There’s something to be said about first impressions when visiting a new destination. Descending into Blenheim for a Marlborough mini-break with my other half, it was clear why this is a region praised by many. Blue, windless skies met sun-kissed rolling hills, while glistening, turquoise waters were enclosed by serene bays and beaches. Vineyards seemed to go on forever, and I grew almost giddy at the thought of exploring them. The next three days were set to be special – or as the Marlborough slogan promises, ‘Brilliant Every Day.
Located at the northern tip of the South Island, Marlborough gets more sunshine year-round than anywhere else in New Zealand. In 2015, it had 2,814 hours of sun; an extra two days per week on average than other main centres. Home to the famous Marlborough Sounds, which encompasses one fifth of New Zealand’s coastline, the region is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and scenic tours, and makes for an ideal place to take a digital detox. Ready to explore, we jumped on board an E-Ko Tours experience (e-ko.nz) – a guided boat tour focused on spreading the message of conservation and getting up close and personal with local wildlife, including five species of dolphin, New Zealand fur seals and rare and endangered birds. The tour includes a stop at the predator-free bird sanctuary of Motuara Island, where Captain Cook claimed British Sovereignty over the South Island in 1770. It’s the ideal place to wander around, potentially spot kiwi and other protected birds, and drink in the scenery. The Sounds are great for combining sightseeing and exercise too, boasting the 70km Queen Charlotte Track, a spectacular walking trail through historic sites, secluded bays, skyline ridges and coastal bush. It’s also recognised as a Great Ride in the New Zealand Cycle Trails network.
For a happy palate
Wine and food is another key attraction for visitors to Marlborough. Seafood lovers, steady yourselves... 75 per cent of farmed King Salmon is produced here, as well as the famous Greenshell mussels. Finding a top drop of wine is easy too – with more than 150 wineries and 35 cellar doors open to the public, Marlborough is responsible for 76 per cent of New Zealand’s total wine production.
If you arrive in the morning, a good place for breakfast is The Vines Village (thevinesvillage.co.nz), a hub in the centre of Blenheim. Beside the fantastic café there is a cellar door and artisan stores that showcase the best of the region’s arts, crafts, fashion and design. From here, we took to cruising around on two wheels with Wine Tours by Bike (winetoursbybike.co.nz), making the most of the light breeze and lovely views between each cellar door. Despite the wine industry’s large commercial and export focus here, many wineries continue to be family owned and operated, including Allan Scott Family Winery (allanscott.com), where Allan Scott himself planted the original Marlborough vineyards in 1973. We stopped in at Allan Scott’s Twelve Trees Restuarant for a decadent lunch, and later on refueled with an exquisite platter at Giesen Winery (giesen.co.nz).
If it’s fine dining you’re after, look no further than Arbour Restaurant (arbour.co.nz). Their kitchen offers both an a la carte menu and a ‘Just Feed Me’ experience of three, four, five or ‘many’ courses, showcasing local producers and Marlborough stories through innovative cuisine. We were lucky enough to be there for the unique pop-up series, Hiakai, which combined fresh local produce (think mussels, octopus, eel, venison and more) with Māori cooking techniques (hiakai.co.nz).
Where to stay
A must-visit to further your immersion in nature, Lochmara Lodge is tucked away at the water’s edge in Lochmara Bay. Surrounded by the bush-clad hills of the Sounds and only accessible by scheduled water taxis, with no television or road access, Lochmara Lodge lets nature do the talking. Kayak the Sounds, explore the sculpture trail, feed the native kākāriki (parakeet), visit the chickens, pigs, and bee displays or just enjoy the views from anywhere on the 10-acre property. You can also book in a luxury soak or spa treatment at the private Bath House nestled in the bush. The Lodge is developing its Wildlife Recovery and Arts Centre, and aims to complete a new, permanently moored underwater 18-metre observatory known as The Reef Project by the end of 2016. It will focus on marine research and education and essentially become an underwater classroom for school or university groups and thousands of local and international visitors.
Marlborough is also great for offering some good old country charm. We found this in the beautiful St Leonards Vineyard Cottages accommodation in Blenheim, which has a perfectly preserved original 1880s homestead where owners Michele and Marcus reside. The couple has transformed their unique collection of traditional buildings (the Woolshed, Shearers Quarters, Old Dairy, The Cottage and The Stables) into five charming places to stay. Each has its own private setting among the five acres of gardens, trees and neighbouring vineyards. We stayed in the original Woolshed, once the focal point of a large sheep farm complex, enjoying a roaring fireplace and kitchen complete with fresh free-range eggs, marmalades and bread for the next day’s breakfast.
No matter the season or occasion, Marlborough is brilliant for a magical mini-break or extended stay as there is so much to see, do and eat along the way.