Luxury Escapes Guide to Marlborough

The bush-clad bays of the Marlborough Sounds are a blissful introduction to a district famed for its plump mussels and world-class sauvignon blanc.

Ferries from Wellington are welcomed to the South Island via the relentlessly gorgeous spectacle of the Marlborough Sounds – a network of flooded river valleys curling around a multitude of remote bays, backed by rugged, forested hills. It’s well worth stopping for a few days in Picton or Havelock to explore the Sounds further – either by boat, kayak, mountain bike or on foot. The Queen Charlotte Track is one of the most famous multiday walks and rides in the country, while the lesser-known Nydia Track is a shorter but no less scenic alternative. Havelock has the added attraction of being the ‘ Greenshell Mussel capital of the world’; it’s a great place to slurp down this much-loved New Zealand delicacy.

Cross the Richmond Ranges to the Wairau River and the scenery changes completely, the native bush giving way to a broad plain blanketed in vineyards. This is the heart of the Marlborough wine region – New Zealand’s most famous viticultural area – world-renowned for its crisp, herbaceous style of sauvignon blanc. The main town in these parts is Blenheim, an unassuming rural hub with a smattering of good eating options. It makes a handy base for touring the cellar doors, vineyard restaurants and interesting museums dotted across the surrounding plain.

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Things to see and do

See the Sounds on the Queen Charlotte Track

Most of New Zealand’s famed multiday hikes traverse conservation estates, but the Queen Charlotte is a bit different as it also includes tracts of private land. For walkers, this means that you’re not limited to staying in bunkhouses and campsites – there are excellent lodges scattered along the route, offering cooked dinners and breakfasts, and packed lunches to get you through the following day. The route leads through 71km of native forest clinging to the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound; most people tackle it over four days. Outside of summer, it’s also open to mountain bikers.

Queen Charlotte Sound
Queen Charlotte Sound, Tōtaranui
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Straddle the saddles on the Nydia Track

If you’ve got something to prove, you could knock off the 27km Nydia Track in a very long day hike. Most sane people prefer to stretch it into two, staying overnight at pretty Nydia Bay. It’s also open to mountain bikers, but it’s definitely not suited to novice riders. The track climbs two saddles linking three arms of Pelorus Sound, with Nydia Bay in the centre. Along the way you’ll pass through dense native forest, ford a couple of streams and skirt bays that are completely inaccessible by road.

Pelorus Sound
Pelorus Sound, Maud Island
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Paddle, hike and bike with Sea Kayak Adventures

The sheltered bays of the inner arms of the Marlborough Sounds are a great place to give sea kayaking a go. This experienced operator offers fully guided paddles ranging from a half-day to five days, staying at campsites or lodges along the way. Alternatively, you and a mate (minimum two people) can hire a kayak and, after a 75-minute briefing, head out on your own. They also offer guided hikes and mountain-biking expeditions. If you can’t decide, try a combination of all three.

Sea Kayak Adventures
cnr Queen Charlotte Dr & Anakiwa Rd, Linkwater
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Face an ace at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

If you’re an Oscar-winning film director with an obsession for WWI aircraft and aviation memorabilia, storage must inevitably become a problem. Sir Peter Jackson’s logistical headache was resolved in the most rewarding way in this staggering museum displaying his personal collection in remarkably detailed tableaux. In the Knights of the Sky section, all the skills of his prop-making colleagues have been put to play in producing lifelike, life-size, static recreations of battles using actual WWI planes. Sir Peter was less involved in the WWII wing but, despite being less whizz-bang, it’s also fascinating.

Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
79 Aerodrome Rd, Omaka
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Be transported at the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum

Built in 1853, the Edwin Fox is one of the oldest wooden ships in the world – and the last remaining one known to have transported convicts to Australia. It’s now the star attraction of this Picton museum devoted to its long and fascinating career. After watching the video and examining the memorabilia in the exhibition space, visitors can head outside and explore the boat itself. Perhaps its most famous passenger was Florence Nightingale, who is thought to have voyaged on this 49m fully rigged sailing ship when it was used as troop transport during the Crimean War.

Edwin Fox Maritime Museum
Dunbar Wharf, Picton
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Cycle through the vines with Bike 2 Wine

The main portion of the Marlborough wine region is wonderfully flat, which makes two-wheeled explorations an appealing option. There are 15 cellar doors in a 5km radius of this crew’s Renwick base – and if you don’t fancy driving back to your accommodation, they also offer a pick-up and drop-off service. They provide everything you need to get you on the road safely: bikes, helmets, visibility vests, locks and wine-trail maps. For added hilarity, rent a tandem.

Bike 2 Wine
9 Wilson St, Renwick
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Wet your whistle at Wither Hills

One of Marlborough’s best-known wineries, Wither Hills has a striking stone-and-stucco cellar door and restaurant complex set into a tussock-clad mound, fronted by a large terrace that’s popular with wedding parties and day drinkers. Drop in for a wine tasting before lunch, or book ahead for the ‘wine blending experience’. Otherwise just order a wine and sink into a beanbag on the lawn. The lunch menu offers upmarket brasserie fare featuring the likes of red-wine-braised beef cheek and Hawke’s Bay lamb rump.

