It may be one of New Zealand's top wine regions, but there's more to Marlborough than just Sauvignon Blanc. Enjoy spectacular walks and exploring waterways in the stunning Marlborough Sound
The main city in Marlborough is Blenheim, a small friendly city which makes a good base for exploring the region. For an introduction to the area's wineries, Highlight Wine Tours (03 577 9046; www.highlight-tours.co.nz) run a half-day tour which visits five Marlborough wineries of your choice (NZ$55 for four hours).
You can also stay in smaller Renwick, located in the heart of the vineyards. There are around 25 wineries within 5km of Renwick, so it’s a great place to hire a bike and cycle around the vineyards. Watson’s Way Backpackers in Renwick (56 High Street, Renwick; 03 572 8228; www.watsonswaybackpackers.co.nz) hires out bikes for NZ$25 for the day and will supply you with maps and panniers so you can stock up. Within easy reach is the famous Cloudy Bay winery (Jacksons Road, Blenheim; 03 520 9141; www.cloudybay.co.nz) as well as some excellent smaller producers to discover – we especially liked Isabel Estate (70-72 Hawkesbury Road, Renwick; 03 572 8300; www.isabelestate.com) and Te Whare Ra (56 Anglesea Street, Renwick; 03 572 8518; www.te-whare-ra.co.nz).
And if you’re visiting the area in February, then Marlborough hosts an annual wine festival, featuring wine tastings and tutorials on subjects like matching food and wine. There's also a wide selection of local produce available, a ‘Fashion in the Vines’ competition and live music from Kiwi artists. The 2014 Marlborough Wine ¶ Food Festival will be held on Saturday 8 February and tickets cost NZ$55 (03 577 9299; www.wine-marlborough-festival.co.nz).
Located around 20 minutes north of Blenheim are the spectacular Marlborough Sounds, a network of sunken fjord-like valleys and peninsulas. The coastline here has so many twists and turns that it makes up 20% of New Zealand's entire coastline. It's a maze of waterways around three interconnected Sounds – Marlborough, Kenepuru and Pelorus. With hidden white sand coves fringed with native forest and a turquoise sea, cruising through the waters of the Sounds is a great way to explore them.
A wide range of boat cruises are available through the Sounds' waterways, many of them running from the town of Picton. The Beachcomber Fun Cruises (London Quay, Picton; 03 57 36 175; www.mailboat.co.nz) 'Round the Bays' tour through the Queen Charlotte Sound is a good introduction to the area and takes you through beech-covered peninsulas and beautiful unspoilt bays (NZ$59 for two and a half hours). There are also specialist bird and wildlife tours where you can spot some of the residents of the Sounds, including terns, shags, herons, blue penguins, seals and the rare Hector’s Dolphin.
The same company also run the local mail boat service and visitors can join them on the mail run. With so few roads and such a scattered population, the mail boat is a lifeline for the Sounds' residents and delivers groceries and schoolwork for local kids as well as the mail. It's a great insight into the life of the locals and a chance to see some of the more out of the way parts of the Sounds (NZ$85, departs 1.30pm daily).
Or, for a more active way to see the Sounds, you can paddle the coastline in a sea kayak. With around 1500km of coast to explore, you'll easily be able to find your own deserted bay. And with no engine to disturb them you've also got a great chance of seeing native birds and wildlife. To explore independently, Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company (London Quay, Picton; 03 573 6078; www.marlboroughsounds.co.nz) rents out kayaks, and they also run guided tours if you want someone else to do the navigation and to learn more about what you're seeing (from NZ$75 for a half-day to NZ$520 for a three-day trip).
If you're happier on land then there is some great walking in Marlborough. The most well-known long-distance walk is the Queen Charlotte Track (www.qctrack.co.nz). This runs for 71km through forest, bush and coastline, with amazing views across Marlborough and Kenepuru Sounds. The track normally takes four days to complete and can be challenging as, although it's not too steep, the last two days are long. But, if you don't want to do it all, you can do day walks or part of the route by taking a water taxi from Picton, which can drop you off or pick you up at various places along the track.
The usual way to walk the route is to start at Ship Cove. Named by Captain Cook when he anchored his ship Endeavour there in the 1770s, he made the area his base and ended up visiting five times. A monument in the Cove commemorates his visit today. After leaving Ship Cove, you climb through forest and lush punga tree ferns to a lookout with views as far as the North Island on a clear day. Day two is a gentler walk along the coast through manuka bush, then on day three you climb up from Camp Bay with spectacular 360° panoramas of Marlborough and Kenepuru Sounds. Then the final day's route climbs up to the highest point of the track at 400m before winding down to sea level through native bush to Anakiwa.
As well as walking the track independently, you can also hire a guide and learn more about the flora and fauna along the route, as well as the local Maori legends. And, if you don't fancy carrying your rucksack, there's the option to have your bags transported from one night’s accommodation to the next so you only need to carry a day pack. There's a great range of places to stay along the track to suit all budgets, from basic Department of Conservation campsites to backpacker hostels and high-end resorts.
The Marlborough area is also home to the lesser-known Nydia Track (www.doc.govt.nz). This 27km long track can be completed in two days. It runs from Kumai Bay, north of Havelock, to Duncan Bay, passing through coastal forest and climbing two saddles with great views.
Where to stay
Hopewell Lodge and Backpackers (7204 Kenepuru Rd, Double Bay, Kenepuru Sound) is set in the heart of beautiful, remote Kenepuru Sound. The journey out there is half of the adventure – two and a half hours on a windy and partially unsealed road from Picton, or you can arrive by water taxi or float plane. You can hire kayaks, fish or collect mussels in the bay, hire bikes and cycle through forest tracks, or walk the Queen Charlotte Track. There’s also an outdoor hot tub overlooking the Sounds and a comfy lounge with a log fire if you’re feeling less energetic. You can self cater in the well-equipped kitchen (though stock up before you arrive as there’s nothing nearby) or the owners offer home-cooked food, including freshly caught fish and delicious desserts. With guests from New Zealand and around the world it's a very sociable place and great for a relaxing few days away from it all. Rooms vary from NZ$30 per night for a dorm to NZ$120 for an en suite double.
Watson's Way Backpackers (56 High Street, Renwick) is located in central Renwick and has a lovely veranda and secluded garden where you can play boules or relax with a glass of wine. It is situated within easy reach of plenty of great vineyards and the friendly owners hire bikes for you to explore. Rooms start from NZ$25 for a dorm bed and go up to NZ$72 for an en suite double.