Traverc 136A9787-copy Takaka: a golden getaway to Golden Bay

Takaka: a golden getaway to Golden Bay

There aren’t many places in New Zealand that make me question my choice to live in Wānaka, but Golden Bay definitely did. Warm, sunny, and most importantly, cheap, Golden Bay piqued my interest as somewhere I could easily live comfortably. I’m just not sure I’m hippie enough to fit the local criteria, but more on that in a minute. 

After finishing the Heaphy Track outside of Takaka, I caught the shuttle from Golden Bay Air to the airport, where I rented a car. These are the guys who organize the logistics and flights around the area. Takaka is approximately one million miles and $500 worth of petrol away from Wānaka, so when I heard you could rent a car there, I thought it would be a good chance to finally explore an area of New Zealand I rarely visit. 

I’ll preface this by saying that the term “airport” is a stretch; it’s an office with a little runway, which I can’t remember if it was paved or not. These are small plane flights. It’s so chill and easy, exactly what you want on a holiday. The car was an old Honda that felt like you could take it anywhere. I rolled the windows down and hit the road to Takaka, the salty, warm air reminding me I was in paradise. It’s a place where you know that everyone knows each other’s names. And all of their business, too. Love it!

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The first thing you need to know about Golden Bay is that it’s like stepping back to the 90s. Which is saying something because the rest of New Zealand also feels like a step back in time. 

Every few streets, there are fruit stands with honesty boxes, and no one is in a rush to do anything. It’s such a nice feeling. Golden Bay is an area at the very tip-top of the South Island. It’s one of the sunniest areas of New Zealand and is home to some epic independent growers and farms. In fact, most of the top of the South Island is like that. I’m writing this as there is frost a centimeter thick coating my power bill is in the triple digits. Why Wānaka, why?! 

Golden Bay is a huge bay that stretches from the top of the Abel Tasman National Park all the way out to Farewell Spit, a 26-kilometer-long sandspit. It forms almost a perfect “C” shape and is one of the more remote places to get to in New Zealand. You have to want to go there; it’s not on the way anywhere. 

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The only times I’ve been to Golden Bay have been around mass whale strandings with Project Jonah. Farewell Spit is a huge hotspot for whale strandings, usually mass strandings by pilot whales. There was a massive one seven years ago with over 400 whales. We don’t really know why they strand here, but there are various theories around the fact that it has huge tidal flows and very gently sloped sand around the spit with deep water on the other side. No matter the reason, it’s a whale death trap.

You guys know this is a topic close to my heart after I came across my own whale stranding alone on Rakiura/Stewart Island years ago. A horror of a memory that’s helped shape my work and inspired me to focus far more on conservation, especially around marine mammals. 

Massive fucking bummer, I know. But hey, I was super excited to be up in Golden Bay and NOT be around dead and dying whales. Win-win!

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Takaka is an hour away from Motueka on the coast and the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. But you have to drive over a mountain to get there. Golden Bay and Takaka have remained relatively isolated, mostly because it’s a giant pain in the ass to drive over. Lovingly called Takaka Hill (New Zealand is great at both naming things and minimizing them simultaneously), it has hundreds of very sharp turns and steep dropoffs. Zoom zoom!

But honestly, you’re fine, and there are guard rails and tons of pull-offs and passing options, something I wish they would do to the Crown Range, a similar mountain road connecting Wānaka and Queenstown. With virtually no safe passing areas, it usually means you’re stuck behind tourists in campervans going 50 kilometers under the speed limit and not pulling over to let the 20 cars queued behind them pass. Christ, it’s SO annoying. 

But I digress. The road was damaged years ago in a storm and for the longest time (4 years!!), there was a long section down to one lane, so you had to wait forever at traffic lights to go. One local put up a huge sign next to it counting the number of days the roadworks have been going on. I gotta be honest; I do love a petty fight against bureaucracy.

But like the locals say, it’s just a hill; get over it. 

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I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s worth the drive out to explore Golden Bay. Or fly in from Wellington or around the Heaphy with Golden Bay Air. It’s a special place that still feels local and chill.

I decided to stay in Takaka for three nights, one night at a bach by the sea after my 4-day tramp, where I decompressed, ate a shit-ton of fried food, and showered for an hour. Sigh. Nothing is better than a hot, greasy meal and a long shower after being in the bush for days. 

The next few nights, I stayed out at Rustic ReTreet, a relatively new Canopy Camping glamping site just outside of Takaka. Spoiler alert – it was like stepping into a fairytale. I love staying in these kinds of spaces for so many reasons. Unique, cozy, and beautiful, they’re basically a destination in and of themselves. You could just stay there and be perfectly content. 

As a traveling homebody, you can probably see why these places appeal to me—and many others, too—which is why they’re super popular.

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I could feel my breath leave my body as I sighed, walking up to the entrance of the Rustic ReTreet.

