The sheltered cove of Shag Harbor has lots of playful New Zealand fur seal pups. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Abel Tasman Kayaks offers guided tours of the park. // © 2017 Abel Tasman Kayaks
"Try to follow me," our guide said, steering his kayak into a narrow inlet along the shore of Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand.
The turquoise water became shallow as we paddled forward, threading our way through a rocky channel that opened into Shag Harbor, a petite bay fringed by leafy growth. It had a secret garden feel to it — tucked into this national park on the northern tip of the South Island. Then something splashed in the water next to my kayak, and I was suddenly staring into the dark, alien eyes of a New Zealand fur seal pup.
Only accessible around high tide, this sheltered cove doubles as a nursery where seal mothers leave their young while they venture off to fish in deeper waters. The juveniles were everywhere — sunning on rocks, tussling in the shallows and plopping off logs with a splash. A few pegged us for playmates and circled the kayaks, nibbling on boat ropes or scratching their bellies on our paddle blades as they performed the backstroke. No one had told me Abel Tasman would be this … cute.
Earlier that morning, we’d been dropped off by a water taxi on Onetahuti Beach inside the park. Josh Leenhouwers, our guide on this one-day Marine Reserve tour from Abel Tasman Kayaks, taught us to steer the two-man boats, to seal ourselves into the seats using neoprene spray skirts and to free ourselves from the skirts’ grip should we end up capsized with a face full of seawater.
“Try to paddle in sync with your partner,” he said as our small fleet pushed north at a good clip. “It’s more effective and, more importantly, it just looks cool.”
The smallest of New Zealand’s national parks, Abel Tasman is also one of the most photogenic. Rich vegetation spills down low hills to an undulating coastline with more than 300 beaches at low tide. Waterfalls and natural pools hide in the bush. As we paddled, our guide shared stories of the Maori tribes who once called this area home, the Scottish settlers who were lured to farm its land and Abel Tasman himself, a Dutch explorer and “scoundrel” who was the first European to reach New Zealand. Leenhouwers pointed out native birds and glowworm caves and explained how orcas use the park’s bays to hunt manta rays. Resting for a moment in one bay, I watched as a ray glided silently beneath the surface like an aquatic butterfly.
Although exploring by kayak affords such views, there are other ways to take in the sights. The Abel Tasman Coastal Track, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, runs for about 35 miles with campgrounds, huts, lodges and even a houseboat hostel offering accommodations along the way. Water taxis ferry visitors around the park, and scenic cruises show off the spectacular beaches.
If you’re willing to work up a sweat, paddling is the way to go. Abel Tasman Kayaks has been taking guests inside the park for 30 years, and visitors can rent kayaks for a self-guided experience or sign up for group tours that range from a half-day jaunt to a five-day expedition that travels the length of Abel Tasman. The company also lets guests mix and match, creating a custom itinerary with kayaking, camping, hiking and water taxi transfers.
As we devoured sandwiches and chocolate cake during a picnic lunch, Leenhouwers told us about the Maori concept of turangawaewae, a special place that restores a person and makes them feel whole. His is the Astrolabe, a waterway just inside Abel Tasman where he takes his family camping.
Later, as our tour came to a close, we pulled our kayaks together and hoisted a sail, letting a faint breeze pull us into the beach at Anchorage, where I camped for the night before hiking out in the morning. Because I spent only a day on its waters, Abel Tasman might not be my turangawaewae, but I did feel restored, and there was still so much more to explore.