Nelson “Top of the South”
An idyllic town on the North end of the South Island, Nelson sits surrounded by a green valley of rolling hills on three sides and faces the Tasman Bay with a working port on the fourth. Literally translated, Nelson means ‘I belong here’. Ok, I made that up. But it doesn’t take many days in and around the city to feel that way. Nelson was established in 1841 by English settlers and the city built a Founders Park as a historical throwback to that time. It’s like a miniature Disney Land for Kiwi history buffs.
Interestingly, the city’s namesake, Admiral Horatio Nelson never set foot in NZ. Rather, he was an explorer and officer in the British Royal Navy who died in the Battle of Trafalger, Britain’s greatest naval victory, against the French and Spanish in 1805. Two of his early missions during the American War of Independence to San Juan and Grand Turk were failures. Thank goodness.
With just shy of 50,000 permanent residents, Nelson is known as an arts community and a popular place to retire. Arts, crafts and tourism are a major part of the economy. For those of you motorheads interested in fashion, Nelson is home to the World of WearableArt and Classic Cars Museum. If you miss the annual WOW festival in Wellington, you can pay a visit to the creative fashions at your leisure.
In addition to a thriving arts scene, Nelson boasts some of the sunniest, most temperate weather in all of New Zealand. For a small city, Nelson enjoys a large downtown shopping district along with a robust culinary scene large enough for a city many times its size. Craft beer is emerging as a serious industry in NZ, and as such we were required to sample a few local brews. Our favorite spot was the Sprig and Fern brewery – quality beer, decent food with a friendly pub atmosphere.
The Marlborough Region sits just to the east of Nelson and has a well-earned reputation as the best producer of Sauvignon Blanc. Wine tourism is popular and includes several options for bus and bike tours. A little farther South in Central Otago, wineries produces some the world’s best Pinot Noir – quite a compliment coming from a wine-spoiled North Westerner.
To balance out the great food, beer and wine, Nelsoners appear to be an active bunch. Obesity doesn’t seem to be a problem here, with many locals opting for walking and biking, rather than driving. Along the Nelson Maitai River Walk, there is even an outdoor workout area in case you have a sudden urge to do 20 extra minutes of cardio on your morning stroll. Alisa bravely tested out the facilities and made it almost 90 seconds before collapsing. This video is a must watch. #priceless
Just like the variety of restaurants and pubs, there are dozens of options of where to stay. You can choose from a myriad of seaside hotels, inexpensive backpackers, or vacation rentals. We opted for two different Air B&B apartments, both different and wonderful in their own way. The first was in the central part of town, about 200 yards from the Nelson Christchurch Cathedral.
Our hosts at the Cathedral Garden Apartment were Christine and Lincoln, avid gardeners who live upstairs in the main house. They shared the bounty of their veggie garden, which they were just clearing out for fall, and made sure our little kitchen was stocked with the essentials. The house’s working cat, aptly named “Precious”, kept an eye on things and occasionally welcomed himself in for a dish of breakfast milk.
The second place was the Boat House, our landing spot after our Abel Tasman adventure. Recently built and furnished with modern style, local wood finishes, and stunning views of the sea and city, the apartment had everything we needed.
Located in an area called “the Wood”, it was situated between the city and the hilly parks on the east side. Sir Stanley Whitehead Park, “a walk for the fit and agile,” includes a trail that leads to the Center of New Zealand.
Climbing up the switchbacks yielded the reward of panoramic views of the city, hills and ocean. The best part of hiking in New Zealand is that, unlike it’s Aussie neighbor to the West, nothing you encounter on the trail will kill ya.
On a video chat a few days ago, my mother reminded me that my great grandmother (my grandmother’s mother) was named Nelson. We don’t know much about her since she died when my grandmother, Martha Briley Melton (for whom I’m named), was three years old. Louisa Nelson was born in Tennessee in the early 1890’s. She married John Jasper Briley and had four children, the youngest of whom was Martha in 1919. The Brileys were reportedly living in Virginia in 1700 and moved to what is now Tennessee in 1740.
I don’t know many details about my mother’s family since my mother was an only child and both of my grandparents passed away when I was in high school. At the end of their lives, Martha and Joseph Melton owned a small cattle farm near Chico, California. That’s where I learned to ride a horse the summer before 8th grade. Their neighbors lent them a horse for the summer named Diablo (a Spanish word meaning ‘devil’) who liked eating carrots and apples more than being ridden. Diablo bucked me off one afternoon (probably because I had his bit too tight) and my grandfather, Joseph Melton at 77 years old, climbed on that horse and it never bucked me off again.
My whole life I’ve identified much more strongly with my Italian heritage – maybe it was big Italian family gatherings in the East Coast or perhaps the unmistakable last name (now prominently associated with the water company). In any case, my view of America has been through the eyes of what my grandfather must have experienced as an immigrant. My father’s father, Gerardo Pellegrino, came to the US in his 30’s from a little village between Rome and Naples. I’ve spent the last several years reconnecting with family in the ‘old country’ and even have learned to speak basic Italian. In the current social and political debates about immigration, I’m well aware that if Ellis Island hadn’t been open to my grandfather, I wouldn’t be here.
There’s something about Nelson that’s bringing up a need to do a deeper dive into my heritage – not just my paternal side, but up the chain of the mothers who are just as responsible for my existence. It’s amazing what one little city on the other side of the world can do.
Lastly, Don’t Worry the Sheep
On the South Island of NZ, there are reportedly 20 times more sheep than people. After taking a few buses through the countryside, that number seems a bit low. Sheep are everywhere. Little sheep, big sheep, black sheep, white sheep — sheep grazing on the rolling pastures between the Tasman and the Pacific oceans.
One of NZ’s largest exports, Merino wool is big business for agriculture, although dairy is now the country’s largest export as a result of growing demand in China. And for you fans of lamb chops, NZ accounts for 50% of all of the world’s sheep meat. That’s all to say that sheep are an important part of the culture and economy of NZ. That’s why it’s unlawful to worry them. Seriously. A worried sheep is apparently bad for business. So, if you are having a walk up above Nelson on the trails above the city and happen to cross through a sheep pasture, be sure to mind your dog.
Baaa baaa Nelson. It’s been grand.