Wet and wild

A lux­ury re­treat in New Zealand’s Queen Char­lotte Sound is an ideal base for ad­ven­tures large and small

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - FIONA HARARI

A SEAL thrusts one fin into the air like a big, grey do-not­dis­turb sign, seem­ingly obliv­i­ous to the small boat­load of hu­mans be­daz­zled by its pres­ence. It lolls just be­low the water’s sur­face, not even both­er­ing to pop up its head and check out the rip­ples caused by our launch.

On the shore­line a few me­tres away, a flock of birds stands sen­try on a rocky out­crop, heads tilted as they stare out across the clear wa­ters of New Zealand’s Queen Char­lotte Sound. They are black-bod­ied shags with thin necks and long beaks and, con­trary to all ex­pec­ta­tions, th­ese shags on a rock blend into the stun­ning coast­line as nat­u­rally as a lazy seal takes to water.

It is a late Sun­day af­ter­noon and in other parts of Queen Char­lotte Sound fam­i­lies are pack­ing up af­ter a week­end at their waterfront ‘‘baches’’, load­ing their boats and head­ing home. But in this quiet, pic­turesque cor­ner, there’s a more press­ing is­sue to be re­solved — whether to keep watch on the wildlife or head back to our lux­u­ri­ous lodg­ings for a glass of lo­cal wine. For the next hour at least, the wildlife wins.

Queen Char­lotte Sound, at the top of the South Is­land, is one of three bod­ies of water that to­gether make up the Marl­bor­ough Sounds. In an area well known for its qual­ity wines, tour­ing vine­yard es­tates framed by lush green moun­tains is an un­der­stand­ably pop­u­lar pur­suit. But with its hid­den coves and abun­dance of wildlife, the sounds are a nat­u­ral won­der. The renowned Queen Char­lotte Track, a 71km walk, me­an­ders through the area, start­ing in one cor­ner of the sound and pro­vid­ing el­e­vated views.

But it’s down at sea level, where the coast­line twists and turns to pro­duce de­light­ful bays, that you can really get up close to the lo­cals. Water birds abound and or­cas and dol­phins are fre­quent vis­i­tors.

Ex­plor­ing th­ese crys­tal wa­ter­ways, I’m with an un­likely guide. Nigel Gould, an af­fa­ble one-time ac­coun­tant and former univer­sity chan­cel­lor, is the chair­man of New Zealand’s Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity. But it’s his pas­sion for boat­ing that has led him (and me) to this pris­tine en­vi­ron­ment.

Three years ago, Gould’s fam­ily gath­ered for a cel­e­bra­tion at a newish re­sort on the shores of Queen Char­lotte Sound. Ar­riv­ing by boat, they en­joyed their stay so much that Gould and his wife, Janine, with some part­ners, de­cided to buy the prop­erty.

To­day, the Bay of Many Coves is the only five-star re­sort in the Marl­bor­ough Sounds, ac­com­mo­dat­ing up to 34 guests in a se­ries of self-con­tained, free-stand­ing pavil­ions, ter­raced over steep ter­rain, each framed with a stun­ning view. Some guests avail them­selves of the lo­cal he­li­port. Ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing else ar­rives by water.

With its spec­tac­u­lar set­ting, the re­treat has been a place of re­spite for decades, though never as lux­u­ri­ous as it is to­day. It started out as two sim­ple army build­ings, but af­ter World War II served as a Welling­ton cou­ple’s hol­i­day home. Later, some fam­ily mem­bers lived there per­ma­nently, the lack of lo­cal ameni­ties, with Pic­ton a good half-hour away by mo­tor­boat, com­pen­sated for by the ma­jes­tic iso­la­tion. The site mor­phed into a pop­u­lar fam­ily hide­away in the 1970s, with a waterfront shop and fuel pumps serv­ing as a cor­ner shop-by-the-sea for lo­cals.

In 2003, it was re­built as the Bay of Many Coves, and has un­der­gone fur­ther ren­o­va­tions, in­clud­ing a six-per­son cedar hot tub and a day spa. The self-con­tained one, two or three-bed­room apart­ments have been thought­fully fit­ted out, right down to a pair of binoc­u­lars. The re­treat will or­gan­ise sup­plies to be brought in from Pic­ton for guests; oth­er­wise, meals are avail­able at three on-site op­tions, in­clud­ing a waterfront cafe.

Kayaks and a row­boat are avail­able for ex­plor­ing the area and guests can be fer­ried to a se­cluded beach with a pic­nic lunch. There’s a 30-minute walk to a lo­cal wa­ter­fall, a more tax­ing hike to a scenic look­out or a lovely 90-minute coastal ram­ble that skirts sparsely scat­tered hol­i­day shacks, or ‘‘baches’’, where only the pres­ence of a boat out front tells you some­one’s home.

The re­sort also ar­ranges day trips to the Queen Char­lotte Track. A lo­cal cruise com­pany whisks you across the sound to Ship Cove and picks you up hours and kilo­me­tres later, bring­ing you back to Bay of Many Coves for a sooth­ing mas­sage or a glass of the Marl­bor­ough re­gion’s finest to salute a spec­tac­u­lar day.

For af­ter-dark en­ter­tain­ment, there’s a fab­u­lous cel­lar of lo­cal wines at the award-win­ning Fore­deck restau­rant, which of­fers a small but de­li­cious menu, or a staff mem­ber can guide you to a nearby glow-worm cave.

There is also a swim­ming pool and, down at sea level, the huge ter­race filled with gen­er­ous-sized lounges is a per­fect spot for break­fast and na­ture watch­ing. Then again, it’s re­ward­ing enough to sit back on your spa­cious bal­cony and take in the view over that clear, turquoise water, to the gen­tle hum of a stream and the chim­ing of bell­birds.

Af­ter an af­ter­noon spot­ting seals and wa­ter­birds and float­ing past the many lo­cal sights, it feels we have seen na­ture at its finest. Then, hours later, as the sun be­gins to set, a dol­phin ap­pears off­shore, frol­ick­ing in the still water as the sky turns a gen­tle pink. It’s a mag­nif­i­cent cliche come to life, and per­fectly en­acted right op­po­site our din­ner ta­ble. David At­ten­bor­ough could not have scripted it bet­ter.

Fiona Harari was a guest of Bay of Many Coves.

above Bay of Many Coves is right on the water

left The fine-din­ing Fore­deck restau­rant be­low Spot­ted shags nest close to the re­treat

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