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14 Things to Do in Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand: A Detailed Travel Guide

@ekotoursdolphinwatch

In this Article

Marlborough Sounds is a beautiful area which spans 1500 kilometres of New Zealand’s coastline. It is made up of numerous ancient river basins that have sunken below the Pacific Ocean.

Picton, Queen Charlotte Sounds, Marlborough, New Zealand
Picton, Queen Charlotte Sounds, Marlborough

What are the Names of the 4 Sounds in Marlborough?

Marlborough Sounds, located at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, are made up of four distinct Sounds:

  1. Queen Charlotte
  2. Kenepuru
  3. Pelorus
  4. Mahau

Discover marine wildlife on remote predator-free islands where rare and endangered species thrive. Enjoy the myriad attractions of a holiday embracing water sports from sea kayaking to SUP. The calm sheltered inner coves and inlets are a great place to get into a kayak.

Find out what it is like to cruise the Sounds either on a day trip on the Picton Mail Boat or a cruise observing dolphins and whales. Savour the quiet and peace of reserves and untouched forest while you sip a chilled sauvignon blanc local wine in your beachside lodge.

What is the Maori name for the Marlborough Sounds?

Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-a-Māui is the Mori name for the Marlborough area (as well as the whole of the Upper South Island). It translates to “The prow of the canoe of Māui”.

Dolphins Marlborough Sounds, Marlborough, New Zealand
Dolphins Marlborough Sounds

Where is Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand, Located?

Sheep at the Marlborough Sounds (Okuri Bay), South Island, New Zealand
Sheep at the Marlborough Sounds

Marlborough Sounds are at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. Marlborough is a region located in the northeast of the island, and Marlborough Sounds are just off its coast. Here is a guide that will help you explore Marlborough Region.

Marlborough Sounds are steep, bush-clad hills, small coves, and inlets are thinly populated as access is often only possible by sea. The hub is the large port of Picton, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound and home to the Interislander ferry terminal.

Picton is at the northern terminus of the South Island’s main railway and state highway networks. The main small-boat port, Waikawa, is one of New Zealand’s largest and provides a base for holidaymakers.

Things to do in Marlborough Sounds

Visit Motuara Island Sanctuary to See New Zealand’s Exotic Birds

Marlborough region is blessed with an abundance of birdlife. A visit to the Motuara Island Sanctuary should be high on your list of things to do in Marlborough Sounds. Predator-free Motuara Island is located in the Queen Charlotte Sound and is a short cruise away from Picton.

Motuara Island is home to several rare bird species, such as Saddleback and Yellow-Crowned Parakeets. Other common bird species like Kererū, Tūī, Grey Warbler and Bellbird are also often seen and heard on the island.

After reaching, take a short but steep one-hour walk to the summit of Motuara Island. You’ll be rewarded with stunning 360-degree views of Queen Charlotte Sound.

E-Ko Tours, Beachcomber Cruises and Cougar Line all offer Motuara Island tours from Picton.

Marlborough is a haven for wildlife and nature lovers. Here is a guide to the best Marlborough Wildlife Conservation Attractions.

Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary, Marlborough, New Zealand @MarlboroughNZ
Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary @MarlboroughNZ

Explore Kaipupu Point Wildlife Sanctuary

Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary, New Zealand @TripAdvisor
Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary @TripAdvisor

Another sanctuary worth visiting in Marlborough Sounds is Kaipupu Point Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary is located on an island which is a 10-minute boat ride from Picton.

Kaipupu Point Wildlife Sanctuary is a haven for native birds. Tui, Bellbird, Fantail, NZ Woodpigeon, Korora and more can all be found on the island. During the fall and winter months, New Zealand fur seals can frequently be observed sunbathing on the jetty.

Guided tours are the best way to explore Kaipupu Point Wildlife Sanctuary. The guides are highly knowledgeable about the area and its wildlife and will ensure you have a great experience.

