The top of the South Island is one of New Zealand’s great marvels. Accounting for 1,500 kms of coastline, the Marlborough Sounds represents a full 20% of the country’s coastline. Little wonder this natural wonderland accounts for 65,000 tonnes of the renowned Greenshell Mussels each year. Add to this 152 wineries and you have a foodies mecca.
The catch-phrase for the Marlborough region tells you it’s ‘Brilliant everyday‘. With this in mind, we climbed aboard the Blue Bridge ferry in Wellington one coolish December morning to check the region out.
Unlike Wellington, which is known for gale force winds more than half the days of the year, the Marlborough region is known for sunshine and the dry conditions that yield us those distinctive Sauvignon Blanc wines. The Marlborough Sounds are visible from Wellington, being just 24 kilometers across the Cook Straight. The three hour ferry takes you from Wellington at the bottom of NZ’s North Island to the Marlborough Sounds at the top of NZ’s South Island, depositing you eventually in the region’s main port of Picton.
The trip is regarded as ‘one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world’. After two trips, we wouldn’t argue with this. Most of the ferry is spent hugging the mountains in the north or the sounds in the south, looking out across some of the most sublime landscapes imaginable.
The Marlborough hub of Picton is a little like stepping back in time. It’s small enough that the friendly lady who served us at the car rental place later rang up our groceries at the local supermarket – both times with a warm smile. It’s large enough to accommodate large cruise ships, hurtling the town into a bustling metropolis for a few hours.
The Harbour View Motel’s apartments adjoin the yacht club and take in a prime and spectacular view of the sounds. The apartments are spacious and well appointed, yet are a stone’s throw to nature walks, swimming spots, playgrounds, and tourist tours (think whale watching, tour of king salmon farms, Queen Charlotte Sounds walks and mail boat tours). While staying there we wandered up to the supermarket for local provisions and swam each evening in the large resort pool.
Throughout the Marlborough Sounds you’ll see mountain after mountain, deep green and rising from the dark blue waters. The sounds are a result of flooded mountain valleys, and in flooding they created a super-playground for an abundance of sea life.
While we were aboard the Mail Boat travelling to Ship Cove (where Captain Cook visited many times, apparently having a wife and family there) dusky dolphins came to play. We saw a seal sunbathing on rocks and a penguin swimming by. Fish are abundant and so too are the world famous mussels.
Havelock, a 30 minute drive worthy of car sickness for its windy mountain pass, is the home of the NZ Greenshell Mussles. The Mussel Pot, on the main drag, is the place to visit for local mussels. Only days earlier we had been lucky enough to pick our own greenshell mussels for dinner from a private farmstay not far from Cape Jackson.
Although the Marlborough Sounds is part of New Zealand’s South Island, you could mistake the lodges in the Sounds for an island experience. All goods, food supplies, building materials, waste or otherwise, are brought in and out via Picton by small boat. Accommodation, private or otherwise, is barely discernible along the mountain edges; the little wooden jetties give the best clue for where to look.
Lochmara Lodge is a short 20 minute boat trip from Picton and it was a highlight of our trip to the Sounds. Transfers from Picton run frequently for those wanting to lunch, spend the day, or stay a night or two.
In keeping with the pristine surrounds, Lochmara runs as an eco stay. Accommodation is clean though fairly basic, but the views over the blue water are what take your attention.
The options at Lochmara Lodge are boundless: to swim, to fish, to explore by kayak, to walk, to listen to the birds, to relax in one of the many hammocks. I spent a few hours – all too short – lazing on a hammock over the water under the shade of a pohutukawa tree. It was absolute bliss.
The day we arrived at Lochmara the sun was out so we spent a few hours swimming. The water is cool but on a hot day it is perfect.
Visitors to Lochmara Lodge can feed eels or the endangered Kakariki (well worth it); they can see local artists’ work and they can wake in the night to view the glow worms and the phosphorus in the sea. Many visitors walk in via the Queen Charlotte Track; so the excellent bathhouse and massage treatments – interrupted only by the sound of birds – is a welcome treat at the end of the day
St Leonard’s Vineyard
The Marlborough region is known around the world for it’s remarkable wine, particularly the Sauvignon Blanc variety. The grapes for these wines grow near the town of Blenheim, an easy 30 minute drive from Picton. Whereas the mountains that comprise the Sounds are as green as green can be, the mountainous backdrop of Blenheim is earthy and dry. During our visit the vines were lush with leaves, offering a contrast between the blue sky, green vines and sand-coloured ranges.
St Leonard’s Vineyard Cottages is an ideal place to stay while in Blenheim. You can walk or ride to and between all of the vineyards the region is famous for. So if Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t take your fancy, then head down the road to the Moa brewery for a real flavoursome NZ beer.
Makana, a local chocolate producer, is worth visiting. The glass dividers let customers watch while the sweet treats are created. Along the same stretch we were able to stop for fresh apricots and cherries, picked by the farmer a few hours earlier.
With so much amazing produce at our fingertips we enjoyed being able to cook ourselves while at St Leonard’s Vineyard. Our children were shown where to pick beans and herbs for our lunch, as well as raspberries, black currants and red currants for desert. They loved being able to roam with the sheep, hand feeding them lemons from the trees and watching as their eyes rolled back in delight at the opportunity to eat a lemon. Chickens hatched during our stay and the deer on the farm were a novelty, particularly given it was Christmas. The pool was welcome in the warm and dry Blenheim air, as was a stroll in the gorgeously shaded Pollard Park.
The nearby Vines Village provides another surprise, with artisan cafes, design stores, local clothing and craft supplies but particularly an amazing field with a backdrop of mountain ranges, rugby posts, basketball hoops, balls, frisbees and the like.
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
A visit to Blenheim would not be complete without entering the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. Sir Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame has created the world’s largest private collection of WW1 aircraft and rare memorabilia in scenes worthy of the big screen.
The collection is brought to life in a series of theatrical scenes constructed with the artistic talent and technical expertise of some of New Zealand’s most talented storytellers.
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is an absolute must visit part of any trip to the Marlborough region.
The Marlborough region truly is the perfect place for a family nature adventure. While there we swam, kayaked, explored gold shafts, and hiked. We ate some of the finest food in the world, coupled with the best beer and wine imaginable. The abundance of nature is everywhere you look and centred around the water. The people are friendly and there is enough to do to ensure each day has a sense of adventure. This area is one of the unheralded gems of the world and highly worthy of a visit.
(All photos shot on iPhone 6s, by Zac Zavos. Copyright.)