The Abel Tasman coastal path, near Nelson, cuts an adventurous line into the water, along beaches and through rainforest.

One of the best hikes in New Zealand, a country known for its outdoor beauty, begins with a ferry ride. More specifically, a water taxi hauled by a tractor into cold, green waters that are the playgrounds for dolphins and seals.

Abel Tasman National Park, on South Island, is one of the gems of New Zealand’s network of national parks. It has a costal path that is a walker’s delight and a sweet-smelling, untouched rainforest. Hikers can make a full day of it, or they can be ferried to the golden bays that line the track and walk back. Water taxis can be caught from the hamlet of Marahau, about 70km northwest of Nelson. At low tide these sprightly vessels need assistance to make it into deeper channels, and the adventure begins at full-throttle.

As the weatherboard buildings of Marahau quickly fade, the first stop is one of the region’s most recognisable attractions: Split Apple Rock. The huge boulder perched just above the sea has nearly been ripped in half by the natural forces that continue to carve and shape the granite coastline. It is a leftover prop from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and is made of papier-mâché, joked our Kiwi driver Nick Mason, a 10-year veteran of the South Island park.  

“A lot of people come and see the colour of the water and the sand and find it all just amazing,” he explained. “It’s the peace and tranquillity. You definitely do see it in their faces at the end of the day how much they’ve enjoyed it. Some days we’re lucky enough to get killer whales or dolphins come through and that’s a real special moment.”

At Anchorage Bay we left the boat (a one-way ticket costs NZ$32 with the well-organized and friendly Abel Tasman Centre, one of the companies supplying ferries), which Nick gently manoeuvred onto the beach. It is a short hop from the bow onto the coarse yellow sand, the start of a four-hour walk back to Marahau. Other walkers decided to head north toward Bark Bay (about two-and-a-half hours farther) and get a water taxi ride from there.

Maori settlements once stood along the coastal walk’s route, and in the mid-17th Century an indigenous tribe, the Ngati Tumatakokiri, is thought to have met the famous Dutch explorer for whom New Zealand’s smallest national park is named. Abel Janszoon Tasman was almost certainly one of the first Europeans to reach New Zealand during that golden age of discovery. What a beguiling sight it must have been for him and his crew, and for those gazing back at them.  

These days the region’s sheltered coves, caves, rock pools and paths draw hikers and kayakers from every corner. The tranquillity of the coastal trail is occasionally broken by the sound of oncoming foot traffic, the enthusiastic chatter sprinkled with Spanish, French and German, as well as British and North American accents.    

“The water is so green and the lookouts are completely amazing. I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, we don’t have this in Canada!’ It is the best walk I have done in a long time. It is so pure,”  said Valerie, a student from Quebec. “I am very happy at this moment.”

Her hiking companion, Judith, from Barcelona, was equally enthralled. “We saw dolphins, we saw seals and even a penguin! The coast to me looks like the Costa Brava where I come from but it is full of ferns and I love this. You don’t expect this rainforest so close to the sea,” she gushed. “I love the fresh air here because in Barcelona it is so polluted.”

From top to bottom the Abel Tasman coastal path is a three-day walk, or an hour’s boat ride to cover the same distance. It is well maintained, and punctuated by campsites and overnight cabins that sit within metres of the beach. Cosying up to strangers is a given at Anchorage Bay, where a large wooden hut has giant bunk beds with plastic mattresses for a dozen people, along with cooking facilities, heaters and communal spaces. Bookings are recommended during the warmer months.

With gravel crunching underfoot the footpath wends through moist and sheltered valleys, where tree ferns and nikau palms bring a hint of the tropics to this relaxed corner of New Zealand.  

Heading south toward Marahau, the branches and foliage provide a lush tunnel that protects walkers from the sun and the rain. Through the woods there are glimpses of Tasman Bay, where thick vegetation frames the emerald water and the sea appears as an extension of the land. The chorus of birdsong is briefly interrupted by footsteps and the scuffing of boots on coarse stone.

On the trail, I met Peter Triska and his wife Gill from nearby Nelson who were on an overnight trek but were not expecting anything too taxing. “We’re having a nice relaxed stroll. You can take a water taxi in and you can just stroll on out again, so it’s really easy,” explained Peter. Gill added that they were having such a peaceful time they had already stopped for lunch -- twice.