A Food Tour of the Marlborough Sounds

cooked mussels in white bowls with sea in the background

Courtesy of the Marlborough Tour Company

New Zealand's Marlborough region, at the top of the South Island, is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc wine—not just in New Zealand but also among international wine aficionados. The first vines were planted near Blenheim in the early 1970s, and now, the region produces around 75 percent of New Zealand's wine. But, Marlborough isn't just about the wine. Foodies highly rate the fish, seafood, cheese, and other fresh produce available here. In fact, local chef Ed Drury, who originally hails from the UK, believes the food and drink available at the "Top of the South" is among the best of anywhere in the world. As a chef, he finds it an exciting place to be, and that's good news for us casual eaters.

Many travelers to the Marlborough region will have the opportunity to do some wine tasting, either at one-stop-shops in Blenheim like The Wine Station or at individual wineries. But to experience the region's delicious diversity, don't just stick to Blenheim and the sprawling miles of vineyards. Head north to the Marlborough Sounds, a network of sunken river valleys with sparkling blue waters, bush-clad mountains rising directly from the sea, nature reserves, and some culinary delights.

It may not be immediately obvious to a food-loving traveler how to take a foodie tour of the Marlborough Sounds, though. It's not as easy as driving up to a restaurant. The Marlborough Sounds are a large, sparsely inhabited area with limited road connections. Many places in the outer arms and reaches can only be accessed by boat. Most travelers enter the area either from Picton, the largest town in the sounds, or Havelock, to the west of Picton. There are numerous restaurants in these towns, but you need to get out onto the water to best experience the food. Eating your way around the Marlborough Sounds is a full experience, including cruising, hiking (if you wish), and at least a couple of free days to venture into some of the more out-of-the-way branches of the sounds.

black barrels of mussel farms floating in blue sea reflecting mountains and blue sky
 Courtesy of the Marlborough Tour Company

Seafood Cruises

To many travelers, Picton is the jumping-off point to the Marlborough Sounds. It's the largest town in the area (population: 4,300) and is connected with New Zealand's capital city Wellington by ferry, across the Cook Strait. Picton is certainly a handy base, but as a resident of the northern South Island who travels to Marlborough often, I prefer Havelock. It's smaller and quieter than Picton and has a more local feel. While fewer tours operate from Havelock, those that do run are top quality.

Four sounds make up the Marlborough Sounds: Queen Charlotte, Pelorus, Kenepuru, and Mahau. Picton sits on Queen Charlotte Sound, whereas the other three are best reached via Havelock.

Seafood lovers should jump at the chance of joining the Greenshell Mussel Cruise from Havelock. Havelock is the self-proclaimed "Greenshell Mussel Capital of the World," and almost everyone who lives in the town is involved in the mussel farming or processing industry somehow. The skipper of the Greenshell Mussel Cruise, Ryan Godsiff, belongs to one of the families that started mussel farming in the Marlborough Sounds back in the early 1970s.

The 46-foot catamaran takes visitors out onto Pelorus and Mahau Sounds to see, learn about, and taste the locally produced greenshell mussels. This variety of mussel is specific to New Zealand, and the majority of the country's stock are farmed in the calm, clear waters of the Marlborough Sounds. Fresh greenshell mussels can only be found in New Zealand, as live exports are banned.

After about an hour of cruising, the catamaran pulls up at one of the 611 mussel farms in the sounds. It's understandable if you don't know what a mussel farm looks like, as it's not something most people encounter very often. Essentially, a mussel farm is comprised of hundreds of black barrels, or floats, strung together. From each float, stockings made from biodegradable materials are strung, providing a home for growing mussels. Each float can hold one tonne of mussels, and each farm consists of several hundred floats.

Like Marlborough's vineyards, the first mussel lines were seeded in the Marlborough Sounds in the early 1970s, and now the region produces the vast majority of New Zealand's mussels. The conditions here are perfect: the water is just the right temperature for mussels at around 55 degrees F in winter, it's clean, and the sea is sheltered, so farmers (or consumers) don't need to worry too much about sand and grit getting into the mussels in turbulent seas. On the Greenshell Mussel Cruise, guests are served abundant freshly steamed mussels with a glass of local Sauvignon Blanc. It's a perfect pairing, both in terms of taste and what it reflects about the culinary industry in this corner of New Zealand. No buttery, garlicky, or creamy sauces are needed for these mussels, as they cook to perfection in nothing but their own salty, seawater juices.

