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The sounds of silence

Published: 01/12/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » December 2015/January 2016 » Lifestyle » Home » Features »

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Marlborough is renowned for its winding waterways (sea-flooded valleys known as “sounds”), rugged wilderness and fine wines. Situated on the northeastern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, this sunny region only landed on modern tourist maps in the 1980s after the international success of its zesty sauvignon blanc – a wine revered for its intense flavors and robust character. Awash with expansive vineyards, rolling hills and sleepy towns, it is a region of unparalleled beauty and a relaxing escape for business travelers in New Zealand. 

Visitors can take a short 30-minute flight from Wellington, on a small plane the locals affectionately call “white knuckle airlines” for its hair-raising maneuvers across the straits. For those who choose to travel by water through the magnificent Queen Charlotte Sound, there are regular ferry services connecting the North and South Island.

I flew in for a relaxing three-day break from the commercial hub and international gateway of Auckland. The national carrier, Air New Zealand, offers daily services to Marlborough’s main township of Blenheim, which is where my memorable adventure began. What follows is a taste of the many delights the region has to offer, from treks in the native forests to the sheltered bays of the sounds and tours of world-famous wine cellars. 

Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

A few minutes drive from Marlborough Airport Blenheim is the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, showcasing one of the world’s largest private collections of WWI aircraft and artifacts. On long-term loan from Kiwi film director Peter Jackson (the man behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy and its prequel The Hobbit trilogy) the collection includes original and full replica WWI aircraft – both static and flyable, such as the Curtiss MF Flying Boat and the single-seat German fighter Halberstadt D.IV model. 

The 32,000-square-foot exhibit also features a display depicting the death of Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron, who was mortally wounded in April 1918. The museum gained international recognition when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the center during their royal tour of the country last year. 

After learning about the exhibit, you may wish to experience the thrill of open-cockpit flying for yourself. At the nearby Omaka Airfield, joyrides are available in a vintage three-seat Boeing Stearman, with helmet and goggles provided. The price for a 20-minute flight is NZ$345 ($235) for a single passenger or NZ$390 ($265) for two passengers. Visit omaka.org.nz

Beachcomber Cruises

A short scenic drive from Blenheim is the quaint seafront town of Picton, the base for ferry services between the South and North Islands. It’s also the gateway to the intricate waters of the Marlborough Sounds – a collection of ancient sunken river valleys filled with the waters of the Pacific Ocean. 

The sounds make up a fifth of the country’s coastline and include three main bodies of water: Kenepuru, Pelorus and Queen Charlotte. The latter is named after England’s Queen Charlotte by Captain James Cook, who famously spent 170 days sheltering in the area. According to Maori myth, the waterways and headlands were formed during a battle between a great Maori warrior and a giant octopus.

Small-scale resorts dot the sounds’ many coves, as well as remote houses and communities that can only be accessed by boat. Beachcomber Cruises, the only licensed operator in the Queen Charlotte Sound to deliver mail and groceries to the people who live here, allow guests on board during their delivery runs. 

The half-day cruise, which departs on Monday and Thursday beginning at 1:30 PM, stops at local residences in Kumutoto Bay, Blackwood Bay, and Ruakaka Bay before swinging past the King Salmon farm. Here you can see seals lolling around in the waters nearby hoping to snag salmon that have successfully broken free. The cruise then travels to Arapawa Island and on to Ship Cove. It was at this site that Captain James Cook settled for a time to replenish supplies for his ship the Endeavour in 1770. Tickets cost NZ$93 ($63) per person for a four-hour cruise. Visit beachcombercruises.co.nz

Bay of Many Coves Resort 

Instead of returning to Picton Harbour for the evening, we took a detour to the Bay of Many Coves boutique five-star resort, which is only a short distance by boat from Ship Cove. As the name suggests, it is located in the tranquil Bay of Many Coves accessed by a private jetty and surrounded by lush tree-lined hills.

There are no roads, and no other residences here, just complete peace and quiet making it a nice alternative to the hectic city life I am accustomed to. The resort is small, with only 11 one, two and three bedroom apartments that are each equipped with a kitchenette (though there are no shops, so impromptu cooking is not an option), as well as private balconies overlooking the bay. The technology included complimentary WiFi, and flat screen TVs with a few channels to flick through before bed. 

One of the highlights of my stay was a midnight hike through the bush to see glowworms light up under the stars; the other was dining on goat’s cheese macaroons with a glass of Marlborough sauvignon blanc in hand at the resort’s fine-dining Foredeck restaurant. Visit bayofmanycoves.co.nz

Queen Charlotte Track 

The next morning we climbed aboard a water taxi and sailed to Furneaux Lodge where we refueled before embarking on a four-hour hike along the picturesque Queen Charlotte Track. The 44-mile coastal trail stretches from Ship Cove through to Anakiwa in the Grove Arm, and sections (or the whole route) can be tackled on foot or by mountain bike. As Marlborough has a temperate climate the trail enjoys good year-round walking conditions.

Along the way you can expect to see the national icon, the silver fern, as well as a host of flightless birds such as the weka, which is commonly mistaken for the elusive kiwi. Our knowledgeable guide explains that as the country has no indigenous land mammals (apart from bats), many of New Zealand’s birds evolved to lose their ability to fly. The winding route takes us through heavy bush, past manuka plants and ferns, and around interesting coves and inlets with scenic views of the turquoise waters of the sounds below.

Punga Cove 

By late afternoon we arrived at Punga Cove, our resort for the evening. Set amongst the hills with views of Camp Bay and Endeavour Inlet, this sleepy property is owned and managed by a welcoming husband and wife team, Ralph and Beverly Faulkner. There are four room types, from comfortable suites and chalets to a family-style lodge plus basic rooms for budget travelers. There is no WiFi and no mobile phone connection, which came as a bit of a shock. If you get really desperate, there is a lifeline in the form of a communal computer in the reception with Internet connection. 

The property is clean and well maintained, however the décor and facilities are rather old-fashioned. This is especially true of the resort’s restaurant Punga Fern that looks like it hasn’t seen the hand of a hip interior designer for decades. This didn’t detract from the delicious food and wine on offer though. On the menu was Marlborough Ora King salmon (NZ$38/$26), pan seared lamb rump (NZ$34/$23) and green-lipped mussels (NZ$16/ $11), a famous New Zealand species farmed in the nearby waters, steamed and served with a rich tomato and herb sauce. Visit pungacove.co.nz

Vineyards 

A must-do in Marlborough is to visit one or more of the regions’ 152 acclaimed wineries. The first vines were only planted in the Wairau Valley in 1973, yet there are now over 551 grape growers and 35 cellar doors. The region was responsible for 75 percent of New Zealand’s total 2013 vintage, and 92 percent of the country’s sauvignon blanc. 

Wither Hills, located on the southern side of the valley, offer tours of their Single Vineyard and exclusive Cellar Release range. Since its establishment in 1994, the estate has produced the world-famous sauvignon blanc, as well as chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, pinot gris and gewürztraminer. Visit witherhills.co.nz

The next stop on our itinerary is Brancott Estate, which has gained international recognition for planting the first sauvignon blanc grapes in the region. The restaurant and heritage center, situated on a hill overlooking the vineyards and the iconic Marlborough landscape, was a wonderful place to conclude our journey. Visit brancottestate.com

By Elizabeth Wood


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