Marlborough Region, New Zealand
Located on the northeastern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, the Marlborough region is known for two main things: wine and water. The mainland is filled with vineyards, producing more wine than any other region of New Zealand, including most of what is sold in North America under a New Zealand label.
Extending off the mainland are long, winding, gently ridged fingers of land. Between these ridges you’ll find the peaceful Marlborough Sounds. These Sounds provide the ferry route from Wellington on the North Island, as well as a relaxed place to spend time along the water, either hiking, kayaking or recuperating. Between the vineyards and the Sounds, we think the Marlborough Region is ideal for at least three nights during anyone’s holiday to New Zealand.
Where to Stay in Marlborough, New Zealand
There are two main locations to stay here, offering two very different experiences. Inland, the town of Blenheim offers closest access to vineyards and wine touring. This town sits in the middle of rolling, sunny, wide open land with plenty of vineyards and agriculture. Due to the popularity of New Zealand wine, especially wine from this region, there are all kinds of accommodations in and near Blenheim, from basic hotels to luxurious 5-star lodges to charming B&Bs. But don’t let the number of accommodations fool you — Blenheim is a small town and the area around it isn’t densely populated. You can stay close to the vineyards and town, while still feeling like you’re in the midst of idyllic New Zealand countryside.
The second major location to stay is in the Marlborough Sounds. Starting about a half-hour drive north of Blenheim, the Sounds extend out into Cook Strait towards the North Island. These waterways are peaceful and deep, bordered by low, forested ridge lines. Sounds are drowned river valleys, and provide all sorts of bays, inlets, coves and private accommodations that are accessible only by water or on foot. There are a couple of excellent 4-star lodges as well as several more basic 3-star mini-resorts and inns.
Where you choose to stay depends on why you’re here. If you’re here for the wine, then you should probably stay on the mainland near Blenheim. If you’re here for peace and quiet, a remote getaway, and lots of time by the water, then go into the Sounds. There’s something magical about staying in a place that is only accessible by boat or on foot — you can be fully immersed in nature! Note that the Sounds have few sandy beaches — you’ll find small patches of sand or docks over the water allowing you access to swimming and boating.
It is also possible to stay in one of these two places and visit the other as a day trip. Stay in the Sounds and then head over to the mainland for a day of wine tasting (up to two hours by boat and vehicle) Or… stay in the vineyards and then head over to the Sounds for a day hike or boat cruise.
For more active types, the Sounds also offer a beautiful hiking trail that takes up to five days, allowing you to stay in comfortable accommodations each night and transport your bags by water taxi. You can do just one day, hiking the part of the trail that interests you most, or do several days. You can even combine hiking with mountain biking and kayaking along different parts of the trail, if you wish. With so many moorings, docks, and water taxi options, there are an infinite number of options to enjoy the track for all fitness levels.
Of course, for those with enough time, our favorite way to enjoy the Marlborough area is to stay in both parts — inland amongst the vines for two or three nights, and then in the Sounds in a remote coastal lodge for another two or three nights. That way, you can get the best of both worlds and have two very different experiences, close to one another!
How to Get to Marlborough, New Zealand
You can reach Marlborough several different ways. Probably the most popular is by rental car, from either Christchurch, Kaikoura, or Nelson. From Nelson, it’s about 2 hours to Blenheim or — our favorite route — about 2.5 hours via the Queen Charlotte Drive. From Christchurch, you can drive or take a train about five hours to Marlborough. From Kaikoura, which is between Christchurch and Blenheim, it’s about two hours driving or on a train.
You can also reach Marlborough by boat or plane. From the North Island, a three-hour ferry runs from Wellington into the Sounds, landing at Picton just a thirty-minute drive from the vineyards or close to accommodations on the Sounds. There is also a domestic airport in Blenheim with regular flights to Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, and Napier.
What to Do in the Marlborough Region of New Zealand
Wine and water! If it’s related to wine or water, then you can do it in the Marlborough Region of New Zealand.
For wine, you can do full day tours as well as half day tours. We highly recommend hiring an expert local guide and driver, to avoid drinking and driving, and also to learn about the wines as you taste them and get access to areas that are closed to the general public. The area is especially well known for its Sauvignon Blancs, which are among the most celebrated in the world. However, there are a number of other excellent varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. For more info on wine touring in Marlborough, please check out our blog post about the wine regions of New Zealand.
In the Sounds, options for enjoying the water include motorboat cruising, sailing, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, swimming, SCUBA diving, and our favorite — night swimming in phosphorescent algae! When conditions are right, you’ll find the water glowing in the dark. Dive off a jetty into the Sounds and watch the water around you light up. If land-based bioluminescence is more your style, then you’ll find a few small glowworm grottos nestled in the dense forest near your accommodations.
In the Sounds, you can also enjoy land-based activities such as hiking and mountain biking, or just swinging in a hammock. As mentioned above, this area is great of hiking no matter your fitness level. You can hike for two hours or five solid days — the choice is yours, with water taxis able to pick you up and drop you off anywhere along the trail. The trail follows the ridgeline above the Sounds, and extends from the tip of the Queen Charlotte Sound to Picton. Along the way, there are several accommodations ranging from small resorts to charming B&Bs to luxury lodges. Some guests hike in to each lodge, while others prefer to take a water taxi in and out to just one lodge, avoiding hiking altogether.
One of our favorite and most popular touring options in Marlborough involves half a day of wine tasting and half a day cruising on the Sounds to taste the local delicacy — greenshell mussels. That way, you get the best of both worlds.
Some activity options in the Marlborough area include:
- Tours and visits of Shark Nett Gallery, a Maori-owned business with excellent Maori art
- Tours of Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary
- Kayaking and canoeing
- Hiking — check out our blog post on tramping in New Zealand for more
- Cruising and sailing in the Sounds
- Food and wine touring, including tasting at cellar doors and cruising for greenshell mussels
- Wine touring by vehicle or by bicycle — over 120 wineries and 30 cellar doors
- Visits of Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre and classic cars
- Enjoy a spa day at your resort in the Sounds
Best Time of Year to visit Marlborough Region, New Zealand
Like almost everywhere else in New Zealand, the weather is temperate enough that you can enjoy yourself at any time of year. However, if swimming is important to you, then you’ll want to go in mid to late summer, after the water has warmed up — January through March. If you’re here for food and wine, then consider attending the world-famous Marlborough Wine & Food Festival in February each year. To avoid crowds, come here in winter when you’ll be able to get more personalized attention from the winemakers and more peace and quiet in the Sounds.
Whatever your reason for coming here, we recommend avoiding the peak holiday period from late December through January, when school holidays cause locals to fill many of the accommodations and availability becomes challenging to find. If you must travel during the holidays, then book early — at least nine months in advance is recommended.
Are you ready to go to Marlborough?
With so many different ways of enjoying the region, you’ll want a travel expert to help plan your trip. We can help you decide where to stay, what to do, and how to maximize your time to suit your interests. Whether you’re coming from Raleigh, Calgary, or points in between, contact us today to start planning!