Abel Tasman is the jewel among popular national parks. It's a sea kayaker's paradise, and it's great for swimming and fishing. The Abel Tasman Coastal Track is one of the Department of Conservation's eight identified Great Walks and the only coast track of its kind in the country. It can be done in 3 to 5 days, or combined with water taxis or sea kayaks for added interest.

Sea kayaking is probably the best way to see the area, and Abel Tasman Kayaks, Main Road, Marehau (tel. 0800/732-529 in NZ, or 03/527-8022; www.abeltasmankayaks.co.nz), pioneered the activity in this region. They're the largest kayaking company in the area and they operate all year, with a large base with secure car parking and hot showers. A range of guided trips are available and they'll give you an insight into the Maori and European history of the area. The most popular are the full-day guided excursions, which can include guided walks or swimming with seals, or both. Prices range from NZ$115 for short outings to NZ$599 for a 3-day kayak-camping (catered) tour, departing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. You must be 14 and over for all tours. Prices include pickup and transport from Motueka. Return transport to Nelson costs NZ$35. Kaiteriteri Kayaks, Kaiteriteri Beachfront (tel. 0800/252-925 in NZ, or 03/527-8383; www.seakayak.co.nz), is smaller and only operates during summer. It's a great one for going to see the seal pups, who are at a very cute stage in January. Their trips range from NZ$30 to NZ$199 per person. Children's prices apply to some trips. Note: If you're being picked up from Nelson for any of these park excursions, you'll have to allow 1 1/2 hours each way on a bus. You'll leave Nelson at 7:15am, 8:30am, or 3:40pm, returning 1:55pm, 5:15pm, 6pm, or 7:15pm. There's only one bus in from late April to October, leaving Nelson at 8:30am, returning at 6pm.

Wilsons Abel Tasman, 265 High St., Motueka (tel. 0800/223-582 in NZ, or 03/528-2027; www.abeltasman.co.nz), operates buses, launches, and beachfront lodges. It's an award-winning family-owned business run by the Wilson family, who pioneered tourism in the park in 1977. They arrange 1- to 5-day guided walks and sea-kayaking trips that include stays at their Torrent Bay Lodge and Meadowbank Homestead-Awaroa. All trips can be arranged as walking only, or walking/sea kayaking combinations, and skilled guides and chefs provide quality experiences and meals. During high season, a 1-day guided sea kayaking trip costs NZ$160 adults and NZ$110 children ages 12 to 14; the 3-day guided walk is NZ$1,350 for adults, NZ$945 for children 8 to 14; the 5-day guided kayak and walk trip costs NZ$2,030 for adults only (or children over 12 paying adult fee). Rates are lower from mid-April to mid-October. Scenic cruises are offered on the company's Vista Cruises aboard the catamaran Abel Tasman Voyager, which carries 140 passengers and makes three trips a day. The Southern Cruise and Walk package costs NZ$69 for adults, NZ$34 for ages 5 to 14 years; the Northern Cruise and Walk costs NZ$78 for adults, NZ$39 for kids.

Abel Tasman Aqua Taxi, Main Road, Marahau (tel. 0800/278-282 in NZ, or 03/527-8083; www.aquataxi.co.nz), has a 3-hour cruise that visits points of interest along the park beaches and the fur-seal colony on Tonga Island. The price ranges from NZ$75 to NZ$95. If you're short on time, do the cruise if nothing else, or you'll miss seeing this spectacular unspoiled coast. Another lovely way to experience the best of the Abel Tasman is to join Abel Tasman Cruises, Port Nelson (tel. 0508/488-066 in NZ; www.abeltasmancruises.co.nz), in Nelson, for their day trip to Awaroa. You see all the gorgeous golden sand beaches on the way and have a fabulous lunch at Awaroa Lodge before returning to Nelson on their fast catamaran. This costs NZ$245 per person and runs November through April.

For a terrific guided walk, look no further than Kahurangi Guided Walks, Dodson Road, Takaka, Golden Bay (tel. 03/525-7177; www.kahurangiwalks.co.nz). They offer 1-, 3-, or 5-day walking trips in the Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Parks. There are excellent half-day trips for those on a tight schedule, for NZ$35 to NZ$75 per person. Bush and Beyond Guided Walks, 35 School Rd., Motueka (tel. 03/528-9054; www.bushandbeyond.co.nz), has day and multiday walks priced from NZ$195.

Golden Bay

The main town near Golden Bay is Takaka, which has an astoundingly small population of 1,100. Another 28km (17 miles) north is Collingwood, which is even smaller. While in Takaka, you can peek in at the Golden Bay Museum & Gallery, 69 Commercial St. (tel. 03/525-6268 or 03/525-9990), open daily in summer from 10am to 4pm (closed Sun in winter). Admission is by donation. You'll find several working artists in the area, and the free brochure Arts of Golden Bay, available from the visitor center (tel. 03/525-9136), details the locations and visiting hours of some of the best.

Golden Bay is rich in natural attractions, and one of the best known is Te Waikoropupu Springs, called Pupu Springs by the locals. Here you'll find rushing water claimed to be the clearest fresh water in the world. It's signposted just north of Takaka township.

Cave formations are also common; one of the most famous, Harwood's Hole, plummets an awesome 180m (600 ft.) straight down. The visitor center can supply you with details. There are three other cave systems worth investigating. Ngarua Caves, 20km (12 miles) from Motueka on Takaka Hill (tel. 03/528-8093), are easily negotiated and feature stalactites aplenty and the skeletal remains of the extinct moa. Guided tours are given on the hour between 10am and 4pm from mid-September to June 7. Admission is NZ$15. Te Anaroa & Rebecca Caves, Rockville, Golden Bay (tel. 0800/832-283), have easy access and the best glowworms. They're very beautiful, but some of the rooflines are low and narrow, which may put you off if you're claustrophobic. Rawhiti Caves, also in Golden Bay (tel. 0800/832-283), is accessed via a 40-minute bush walk. You're greeted with a huge entrance and a steep descent. You need to be agile for this outing, and it's not recommended for children 4 and under. Te Anaroa & Rebecca Caves and Rawhiti Caves are administered by the Department of Conservation in Takaka, and both are free walks.

Local rock climbers know all about the many attributes of Payne's Ford Scenic Reserve, near Takaka. The limestone bluffs they favor dominate the area; a track through the reserve follows an old tramway line. You'll find excellent swimming holes in the nearby Takaka River.

All along the road from Takaka to Collingwood, you'll see signs pointing to the coast. Each beach is different, but much of the bay is shallow; swimming at high tide involves a lot less walking. Tata Beach is deeper.

Another 26km (16 miles) north of Collingwood is the base of Farewell Spit, a unique sand spit 35km (22 miles) long and nearly a half-mile wide. All along its length are sand dunes as high as seven- to eight-story buildings. The bird life here is amazing, as it is a migratory stopover for several species. Farewell Spit Eco Tours, 6 Tasman St., Collingwood (tel. 0800/808-257 in NZ, or 03/524-8257; www.farewellspit.com), has a range of superb tours to Farewell Spit. Most popular is the Lighthouse trip, a 4 1/2-hour excursion that costs NZ$120 for adults, NZ$50 children 15 and under. Special bird-watching trips can be arranged and cost from NZ$120 to NZ$145 for adults, NZ$50 to NZ$55 children 15 and under. Bring binoculars and a camera.

For information on the Heaphy Track and Kahurangi National Park, pick up the two free guides Bike Tasman and Walk Tasman from any Nelson visitor center.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.