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Motueka is a lesser-known travel destination on the South Island of New Zealand. But don’t let that fool you. This charming town has lots to offer, including great weather, beautiful beaches, and a thriving art scene. And here, you can enjoy plenty of outdoor activities without crowds of tourists.
Motueka is only 35 minutes from the city of Nelson. It shares the same characteristics that draw so many people to Nelson (sunshine, access to New Zealand’s national parks, and a rich culture). But … it’s less populated and less visited! As such, I’ve always considered Motueka a hidden gem and an untapped travel location.
Although it’s a quaint town, there’s a surprising number of things to do here. So if you’re planning (or considering!) a visit, keep reading. I’ll share the 12 best things to do in Motueka, along with a little background info on the town. This way, you can get a feel for the place – and complete your itinerary!
Don’t have time to read the full article? My absolute favorite things to do in Motueka include:
- Float in the Motueka Saltwater Baths.
- Have a meal at The Smoking Barrel – I love the fried chicken waffles!
- Spend the night at the beach in Abel Tasman National Park on this overnight kayaking adventure.
- See Abel Tasman National Park from above on this tandem skydive.
- Take 20 minutes to see the breathtaking views at Hawkes Lookout Walk.
- About Motueka, NZ
- The BEST Things to do in Motueka
- 1. Motueka Saltwater Baths
- 2. Enjoy a meal at The Smoking Barrel
- 3. Visit Abel Tasman National Park
- 4. While there, visit Split Apple Rock
- 5. Go skydiving
- 6. Check out Mapua
- 7. Motueka Museum
- 8. The Riuwaka Resurgence
- 9. Hawkes Lookout Walk
- 10. Ngarua Caves
- 11. Check out the Janie Seddon Shipwreck
- 12. Taste wine at Riwaka River Estate
- Where to Stay in Motueka
- Thanks for reading!
- Why I Book Tours with Viator
- Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
- Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
About Motueka, NZ
Motueka is located on the northern coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It sits right next to the mouth of the Motueka River that feeds into Tasman Bay. This small town has a population of only 8,300, but it continues to grow. And because of its prime location and weather, I’m not surprised!
Motueka is most widely known for its close proximity to Abel Tasman National Park, one of the most beautiful parks in the country! Most travelers come to Motueka to access this park. However, they end up staying because the town is just so quaint and charming. At least, that’s what happened to me!
Also, Motueka has a thriving cafe culture that focuses on fresh food and sustainability. I feel like every time I visit, there is a new amazing cafe to check out. Plus, it has that small business vibe. You feel that people are invested in the community, making it a great place to live.
When you visit, you immediately feel welcomed by the friendly locals. So if you find yourself here on the weekend, stop by the Motueka Sunday Market between 8 am – 1 pm. It’s filled with artists and their crafts, as well as locally grown produce, food carts, and cafe stalls. You’ll get a little sampling of what Motueka is all about!
It’s no wonder this town is full of tasty food … this is the perfect climate to grow things. Until the early 1980s, this area was actually one of the most prosperous tobacco-growing regions. This helped the town grow and become what it is today. And nowadays, you’ll find a wide variety of agriculture.
For one, there’s a plethora of orchards in the surrounding districts! Fresh pears, apples, and kiwifruit are very accessible. Hops are also grown in this region, so you can expect delicious craft beer. And, of course, there are a number of vineyards popping up – adding to the amazing wines of New Zealand.
Motueka doesn’t get very cold in the winter or too hot in the summer, making it a great climate to visit year-round. There is a bit of rainfall in this region, but that’s what makes all these delicious crops grow so well!
Nestled in Tasman Bay and having two amazing national parks so close, Motueka has become a destination for all sorts of travelers. Regardless of when you’re visiting New Zealand, this town is worth a trip!
The BEST Things to do in Motueka
1. Motueka Saltwater Baths
The only saltwater baths in the Nelson/Tasman region are right on the Motueka foreshore. These are actually super unique and provide a relaxing way to swim in the bay.
The Motueka Saltwater Baths were created in 1920 when sharks were spotted in the water, making swimming unsafe. The locals fundraised money to install galvanized wire to enclose the foreshore, making it swimmable again.
