Meals with Eels and Other Nelson Must-Do’s

The garden setting of The Jester House Cafe near Nelson, where the food isn't the main attraction.

The garden setting of The Jester House Cafe near Nelson, where the great food isn't the main attraction.

A man I met in Auckland gave me this tip when he learned we’re visiting his home town, Nelson: “You really must go to The Jester, about 40 minutes away, because it’s the best cafe. Worth the drive. Terrific breakfast, heaping portions. And eels — the children will love them!”

He made it sound as though eels were on the children’s menu — a kind of kiddie sushi, perhaps — but a check of The Jester House website revealed live freshwater “tame eels” as a main attraction. It seemed as odd as a B&B advertising pet snakes along with delicious scones.

We put it on our must-do list and found ourselves driving up the Coastal Highway a few days after Christmas to find out if tame eels were an oxymoron or some kind of joke at this place called The Jester.

It definitely was worth the drive — a tour that revealed why some compare the Nelson area to a mix of Napa, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. The brilliant blue of Tasman Bay, visible along the waterfront of the Tahunanui District, gives way to green vineyards along a stretch known as the Appleby Highway. Just when you think you may be delightfully lost on a country road bordered by white painted fences, a sign for The Jester House comes into view: “Cafe and Tame Eels!”

We crossed a narrow footbridge and got a glimpse of the slithering, sleek things in the stream below — dozens of them intertwined and flopping about — while several little kids stood on the bank reaching out to them. It was clear the children were more enchanted than grossed out. Colly and Kyle ran to buy a cup of eel food and joined the others while we got a table.

Kyle and Colly meet the eels -- and hear the squeals.

Kyle and Colly meet the eels -- and make some squeals.

The cafe is set in a garden that looks lifted from a children’s story book, with playthings such as an over-sized chessboard and teeter-totters. One table was inlaid with a hand-carved Chutes and Ladders game, but it pictured miniature eels instead of chutes.

Kyle ran up to me, out of breath and eyes big, saying “Mom, you have to come, you have to see the eels. They come out of the water!” I dutifully followed him down a path to the stream and stood mesmerized as he and Colly lured the eels like snake charmers by using food on the end of a stick. Sure enough, these amphibians squirmed out of the water, opening and shutting their silent mouths in a chomping motion. They looked like evil sock puppets dipped in slime.

“Mom, come here — you’ve gotta pet them!” Kyle demanded. As soon as I forced myself to reach down, one suddenly lunged with its mouth open and aimed at my fingers. I made a scaredy-cat shriek of “Ewww!” and ran several steps back to watch from a safe distance. “It’s just like petting a wet bar of soap,” chided Colly.

When it comes to eels, the kids are braver than I!

When it comes to eels, the kids are braver than I!

I was relieved to shift my focus to lunch, which was one of the best — and most reasonably priced — meals we’ve had since coming to Nelson. My veggie burger came on a fresh-baked ciabatta role nearly as big as the plate, layered with greens and marinated red onion.

After lunch, we headed to Rabbit Island, which locals say is the area’s best beach. It’s located between The Jester House and Nelson, from Redwood Road off the Coastal Highway. The entire island (accessible by a causeway) is forested with pine planted decades ago, and the beach stretches unbroken for about eight miles, with relatively warm and safe surf that the kids dove right in.

Colly and Kyle take a break from the surf to dig for treasure.

Colly and Kyle take a break from the surf to dig for treasure.

Morgan's favorite view of the beach on Rabbit Island.

Morgan's favorite view of the beach on Rabbit Island.

Seifried Estates Winery and Restaurant is close by Rabbit Island, on Redwood Road, and also worth a stop. We went there a few days prior to the eel outing, and the kids, who were dreading a fancy meal and boring tour, were relieved to discover that we could eat outside — next to a play structure! I love how the concept of play structures at restaurants has spread beyond McDonald’s in New Zealand.

At Seifried Winery, I enjoyed the wine while the kids monkeyed around on the play structure.

At Seifried Winery, I enjoyed the wine while the kids monkeyed around on the play structure.

I’m grateful the guy in Auckland gave me The Jester tip and in doing so gave us more reasons to explore the Tasman Bay coastline; otherwise, we might not have felt motivated to go beyond Nelson, because it’s such an intoxicatingly comfortable town. Along Nelson’s main street, Trafalgar, flower baskets overflow with impatiens and lobelia, and walking paths branch out toward the beach and hills. Part of me wants to stay right here forever.

But the other part of me looks forward to leaving in a few days because we’re heading north to explore the Nelson area’s biggest attraction: Abel Tasman National Park. We’ll unplug from the laptops, stick our stuff in storage and hook up with another family (Kiwi transplants and friends from our Ojai high school days, The Kirkpatricks) for a three-day kayak trip.

Old friends, new adventures — I’m looking forward to the new year!

The sun sets over Tasman Bay and the town of Nelson, a place that epitomizes beauty and tranquility.

The sun sets over Tasman Bay and the town of Nelson, a place that epitomizes beauty and tranquility.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,