Luxury Escapes

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.

Please note that due to current restrictions some operators may be temporarily closed. Check their websites for the most up-to-date information

Featured escapes

Things to see and do

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

Top places to eat and drink

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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).

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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.

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.

Lux Moments

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Private Hobbit Kayak Tour with Pelorus Eco Adventures

One of the most memorable scenes in Sir Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy featured Bilbo Baggins and his mates bobbing along a river in wine barrels. This private guided paddle takes you along the crystalline Pelorus River to the spot where it was shot and includes a gourmet picnic on the riverbank. It also features a bush walk to secluded pools, complete with lots of interesting information on native flora and fauna.

Walk, cycle and paddle with Wilderness Guides

If you’d rather someone else took care of all the logistics so that you can concentrate on the adventure, this crew offers a baffling array of alternatives for exploring Queen Charlotte Sound by mountain bike, kayak or on foot. The most luxurious option includes a four-day stay at the remote five-star Bay of Many Coves resort. From here you’ll be whisked by boat to various points along the Queen Charlotte Track for your day’s exertions before being returned to the resort for a soak in the cedar hot tub or a treatment at the spa centre.

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Ultimate Marlborough Day Out with Beachcomber Cruises

If you’re limited on time and want to cram the best that Marlborough has to offer into a single day, this guided tour is a good option. It all starts in Picton, with a cruise along Queen Charlotte Sound to Meretoto. Its English name, Ship Cove, refers to the fact that it was a favoured harbour for James Cook, who anchored HMS Endeavour here six times. After you’ve had a chance to look around, your catamaran will return you to Picton where you’ll be whisked to a winery for lunch followed by an afternoon of wine tasting.

Tailor your escape to Marlborough

Immerse yourself in Marlborough with Luxury Escapes’ hand-picked Experiences. We’ve curated a selection of cultural activities, adrenaline thrills, food adventures and luxury add-ons to help you discover your destination. These Experiences are bookable when you purchase your next escape. Simply select your travel dates and number of travellers for any package, and opt to tailor your escape by selecting the available Experiences.

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