Cruise ship in Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand. Leaving Picton i

Winter sun-seeking in magical Marlborough

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There’s nothing like great weather to make a holiday – but when it goes sour it dampens the spirits and can turn well-laid holiday plans into a complete washout.

New Zealand gets its fair share of wild weather, especially in winter, but if there’s one place the weather gods bestow good fortune, it’s the Marlborough region, at the top of the South Island.

For geographic and meterological reasons this little pocket of Aotearoa doesn’t seem to experience the long white clouds as much as other regions – instead it’s a micro climate of brightness.

This is just one reason it’s become a bustling place for tourists at all times of the year, but there are plenty of others including being the gateway for everyone travelling from the North Island by ferry across the Cook Strait.

So here’s a quick guide on what to expect as you step ashore on “The Mainland”, the tongue in cheek local name for the South Island that has a dig at everyone who lives north!   

The world famous Marlborough Wineries

It’s just over 40 years since wine started to be produced in Marlborough by a little known company called Montana, which now is very well known as Brancott Estate.

The history of Marlborough Wines is full of gutsy calls, risk and disaster, and makes for fascinating reading.  It really started with Montana’s viticulturalist, Wayne Thomas, making a recommendation in 1973 that Marlborough had the most potential for wine growing in New Zealand.

With Montana’s founder, Frank Yukich, the two men visited Marlborough secretly to buy land under the auspices of Cloudy Bay Developments – any wine-buff will recognise this name!

They returned after purchasing just under 1,200 hectares but the Montana board was not impressed with their clandestine exploits and threw out the idea.  

So Wayne Thomas looked for a second expert opinion about Marlborough’s potential and returned with three in total, all agreeing that Marlborough was an ideal place to grow vines for four reasons: maximum sunshine, minimal rainfall, freedom from seasonal frost and free draining soil.

So the conclusion for visitors is – where there are vines, there is good weather, whatever the season, especially in Marlborough!

Blenheim – Marlborough, always brilliant!

Blenheim is the largest town in the region and consistently clocks in as one of the country’s sunniest, with over 2,430 hours of annual sunshine or about 55 per cent of all daylight hours.

Summer, Winter, Spring or Autumn, this little suntrap has lots to offer.

Just to be clear, the area still gets cold in the winter months of July-August but days are clear, crisp and with blinding blue skies.  

As long as you’re dressed for the temperature, there’s a good chance any time spent here can include plenty of outdoor activites unimpeded by rain and wind.

The climate is perfect for grape growing with viticulture and its bottled results being the main reasons why the Marlborough region has become so well-known.

Blenheim is a fantastic base for exploring the region’s growing list of world-famous wineries.

There are more than twenty within a short drive of town including: Seresin Estate, Fromm Winery, Saint Clair Family Estate, Johanneshof Cellars and Te Whare Ra Wines, as recommended by Unscrewed independent wine reviews.

If you want to make the most of the vineyards there are many Marlborough winery tours to choose from.

A scenic leisurely way to explore is on a wine tour by bike with rental companies providing all the necessary gear including helmet, safety gear, handy hints and tips, maps and even pick-up/drop-offs from your accommodation.

The lower Wairau valley, where most of the wineries are located, is ideal for cycling – it’s relatively flat, and the roads have wide shoulders for safe riding.

There’s plenty of accomodation in Blenheim/Marlborough ranging from high end hotels such as the Chateau Marlborough, to highly rated motels on TripAdvisor such as 171 on High and then the budget end of hostels like Koanui Lodge and Backpackers.

Picton – the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds

If you arrived from the north island you would have already been through Picton, a small, busy and picturesque town at the head of the Marlborough Sounds, one of the most unspoilt parts of New Zealand.

This area of bays, headlands, islands and intricate waterways is all framed by lush bush coastline and is rich in marine and wildlife.

Made up of the tranquil Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru and Pelorus Sounds, you can equally enjoy this playground on land or sea.

Picton itself is full of surprises, including being home to the Edwin Fox, the world’s ninth oldest ship.

You may ask what such a gem of global maritime history is doing in such a small town, and therein lies a story.

Built in 1853 of teak, the Edwin Fox served as a trader, troop carrier and passenger ship, reputedly once carrying Florence Nightingale to the Crimean War.  

From 1873 she carried over 700 people to settle in the new colony of New Zealand but with the onset of the age of steam she went out of service and was left to rot near Picton until being saved by the Edwin Fox Society in 1965.  She eventually came to rest in dry dock in 1999 and is now a major tourist attraction.

Boat trips around the Marlborough Sounds

Exploring the Marlborough Sounds is a trip into a different world of small settlements, nestled in bays, almost cut-off from the outside world – it’s very close to being an unspoilt wonderland.

