson, as well as a purpose-built park in Kaiteriteri and Silvan Forest in Richmond.
Get your culture on. Nelson is a bubbling hotspot of culture within New Zealand, with a range of galleries in the town centre including The Suter, RED Art Gallery and South Street Gallery. For something a bit different, check out the World of WearableArt and Classic Cars Museum.
Perk up. For some stellar brews, we found solace in Kush Coffee on Church St and Sublime Coffee on Haven Rd. We were hard pressed to be disappointed with the coffee in New Zealand!
Where else can I ride?
New Zealand has lots of options, and the 23 Great Rides offer a huge range of rides and experiences around the country. From easy bike paths, the wilderness experiences.