Majestic Marlborough more than lives up to its reputation.
“IT’S EXTRAORDINARY STUFF, AND THE SCENERY CONSTANTLY ASTOUNDS; AT EVERY TURN THERE’S A BREATHTAKING VIEW.”
Abundance has blessed Marlborough. This ruggedly beautiful northeast tip of New Zealand’s South Island boasts wall-to-wall vineyards and the largest plantation of sauvignon blanc vines on the planet (praise be!). Its network of waterways known as the Marlborough Sounds is the source of some of the world’s best abalone diving, the turquoise waters also rich with crayfish, salmon, mussels, sea urchin and the famous Cloudy Bay clam. Visitors will also find aromatic fields of garlic and amazing corn; even the hops and resulting beers are great. It’s hard to imagine what more a food lover in the wild could want. It’s extraordinary stuff, and the scenery constantly astounds; at every turn there’s a breathtaking view. There are more than 50 nature reserves and several wildlife sanctuaries in the region. On the Sounds, you’ll motor past dramatic mountainous terrain dotted with sure-footed goats. As you glide through pristine water speckled with pale pink jellyfish, dolphins will playfully race you (likely one of the world’s smallest varieties, the endangered Hector’s dolphin). Look to shore to spot rock formations leaning into the land like enormous ancient gateways to the underworld. It’s all very Lord of the Rings and rather otherworldly. With so much on offer, where to start?
Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine-growing region, and a wine trail stretches from Blenheim to Picton (a pretty port town a short flight or ferry ride from Wellington with a population of about 4500). There are more than 30 cellar doors, and over 140 wineries, including the famous Cloudy Bay, and driving around the region offers such pleasurable sights as lambs playing among the vines and beehives sitting beside the road, all surrounded by rampant fronds of wild fennel.
As well as the bigger houses, there are also some exciting boutique wineries, such as Te Whare Ra (which means ‘house of the sun’ in Maori), owned and run by Jason and Anna Flowerday since
2003. It’s an organic and biodynamic pioneer, using “magic cow poo natural fertiliser, fed in the ground with egg shells and basalt dust for three months so you are feeding the soil rather than the vines”, explains Jason. Te Whare Ra is credited in local circles as having the best riesling in New Zealand, a wine Anna believes is Marlborough’s unsung hero. The region’s distinctive slate and rocky soil is ideal for sav blanc, but “there are some really incredible rieslings being produced here, even though it took us a while to get it right”, she explains.
The Flowerdays are part of a collective of organic and biodynamic vineyards (Marlborough Natural Winegrowers) that is bringing together the best of artisanal wine-growing and eco science to create wines that are true to the earth. As of 2015, 12 per cent of all NZ grape growers had a certified organic vineyard, including many in the Marlborough region. While there are myriad Marlborough vineyards to explore, the good news is the region is compact: many wineries are just a short cycle apart and within a 15- to 20-minute drive of Blenheim.
Named by Captain Cook for its, well, clouds, Cloudy Bay itself is a stark beach, dotted with large grey pebbles and driftwood, and what looks like the remnants of bonfires, although it’s still a sought-after holiday house spot. The bay faces Cook Strait over a distance of 30 kilometres, from the Marlborough
Sounds (Port Underwood) in the north to White Bluffs in the south. It’s a 15-minute drive from Blenheim. Evidence of Maori inhabitance dates back to the 1200s and it’s one of the oldest and best researched sites of early Polynesian settlement in New Zealand. It’s the produce you will find on land and off that most defines it.
The Cloudy Bay vineyards need no introduction, but it’s the world- class
Cloudy Bay Clams operation that feeds a lot of local menus and also exports around the globe. Boats head out year round from Port Underwood to fish for surf clams mere metres from shore.
Cloudy Bay Clams, run by the Piper family, is considered a world leader in sustainable fishing. The company’s unique rake and dredge method blasts high-pressure water through fine jets ahead of the rakes, safely loosening the clams and causing them to close for collection, resulting in a near zero mortality rate. (Believe it or not, clams are haemophiliacs, and any damage to their sensitive ‘tongue’ – actually their foot – results in their death.)
The four types of clam (Diamond Shell, Tua Tua, Storm Clam and Moon Shell) are found on menus across the Marlborough region, as well as Australia and as far afield as Hong Kong and Europe. Each has a distinct flavour, but whatever you choose, there’s nothing like the sweet, creamy flesh eaten raw straight from the sea.
Arapaoa (formerly Arapawa) is home to the paua (abalone) farm run by Mike and Antonia Radon of Arapawa Homestead. It’s an untouched paradise of ancient hills that roll down to the glimmering waters of the Pacific Ocean, with a labyrinth of inlets and bays. In one cove in the Tory Channel rests the haunting skeletal remains of the long-abandoned Perano Whaling Station – NZ’s last operational station. The short chopper ride or one-hour water taxi trip affords incredible views. The Radons farm blue pearls from the
paua from over 200 tanks, and although the couple’s focus was initially on the abalone meat, it has shifted to the pearls, which they supply to the mainland. They also rent out different accommodation options on the island – choose from unique homesteads, cottages and huts (arapawahomestead.co.nz).
Incredible produce abounds on the mainland, too. Developed by Dion Brown (formerly of Cloudy Bay Clams), Origin
South Food’s single-origin, grass-fed local lamb is from Mount Peel. The flavour develops from the livestock grazing on grass open to coastal winds, and is a favourite of chefs in the area. Then there are the fragrant fields belonging to
Marlborough Garlic, sitting incongruously between vineyards and scented like a loaf of garlic bread. CEO John Murphy is famous for the inroads he is making with black garlic, or ‘Garlic Noir’; the bulbs are fermented for a month to a blackish paste to develop the umami flavour that is winning fans around the world.
A perfect storm of nature and climate has also resulted in world- class honey production (with hives placed on farms around the region to help pollination), or you can cruise the local mussel or salmon farms to experience the techniques firsthand then dine on the catch. The Te Araroa Trail (New Zealand’s Trail) is a 3000-kilometre bucket list walk, and the South Island section starts at the historic Ship Cove in the Sounds (famous for sheltering Captain Cook during his voyages to New Zealand). It winds through the ridges and bays of the Queen Charlotte Track, with reasonably easy walking where the views keep on coming. There’s also the New Zealand Cycle Trail, which similarly follows the Queen Charlotte track from Ship Cove to Anakiwa. It’s a 70-kilometre ride, taking between two and three days, boasting lush coastal forest and skyline ridges. You can ride the entire track or just sections, using boat transport from Picton.
The Marlborough Sounds accounts for one-fifth of New Zealand’s entire coastline, so while the views are really something, it’s also renowned for the diving, particularly off Port Gore and Motuara Island.
How’s that for a view? The Marlborough Sounds.
Accommodation amid Arapaoa’s rolling hills includes homesteads, cottages and huts.