There are many boat tours to choose from such as E-ko Tours, quite special because their guides are degree-qualified guides and the company has Department of Conservation permits allowing tours to venture close to wildlife.   They offer bird-watching, dolphin swimming/viewing, wild-life sanctuary and whale station tours and because you get so close you learn more and can take better photos.

Another great and unusual option is a mail boat tour – people can hop on board the actual services that provide remote Sounds’ residents with their mail, deliveries and sometimes even groceries.

The Pelorus Mail Boat is one of the last remaining “genuine” mailboats.

Its journey goes past hidden bays, old homesteads and Picton’s mussel farms and uncovers some interesting history of the area.

The Magic Mail Run is a larger boat, complete with refreshments, run by BeachComber Cruises and travels along the Queen Charlotte Sound.

Diving in the Marlborough Sounds

It goes without saying the Sounds are the perfect spot to dive, although a thick wetsuit is advisable!

With over 3000km of diveable coastline the area is teeming with marine life.  Most diving is around the outer sounds where reefs, caves, and many species of fish and marine mammals can be seen.

Commonly encountered along this dramatic coast are seals, stingrays, dolphins, orca, whales, blue cod, crayfish and scallops.

There’s also adventure for divers and snorkelers of different experience levels at three wreck sites: the Prince of Wales, The Kowhai and the Mikhail Lermontov.

The Prince of Wales and Kowhai can be enjoyed by snorkelers and divers alike and are covered in marine growth and home to many different species of fish.

The 20,000 tonne Russian Cruise Liner, The Mikhail Lermontov that sank in 1986, is only for the most experienced divers and should only be attempted with a professional dive guide.

The story of this sinking is another great local yarn and a catalogue of error, lack of explanation by the Marlborough Harbourmaster and plenty of conspiracy theory thrown in.

It’s been the subject of local conversation for 30 years and even now you can find Russian nautical furniture on the decks of baches (holiday homes) dotted around the area.

Long Island or Kokomohua, Marlborough’s only Marine Reserve, is a good spot for snorkelling and diving, with good visibility and then there’s Whales Graveyard, which as the name implies, has quite a few whale bones to see, a leftover from the Sounds’ whaling era.

Back on land – try tramping the Queen Charlotte Track

If terra firma is more your thing try The Queen Charlotte Track, a gem that combines walking, cycling with a network of water transfers.

Stretching 70kms from Queen Charlotte to Keneperu Sounds, it might sound daunting but can be tailored to suit all abilities and timeframes from one to five days.

Along its route there are also resorts and lodges, so you can really put the leisure back into tramping and cycling.  

The Queen Charlotte Track is along on a network of pioneer bridle paths and is dotted with protected historic sites.  For around 800 years Maori have lived in the Sounds and there’s still evidence of many settlements, camps and fortified Pa (a defensive settlement).

Captain James Cook was the first European to set foot ashore in the area, in 1770, (although Abel Tasman had visited in 1642) when Europeans and Maori met for the first time.

Since then, the area has seen many industries come and go, including gold-mining and whaling.

The Queen Charlotte Track is along comfortable, undulating terrain, that can be slippery underfoot in wet weather, but is generally firm and well-sheltered by the bush canopy. It’s well marked and river crossings are all bridged.

In Captain James Cook’s footsteps, most people begin their trek at Ship Cove, which is easily accessed by water taxi.

Sea access to the track is also at Resolution Bay, Endeavor Inlet, Camp Bay, Portage Bay, Mistletoe Bay and Anakiwa.   Water taxis, such as Picton Water Taxis, can be arranged for pick-up points and to transfer luggage to and from various spots, so you only need to walk with a day pack – so it doesn’t have to be arduous.

You can also get to some points on the track by road but there’s limited, unsecure parking.  There’s also a bus service that operates between Picton and Anakiwa.

While track bookings aren’t needed, it’s best to book accomodation and transport options.  There’s plenty of companies offering transport and again, a range of accommodation along the Queen Charlotte Track.  After a day’s walk you’ll definitely want refreshments and a place to rest your head for the night, and to kick back and soak up the stunning surrounds!

Wonderful, wonderful, Marlborough

From world class wines, to historic ships and a sunken Russian Cruise Liner, there are so many surprises and much to enjoy in this small but rich region, whatever time of year you visit.

While cooler, the winter months are much quieter and you can make the most of Marlborough’s reputation for crisp, clear weather.  You will also have more time to talk about wine, with the vineyards’ hosts.

You could easily spend a week or more in this pocket of New Zealand – but be warned, it’s so good you may not want to leave!

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