First, a disclaimer: I live in Riwaka and believe it to be the most splendid place on this planet.
I have been something of a gypsy for most of my life so have lived throughout New Zealand and in a handful of other countries. After all of that tripping about and living away there is no other place in the world I would rather live than Riwaka. So, if you’re expecting an objective review of the tiny village that sits just outside of Motueka you should probably look away now.
While living overseas in the early 2000s my wife and I purchased a property in Riwaka, but it took us another ten years before we finally moved back to Aotearoa. During one of our holiday visits before we moved ‘home’ we had a group of friends come down from Auckland to join us for our holiday in Marahau. We happened to be driving along Main Road Riwaka on a cold and dismal rainy July evening in a minivan having picked up our mates from Nelson airport to bring them over to Marahau. I mentioned as we passed through Riwaka, and let me tell you it wasn’t looking its best in the dark and cold, that this was where we had purchased a house. Somebody in the van asked me if I was joking and questioned out loud why we would move from Shanghai to this rather bleak, tiny little freckle of a place in the South Island. At that moment I may have questioned our decision too, but I need not have worried. Riwaka has done nothing but become more wonderful in the ten years since we arrived to take up residence.
Riwaka is a hidden gem, a gem that is so well hidden many people local to the area don’t realise there is much more to the place than the bit they see as they drive along the main road enroute to Golden Bay, Kaiteriteri or Marahau. The estuary area flanked by Wharf Road and Green Tree Road is a wonderful spot with many old boat houses and classic wooden launches moored to jetties, giving the place the look and feel of an old English village. During summer, kids jump off the wharf for a swim or take to the water in all manner of kayaks, small boats and paddle boards. At low tides, it is possible to walk all the way to the mouth of the Motueka river back to the south or north across to Tapu Bay. Outer Island, or Goat Island as it is sometimes called, can be walked to at low tides and has a lovely sandy beach on its north side if accessed on fuller tides by water. When younger we convinced our children fairies lived on the island and they still call it Fairy Island to this day. I’m pretty sure they quickly realised this was just another one of the white lies we told them purely for our own amusement.
Like many of the areas in the Nelson – Tasman District, many people from outside of the area have moved to Riwaka over the past +10 years. While the place still has a good number of multi-generational residents including many gnarled old orchardists, the influx of newcomers from elsewhere in the country and around the world has added to the vibrancy of the place. The influx of RSE workers from around the Pacific who arrive to work on the orchards adds to this vibe rather wonderfully. I can think of no better example of the old and the new than watching games at the mighty Riwaka Rugby Club. While some of the crowd will be yelling ‘Go Riwaka’ others in the crowd will be yelling for some strange team they seem to be calling ‘Re Walker’.
Cooks Reserve is the home of the Riwaka Rugby Club. During the winter Riwaka’s junior and senior teams play games on Saturday as does Kahurangi, a Riwaka-Huia combination team playing in the Tasman Division One competition. The ground will be absolutely jammed on big game days and the clubrooms will be full of people trying desperately to rehydrate themselves sufficiently with Steinlargers. On Thursday evenings between October and February every available field on both sides of the Riuwaka River bridge will be full of touch rugby teams playing in the local touch module. Riwaka also has a fantastic little bowling club and a croquet club located in the midst of the village, close to the Riwaka Primary School. The Riwaka Bowling Club hosts social bowls on Wednesday nights from late October through to mid-April that are open to anybody who wants a rollup. When you step into the clubhouse the splendid decor will instantly transport you back to the 1970s which is where the club seems to have frozen their bar prices.
Riwaka is blessed with one of the country’s very best craft breweries, Hop Federation, with a tasting room and shop right in the middle of Main Road. While Hop Fed’s standard range is outstanding, their seasonable releases using fresh hops are a modern thing of wonder for anybody else out there who agrees that bog-standard, commercially brewed lagers are boring beyond concept. There is something special about having a craft brewery located right smack in the middle of the country’s premium hop growing area.
Riwaka has a couple of special vineyards producing outstanding wines too. Riwaka River Estate, located close to the bottom of the Marahau Hill is a wonderful boutique family owned and operated vineyard. You’ve let yourself down if you haven’t visited their cellar door to sample their high quality, small batch wines. Motueka Wine Company, producers of Anchorage Family Estate, has various blocks around Riwaka and their cellar door in Brooklyn.
Right in the middle of Main Road and across from Hop Federation you’ll find Riwaka’s landmark containerized cafe, Ginger Dynamite. Brad Dalton’s signature pies have been known to make gruff, monotone-talking, grown-men well-up in appreciation. On the same site is Thomas Brothers where you can buy fresh cherries and other produce grown right there on the orchard. Real fruit ice creams are available during the summer months and are just as popular with locals as they are with visitors to the area. Back towards the other end of the village is Mrs Smith’s a cafe come vegetable shop, makers of a splendid apple strudel and other classic Kiwi comfort food.
The Riwaka Hotel was completely renovated and reinvigorated by local entrepreneurs Carsten Buschkuehle and Angela Morris in 2020. After many years sitting empty the Riwaka has retaken its place as the social hub of the village. While the new renovation plays homage to the history and significance of the establishment it is also modern and classy. Of the 23 beers available on tap, one of those beers is Speights which is still available by the jug, something that is a prerequisite for many of the local patrons. Just like the rest of the village, a visit to the Riwaka Hotel will have you rubbing shoulders with legendary, dyed-in-wool Riwaka locals along with a diverse range of visitors and new residents. The Hotel also hosts live bands and other music events throughout the summer season.
Words & Photography by Brendan Alborn
Brendan has a long association with the Abel Tasman, visiting it for the first time when his parents moved to Marahau in 1997. After spending much of his life overseas, Brendan and his family moved to the area at the end of 2010. When Brendan is not spending his time in the outdoors he seems to spend much of his time creating even flimsier justifications for spending more time in the outdoors.