From seal spotting, backcountry hikes and kayaking trips through pristine turquoise water to eclectic art galleries and a vibrant local food scene, Golden Bay certainly lives up to its name’s dreamy promise. Find out more about what makes Golden Bay magical in our guide to the best things to see and do.
‘The Bay’ sits on New Zealand‘s South Island’s northwestern tip, where it enjoys some of the country’s sunniest weather. Sadly, travellers don’t often make it to the Bay because it’s cut off from the rest of civilisation by the steep and slightly imposing Takaka Hill. But those who brave it usually struggle to leave, captivated by its golden sands, sparkling rivers, accessible adventures and alternative vibe. Start here to plot an epic Golden Bay adventure.
Get ready for a cuteness overload with a visit to Wharariki Beach to meet some of the sweetest locals frolicking in the tide pools – baby seals. The beach is a well-established seal colony, and the pups are very relaxed around human visitors. Be sure to follow the Department of Conservation’s advice and don’t pat or chase them. They’re wild, it stresses them out, and mum and dad won’t be happy if they see you, either. Seals aside, the rugged, off-track beach is definitely worth a visit to explore its huge limestone rock formations, caves and islets. “Visit at low tide to walk along the white pillowy sand, explore the grottoes on the beach and see all the seals lazing about,” recommends Linda Olivier, a nature-lover advisor at the Golden Bay Visitors’ Centre. Note that it’s a 20-minute walk from the car park to the beach.
For a slice of history — and a chance to seek a fortune — venture up the Aorere Valley to the Goldfields, which lured thousands of prospectors in the late 1800s after settlers discovered small deposits of gold. Visitors can try their luck by themselves, or hire a guide to increase their odds, “so it’s less like buying a lottery ticket!” says Olivier. There are also some impressive caves to explore along the three-hour Aorere Goldfields loop, featuring stalactites, stalagmites and glow worms. The Ballroom Cave is particularly worth a visit: “There is a local legend that for a wedding, some years ago, locals actually hauled a piano in there,” said Olivier, “so it’s really called Ballroom Cave for a reason.”
At the back of Wainui Bay, it’s an easy 40-minute walk over suspension bridges and through subtropical nikau (native palm) forests to Wainui Falls. The short hike is great for kids and beginner walkers, with plenty of icy-fresh swimming holes along the way — “They’re quite refreshing, but very lovely!” says Olivier — while there’s also a café at the entrance selling real-fruit ice creams and coffees for those who need an extra incentive. In local Māori mythology, a taniwha (a kind of dragon that protects bodies of water) lived in a limestone cave at Wainui Bay, where he preyed on travellers and kidnapped a local woman to be his wife. Eventually the villagers ambushed and killed the taniwha, and his severed tail landed in the pool at the foot of the falls; blood seeped from the tail and stained the rocks downstream red.
Golden Bay is not just a visual feast. “To feed the belly, you can’t go past the Mussel Inn,” says Olivier. It’s a classic Kiwi watering hole with an alternative edge. Located in Onekaka, ten minutes’ drive from the main town of Takaka, ‘The Muss’ boasts an eclectic range of locally brewed beers and ciders, as well as some delicious local spins on standard pub fare, such as wild venison pies and the freshest of fish sandwiches. It’s also a great place to enjoy live music: lots of top-class touring bands make sure to put the Inn on their itineraries, especially in summertime. There’s a cosy brazier for outside hangouts on cooler evenings, and kids will enjoy the huge tyre swing in the courtyard.
These springs have “some of the clearest water in the world,” says Olivier, with visibility of around 80m (260ft). There are four springs to visit on the half-hour boardwalk trail. The Waikoropupu Springs are sacred to Māori — and vulnerable to contamination — so swimming and even dipping a finger in the water is strictly prohibited. Legend has it that the springs are home to Huriawa, a female taniwha who travels beneath the earth to clear blocked waterways. A sign erected by the Department of Conservation at the trailhead reads: “In Māori tradition the Springs are waiora, the purest form of water which is the wairua (spiritual) and the physical source of life.”
The Takaka Village Market runs every Saturday from 9am to 1.30pm in the town’s central car park, rain or shine. There’s an awesome array of local arts and crafts, including jewellery, ceramics, glassware, garden sculptures and more. “There’s also lots and lots of local food,” says Olivier. “All the local-made cheeses, all the organically grown veggies that you can think of, and there’s a great sourdough bakery that sells there, too.” The coffee truck in the car park serves up some of the Bay’s best espresso, as evidenced by all the locals hanging out there — and customers can bring their own cup for a well-deserved discount.
Home to the iconic Abel Tasman Coast Track (one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks), Abel Tasman National Park sits right at the northwestern tip of the South Island. Hiking is just one of the must-dos in the area: you can also kayak the beautiful blue waters and its surrounding coves — if you’re lucky, you might even spot some dolphins swimming next to you.
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