There is a lovely 2.7km circular track on the island that you can walk around in 1.5–2 hours. The track will take you through recovering native bush, old-growth forest and a restoration zone.

Cycle or Walk the Queen Charlotte Track

Queen Charlotte Track is one of New Zealand’s most popular walking and cycling tracks. The 73.5-kilometre track winds through the Marlborough Sounds, taking in native forest, high mountain ridges and coastal lookouts.

Queen Charlotte Track starts from Ship Cove to Anakiwa and is an intermediate to advanced grade track. Most of the track is 1 to 1.5 metres wide, and all important streams have been bridged. The soil is mostly clay, which makes the surface hard and firm in dry conditions but sometimes slippery when wet.

The track can be completed as a multi-day hike (5 days) or mountain bike ride (3 days), with luggage transfers available. A water taxi can also be used to hop between locations. Overnight huts are located along the track (bookings essential) or camp at one of the many designated campsites.

Queen Charlotte Track is open all year round. November to May are the busiest months, so it’s best to book huts and campsites well in advance. The temperate climate of Marlborough Sounds makes it a great place to visit in the spring, fall, or even winter.

Check out our dedicated guide on 10 Things to do in Queen Charlotte Track.

Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough, New Zealand
Queen Charlotte Track

Enjoy a Leisurely Stay at One of Many Resorts

Resorts in the Marlborough Sounds are surprisingly affordable. Most luxury accommodations have complimentary use of kayaks, SUPs, and snorkelling equipment for guests.

@baymanycoves
@baymanycoves

There are local bush walks and activities for families. It’s a perfect way to unwind in beautiful surroundings with nature, creating a zen space for everyone.

Some of our favourite Marlborough Sounds resorts include:

We recommend booking your resort stay in advance, especially during the peak season from November to May.

FOR MORE ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS IN MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS CHECK OUT

Take a Scenic Cruise Through the Marlborough Sounds

Marlborough Sounds is a paradise for boating and sailing enthusiasts. The sheltered waterways make it perfect for exploring by boat, with plenty of coves and bays to anchor in overnight.

There are many different Marlborough Sounds cruises to choose from, ranging from half-day trips to multi-day charters. Some cruises focus on wildlife spotting, while others include wine tastings and gourmet meals. Take your ride from Picton or Havelock, and head out into the breathtaking scenery of Queen Charlotte or Kenepuru Sound.

Beachcomber Cruises, Cougar Line and Affinity Cruises are all reputable Marlborough Sounds cruise operators.

@ekotoursdolphinwatch
@ekotoursdolphinwatch

Deliver Mail on a Unique Cruise Experience

If you want a unique Marlborough Sounds experience, how about taking the mail boat? That’s right, Marlborough Sounds still has a regular mail delivery service by boat. The vessels also take passengers so that you can ride along.

Pelorus Mail Boat, New Zealand @Discover Pelorus
Pelorus Mail Boat @Discover Pelorus

The Mail Boat, which has been delivering mail for more than 150 years, is maintained by Beachcomber Cruises. They are the only New Zealand Post Rural Delivery Service licensed to operate on Queen Charlotte Sound waterways.

Join the Mail Boat Cruise as it delivers rural post bags and groceries around Queen Charlotte Sound waterways. Sit back and enjoy as the journey come alive with stories, interesting facts and friendly banter from the local crew.

Mail Boat Cruise operates from Monday to Saturday. No two days are alike because the route changes daily, covering different areas to deliver the mail. If time permits, the cruise will take short stop-offs so you can explore Queen Charlotte Sounds.

Swim With the Dolphins in Marlborough Sounds

Swimming with dolphins is one of Marlborough’s most popular tourist activities.

Dolphins are a common sight in Marlborough Sounds. The sheltered bays make it a safe haven for these friendly creatures. The area attracts a number of different species, including Dusky, Bottlenose, Common, Orca and the rare Hector’s dolphins.

Swim with the Dolphins and have a unique and unforgettable experience with one of nature’s most acrobatic creatures. NZ fur seals will watch as you cruise by rocky outcrops, and the possibility of whales passing is a tantalising promise.