Ten minutes out of Takaka, down some narrow backcountry roads through picturesque farmland, I felt like I had stepped into the Shire. Many locations from Lord of the Rings movies were filmed in the area. Bucolic and beautiful, with soft woodlands, pretty cows, and fruit trees everywhere, it evoked a feeling of nostalgia within me. Not that I grew up with any of that, but I’m going to run with it.

Rustic ReTreet evokes a treehouse vibe but for adults. It sits in its own little area away from their main house, and it’s completely private and quiet.

Perched on a wooden platform at the edge of an oak forest, you’re surrounded by nature. It sits on the property of the wonderful owners, Janine and Simon, who built it all themselves with timber milled from their land, and other repurposed materials. Talent. I struggle to put together IKEA furniture (though, in my defense, there are a lot of steps). 

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There’s the main building with the bedroom next to a lounge with a built-in nook to read by the window. As a book girlie, I will always stan a good window nook for reading. There’s another building with an open-air kitchen on one side and an open-air bathroom on the other looking out into the forest. 

Above it is a little secret second bedroom with two single beds tucked in, surrounded by books. It is perfect for kids, but adults could totally fit in there, too. As someone who loves being snug and bundled up, I could have easily stayed up there and been happy as a clam.

There’s a hidden bath out on the deck, and the site is decorated with thoughtful touches and art. It is perfectly homey. I didn’t want to leave. But the weather was so nice I knew I had to take advantage and explore the area. After a massive lie-in, of course. Screw mornings.

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The Nelson-Tasman region, particularly around the Kahurangi National Park, is cave country. There are heaps. The longest and deepest caves are here, though why on Earth anyone would go in them is beyond me. Nothing good can come out of something that far down into the Earth. 

I’ve done some tourist caving here and there, like around the Waitomo caves on the North Island and even over on the West Coast around Karamea (the other end of the Heaphy Track). New Zealand is famous for its blackwater rafting. This is when you float on an innertube guided through cave systems at varying degrees of scary. Definitely type two fun. 

I’ve spent a lot of time down there photographing glowworms (difficult), and you do start to go a bit crazy after a few hours in the dark. I don’t know how proper cavers do it, but Golden Bay is home to many caves of varying degrees of access. There are plenty of baby caves that are accessible to tourists.

Just down the road from Rustic ReTreet, through some paddocks and down some dusty roads, is the start of a trail up to the Rawhiti Caves. It was a proper grunt of a climb up to the entrance of the cave. Slightly creepy as I was the only one there. You don’t go inside the cave much; there is an incredible opening covered in stalactites with a nice viewing platform. 

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With some daylight left, I drove to Puponga near Farewell Spit and visited the super-famous Wharariki Beach. I can’t believe I have never been here. Or I have, and I don’t remember. 

It is one of the screensavers for Windows 10, or so I am told. I haven’t used Microsoft since high school. There are a few rocky islands, one with a nice arch that resembles an elephant. Depending on the wind and tides, I think you can often get nice reflections of the islands in the surf. 

When I went, it was a howling gale, but it was beautiful. The beach is expansive and surrounded by dunes. Backlit at sunset, watching the sand blow around across the dunes was mesmerizing, like glitter—very much like the movie Dune. The highlight for me was some fur seal pups playing in the tidepools. I love watching them doodle around; they’re super cute. 

On my way back to Takaka, I stopped at the Mussel Inn for dinner. Guys, this place is legendary. In the middle of nowhere, there’s this beautiful macrocarpa wooden building with extensive outdoor areas that moonlights as a music venue. I sat inside by the fire with one of the beers they brew themselves and a big old pile of green-lipped mussels. Yum yum. It was fairly quiet as it was off-season, but they did bust out on the piano for some singalongs. It was so awesome. 

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My last morning, I spent having a nice brunch in Takaka before heading out to the Te Waikoropupū Springs. These are the largest cold water springs in the southern hemisphere. Pupū Springs are pretty incredible and are home to some of the clearest water on Earth; the water visibility of the springs is up to 81 meters, as close as you can get to pure water. 

The springs are considered a taonga (treasure) by local Māori. No one is permitted to touch or get into the water. A nice, easy track circles the springs. It’s pretty remarkable; the blue is unreal. 

Before I knew it, it was time to head to the airport and fly back to Karamea. There were four of us inside a comfy little plane with Golden Bay Air. It was about half an hour’s flight to Karamea, where I left my car when I started the Heaphy Track a week earlier. So much better than a seven-hour drive between the start and finish of the track. However, I did drive ten hours afterward back home to Wānaka. Sigh.

The further south I drove, the lower the outside temperature became. Maybe I should have stayed in glorious Golden Bay a wee bit longer. 

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Many thanks to Golden Bay Air for helping out with my transport costs. Like always, I’m keeping it real. Like you could expect less from me!

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