Tourism family shares holiday hospitality heritage

A Kiwi family heritage of beach holidays and hospitality infuse one of New Zealand’s foremost tourism experiences – Wilsons Abel Tasman.

Each summer from the late 1960s onwards, John and Lynette Wilson and family from Riwaka, near Nelson would boat into Torrent Bay to spend the holidays in their two-bedroom holiday cottage in one of New Zealand’s most idyllic coastal environments – the Abel Tasman National Park in the Nelson Tasman region.

For a decade, family and friends enjoyed long summers on golden beaches, boating adventures and the relaxed Wilson hospitality at the family ‘bach’ (holiday cottage) until, eventually, family holidays became a tourism business that has seen the Wilsons host thousands of holidaymakers from around the world.

In 1977, John and Lynette Wilson ventured into tourism with a boat transporting visitors into the national park. Today, three generations of Wilsons operate an award-winning business that offers everything from boat transport to guided tours on land and sea, and lodge accommodation.

The story of Wilsons Abel Tasman is also the story of the Nelson region and the development of responsible, sustainable tourism in New Zealand.

Holiday paradise 

Limited road access has helped reserve the Abel Tasman region as a holiday paradise for boating, hiking and camping expeditions – a tranquil coastline of golden sands, prolific marine wildlife, beech forests and the famed Abel Tasman Great Walk. The only two roads into the region end at two of New Zealand’s most popular beach campsites - Kaiteriteri (in the south) and Totaranui (at the northern end).

For Lynette Wilson, the Abel Tasman was also home ground – going back five generations to New Zealand’s earliest pioneering days and to her own fond memories of childhood holidays with her grandparents who lived at Awaroa. 

Lynette Wilson's great-great-great grandparents, the Newths and the Snows, arrived from England in 1841 on the first British settlement fleet to Nelson. Her great-grandparents, William and Adele Hadfield, were the first European farmers in the Awaroa inlet (now within the boundaries of Abel Tasman National Park). 

Family stories  of determined women, dedicated men and children surviving tragedies and triumphs – are recorded in Awaroa Legacy which Lynette co-authored.

Having descended from this long line of farmers, sailors, and builders, it was only natural that the Wilson family would return often to the Abel Tasman to enjoy holidays in the little Torrent Bay bach that they bought in 1967.

Tourism business

The Wilson family’s association with tourism in the Nelson region began with John Wilson rowing passengers ashore at Torrent Bay from Matangi - a boat he had built himself. 

Since then, the family business has evolved as a model for sustainable tourism with boats, lodges, walking and sea kayaking experiences, winning a series of national tourism awards, including a Queen’s Service Medal for services to tourism to John Wilson in 2008.

Back in 1977, when the only boat operating a commercial service in the national park was storm damaged, local residents started to hitch rides with John to Torrent Bay. To meet passenger responsibility, Matangi was surveyed to commercial standard to operate for a two-week summer season.

At that time, John with his wife Lynette and four infant children would spend their summer holidays at their small cottage on the edge of Torrent Bay beach. Lynette sold her paintings and local crafts from a tent in the garden, welcoming visitors ashore with a cup of tea and an invitation to browse.

As the children grew, they started showing visitors around their bay. 

Guided walks

In 1982 the family worked with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation to create the first guided walk concession to operate in Abel Tasman National Park. In those days, New Zealand banks didn’t consider tourism a good investment so a private benefactor loaned the capital to start the business. 

To enable visitors to stay overnight in the park, the Wilson’s Torrent Bay cottage was rebuilt and extended. Since then, Torrent Bay Lodge has had many rebuilds and refurbishments at the hands of master builder John Wilson.

Then, in 1994 in response to growing demand, a homely new lodge called Meadowbank was built at Awaroa – recreating the grand pioneer farm homestead that Lynette’s great-grandparents had originally built on the same spot. 

Today Meadowbank is also a living memorial to five past generations of family stories recorded in diaries, letters and photographs reaching back to 1863, when the young William and Harry Hadfield came to break in the land, tend their stock, plant gardens, build their boats and later – with their brides Adele and Annie – raise 19 children in their two isolated households.

Sustainability in tourism

Over the years, the Wilson family has continuously upgraded their lodges, boats and services as technologies are developed to provide modern conveniences with minimum impact on the environment. 

Guided sea kayaking was introduced in 1995. The modern 145-seater Vista Cruise catamaran, launched in 2008, was flagship for the family’s win in Tourism New Zealand’s Innovating for Success Awards in 2010.

In 2013, Wilson’s Abel Tasman became the first company operating in the national park to be awarded New Zealand’s Qualmark Enviro Gold standard.

Darryl Wilsons says, “Our family has seen the change in attitude from the early settler’s goal to break in the land to the realisation that we must preserve the environment for future generations.”  

“Abel Tasman National Park today is a place to take time out, to consider the world from a different perspective and to enjoy the simple peace of beach, bush and solitude as those first settlers enjoyed them more than a hundred years ago. This is our Awaroa legacy.”

“Our vision has always been to promote an appreciation of the national park and its unique features by providing for visitors a responsible, informative and caring service. The Nelson region has been our home for eight generations, and Wilsons Abel Tasman involves three generations of our family, assisted by a team of dedicated professionals who love this region as much as we do.”