Gliding through the entrance of the Marlborough Sounds on the iconic Interislander Cook Strait Ferry is like entering another world and time zone. Native bush-covered hills tower above the deep-blue waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound with the occasional glimpse of a deliciously isolated cottage. Locals call New Zealand Godzone for a reason and nowhere is this typified more than by the beauty and serenity of the Marlborough Sounds.
Sitting at the very tip of the South Island of New Zealand, the Marlborough Sounds is one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of a country that’s renowned for its natural beauty. Only three hours by ferry or a 30-minute flight from Wellington, the Sounds are a popular escape for Wellingtonians and a must-see on most travellers’ New Zealand bucket list.
Spread over 1,500km of coastline, geologists say the winding waterways of the Marlborough Sounds are a series of drowned river valleys, while Maori mythology says they were formed in a battle between Maori navigator Kupe and a giant octopus. Regardless, the four ‘Sounds’ – Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Pelorus and Mahau all offer visitors their own take on just what makes this region so special.
Boating, fishing, sea kayaking, diving, dolphin watching – you’d be forgiven for thinking a trip to the Sounds is all about being on or in the water. However, it’s also home to the Queen Charlotte Track, a 70km multi-day hike (or ‘tramp’, depending which side of the Tasman you live on) that weaves its way through native bush. With numerous places to eat and stay dotted along the way and gentle native birdsong for company, take a few days or a few hours on foot or by bike to experience it.
The Marlborough Sounds also sits on the doorway to Blenheim with its world-famous sauvignon blanc wine varietal and cellar door experience to match. Hitting the winery trail set among the lush grape-growing landscape is not to be missed.
An annual Trans-Tasman catch-up with family had the Marlborough Sounds at the top of our list. Finding ourselves an Airbnb tucked away overlooking the pretty Mahau Sound, we had all the boxes ticked; sundrenched deck with water views? Check. Huge sky full of stars? Check? Kayaks for paddling? Check. Places to explore? Check.
After starting each day with a gentle paddle, the maps were pulled out and plans locked in. A poke around the pretty townships of Havelock and Picton was a must for enjoying local artisan boutiques, comfort food and experiencing a laid-back pace of life. With 70% of New Zealand mussels and 75% of farmed salmon sourced from Marlborough, local seafood is celebrated widely. All local cafes and restaurants know a thing or two about making a steaming bowl of fresh mussels and a killer seafood chowder, so it’s only fitting to enjoy both.
With 20% of New Zealand’s coastline located in the Sounds, the pull to get on the water is real and, fortunately, the options are many. Sea kayak hire or tours, extended water taxi trips to five-star restaurants at the water’s edge or choosing from a range of local cruises means there’s no shortage of options.
Native bush-covered hills tower above the deep-blue waters of the Queen Charlotte Sound with the occasional glimpse of a deliciously isolated cottage.
We had our hearts set on the legendary Pelorus Mail Boat, a mail boat and lifeline to the homes, farms and businesses in the remote nooks and crannies of the Sounds. Delivering mail, supplies, guests and locals to the boat-only access points, a day on the Mail Boat offers a wistful peek at the lives of those who live remotely.
Each far-flung jetty is a meeting spot for a smattering of locals with wheelbarrows, gumboots and dogs (living their best lives), gathered to wait for the boat’s arrival and, with it, their supplies. Ticket sales for the Mail Boat help fund the continuation of this critical service, but it’s a win–win for visitors exploring the Sounds. There was just a tinge of envy for this remote and unique lifestyle as we headed back to civilisation.
New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds truly is paradise found, and whether you hit the hiking trails, the water, the wineries, or all three, you can’t visit the Sounds without leaving a little piece of your heart there.
Your guide to Marlborough Sounds
Where to stay?
Bay of Many Coves
Enjoy barefoot luxury in this five-star resort in the heart of Queen Charlotte Sound.
Surrounded by stunning scenery, this peaceful haven offers a range of accommodation options in a jaw-dropping setting.
The Sounds Retreat
An exclusive one-suite luxury retreat with hot tub, water views and five-star service.
Where to eat?
Mills Bay Mussels
Pull up a ‘pew’ overlooking the marina – you won’t eat a better or fresher mussel than at this Havelock legend.
Arrive in style by water taxi or recharge the batteries after a day on the Queen Charlotte Track – at Furneaux Lodge, you’ll enjoy delicious local seasonal cuisine with a view and dining experience you’ll long remember.
Wairau River Cellar Door and Restaurant
Enjoy a leisurely long lunch with wines to match overlooking lush lawns and vines. A trip to the Sounds isn’t complete without exploring the Marlborough region vineyards.
What to see and do?
Pelorus Mail Boat
Cruise to remote hideaways on this working mailboat and catch a glimpse of life in the beautiful outer reaches of the Sounds. This is a day not to be missed.
Queen Charlotte Track
Take an hour or take five for a walk along this beautiful track. Snaking alongside the water while nestled in native bush, birdsong is the only company you’ll need on this Marlborough Sounds must do.
Marlborough Wine Region
Let someone else do the driving and enjoy a bespoke luxury wine tour of award-winning Marlborough vineyards. Just make sure you have room in your luggage for some purchases!
Feature image: Marlborough Tour Company