E-Ko Tours is one of the best companies for swimming with dolphins in Marlborough Sounds. The company is authorised by the Department of Conservation to look for and communicate with any kind of marine mammal that resides in the Sounds.

The marine world is at the heart of Marlborough’s visitor experience and a top attraction every visitor should experience.

@ekotoursdolphinwatch
@ekotoursdolphinwatch

Visit the Historic Meretoto/Ship Cove

Meretoto, Ship Cove Heritage, Marlborough, New Zealand @MarlboroughNZ
Meretoto, Ship Cove Heritage @MarlboroughNZ

Meretoto, also known as Ship Cove, is a historic and picturesque sheltered cove with a lush coastal forest backdrop in Marlborough Sounds.

The area is rich in Māori and European history. It is believed that the first Māori to discover New Zealand, Kupe, stopped here on a voyage of the Marlborough Sounds. Ship Cove is also one of the first places that Captain James Cook anchored on his first voyage to New Zealand.

Today, Ship Cove is a popular tourist destination for anyone wanting to experience New Zealand’s unique history and natural beauty. Sculptures, memorials, and a plethora of interpretive panels are lined up along a coastal setting to help bring the area’s past alive.

Meretoto/Ship Cove can only be reached by boat, either privately or on a commercial cruise.

Explore Okiwi Bay

Okiwi Bay is Marlborough’s best-kept secret. This sheltered haven is located 112 kilometres, approximately a 1-hour 40-minute drive.

Okiwi Bay is a great place to relax, swim, fish, or go kayaking and paddleboarding. The area is also famous for camping, with several Department of Conservation campsites nearby

There are various walking tracks to explore the native bush and coastline, namely –

  • Okiwi Bay Lookout Walk – Easy, 10-minute walk one way with views along the coast of Kaikoura.
  • Okiwi Bay Seaward Valley Track – Advance level, 6-hour track following old farm tracks and logging roads. Enjoy ocean views and camping sites.
  • Pacific Lookout Track – Advance level, 1-hour 30-minute one-way track with views of the coastline and the Pacific Ocean.
  • Patutu Route – Expert level, 4-hour 30-minute track one-way climb to the summit of Patutu (1162 m). Fantastic views of the coastline and the North Island.
Okiwi Bay in the Marlborough Sounds, Marlborough, New Zealand @Marlborough New Zealand
Okiwi Bay in the Marlborough Sounds @Marlborough New Zealand

Drive Down to French Pass and D’Urville Island

Wooden pier during the sunset in French Pass, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
Wooden pier during the sunset in French Pass

After exploring Okiwi Bay, make your way down to French Pass. A stunning drive that offers magnificent coastal views that extend all the way to D’Urville Island.

Rai Valley will be your first stop on your trip to French Pass. This is an excellent rest break along the way, and the area offers excellent kayaking and hiking opportunities. The Goat Hill Track is the most popular in the area and is well worth a hike.

To get the most out of French Pass and D’Urville Island, check out our French Pass and D’Urville Island Itinerary.

Go Fishing in the Marlborough Sounds

With 1500 kilometres of coastline and sheltered waters, Marlborough Sounds is a fisherman’s paradise. The area is home to various fish species, including Snapper, Blue Cod, Salmon, Gurnard, Scallops, and Kahawai. Hop into a boat and head out to the open waters for an unforgettable day of fishing.

Plenty of fishing charter companies are available. They will provide you with everything you need for a day of fishing, including bait, tackle, and rods. Guided fishing trips are also available.

Marlborough Sounds South Island New Zealand
Marlborough Sounds

Enjoy a Glass or Two of Wine at one of Marlborough’s Many Vineyards

Marlborough Vineyard, Marlborough, New Zealand
Marlborough Vineyard

Marlborough is New Zealand’s largest wine-producing region and home to some of the country’s best Sauvignon Blanc. The Marlborough region produces about 70% of all wines made in New Zealand.

