Exploring the Marlborough Sounds

By: Heather Whelan, Photography by: Heather Whelan


Hidden bays and tranquil waterways; there is something different to see around every corner in this stunning, secluded part of New Zealand

The Marlborough Sounds contain one-fifth of New Zealand’s entire coastline. Within the waterways of the Queen Charlotte, Pelorus, Kenepuru and Mahau Sounds, there are a myriad of coves, bays and islands.

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The best way to explore the sounds is by yacht, although stunning scenery can also be enjoyed from the Queen Charlotte walking track and along the roads that thread their way over the hills and around the inlets of this amazing area.

The Queen Charlotte track is a multi-day walk, made easy by booking accommodation for each night along the trail, with luggage carried by water taxi. A couple of years ago we walked the trail, leaving our van in Picton and taking the water taxi to Ship Cove.

Whelan _1-Picton

Each day, wonderful scenery appeared around every bend in the trail, while a relaxing swim and shower followed by a meal and a soft bed awaited us each evening.

Our fourth day was Christmas Day; a rest day we spent at Portage, where we had booked Christmas lunch at the resort. Our final day took us to Anakiwa, where we were picked up by boat and whisked back to Picton. The Queen Charlotte track is a must for anyone who enjoys walking. This year however, we decided to explore the Sounds by car, using Picton as our base.

Picton is a pretty harbour settlement, nestled on the water’s edge and looking out into the Queen Charlotte Sound. There are plenty of shops and services on the main street, while cafes and galleries cluster the waterfront.

The marina is always interesting to stroll around, and from here yachts can be chartered and kayaks hired. Local operators offer cruises, fishing trips and dolphin spotting too.

We explored the Edwin Fox Museum, where the remains of the world’s second-oldest surviving wooden sailing ship can be found. The 163-year-old Edwin Fox saw service in the Crimean War, before ferrying passengers, cargo and convicts to Australia.

From Picton we headed along Queen Charlotte Drive, where there are plenty of scenic lookouts and beaches to enjoy. Just before Havelock (renowned for its greenshell mussels), we took the Kenepuru Road, which is sealed as far as Kenepuru Head.

Whelan _9-Te -Mahia ,-Kenepuru -Sound

We were lured from the road at Te Mahia, where we found an attractive resort with coffee served on the deck overlooking Kenepuru Sound. Relaxing here, listening to tuis and bellbirds while drinking in the view, was pretty close to perfection. From Kenepuru Head we took the long and winding (unsealed) road to Titirangi Bay.

We drove through bush-clad slopes with peeks down to Melville Cove, suddenly coming out into open land, with views down to Titirangi Bay and the islands beyond.

Whelan _10-Titirangi -Bay

At the end of the road is a farm with a campground where we ate our picnic lunch before returning to Kenepuru Head. There are a couple of DOC campsites here for those who want to base themselves in this part of the sounds. We then drove along the northern shore of Kenepuru Sound to Nopera, before returning to Picton. But the roads to Crail Bay and Manaroa looked as if they would be worth checking out another time.

We parked the bus in a freedom spot at Carluke in the Rai Valley, before driving out to French Pass. This part of the Marlborough Sounds is full of harbours, bays, beaches and inlets, and the road – built back in 1957 – looks down on many of them. Again, we explored by car but campervans could easily make the same journey.

Whelan _14-Okiwi -Bay

The road is sealed as far as Okiwi Bay where there is a DOC camp ground. A metalled road continues to Elaine Bay and French Pass. Before leaving the Marlborough Sounds area, we drove south from Picton to Blenheim.

The town has an attractive riverside walkway where we found some information about beavers. Surprisingly, Beaver Station was Blenheim’s original name, so-called because of its tendency to flood. I had hoped to find out about all this and more at the Marlborough Museum, but we spent so much time in the nearby Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, that the museum will need to be somewhere we visit on another occasion.

Sir Peter Jackson’s exhibitions 

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At Omaka, Sir Peter Jackson’s Knights of the Sky (World War One) exhibition is now supplemented by Dangerous Skies (covering World War Two). These exhibitions are so much more than simple displays of planes: sets designed by Weta Workshop bring scenes to life vividly. There are many lifelike tableaus, such as the one showing Australian airmen ransacking the Red Baron’s plane for souvenirs while he lies dead nearby.

There is even a full-sized tree with a plane impaled on it. Memorabilia from many sources, including Peter Jackson’s own collection, bring home the individual bravery of these airmen.

From Blenheim, our road took us away from the Marlborough Sounds. We had explored a lot, but there is so much to see and do in the area we will be back again before too long.

Further information

  • Birdwatchers will be delighted by the predator-free Kaipupu Point Sounds Wildlife Sanctuary. The peninsula is in Picton Harbour, but has a predator-proof fence and access is by boat. A circular track gives views of Queen Charlotte Sound and Shakespeare Bay, while visitors may see and hear a variety of birds in the native bush.
  • There is a walking track from the ‘coat-hanger bridge’ at the marina to the Snout. Different sections of the track can be accessed from car parks along the way, so short sections may be walked. There are excellent views of Picton Harbour and Queen Charlotte Sound from the track.
  • Information can be found at Picton’s i-Site on The Foreshore and at Blenheim’s Visitor Information Centre, at the Railway Station on Sinclair Street.

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