Skip to main content
Picton feature-SaveeSeaView

The Sounds at dusk

Every­where I went in Marl­bor­ough, people said they were wait­ing for sum­mer to really begin. I said, “What do you mean?” It was sunny, it was still, it was hot. What more did they want? But then I am a Wel­ling­to­ni­an, and eas­ily sat­is­fied with a warm day. They have high­er stand­ards in Marlborough.

Picture by Tim Cuff - 3 January 2012 - Marlborough Sounds feature: a boat comes alongside the quay at Punga Cove resort.

A boat comes along­side the quay at Punga Cove resort

Picture by Tim Cuff - 3 January 2012 - Marlborough Sounds feature: The quay at Punga Cove resort.

The quay at Punga Cove resort

Wine, of course, was upper­most in their minds. Frank, my guide on a tast­ing tour of a tiny frac­tion of the area’s many vine­yards, told me the stun­ning fact that the Wair­au Plains are home to 85 per­cent of New Zealand’s wine pro­duc­tion. So the weath­er mat­ters, eco­nom­ic­ally just as much as any­thing. Of that enorm­ous volume of wine, three-quar­ters of it is Sauvign­on Blanc. But they are diver­si­fy­ing — and proud of it. I incau­tiously remarked that I asso­ci­ated red wine, in New Zea­l­and at least, with Hawke’s Bay and the Wair­ar­apa, and was told quite sharply that, actu­ally, Marl­bor­ough is pro­du­cing some pretty good reds as well.

The wine tour was excel­lent, at any rate. We went to Lawson’s Dry Hills, one of the ori­gin­at­ors of the screw­cap; Mahi (the te reo term for ‘work’ or ‘craft’), where wine­maker Bri­an regaled us with tales of Itali­an-themed parties in their dark and atmo­spher­ic cel­lar; and Ser­es­in, an organ­ic winery that makes a stun­ning Chardon­nay and an unex­pec­tedly bril­liant orange-fla­voured olive oil.

I could’ve spent the whole trip in winer­ies; at times, it almost felt like I did. Not only do these places do wine: they do food as well. We ate in winer­ies, dined in winer­ies. With­er Hills did a remark­ably good steak, which I ate in a Medi­ter­ranean-style court­yard look­ing out over rows of vines warm­ing in the sun. Hans Herzog pro­duced the most deli­cious spark­ling rosé I have ever been for­tu­nate enough to taste. I slept in winer­ies, too: one night I stayed in the Marl­bor­ough Vintners Hotel, a series of rather eleg­ant units set among the end­less flat plain of vines.

Picture by Tim Cuff - 3 January 2012 - Marlborough Sounds feature:

The Mer­cure Pic­ton hotel


Marl­bor­ough wine maker Louis Vavasour










They know how to put you up, this Marl­bor­ough lot. The Scen­ic Hotel in cent­ral Blen­heim fea­tures a pil­low menu with no few­er than six options. A third place I stayed, a hotel called the Pep­pers Port­age, is tucked away in one of the sounds, access­ible also by road but mostly by boat. Although you could see it was await­ing the upgrade its new own­er assured me was on the way, it was a delight­ful place to get away from everything — everything except good food (and wine, of course). Pork belly with bok choy, green mus­sels with ginger and coconut… it was all loc­al, all invent­ive, a lovely mix of the fruits of sea and land.

That is Marl­bor­ough all over, in fact: things to do both on and off shore. Pic­ton, stand­ing at the junc­tion of those two domains, was a pleas­ant sur­prise. I hadn’t been there in 20 years, and remembered being dropped off the ferry in what felt like the middle of nowhere — the ter­min­al was, I think, in a dif­fer­ent spot then — and with noth­ing much to do oth­er than the admit­tedly excel­lent mini-golf. But it was bust­ling this time round. It helped that its annu­al mari­time fest­iv­al was in full swing, with stalls, children’s rides and a vari­ety of enter­tain­ment on the main stage, includ­ing some plucky young hip-hop dan­cers from the loc­al dance academy.

There were some oddit­ies, of course. The loc­al park­ing warden con­tract had, I was told, been handed over to Armour­guard, a rather ter­ri­fy­ing pro­spect; and we hit at least one of the loc­al cafés on what must have been an off day, giv­en the errat­ic ser­vice. But there was so much to do! One after­noon I hired a moun­tain bike and chugged my way around what loc­als charm­ingly call the Snout, a pen­in­sula pok­ing out into Queen Char­lotte Sound and afford­ing some fant­ast­ic views all around.

For an unfor­get­table exper­i­ence, how­ever, it was hard to beat the dol­phin-watch­ing. There had been dol­phins accom­pa­ny­ing the Inter­is­lander ferry on the way over to Pic­ton, which — much as the ancient Greeks had — I took as a good omen. But that was as noth­ing com­pared to being in the water with them. In an aquar­i­um, the dol­phin tours oper­at­or informed us that we are the spec­tat­ors, and the dol­phin is the enter­tain­ment. But they like to do things dif­fer­ently out in the sounds. So we were the enter­tain­ment: clad in our wet­suits, snorkels and goggles, we were let into the water a couple of hun­dred metres ahead of a pod of dol­phins and encour­aged to make the sil­li­est sounds pos­sible to attract them.