Travelers who can't (or won't) make it to Havelock can, alternatively, take a similar cruise from Picton. The Seafood Odyssea Cruise also visits a mussel farm and provides delicious tasters on Queen Charlotte Sound.

To experience more of the rural way of life on Pelorus Sound, the Pelorus Mail Boat is a scenic day out that provides an essential service. The century-old supply service delivers mail and other goods to the inhabitants of the far reaches of the sounds, people who live far from any roads. Joining the cruise provides a rare opportunity to see parts of the sounds that aren't accessible any other way, and tourists actually help fund the service.

Although the focus of the Pelorus Mail Boat is not food, the mailboat does stop to check out salmon and mussel farms, and on certain days of the week, it stops at an off-the-grid working sheep farm. The farmers are happy to show you their lambs and to talk about the experience of homeschooling their kids in this remote spot. In the summer season, the boat also stops for lunch at isolated The Lodge at Te Rawa.

jetty and boat in turquoise water with trees and mountains
Courtesy of Marlborough Tour Company

Lunch (and Dinner) at a Lodge

Many travelers come to the Marlborough Sounds to hike or mountain bike rugged multi-day tracks, such as the Queen Charlotte Track, the Nydia Track, or Mt. Stokes' summit. Basic camping at Department of Conservation-administered campsites is available on these routes. But, adventurers who want to end a challenging day with a comfy bed and delicious meal of Marlborough fare—or just those who take the easy option and tour the Marlborough Sounds by boat—can visit beautiful lodges throughout the sounds.

There are several lodges in isolated bays throughout Queen Charlotte Sound, including Furneaux Lodge, Punga Cove Resort, Lochmara Lodge, and the only five-star hotel in the area, the Bay of Many Coves Resort. Overnight stays are worthwhile, but these lodges can also be visited on day trips by taking a water taxi or cruise from Picton in the morning and then being picked up again mid-afternoon.

Not far from where Queen Charlotte Sound opens up into the Cook Strait's open ocean is Endeavour Inlet, about 90 minutes from Picton by boat. Sitting proudly on a rare strip of flat land is the century-old Furneaux Lodge, which was a private holiday home before it became accommodation. The dining room and bar are located in the lodge, while accommodation is provided in nearby cabins, including a delightful one with a grass roof that felt like a real forest retreat. When I visited on a wet mid-winter evening, the cozy lodge was reminiscent of a British country pub, with a real fireplace, hunting trophies on the walls, and a well-used pool table. As many patrons are hikers, mountain bikers, and local boaties, the laid-back but classic atmosphere is just right.

Ed Drury, who gushes about Marlborough's top-quality produce, is the manager of Furneaux Lodge and nearby Punga Cove Resort. He's proud that both places' kitchens serve local produce almost exclusively (apart from French champagne!). The menus feature line-caught fish (such as hapuku and shark) supplied from a local fisherman; cheese from Nelson-based producers ViaVio and Cranky Goat; mussels from Mills Bay Mussels in Havelock; and non-native mammals hunted locally, such as venison. They focus on what is in season, so the menus change regularly.

Our meal that evening—a starter of popcorn clams, well-done steak for my partner, a hapuku burger and chips for myself, and a portion of creamy mushroom pasta for my daughter—was the type of familiar comfort food that can be found in many pubs-come-restaurants around New Zealand. But knowing that it was all extremely fresh and had mostly been sourced from Marlborough and nearby Nelson gave it an added spark.

While Furneaux Lodge makes good use of a flat stretch of land leading into the calm sea, nearby Punga Cove is stacked into the hillside, surrounded by the namesake punga ferns. Although it's just a five-minute boat ride from Furneaux Lodge, it takes a few hours to hike between the two, through dense forest singing with the sound of native birds like tuis and kereru.

Visitors who take the easy option of arriving at Punga Cove by boat pull in to a long jetty, at the end of which is The Boatshed Cafe. A surprising place to find a famous pizza restaurant, perhaps, but by the way a group of muddy mountain bikers tucked into a freshly-cooked pizza, it's ideally placed. On a sunny day, the outdoor deck seating over the water would be an ideal place to sit with a cold glass of Marlborough wine and keep an eye out for dolphins playing in the inlet. During my visit, we saw the dolphins, but without the sun.

Certainly, travelers to Nelson, Blenheim, or Picton can try some of the Marlborough region's finest food and drink in a quick and easy visit to a top-notch restaurant. There are no shortage of those at the Top of the South. But the more meandering scenic view is always worthwhile, especially when the view is the Marlborough Sounds.