Marlborough Region – South Island New Zealand

GUEST ARTICLE: Today Kiwi guest writer Greg Royal introduces us to the Marlborough Region of New Zealand’s South Island, known for its dry climate, the picturesque Marlborough Sounds and Sauvignon blanc wine.

Whale Watch Kaikoura

New Zealand is a small country of 4 Million people deep in the South Pacific, 12 hours flying time from the West Coast of North America and 3 hours East of Australia’s largest city Sydney.


New Zealand’s landscape is formed by the southern most aspect of the pacific Ring-of-Fire or more correctly The Circum Pacific Seismic Belt. What this means is that New Zealand is blessed with some of the most spectacularly rugged landscape in the world formed from millions of years of earth movement which explains why it was chosen as the location for Middle Earth when the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was being filmed.

New Zealand is made up of two major islands, the North and the South as well as numerous other islands and territories. The two islands are linked by a car ferry system run by the appropriately named InterIslander. This is where our journey began, in the loading bay at the Wellington wharf at 4-30am just after Christmas Day.

I had been to the South Island several times before, always on holiday. Having grown up in Wellington, the ferry was a major impediment for Northerners to travel to the mainland (as the South Islanders call their home). Unfortunately I spend less time in the south than I would have liked. Now living predominately in the Northern Hemisphere, it was time to reacquaint ourselves with the home of Bilbo Baggins.

InterIsland Ferry in Picton

Because we were traveling in the heart of the summer rush we ended up having to take on the 6am ferry sailing, a sailing filled with bleary eyed travelers downing copious amounts of coffee and toast in a vain attempt to brush off the 3am wakeup call. Indeed some of the more budget conscious travelers (read backpackers) had slept at the ferry terminal which gets quite chilly with the southerly wind off the harbor.

We had set of from our home north of Wellington at 4am, our small BMW laden with one weeks supply of picnic and hiking supplies. A tip for traveling through New Zealand, you cannot go 100 meters without coming across a picnic table and park so pack provisions to have a picnic in the park on each day of your travels.

The 3 1/2 hour sailing was uneventful, we watched as the sun broke over Wellington harbour and out into the Cook Strait, named after the explorer James Cook. We arrived into Picton Wharf to be greeted with a warm sunny day, about 9-30am in the morning.

Picton is the reception, the first impression of the South Island that a tourist would see and it has risen to that challenge. As a youngster I remember Picton consisting of a Fish and Chip shop and a Pub, a place to relieve oneself then move on.

Picton has most certainly shed that image. It is now a trendy downtown tourist destination in it’s own right. Picton showed off the warm summer day by fabulous cafes, live music, scores of restaurants and an extremely robust tourist trade. To me it looked like a mix of foreign and local kiwi tourists enjoying the start of the summer holidays.

Picton - New Zealand

From Picton there are numerous activities on and off the water you can choose from, there is no reason to head straight out of town to Nelson or Christchurch.

We visited Waikawa Bay and took a stunning drive along Queen Charlotte Drive to Havelock North, the home of Lord Rutherford, Nobel prize winner and father of modern nuclear science. Havelock is also known as the green shell mussel capital of the world.

The goal of the first couple days however was to explore the famous Marlborough region, the home of medal winning wines from Montana, Oyster Bay, Cloudy Bay, and Kim Crawford among many others. New Zealand is well known for it’s whites from the Wairau Valley.

The Marlborough wine region stretches from just south of Picton all the way to Kaikoura at the southern end. For our base we chose The Copthorne Hotel in Blenheim, a boutique hotel in the city center.

After settling into the hotel, we scoped out the city. Just like Picton, Blenheim has turned into real upscale feel, not as upscale as Niagara on the Lake (Ontario) or St Helena (California), more like Buellton, (California), fun but not presumptuous. It’s roots still lay in it’s farming community but it has made way for the younger wine-seeking crowds with bar, restaurants and cafes.

Cloudy Bay Vineyard - New Zealand

Blenheim’s vineyards are set out in a box pattern throughout the floor of the valley. A quick trip to the info center or asking the hotelier will produce a number of wine trail maps you can follow. We had in mind a number of the more famous vineyards available (see above) and we created an itinerary for the next day. We found a great spot for dinner and then retreated to the comfort of the hotel pool to watch the sun go down, of course sampling the native grape.

