Freewheeling on flat land

Peter Watson
Cycling through the scenic countryside around Nelson is the best way to experience the New Zealand way of life

Biking has become the new cool way to get around while visiting Nelson. Dressed in their distinctive lime-green or orange high-visibility safety gear, people of all ages and levels of fitness are flocking to the region's many cycle ways and tracks.

While Nelson offers some of the best mountain biking in New Zealand, it is the opening of the first sections of the Tasman Great Taste Trail that has really sparked the boom. Though only two-thirds complete, the 175km loop trail is already on the verge of being named one of New Zealand's great rides. Besides being easy to ride and cutting across some beautiful scenery, it is a safe and leisurely way to sample some of the Nelson-Tasman region's best food, wine, beer and art.

A growing number of tour companies now provide guided and self-guided trips and bike rentals. Most people access the taste trail from the Nelson city end.

Here they have two options: They can either cycle 31km through vineyards, market gardens and farmland to the village of Wakefield, or they can do the first 33km stage of the coastal section of the trail to the seaside town of Mapua. This takes them around the edge of the Waimea estuary, which is rich in bird life, over boardwalks and along stop banks to Rabbit Island - an excellent swimming and picnicking beach. It is just a short ferry ride to Mapua with its charming waterfront restaurants, brewery and quirky arts and crafts galleries.

Both these trips take on average about three hours one way (depending on how many stops are made at cafés and elsewhere), and are over flat land.

From Mapua, the trail heads inland into the Moutere hills, but those making the slow climb past vineyards, olive groves and orchards are rewarded with panoramic views over the Tasman Bay and a quick descent into the town of Motueka, where they can relax and refuel. This 22km section takes about two hours and requires a bit more effort.

Don't end your trip at Motueka, though, because another 14km on is Kaiteriteri, one of the scenic jewels of the region and the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park, famed for its golden sand beaches ringed by lush native bush. The short ride there is a splendid one along the waterfront, through more orchards and up into the forest, before it drops down into picture-perfect Kaiteriteri, which is a great place to swim and sightsee.

If you are feeling energetic there is a purpose-built mountain bike park in dense bush above the village, offering an impressive variety of tracks for all skill levels, from wide and gentle to narrow and steep. It is one of six mountain-bike parks in the region, which mirror Nelson's diverse terrain, ranging from the coast to high in the hills and covering bush, forestry blocks and open tussock land.

Within 10km of Nelson city, there are over 30 trails of all types and grades.

Codgers Mountain Bike Park, overlooking the city, is a good place to begin, as its trails start in the Brook Valley, just a ten-minute drive away from the central shopping area. It has tracks suitable for beginners and families through to fitness fanatics and downhill thrill-seekers. Based around three hills rising to about 400m, the tracks are well signposted and maintained and take between 30 minutes to two hours each to ride.

For the more experienced and fitter bikers, the Dun Mountain Trial - rated one of the country's top rides - is a must. It follows the route of New Zealand's first railway up more than 800m above the bush line into an unusual alpine mineral environment, offering sweeping vistas before plunging back down into the city. Take a jacket, your camera and plenty of food and water, and allow all day to enjoy the 43km round trip.

A cyclist on the Tasman Great Taste Trail enjoys the quiet solitude of the Moutere hills © Alden Williams/Fairfax Media

There are many other excellent rides further afield, with one of the best being the Rameka Track, which starts on top of Takaka Hill, where some of the Lord of the Rings scenes were filmed amidst the limestone outcrops and beech forest. It takes about 90 minutes to get to the start from Nelson city. Before you start your descent, take time to check out Harwoods Hole, at a jaw-dropping 357m the deepest vertical shaft in New Zealand which leads to a major caving system under the mountain.

The bike track - situated in the Abel Tasman National Park - is a 19km downhill adrenaline rush through bush and farmland into Takaka, a town noted for its arts and crafts and cruisy ambience. Make sure you stop to take in the stunning views overlooking Golden Bay. Be aware that the twisting track can be challenging, with tree roots, boulders, fallen logs, loose rock and creeks to negotiate.

If this is all too strenuous, then Nelson city has a good network of paved cycling paths and underpasses, where you can pedal serenely from café to shop to beach without worrying about traffic, while taking in the sea air and views. It's a good way to see the city, get some exercise and sharpen your thirst and appetite.

Peter Watson is a Nelson journalist and keen cricket fan

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