Wither Hills
211 New Renwick Rd, Burleigh
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Taste top drops at Saint Clair Family Estate

Saint Clair has more trophies to its name than most Marlborough wineries, and when you taste its Reserve and Pioneer Block ranges, you’ll understand why. The tasting counter is attached to the very chic Vineyard Kitchen, where lunches are served showcasing seasonal local produce. In May, St Clair hosts an annual half marathon, raising funds for Bowel Cancer NZ. Participants have the added incentive of a free bottle of wine waiting for them when they reach the finish line.

Saint Clair Family Estate
13 Selmes Rd, Rapaura
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Top places to eat and drink

Mills Bay Mussels

Shellfish are universally excellent throughout New Zealand, but Greenshell Mussels straight from the Marlborough Sounds are one of the country’s culinary treasures. What better place to try them than at this humble tasting room attached to one of the Sounds’ main mussel farmers, right by the dock in Havelock? They’re served here in myriad ways – raw with fresh lemon, grilled with garlic butter, beer battered, Kilpatrick, in a Dutch croquette, in a chowder – but if you’re finding it hard to choose, opt for the mixed plate accompanied by Asian slaw and crusty bread.

Mills Bay Mussels
23a Inglis St, Havelock
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Seumus’ Irish Bar

This popular Picton bar ticks all the boxes you’d want in an Irish establishment: Guinness on tap, regular live music and a publican with an accent as broad as Cook Strait. Dark wood and leather booths create a cosy, convivial atmosphere. If it’s a hearty traditional pub meal you’re after, Seumus has that covered, too, churning out the likes of bangers and mash, burgers, Guinness hot pots, beer-battered fish and chips, and a sizeable Sunday roast. Being Marlborough, there’s also Thai-style Greenshell Mussels and seafood chowder on offer.

Seumus’ Irish Bar
25 Wellington St, Picton
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Arbour

Marlborough’s highest-rated restaurant is tucked away in the heart of the wine district, 8km west of Blenheim. This is degustation dining at its finest, showcasing the best of Marlborough produce: Greenshell Mussels, wild venison, slow-roasted lamb, goat’s curd, and all kinds of seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, berries and fruits. Opt for the six-course ‘Eat Local’ menu or dive into ‘The Many’, an indulgent nine-course feast. Unlike most of the vineyard restaurants, Arbour is only open in the evening.

Arbour
36 Godfrey Rd, Renwick
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Wairau River Wines

Punctuate a busy day’s wine tasting with lunch at this lovely winery restaurant. If it’s sunny, grab a table on the terrace of the mudbrick building, and gaze out over the vines. Of course there’s a Marlborough mussel chowder on offer, sitting alongside the likes of double-baked blue-cheese soufflé, lamb burger and aromatic soy-braised short ribs. The wine is excellent, too. Get in early for a tasting so that you know what to order with lunch.

Wairau River
11 Rapaura Rd, Rapaura
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Picton Village Bakkerij

The clue is in the name. Kiwi bakery staples (sausage rolls, meat pies, filled rolls, iced slices, sticky buns, scones, muffins) sit alongside Dutch treats on the well-stocked counter of this Picton institution. The immigrant owners started out selling their goodies at the local farmers’ market before gravitating to this site in 2001. It’s now an essential stop for homesick Northern Europeans wanting to stock up on good-quality bread or Christmas stollen on their way to or from the interisland ferry.

Picton Village Bakkerij
46 Auckland St, Picton
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Gramado’s Restaurant & Bar

Brazil comes to Blenheim in the form of this sexy restaurant at the eastern end of the main strip. Start with a Marlborough wine or, better still, a caipirinha – accompanied by Brazilian snacks such as cassava cakes, pão de queijo (cheese bread) and escondidinho (similar to a shepherd’s pie). Then move on to a substantial serve of feijoada (black bean and pork stew), alpine Merino assado (barbecue) or moqueca (fish stew), before capping it off with a pudim (similar to a crème caramel).

Gramado’s Restaurant & Bar
74 Main St, Blenheim
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Moa Beer Company

An island of beer in a sea of wine, Moa is Marlborough’s best-known brewery. It’s been producing craft beers and ciders since 2003, and its brews are now available throughout the country. Moa’s tasting room and beer garden is a great place to hang out in summer (sadly, it closes in winter). Order a beer flight and some snacks from the food truck and make an afternoon of it. Beer aficionados should make a point of trying the sour beers and Southern Alps White IPA, the latter of which took out the national trophy in 2018.

Moa Beer Company
258 Jacksons Rd, Rapaura
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Scotch Wine Bar

This cosy Blenheim wine bar serves arguably the most inventive food in the entire Marlborough District. Dishes are designed to be shared and range from light snacks, such as moreish anchovy and rosemary crackers, to a filling lamb shoulder with oyster glaze. However, the menu changes regularly, so expect to be surprised. There are always plenty of vegetarian options, too. Wash it all down with a Marlborough wine or a local craft beer from the tap – there’s always a great selection of both.

Scotch Wine Bar
24-26 Maxwell Rd, Blenheim
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