With over 150 vineyards and 27 cellar doors open to the public, Marlborough makes for an excellent day out wine tasting. Most of the vineyards offer cellar door tastings and sales. Many of them have restaurants on-site so that you can enjoy a meal with your glass of wine. Guided tours of the vineyards are also available.

Marlborough’s vineyards are spread across the region, so it’s best to plan your day trip in advance. Check out Marlborough Wine Trail Map to help you plan your route.

Take a Trip to the Hobbit Filming Locations

As any fan of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy knows, New Zealand is home to some of the most iconic locations used in the movies. Marlborough Sounds served as the perfect location for several scenes with its warm and sunny weather and diverse landscapes.

A number of filming locations can be found across Marlborough Sounds. However, the most recognisable and most popular one is located on the Pelorus River, close to Havelock.

Pelorus River was chosen for the film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The famous and dramatic scene where Bilbo and the Dwarves travel down the river in barrels was filmed here.

A trip to Hobbit filming locations is one of the best things to do in Marlborough Sounds.

Pelorus River, New Zealand
Pelorus River

Visit Havelock and Enjoy Some Mussel Tasting

@MillsBayMussels
@MillsBayMussels

Havelock is a small town located at the mouth of the Pelorus and Kaituna Rivers in Marlborough Sounds. The town was originally a gold mining settlement with some beautiful buildings from New Zealand’s colonial period. Funky art galleries, museums and delicious restaurants are all available in town.

Havelock is best known for its green-lipped mussels, which are considered some of the best in the world. The town is also regarded as the “green-shell mussel capital of the world”.

Mills Bay Mussels and Mussel Pot are great places to try the local mussels.

Pelorus Sound, New Zealand

The hub for visitor activity is Havelock, a small town on State Highway 6. Havelock marks the exit/entrance to Queen Charlotte Drive (road access to the Sounds network of bays).

Pelorus Sound’s major arm in Kenepuru Sound. Characteristic of the Sounds are steep-sided hills, sometimes metres apart and separated by bodies of water; this is very evident at Te Mahia Bay and Portage Bay.

The ancient river gorges cliffs rise from the depths as serrated ranges of hills. Pelorus Sound has the main channel of 55 kilometres winding through steep bush-clad hills, reaching its head at Havelock.

Pelorus has several major arms, notably Tennyson Inlet, Tawhitinui Reach, Kenepuru Sound and the Crail/Clova/Beatrix Bay complex. Its shoreline runs for 380 kilometres. Havelock is primarily an industrial port for seafood export and a tourist town.

The Tory Channel is a major arm of Queen Charlotte Sound, and between them, the Channel and the Sound isolate the hills of Arapaoa (Arapawa) Island from the mainland. Other major islands in the sounds include D’Urville Island.

View of Pelorus Sound from Cullen Point Lookout on Queen Charlotte Drive, Marlborough Region on South Island of New Zealand
View of Pelorus Sound

How Do You Explore Marlborough Sounds

Most of Marlborough Sounds are only accessible by water. Several companies offer boat tours of the Marlborough Sounds.

aerial view of Picton town and Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand
Picton town and Marlborough Sounds

Picton is the largest hub; however, there are water taxi services in Havelock and Anakiwa. Boat operators are mostly located at the designated town wharf, which is adjacent to the interisland ferry terminal.

Marlborough Sounds water taxis provide:

  • Transfer visitors to a lodge nestled in the Marlborough Sounds
  • Transfer walkers to a designated Queen Charlotte Track wharf location
  • Provide transport to the Marlborough Sounds islands of D’Urville
  • Transfer luggage to a designated drop-off point, including mountain bikes and kayaks
  • Offer day trip excursions to Queen Charlotte Track highlights and day trips throughout the Marlborough Sounds.

Some popular Marlborough Sounds tour operators include:

Cougar Line

Cougar Line has a fleet of high-quality vessels and an experienced crew. They offer fast and reliable transport to lodges, resorts, homes, baches and campsites in Queen Charlotte Sound/Tōtaranui.