Over the next 80 years, the baths went through a series of updates and renovations, making them even more inviting. The baths are now made of concrete, with a floodgate and a childproof gate. There are picnic tables, a playground, and bathrooms with showers. All of these amenities make it a great place to hang out for the day.
While the baths hold a special place in Motueka’s history, there also just a great way to enjoy the warm saltwater bay! So if you’re a fan of New Zealand’s many hot springs and pools, you’ll want to make a stop here too.
Because it is an enclosed swimming area, you don’t have to worry about the current or tide patterns. It’s open year-round, with the exception of occasional cleaning. You can visit anytime really, but if you come here during the early morning or sunset, you might get more privacy.
So if you’re in town, I highly recommend stopping by. It’s a classic Motueka activity, after all! Plus, it doesn’t require much effort on your part … you can simply float in the salty water!
Related Read: If you’re also passing through Queenstown, check out the best hot pools in the area!
2. Enjoy a meal at The Smoking Barrel
One of my favorite ways to discover a new town is through food. While in Motueka, my partner and I went to The Smoking Barrel and were absolutely blown away. In fact, I still dream about the fried chicken waffles I had!
The Smoking Barrel is an eclectic combination of gourmet donuts and coffee, low and slow-smoked American BBQ, and house-smoked fresh meats. It sounds a little strange, but it works so well together. The atmosphere isn’t your typical smokehouse either. It looks more like a modern coffeehouse, but you can smell the delicious meats smoking in the kitchen.
They come up with some crazy combinations, like Texas Twinkies (jalapenos stuffed with brisket, whipped cream cheese, and bacon, and glazed with sticky apple syrup and bbq sauce). For something sweet, go for the Vietnamese iced coffee creme brulee donuts. I can’t make this stuff up, and it’s simply delicious!
The restaurant is open Thursday to Sunday from 9 am – 8 pm. They serve coffee, donuts, and brunch in the morning, but they have an extensive dinner menu as well! My only recommendation for this place is to arrive with an empty stomach because you’ll want to indulge in it all!
3. Visit Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman National Park is certainly one of the main reasons people come to Motueka. It’s one of New Zealand’s best national parks, even if it’s the smallest in the country! You could do just a day trip, but there is so much to see that you’d be better off spending at least one night here.
Abel Tasman has some of the best hiking on the South Island. The most well-known is the Abel Tasman Coast Track, a 60-kilometer (37-mile) hiking trail that takes you the entire length of the national park. If a multi-day hike is a little above your pay grade, the track is broken up into many smaller sections that can be done in a day.
You can also kayak along sections of the track since it follows the coast! You can rent kayaks in Marahau for $110 NZD per day for a 2-person kayak. For more time on the water, book this overnight kayaking adventure which includes a camping pass! You’ll get to spend a night on the beach and have lots of time to explore. If you’ve never kayaked before or are traveling with kids, then I recommend this small-group kayaking tour which lasts for 3 hours and you get to paddle around Split Apple Rock which is one of the iconic spots in the park (and next on my list!).
If you’re looking for a new sort of adventure, I suggest canyoning! Here you’ll scramble around rocks, abseil, swim, and cliff jump for a blood-pumping adventure. However, this is best done through an organized tour in Abel Tasman – don’t try this by yourself! Abel Tasman Canyons offers canyoning experiences throughout the park. This truly is an epic adventure, and Abel Tasman feels like it was built for this type of activity!
Whether you’re hiking, kayaking, canyoning, or simply taking in the beautiful scenery and wildlife, add Abel Tasman National Park to your Motueka itinerary!
4. While there, visit Split Apple Rock
Split Apple Rock is a must-visit when you’re in Abel Tasman! It’s one of the park’s most famous sights because it looks just like an apple cleaved perfectly in two – hence the name. Just check out my picture above!
There are a couple of different ways to see Split Apple Rock. If you’re driving a rental car to Abel Tasman, you can park your car along Tokongawa Drive in Kaiteriteri. Then, walk along Moonraker Way to the beach, where you’ll have a fantastic view of the famous rock.
