Everything you need to know about Marlborough Sounds

If there was one place in New Zealand which could delight so many of the senses all once, Marlborough Sounds would fit the bill. It’s a maze of ancient sunken river valleys on the Pacific Ocean, rumbling and churning with friendly marine life. It’s 1500km of coastline, wrapped and folded into sheltered inlets and sandy coves. The land around the sounds, meanwhile, is some of New Zealand’s best wine country, and covered in vineyards and farms producing exquisite wine and produce. Marlborough is known around the world for its sauvignon blanc, and the fresh seafood ain’t bad, either.

The waterways are an adventure playground, from kayaking the Pelorus river to diving and snorkeling around the pristine waters of the coastline. It’s a dreamy part of New Zealand, and no surprise that it’s a favourite local holiday spot.

Where in New Zealand is Marlborough Sounds?

Marlborough Sounds is in the north-east of New Zealand’s South Island, and is part of the greater Marlborough region. The main town is Picton, where the ferries set off from to cross Cook Strait, the narrow, wild and watery road to the North Island. It’s about three hours from Blenheim.

What are the four Marlborough Sounds?

The main bodies of water which make up Marlborough Sounds are Kenepuru Sound, Queen Charlotte Sound, Mahau Sound and Pelorus Sound. These drowned river values are all incredibly picturesque, with the most popular and built-up being Queen Charlotte Sound, with its own cafes and resorts. Picton, the bustling port town with a bunch of cafes and restaurants, is located just on the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound, and is the best place to stock up on food, pick up a map or organise a tour.

Of course, there’s a multitude of stunning tiny inlets and coves which make up Marlborough Sounds as well, so the adventure is never-ending.

How do you explore Marlborough Sounds?

One of the most special things about the sounds is that you can explore them from almost any angle. Given they’re made up of so much water, they’re accessible by cruise, by kayak and by sailboat. The sound of native bird life is everywhere, and the marine wildlife is incredible, with orcas, dolphins, stingrays and penguins playing in the pristine waters.

On land, meanwhile, there are free hiking trails winding through the native bush of the hillside, including the multi-day Queen Charlotte Track, a favourite with Kiwis. There are even mountain biking trails snaking through the hills, so if it’s an adventure trip you came for, you’ve come to the right place. Lots of people pick both options for their holiday, resting their head on land at night in one of the bays, and then hitting the ocean by day.

What is there to do in Marlborough Sounds?

The great thing about Marlborough Sounds is there’s heaps to do if you’re looking for activities, but it’s equally inviting to do nothing but soak in the views. Jump on a boat tour from Picton and find a dolphin or two to swim with, or take a wine tour through the fruitful heart of Marlborough. Walk through native bush on the Queen Charlotte Track, or, for a faster adventure, head to Havelock and kayak down the Pelorus river.

For the buzz of a village, Picton has a bunch of quirky cafes, restaurants and shops, while the historic town of Havelock at the head of Pelorus Sound will charm the pants off you. Otherwise, Blenheim is the closest city, a three hour drive away.

Are there hikes in Marlborough Sounds?

Heck yeah – this is New Zealand, after all. The forest hides a snaking network of stunning walking trails. Probably most popular is the Queen Charlotte track, renowned for its scenic location as a hiking track, and for the incredible range of accommodation on the trail, but also for being one of New Zealand’s best single track mountain bike rides.

What is the Maori name for Marlborough Sounds?

The Māori name for the Marlborough region (and the rest of the Upper South Island) is Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-a-Māui , which translates to the prow of Māui’s canoe.

What’s the history of Marlborough Sounds?

Marlborough Sounds become even crazier to look at when you realise that they are actually sea-drowned valleys. So yeah, the sounds have seen a few things, going from landscapes to (mostly) seascapes created by the rise of sea levels.

According to Māori legend, the sounds were created by the sunken prow of a great ancient waka being sailed by gods. They were formed around 280 million years ago, by the twisting of major tectonic plates which shifted and layered the land. New Zealand’s location on the meeting point of two southern plates gives it one of the most unique landscapes in the world, and Marlborough Sounds is a delightful result of this.

Can you stay at Marlborough Sounds?

You sure can. There’s a massive range of accommodation, from resorts to campgrounds, cozy baches to private villas. For the full-immersion experience, try an overnight cruise through the sounds, and wake to the slapping of water on the hull and the dusky mist of sunrise on the sea. It’s a good thing you can stay, too, as you’ll want plenty of time to enjoy the local food and wine. Most places in Picton and Queen Charlotte (and even some of the boat tours) will have the regions’ award-winning green-lipped mussels on the menu.

What’s the weather like in Marlborough Sounds?

As most locals will tell you, this is the sunniest region in New Zealand, which makes Marlborough Sounds a great place to visit year-round. Its site on the edge of the Cook Strait means it’s an easy spot to access from Wellington, and a quick getaway for those looking for a respite from the windy capital.

When’s the best time to visit Marlborough Sounds?

Like most places in New Zealand, the nicest weather in Marlborough Sounds is in the summer months, but that’s also the busiest time. Marlborough Sounds is a big place, though, with plenty of secluded corners to find some peace and quiet. For more of the quiet variety, Marlborough Sounds is a great place to visit in autumn and spring. If you’re planning to bike the Queen Charlotte Track, remember that the section between Ship Cove and Kenepuru Saddle is closed for December, January and February each year.

What’s the best way to get to Marlborough Sounds?

Picton offers the perfect gateway from the North Island, sitting right in the middle of the sounds. Otherwise, fly direct into Marlborough Sounds from most places in the country.