IF you're heading west of Nelson, it pays to have at least a working knowledge of German. It will definitely help you communicate.
Nelson itself gets you in the mood: is there another provincial city that has a Wurstwagen staffed by a flaxen-haired fraulein? But as you go further west, it becomes even more Teutonic.
On a couple of roads near Collingwood, the obligatory signs warning tourists to keep left read "Left Links" - the latter word being the German equivalent of the former. It's a sensible surrender to the weight of numbers, one supposes, since Germans are well represented in both tourist and resident populations. Just as there are parts of Auckland where signs are in Korean and English, in the Tasman District, German is the second language.
The lure is plainly strong. One pair of sisters we met were back for more after a visit 20 years ago during which it had rained all the time. A return from so far away suggested an optimistic, if not foolhardy, reliance on the Nelson sunshine, but it had paid off. The pair enjoyed - as we had - a coastal walk in the Abel Tasman National Park.
There's nothing calculated to make you feel more like a twit than sitting, swaddled in a lifejacket, in a boat being towed along the road behind a tractor.
The seafront road is full of such vehicles each morning at Marahau, on Tasman Bay, near the entrance to the park. But you sense the wisdom of the water-taxi operators around about the time that the tractor bowls straight into the tide and rolls on, the water up to its metal fetlocks, until the boat is well afloat.
Its high-powered outboards quickly push us northwards, across a glittering flat sea and drop us off at Onetahuti Beach. We pick our way through earlier arrivals who are being inculcated with the principles of kayaking and, as I watch them paddle furiously on the sand, I realise that I narrowly escaped looking even sillier.
The walk south to Torrent Bay - four easy hours with a break at Bark Bay - is so absurdly beautiful it makes you want to weep. In a country that abounds in picture-postcard moments, this is a standout.
My experience of our national parks having been limited to inland high country, nothing - not even the picture postcards - prepared me for the sweeps of golden sand and the turquoise sea.
A steep, though far from gruelling, walk in the midday sun is easier with a beach like that at the end.
Even better was to come further west. The winding road over the 791m Takaka Hill takes you into another land.
Nelsonians are fond of joking that it's always Sunday in Golden Bay and there's a core of delicious truth to that.
As I munched on a whitebait sandwich that had been whipped up in the hotel kitchen, we stopped to talk to a trio of 60-something women dressed in purple and orange, and funny hats. Ever the Aucklander, I assumed they must be selling - or at least publicising - something.
"No," they assured me, trilling in unison, "we're just trying to grow old disgracefully."
We drove northeast out of Takaka, through Pohara and Limestone Bay to the lookout at Tarakohe.
Here, a plain cement obelisk and marble plaque record the site of the first meeting in the shallows below, on December 18, 1642, between Maori and the people they would come to call Pakeha. It was not a happy meeting: four of Abel Tasman's crewmen and an unrecorded number of Maori died in what Tasman dubbed Murderers' Bay.
For both its past and present, Golden Bay is a great place to visit. We went almost as far as the road, and walked across to the wild and deserted Wharariki Beach, the northernmost on the West Coast, just at the base of Farewell Spit. Offshore islands seemed close enough to touch and I couldn't work out what had taken me so long to get here.
- We stayed at Old Macdonalds Farm Holiday Park, Marahau.
- Good food is available at The Mussel Inn and The Old School Cafe near Puponga. Ph (03)524 8457.
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