If you’re renting kayaks, you can also paddle out to Split Apple Rock. Or, for a unique experience, join this awesome waka paddling tour which takes you around the rock in a traditional Maori watercraft. Your journey will begin with a formal Maori greeting, and as you paddle, you’ll learn all about different commands, salutes, and traditions.
It really is a hands-on way to see the rock AND learn about the Maori culture. You get an aquatic adventure, culture, and heritage all in one! It costs $95 NZD for a 3-hour experience, including the journey to Split Apple Rock and morning tea. However, this tour is only available on weekends at 9 am. So secure your spot well in advance!
Why I Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Check out the Viator website here!
5. Go skydiving
Motueka’s proximity to the ocean, mountains, and the North Island makes this an incredible skydiving destination in New Zealand. This is the only dropzone in the country where you can see both the North Island and the South Island, which is a mind-blowing view! I highly recommend booking a tour in advance to make your experience easy … because jumping out of a plane might be the hard part!
This first tour is considered a “short” jump of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet)! Your tandem jump will sail over Abel Tasman National Park, giving stunning views of the coast and forest below. A shorter jump leaves more time for other activities, as it takes about 2 hours in total. It’s also less expensive at $329 NZD!
Let’s kick it up a notch to 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) for this tandem skydive. This tour is also well suited for beginners with no experience. Your expert guides will give you all the safety equipment and instruction to ensure you are safe and have the best time possible! This tour can be booked for $399 NZD.
This final tour is the biggest jump yet, 5,000 meters (16,500 feet)! At this height, you can see both the North and South Islands, Abel Tasman National Park, and Tasman Bay all below you. You don’t need any prior skydiving experience to jump from this height; just a sense of adventure! This experience is $499 NZD.
All of these tours offer round-trip transportation from the Nelson/Tasman region (including Motueka), or you can meet at the Motueka-Abel Tasman Airport. They have several times available in the morning and early afternoon, so it’s easy to fit into your schedule.
So play Goldilocks and find the height that feels just right! If it’s your first time and you want to start small, book the “short” jump here. For something in the middle, try the 4,000 m (13,000 ft) jump. But if you prefer to go big or go home – opt for the 5,000 m (16,500 ft) skydive!
Related Read: If you love getting that adrenaline pumping, read about the most exciting adventure activities in Queenstown!
6. Check out Mapua
Mapua is a small town about halfway between Motueka and Nelson. It sits right along the coastline of Tasman Bay and is another great launch point for amazing outdoor activities! Even if you don’t stay here, the town itself is worth visiting. It has that special small-town charm and has grown in popularity over the last few years.
If you’ve rented a car in New Zealand, Mapua is just a 20-minute drive and has several fun things to do. One of the best activities is to visit Rabbit Island. This island is aptly named since there are actually a ton of rabbits here! It all started with a school kids’ prank in the ‘70s, but now, it’s just fun to spot them!
You can catch the ferry to Rabbit Island from Mapua for $15 NZD roundtrip. In winter (May 1st – September 22nd), the ferry operates on weekends only, from 10 am – 4 pm on the hour. The return trip from Rabbit Island to Mapua runs at ten past the hour from 10:10 am – 4:10 pm. In the summertime (September 23rd – April 30th), it keeps the same schedule but operates daily.
Alternatively, you could ride a bike around town. There is a great network of biking trails around Mapua, which is one of my favorite ways to see a city. If you’re cycling from Motueka to Mapua, you can take the portion of the Great Taste Trail that runs between the two. It takes about 1-1.5 hours by bike.
Maupa is known for having great restaurants and cafes, as well as cute boutiques and local art galleries. If you’re a craft beer enthusiast, check out Golden Bear Brewing Company. Not only are their beers top-notch, but they also frequently host events, so you might be able to catch something unique! They’re only open in the summer season and serve California and Mexican cuisine.
The Jellyfish is another eatery to check out, as they have a beautiful outdoor deck on the wharf that offers great views of the water! They’re open Tuesday/Thursday from 9 am – 8:30 pm, Friday/Saturday from 9 am – 9 pm, and Sunday/Monday from 9 am – 3 pm. And if you’re here for brunch, try their kimchi bloody Mary!
Mapua is a charming destination, and one day might not be enough! Honestly, I’d consider spending a night here so you can experience all it has to offer.