Cougar Line also offers –

  • Scenic and day walk cruises
  • Lunch cruises to Marlborough Sounds resorts
  • Mountain bike packages
  • Twice-daily delivery service for goods and passengers.
@CougarLine
@CougarLine

Arrow Water Taxis

Arrow Water Taxis has been operating on Queen Charlotte Sound for over twenty years. They can take you anywhere you like, at the time you choose. Arrow Water Taxis operates two purpose-built fast aluminium vessels driven by bio-diesel.

@arrowwatertaxis
@arrowwatertaxis

Picton Float Plane

Picton Floatplane specialises in seaplane flights throughout the Marlborough Sounds, Wellington, and Abel Tasman.

Picton Harbour, Marlborough, New Zealand @W. Bulach
Picton Harbour @W. Bulach

Kenepuru Water Taxi

Kenepuru Water Taxi offers –

  • Transport options in Kenepuru and Pelorus Sounds
  • Pickup/Drop off in Havelock
  • Cruises in the Marlborough Sounds
Kenepuru Water Taxi, Marlborough, New Zealand @MarlboroughNZ
Kenepuru Water Taxi @MarlboroughNZ

Pelorus Sound Water Taxi

Whatever your travel requirements in Pelorus and Kenepuru Sounds, Pelorus Sound Water Taxi can cater to your individual needs. They offer –

  • Water taxi service throughout the Pelorus & Kenepuru Sound
  • Scenic boat cruises
  • Nydia track transport
Pelorus Sound Water Taxi and Cruises, Marlborough, New Zealand @MarlboroughNZ
Pelorus Sound Water Taxi and Cruises @MarlboroughNZ

Picton Water Taxi

Picton Water Taxi is a friendly and personal water taxi service, transporting customers to any destination they choose in Queen Charlotte Sound. They offer –

  • On-demand Water Transport
  • Queen Charlotte Track water transport
  • Mountain bikes to the Queen Charlotte Track
Picton Water Taxi, Marlborough, New Zealand @MarlboroughNZ
Picton Water Taxi @MarlboroughNZ

E-Ko Tours

E-Ko Tours has been running the best tours in Picton and the Marlborough Sounds. They offer –

  • Moturara island and dolpohine cruise
  • Dolphin swimming
  • Dolphin and whale tours
  • Queen Charlotte track tour
  • Short walks and cruises
  • Birding tours
@ekotoursdolphinwatch
@ekotoursdolphinwatch

Marlborough Sounds Weather

The Marlborough Sounds have a moderate maritime climate. Summer temperatures average 22°C, while winter temperatures average 13°C.

During the summer, you are more likely to have pleasant days with average temperatures ranging from 20°C to 25°C.

View over French Pass, Marlborough Sounds
View over French Pass, Marlborough Sounds

With eight hours of sunshine on average every day, January is the sunniest month. With an average high temperature of 23°C, February is the warmest month in Marlborough.

During the winter months, you can expect some rain and average temperatures below 15°C. July is the coldest month, with an average temperature of 12°C.

Rainfall in Marlborough is spread throughout the year, with a peak in winter. May is the wettest month.

Note – Seasons in New Zealand are the reverse of what they are in the Northern Hemisphere. Therefore, summers in New Zealand are from December to February, and winters are from June to August.

Best Time to Visit Marlborough Sounds

Marlborough Sounds can be visited all year round.

However, the best time to visit Marlborough Sounds is during the summer months, i.e. December to February. This is when you can expect the best weather with warm temperatures and long days. You’ll also be able to enjoy water-based activities such as swimming with dolphins, whale watching or kayaking.

If you want to avoid the crowds, March to May is an excellent time to visit. This is shoulder season between summer and winter. However, you should be aware that the weather is more unpredictable during this time, and you may experience some rain.

Cyclists on the Link Pathway, Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
Cyclists on the Link Pathway, Marlborough Sounds

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