It worked. Not once but thrice we saw the sharp fins approach­ing and then, as we looked down into the water, glimpsed those slim grey shapes passing just beneath us in the gloom. Later on, the dol­phins — as if to prove the oper­at­or wrong — turned enter­tain­ers, leap­ing and frol­ick­ing in the wake of the boat, and glid­ing in front of the stern; but there was noth­ing to match being right up close with them.

There was plenty of fun to be had on land, as well. One day I vis­ited the Omaka Avi­ation Her­it­age Centre, which plays host to some part of Peter Jackson’s enorm­ous col­lec­tion of First World War mem­or­ab­il­ia, most not­ably his dozens of peri­od aero­planes, all struts, can­vas cov­er­ings and double wings. Weta Work­shop had come to the party, as a bonus, cre­at­ing a series of unnerv­ingly life-like man­nequins that help you step back in time to an era when shot-down air­men were gra­ciously greeted by enemy officers before being taken captive.

Picture by Tim Cuff - 3 January 2012 - Marlborough Sounds feature: view from a luxury chalet's deck, as a boat leaves the quay at Punga Cove resort.

View from a lux­ury chalet’s deck, as a boat leaves the quay at Punga Cove resort.

There was his­tory in the winer­ies, too. Bran­cott Estate — Montana, as was — has a her­it­age centre, a cool, dark oblong set above the vines in what passes for a hill in those parts. They do a good line in his­tor­ic pic­tures and arte­facts — a spade that the Queen used on one not­able vis­it, for instance (as well as, inev­it­ably, some astound­ingly good white wine). You start to get the feel­ing that it isn’t enough just to be a winery any­more. With­er Hills has its Medi­ter­ranean-style com­plex; Bran­cott Estate has its her­it­age centre; and Cloudy Bay, that most cel­eb­rated of vine­yards, has a raw bar.

This was both exactly what it soun­ded like, and a lot bet­ter: a small semi-cir­cu­lar bar, just out­side the wine centre itself and over­look­ing the lawns, serving an array of uncooked morsels, ran­ging from the loc­ally obvi­ous — oysters and clams — through to sal­mon and beef carpac­cio. On this sunny day, and with a tour­ing Irish band play­ing in the back­ground, only the crusti­est of vis­it­ors would have failed to enjoy themselves.

The culin­ary high­light of the trip, how­ever, came at what is reputed to be one of the area’s best res­taur­ants, Gibb’s on God­frey, which served some­thing called duck liv­er brûlée: a rich, lus­cious duck-liv­er pâté covered with a lay­er of car­a­mel­ised sug­ar. The com­bin­a­tion was quite extraordinary.

This isn’t, per­haps, tour­ism for the budget-con­scious — but you can do cut-down ver­sions of most of Marlborough’s exper­i­ences. Cyc­ling from vine­yard to vine­yard for the (mostly free) wine tast­ings looks pretty enti­cing. And if you fancy some­thing a bit more down to earth than raw oysters and reserve Sauvign­on Blanc, there’s always Moa Beer. They do all man­ner of strange and inter­est­ing brews, from a ‘break­fast’ ver­sion (fea­tur­ing cher­ries) to an Imper­i­al Stout that is rich with cof­fee and chocol­ate fla­vours. It is pretty much what you would logic­ally get if you applied wine­mak­ing prin­ciples to the task of craft­ing beer.

And why not? Marl­bor­ough seems like the kind of place that, in the best New Zea­l­and fash­ion, isn’t afraid to do things dif­fer­ently or strike out on a new path. On my last day in Marl­bor­ough, I took an inflat­able kayak down a stretch of the Pelor­us River, where, I was told, they had filmed the bar­rel scenes in the most recent Hob­bit film. The fact that I hadn’t seen the film was neither here nor there: this was beau­ti­ful scenery, taken at a gentle pace. As we floated down the river, my guide, Pelor­us Eco Adven­tures own­er Shane, explained that he had recently con­ver­ted his vehicles to run on leftover fish and chip oil, hav­ing built his own small-scale pro­cessing plant. There had been mis­haps along the way — like the time he got the bal­ance of addit­ives wrong and turned an entire bar­rel into soap — but on the whole it was going well, he said.

It was cer­tainly dif­fer­ent, and admir­able, and a nice remind­er that, along­side the winer­ies and the sounds boat tours, there are some fun and unex­pec­ted things bub­bling away in what, in recent times, some have taken to call­ing the Wana­ka of the North. And, at such a short dis­tance from the cap­it­al, it is sim­pli­city itself to get there. All in all, it is more than enough to make at least one Wel­ling­to­ni­an think that, in truth, it prob­ably shouldn’t be anoth­er 20 years before he returns.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.