Related Read: To visit more tasty breweries, check out the best places to drink craft beer in Queenstown!
7. Motueka Museum
Although it’s a small town, Motueka has a rich history. So all those history buffs passing through will want to stop by the Motueka Museum to learn more!
The town was established in 1842 by pioneers that came to Nelson under an agreement with the New Zealand Company. Prior to that, this was inhabited by the Maori people, so the history of this land runs deep.
The Motueka Museum is located in what used to be a quaint old schoolhouse. It has exhibits about the traditional Maori people, the tobacco farming era, and life in the early days. When I visited, I also learned loads about the nature surrounding the area.
The museum is run by volunteers who are passionate about the history of their city. It’s open Tuesday to Friday from 10 am – 3 pm and Sundays from 10 am – 2 pm.
Museums are a great way to learn about an area you’re exploring. Even if you’re not a history fanatic, I think it’s worthwhile to know the roots of the culture you are immersed in! This museum is also attached to a great little eatery, Muses Cafe, which has great breakfast and coffee options!
8. The Riuwaka Resurgence
The Riuwaka Resurgence is a breathtaking water source that powers the Riuwaka River. This place holds historic Maori ties within the crystal blue pools that flow from the resurgence. To get there, take the Riuwaka Resurgence Walkway, which is a 20-minute drive from Motueka. It’s a super easy walk that only takes 20 minutes roundtrip.
If you’re unsure what to expect, I’ll give you a little background info! A resurgence is created when a river goes underwater for a section and then comes to the surface again through a cliff face. The Riuwaka resurgence comes from the depths of Takaka Hill in Kahurangi National Park. The water flows out of the limestone cave and feeds into the pools below.
In Maori culture, the resurgence is called Te Puna o Riuwaka and is considered a sacred place. Traditionally, Maori would not eat or swim at this place and believed the waters had powerful healing properties.
This is an absolutely beautiful place to visit and makes for a good afternoon trip. This is definitely a walk, not a hike! There is a boardwalk and stairs, so it is accessible too.
9. Hawkes Lookout Walk
Hawkes Lookout Walk is an incredible viewpoint in Kahurangi National Park! Only about 25 minutes from Motueka, this is a great quick stop if you’re out exploring for the day.
This short walk is only 0.8 kilometers (0.5 miles) and will take about 10 minutes to reach the top. Once you’re at the top, though, the views are breathtaking. You’ll see the Riwaka Valley, Marlborough Sounds, and the expansive coastline below.
The lookout is located right off of SH 60 on your way to Kahurangi National Park. There is a nice-sized parking lot with public toilets at the trailhead, so this could simply become the most beautiful bathroom break you’ve ever had!
Because this is a short walk and has a gorgeous view, I think everyone should take an extra 20 minutes to stop and enjoy Hawkes Lookout!
10. Ngarua Caves
I find exploring caves to be quite awe-inspiring and spooky all at the same time! We all know New Zealand has incredible glow worm caves. But just outside Motueka, you’ll find another cave, the Ngarua Caves. Although there aren’t glow worms here, this cave system is amazing in its own right!
It’s crazy to think of the diverse beauty that lives underground – and we get to explore it! And Ngarua Caves are conveniently located just 25 minutes north of Motueka. When you arrive, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to explore this vast cave system. There are facilities set up to offer cave tours that leave every hour and last about 45 minutes.
The cave is about 350 meters (1,150 feet) long and full of formations, ruins, and even bones from Moas and Kiwis. Your tour guide will lead you through the cave, explaining its geology and history. Personally, I was most fascinated by learning about the people who used to dwell there.
During the summer months, they are open 10 am – 4 pm, and you don’t even have to make a reservation. Simply show up to catch the next tour at the top of the hour. During the winter (June – September), you’ll have to make reservations in advance. It is $30 NZD per adult and $10 NZD per child (ages 5-15).
This is definitely a unique experience, but totally cool!
11. Check out the Janie Seddon Shipwreck
The Janie Seddon Shipwreck is an iconic site located on the Motueka Quay and is an important piece of history in the area. While she is no longer in her former glory, it’s fascinating to see this timestamp in history.
