QUEEN CHARLOTTE SOUND, NEW ZEALAND — We started this day, as we have many others, talking about how much we like Kiwis. They’re friendly, always pleasant and straightforward but polite.Momorangi Bay Campground was full of young families enjoying the Waitangi Day holiday, and we struck up a conversation with a strikingly attractive woman giving breakfast to her 1-year-old at the next picnic table. She wanted to know where we’d been so far and where we were going, and she was glad to hear we liked New Zealand. When we half-joked that we’d tried using a Kiwi accent, because who wants to be an American these days, she gave a sympathetic chuckle.
She was surprised to hear that we were actually sorry the school holidays had ended and most Kiwis gone home, but it was true — we’d enjoyed meeting them, and watching how the parents use a firm but light hand with their children, setting them free to play and explore the outdoors.
When we checked out, the campground host also asked, “So, where are you going next?” Kiwis are proud of their country and love to hear other people talk about it.
Our winding route took us along the Marlborough Sounds to Havelock, known for the green-lipped mussels we’d been seeing at the supermarkets, and to Nelson. It’s known as the sunniest place in New Zealand and has perhaps the gloomiest church, the Gothic Christ Church Cathedral. We walked to it along the main shopping street, lined with an enticing collection of bakeries, bookstores, outdoors shops and restaurants.
We liked Nelson right away. We parked next to a little river, and across from it, we found a complex with a cafe, bike hire and i-Site, or information center. At the DOC desk, we talked for at least 20 minutes with a lively ranger named Marion, who told us where we should hike north of Westport.
She also had lots of interesting things to say about Waitangi Day (“maybe not such a good day to be at the Treaty Grounds . . . usually the politicians get a few tomatoes or eggs tossed at them”) and the relatively decent treatment of the Maori as compared with the indigenous people of Australia and the United States (“They were warriors, and they were smart . . . they went to London and got themselves muskets”).
It was a beautiful day, so we treated ourselves to huevos rancheros and a juicy burger on the patio of the River Cafe before stocking up on goodies from New World Market and heading out of town. Then we found the best part of Nelson, Tahunanui Beach, which was packed with sunbathers.
It looked like a postcard from the French Riviera, with an aquamarine bay that had an island, sea stack and backdrop of misty mountains. Along the bayside road, we saw the first houses in New Zealand that, while not ostentatious, clearly spelled m-o-n-e-y. For the first time, Beth started seriously wondering what it would be like to live in New Zealand.
From Nelson, it wasn’t too far up the coast to Motueka, a busy little fruit- and hop-farming town, and Marahau, which has only a few houses but is the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, the country’s smallest but most popular park.
The park is named for a Dutch explorer who never actually set foot in New Zealand, because after he fired his ship’s cannon at the local Maori, which they interpreted as a declaration of war, they paddled out and killed the men he had lowered into a longboat. The site was named Murderers Bay but later changed to Golden Bay for tourism’s sake.
We checked into The Barn, a campground full of — what else? — young Germans, and went for a walk along the beach. Abel Tasman is a popular stop on the backpacker and beach-bum circuit, and sunbleached youths were playing sand volleyball.
We old folks got our thrills watching a drama between four oystercatcher birds: When one bird flew too close to a chick, one parent zeroed in on it beak-first and then walked an unseen perimeter alongside it, both pumping their necks up and down. We could only speculate what that meant.