For a complete overview of outdoor activities in the region, it's best to start at one of the visitor centers, which are packed with brochures. There are three national parks within easy driving distance; that alone raises dozens of outdoor possibilities.
Nelson has dozens of fabulous beaches. Close to the city, the best bet is Tahuna Beach, which offers excellent swimming. Farther afield, just past Motueka, you'll find the hugely popular Kaiteriteri Beach, a favorite with Christchurch holidaymakers.
You can hire bikes from Stewarts Avanti Plus, 114 Hardy St., Nelson (tel. 03/548-1666; www.avantiplusnelson.co.nz), for NZ$40 to NZ$100 per day depending on the bike you choose. They can also tell you about biking events and local trails. Biking Nelson (tel. 0800/224-532 in NZ; www.bikingnelson.co.nz) offers excellent guided cycling and mountain bike tours from NZ$60 to NZ$125 for guided rides, all equipment included. If you're staying in Nelson, they'll meet you outside Henry's Bar, 296 Trafalgar St., just down from the Cathedral.
Lovers of dark underground spaces will enjoy exploring Ngarua Caves, Takaka Hill, Motueka (tel. 03/528-8093). These marble caves feature the skeletal remains of New Zealand's extinct flightless bird, the moa, and a 45-minute guided tour is offered on the hour from 10am to 4pm (closed July-Sept). Entry is NZ$15 for adults, NZ$7 for children ages 5 to 15. The caves are 70km (43 miles) from Nelson and 20km (12 miles) from Motueka. Find further cave exploration in Takaka.
Bait up those hooks and get out there! The fish are awaiting in lakes, rivers, streams, and the ocean. There's good onshore fishing at Connolly's Quay on Rocks Road, the western end of Tahuna Beach, Boulder Bay, and Cable Bay. When it comes to stalking trout, call John Brunwin of Fly Fishing New Zealand, 97 Murphy St., Nelson (tel. 03/548-9145; www.flyfishnewzealand.com).
When you get up in the air over this stunning province, you'll truly understand why so many people love it. Pilot a Stunt Plane, Motueka Airfield, Motueka (tel. 0800/360-180 in NZ, or 03/528-8290; www.uflyextreme.co.nz), offers a range of scenic flight packages. One of the most thrilling is a 15-minute "hands-on" flight for NZ$299 per person. Helicopter fans can buzz into the skies with Nelson Helicopters, Tangmere Place, Nelson Airport (tel. 0800/450-350 in NZ, or 03/547-1177; www.nelsonhelicopters.co.nz). Try their Nelson Lakes scenic tour, or visit The Lord of the Rings filming sites.
Just 10 minutes from central Nelson, you can don your helmet, get on a 4*4 motorbike, and go for it over your choice of testing tracks. Happy Valley Adventures, 194 Cable Bay Rd., Nelson (tel. 0800/157-300 in NZ, or 03/545-0304; www.happyvalleyadventures.co.nz), is the place to call. Prices range from NZ$85 to NZ$165 per rider (NZ$20 extra for pillion passengers). Or you can fly on a Skywire for over 3km (1 3/4 miles) for NZ$85 adults, NZ$55 children 16 and under.
Nelson Golf Club, Bolt Road, Tahunanui, Nelson (tel. 03/548-5028; www.nelsongolf.co.nz), is an 18-hole course open daily. Greens fees are NZ$50 for nonaffiliated members. Greenacres Golf Club, Best Island, Richmond (tel. 03/544-6441; fax 03/544-8420), also has 18 holes and is open daily; nonmembers pay NZ$40.
If you don't have time to kayak in the unforgettable Abel Tasman, at least take to the waters near Nelson with Cable Bay Kayaks, Cable Bay Road, Nelson (tel. 0508/222-532 in NZ, or 03/545-0332; www.cablebaykayaks.co.nz). They specialize in half- and 1-day tours that take in bird colonies, caves, and coves for NZ$65 to NZ$145 per person.
Natural High, 52 Rutherford St., Nelson (tel. 0800/444-144 in NZ, or 03/546-6936; www.cyclenewzealand.com), offers guided bike excursions, from a 2-hour tour of the city sights and waterfront to multiday South Island tours and off-road adventures.
Vertical Limits Climbing & Adventure Centre, 34 Vanguard St. (tel. 0508/837-842 in NZ, or 03/545-7511; www.verticallimits.co.nz), is the largest indoor climbing center in New Zealand. It offers indoor rock climbing, rappelling, and guided climbing and caving adventures with qualified instructors. A shot at the climbing walls costs NZ$18 for adults, NZ$15 for students, and NZ$12 for children under 12. It's open Monday through Friday 10am to 9pm, weekends 10am to 6pm.
Skydive Abel Tasman, 16 College St., Motueka Airport (tel. 0800/422-899 in NZ, or 03/528-4091; www.skydive.co.nz), has free-fall tandem sky dives with instructors priced NZ$299 to NZ$399.
Ultimate Descents New Zealand, Motueka (tel. 0800/748-377 in NZ, or 03/523-9899; www.rivers.co.nz), seems to have every possible white-water activity covered. It offers a wide range of outings by kayak, raft, or river bug (also known as a sled; this involves going through white water lying facedown on the sled), from Grade II to the savage Grade V on rivers throughout the greater Nelson province. Half-day to multiday rafting and kayaking trips for all ages cost from NZ$135 to NZ$575. There is a minimum age limit of 13.
Just about anywhere in Nelson is suited to walking. From a leisurely stroll to full multiday treks, you'll be in your element.
For a charming city walk, find the Maitai River off Nile Street and follow the signposted walkway to the locals' favorite swimming spot - Girlie's Hole. Another good 45-minute walk traces Nelson's old water system up through the native bush to dams built in the 1870s. Go to Brook Motor Camp; there's a parking area by the dam, and the trail leads on from here. Within 5 minutes, you'll be in native bush and a quiet valley. There are steps and handrails on the trail.
If you'd like to walk with the birds, go along Motueka Sandspit and enjoy the views across Tasman Bay to D'Urville Island and Nelson City. This is an internationally important seabird habitat and is home to many varieties that come here to breed. (Please keep dogs away from the southern end of the spit.) It's part of the Motueka Walkway, which is detailed in a brochure available at the visitor center. Access the walkway from the end of Staples Street.
A Walk to Remember -- A walk along Boulder Bank - the thin strip of land that reaches out from Nelson into the sea - is an unusual and exhilarating experience. Take water, sun protection, and a windbreaker for this 2 1/2-hour, 8km (5-mile) walk, which begins and ends at Boulder Bank Drive.