The ship (referred to as simply Janie) began her career as a submarine mining vessel. She is the last remaining ship to have served in both World Wars, and rumors say she even fired the first shot in WWII. After the wars, the ship was purchased by a local fishing group. But because of her size and coal-powered engine, the boat was unable to fish in Tasman Bay.
The ship was moored on Motueka Wharf in 1950 but sank just a few years later. And today, people travel from all over the world to see this historic ship! So if you’re visiting Motueka, you should definitely check it out!
12. Taste wine at Riwaka River Estate
New Zealand is well known for its fabulous wine scene. The climate is perfect for vineyards. In fact, the Nelson/Tasman area is full of them, including one of my favorites, the Riwaka River Estate! What better way to spend an afternoon than by wine tasting in this beautiful setting?
This winery is a reflection of the area and what it produces: amazing wine and hospitality! This is a small and locally owned winery, which makes the whole experience more intimate and inviting. The unique location of the vineyard influences the production of grapes. The type of soil, the coastal climate, and the mountains all go into making this wine!
So after you’ve spent some time understanding how wonderful the Motueka area is, you can drink the wine that was influenced by it all! The cellar door is open every day from 12-5 pm. There is even a vineyard cottage you can rent to stay the night in this beautiful location. It’s available on Airbnb for about $120 NZD a night.
Where to Stay in Motueka
Motueka is a great place to stay for a few days – or even a full week if you really want to relax. And as you can see, there’s plenty to keep you busy during that time! So if you want to book accommodations here, keep reading. I’ll share my top choices for each budget.
Top Budget – $$$
The Abbey Court Motel is a bright motel located right on Highway 60. It’s quiet yet very central and just a 20-minute walk (or a 3-minute drive) to both the beach and the airport for skydiving. Guests rave about the warm staff and cleanliness of the place.
They offer studios or a 1-bedroom and a 4-bedroom apartment, so it suits singles, couples, or families that like privacy. Prices start at $165 NZD. For a convenient location and an excellent price, reserve the Abbey Court Motel in advance.
Mid-range – $$
The Motueka TOP 10 Holiday Park offers so much for the price, and it’s just a 5-minute walk from the town center. This green property has a heated pool, hot tub, playground, and very helpful staff. They have everything from a campground and budget studios to family apartments. It’s a great family-friendly environment with lots to keep everyone entertained.
Prices start at $144 NZD. If you’re traveling with family or just like the sound of these perks, book your stay at the Holiday Park here!
Motueka Garden Motel is another great option and is set in a large beautiful garden with an outdoor pool, kids’ play area, barbecue facilities, and free parking. It’s just a 5-minute drive to the local museum or golfing. The beds are comfortable (with electric blankets in the winter), and the shower pressure is awesome.
They offer everything from studios to large 2-bedroom apartments with prices starting at $125 NZD. To stay in this Garden Motel, check availability and secure your room here!
Budget – $
White Elephant Accommodation is a charming hostel with free parking, a garden, a terrace, and a shared lounge and kitchen. WiFi usage is limited per day per guest, so it’s a good place to go if you prefer to disconnect, read, or spend time with other travelers. It has that friendly, laidback vibe, and you can even grab and eat fresh fruit straight from the trees!
They offer clean, shared dorms starting at $35 NZD a night, private rooms for $125 NZD, with even cheaper tent sites available upon request. If this sounds like your kind of place, don’t hesitate to book a room on either Hostelworld.com or Booking.com!
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. My top choice for a motorhome company is Star RV because they have beautiful motorhomes at affordable prices. You can check prices and availability for Star RV motorhomes online here. Alternatively, you can use Motorhome Republic to search all motorhomes in NZ. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
If you love staying in quaint towns, this one’s a hidden gem! Motueka is full of sunshine, art, cafes, and outdoor activities. It’s not quite as touristy as other places yet – but it’s only a matter of time. So if I were you, I’d visit sooner rather than later!
Hopefully, you’ve found some fun activities to do while you’re in Motueka. If you need help planning the rest of your travels, read my other blogs about New Zealand here! To give you an idea of what I cover, I linked to some articles below. Thanks for reading!