We made a beeline in the morning to Annie’s Cafe. One of the most popular food establishment, it is open early for some free-trade Java. What people don’t realize is that New Zealand has some of the finest coffee establishments anywhere.

You can be in the middle of nowhere but be certain that a world class latte or espresso is just around the corner (there is no such thing as Tim Hortons or Krispee Kremes here). With an abundant supply of fresh ingredients, you can find all sorts of home-made pies, cakes and biscuits to sample including a huge range of organic produce.

We spend an enjoyable day or two sampling the wine, treats and senses in the center of the Marlborough district. Included in our trip was Hunter Wines, the Boutique Chocolate Factory and the huge Montana Brancott Winery to the south of the city.

State Highway One continues to the south of the city and winds its way down to Kiakoura, the whale watch capital of New Zealand. Because of unusual underwater trenches off the coast of this small coastal town, Kaikoura is home to numerous seal colonies, the occasion penguin, dusky dolphins and giant sperm whales.

Kaikoura is a small town growing up fast. The tourism industry has arrived to turn this town into a smaller semblance of its bigger brother Lake Taupo. The main street is crawling with restaurants and bars with numerous campervans (RVs) and rental cars complete with tourists from all round the world.

We took the obligatory coffee and shopping session, stopping in to chat with some new sights including a brand new Kia Kaha store, a chain of clothing stores part owned by US PGA champion Michael Campbell.

Our prime directive was to spend some time with the seal colonies to the north and south of the city where we able to shoot some stunning photos. These are now proudly part of my flickr collection.

Seal at Kaikoura - New Zealand

Although DOC (Department of Conservation) rules require that you maintain a distance of 10 meters (30ft) from wildlife, I was able to get close in to photograph them in the afternoon sunning themselves on the rocks and generally making mischief of them all. I shot with both a Sony DSC-W55 hand held and my trusty Canon Digital Rebel (Its not how many pixels you have it is what you do with it).

Whale Watch Kaikoura is an extremely professional and busy operation. Housed in the former Railway terminal, it is owned by the local iwi (Maori Tribe) Kati Kuri. They operate tours by busing 30 odd strong groups to the South Bay terminal where they house purpose-built whale watching vessels.

We headed out into the South Pacific for about 45 minutes to look for the whales surfacing. They have a boat stationed out there each day to look for whales to minimize time on the water. Whales surface typically for 15 minutes then dive for 45 minutes. The crew understands the cycle well and, with the aid of sonar equipment, find the whales quickly. Once a whale is sighted, the boat maneuvers into position and the crowd can go outside and up top the vessel to watch and take pictures.

Whale Watch Kaikoura

Once you see the whale for the first time, it is a heart stopping experience. The majesty of the world’s largest mammal is hard to describe. To the Maori, the whale holds deep spiritual significance and it is not hard to understand why.

I have seen a lot of animals in the wild on my travels, Leopard, Lynx, Black Bear and Cheetah. These animals rank very high on the list of must see. We were able to see two whales surface, rehabilitate themselves and return to the ocean with a flourish of the tail.

The above picture was the result of a fast lenses and a very strong arm. We had 10 meter swells which made the boat lurch from side to side. On the way back we were met by a school of dusky dolphins who seems to take pleasure in performing in front of a crowd.

We cheered at they performed 360 jumps, twisted and synchronized swam around the boat. We left the boat understanding why thousands of people come here each year to grab a glimpse of these creatures.

On my travels throughout the world, one of the common discussion points of those that knew or experienced New Zealand, was the shear variety of experiences you can have traveling in Kiwiland. This is especially true for those that have traveled to Queenstown, the world’s outdoor extreme capital where bungy jumping was invented. But that is for another day.

Next Time I’ll write about visiting Christchurch and Queenstown.

This travel diary has been written Greg Royal, a Senior Executive for a US based Software Company and part time Blogger at . His photos can be seen at Flickr (Kiwibloke)

All pictures are Copyright 2009 Greg Royal, reproduced with permission.

If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution

2 thoughts on “Marlborough Region – South Island New Zealand”

  1. The Marlborough Sounds are beautiful Blenheim is slightly inland from the water. It’s very Countryside and pretty , You are only half an hour from picton the Port which receives the ferry from Wellington A 3 hour trip. and over the hills South 1 hour away is the lovely city of Nelson and the Able tasman area.

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