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