Marlborough Sounds: The Complete Guide

Rolling hills in Marlborough Bay

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

A jagged area of islands, inlets, and sunken valleys, the Marlborough Sounds at the top of New Zealand's South Island is a spectacularly beautiful part of the country. Although it's not a national park area, there are around 50 Department of Conservation-administered reserves, with lush native forest and birdlife. One of New Zealand's most popular multi-day hikes (the Queen Charlotte Track) cuts through the sounds, and there are plenty of day hikes, too. Plus, you don't have to be super-athletic to enjoy this area, with many scenic drives and wildlife-spotting cruises to enjoy. Seafood lovers are also in luck, as New Zealand green shell mussels are farmed in the sounds, meaning you can enjoy big, fat, fresh-out-of-the-sea mussels with waterside views.

A Brief History of the Marlborough Sounds

The Marlborough Sounds are a network of drowned valleys, with mountains that once reached more than 6,500 feet. The sounds (large ocean inlets, wider than similar fiords) are believed to have been created about 14,000 years ago. The Marlborough Sounds are comprised of four sounds (and hundreds of bays and inlets): Queen Charlotte, Pelorus, Kenepuru, and Mahau. Mahau Sound is much smaller than the other three, and Queen Charlotte and Pelorus Sounds are the largest.

Early Polynesian settlers came to the Marlborough Sounds area about 1300 years ago; there's archaeological evidence of this at Wairau Bar in Cloudy Bay, near Blenheim. One of the first European explorers to New Zealand, Captain James Cook, also made several stops in the Marlborough Sounds throughout the 1770s. If you travel to Motuara Island near the entrance of the Queen Charlotte Sound, you'll see a memorial stone laid at the place where Cook claimed possession of this land on behalf of England's King George III. You can also see Maori pa (fortified village) sites.

British colonial settlement took place in the sounds throughout the 19th century, with the establishment of whaling stations, missions, and sheep stations. Picton was founded in 1850, and Havelock in 1858. Roads were constructed throughout the 20th century, although many parts of the Marlborough Sounds still have no road access. The road out to French Pass was built in the 1950s, opening up this arm of the sounds and the sheep farms along with it.

Very few people live in the Marlborough Sounds even today: a total of around 3,000. Most of these live in and around the small towns of Picton, Havelock, and Linkwater. As well as tourism, many people here are farmers, and you will see sheep farms all over the hills, and mussel farms and salmon farms in the water. You'll also notice several artists' studios along the side of the road, as this is undoubtedly an inspirational place.

What to Do in the Marlborough Sounds

What you can do in the Marlborough Sounds will not only depend on your interests and fitness levels but your mode of transportation and how far you want to get away from the (albeit small) towns around here.

  • Hike or mountain bike. With dense forest, so many beautiful viewpoints, and few roads, people come from all over New Zealand and the world to hike in the Marlborough Sounds. The Queen Charlotte Track is the most famous, which takes up to five days. It can also be mountain-biked. There are other lesser-known and less busy hiking trails, too. The Nydia Track starts near Havelock and takes two days of relatively easy walking to reach Duncan Bay. There are easy day walks all over the sounds, too, such as at the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve, or a more challenging day hike to the summit of Mt. Stokes, overlooking Kenepuru Sound.
  • Boat tours. Many parts of the Marlborough Sounds are inaccessible by road and can only be reached by boat. Many locals around here have their own boats, but for travelers, joining a guided tour is a great way to explore more of the area while learning bout the history and environment from a guide, and also spotting some beautiful wildlife. The Pelorus Mail Boat runs out of Havelock, and tourists can join the scheduled mail drop to residents of the isolated outer Pelorus Sound. You'll also see dozens of mussel farms along the way. Picton's E-Ko Tours run various tours in the Queen Charlotte Sound, including one where you stop for a short hike on Motuara Island, a wildlife sanctuary. You're also highly likely to see cormorants, penguins, and dusky dolphins.
  • Scenic drives. While many parts of the Marlborough Sounds can't be reached by road, those that can offer spectacular road trips if you have your own car or RV. The short Queen Charlotte Drive that connects Picton and Havelock is the easiest option. It takes about an hour to drive (depending on how many photo stops you make!), and there are many places along the way to stop and admire the views. If you have more time and are a confident driver, don't miss the trip out to French Pass. Follow the signs off the highway at Rai Valley, west of Havelock. French Pass is a narrow and shallow strip of water diving the mainland from d'Urville Island, where the currents are powerful and the water speed extremely fast, making it a treacherous place to navigate by boat. From the Rai Valley, the road out there is sealed to start with, then becomes unsealed past Elaine Bay. The views of Tasman Bay to the west, Pelorus Sound to the east, and d'Urville Island to the north are simply spectacular, and this has been called one of the greatest (possibly even the greatest) short road trip in New Zealand. It takes about 90 minutes to drive from the Rai Valley turnoff.
  • Kayaking. With almost 100 miles of coastline and endless sheltered bays, the Marlborough Sounds are an ideal place for kayaking. Experienced kayakers can take their own (or a rented kayak) out onto the water, and the less experienced can join a tour. A camping-kayaking trip is an excellent way to reach little bays that aren't accessible by road, and there are many remote and basic DOC campsites to spend the night (don't expect hot showers at these!)
The white ferry contrasting to the green hills
TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre

How to Get to the Marlborough Sounds

Many travelers enter the Marlborough Sounds at Picton, after taking the ferry from Wellington, which is across the Cook Strait. Or, they leave the South Island via Picton, the same way. The ferry isn't the only way to reach the Marlborough Sounds, however. Picton is about a two-hour drive east of Nelson, the largest city at the top of the South Island, and a half-hour drive from Blenheim. These cities are connected via long-distance buses. Picton is also connected to Blenheim and places further south (such as Kaikoura) by scenic trains, which run seasonally.

If you want to fly to the area from further afield in New Zealand, there's a relatively large and well-connected airport at Nelson and smaller airports at Blenheim and Picton.

Getting Around the Marlborough Sounds

To make the most of the Marlborough Sounds area, you'll need your own car or recreational vehicle. There are no public bus services to the smaller places throughout the sounds, although you can get long-distance coaches to and from Picton from Nelson and Blenheim, and there is a local bus between Picton and Blenheim.

Where to Stay in the Marlborough Sounds

Picton has the largest concentration of hotels in the Marlborough Sounds, but it would be a shame to limit yourself to staying in this town, which is quite atypical of the whole area. It is quite a transit hub and is much more "touristy" than other parts of the sounds.

If you're camping (either in a tent or an RV), there are many lovely camping spots throughout the Marlborough Sounds. Look out especially for DOC-administered serviced campgrounds, which are equipped with good bathrooms and kitchen facilities, and are usually located in scenic areas. Those at Momorangi Bay (on the Queen Charlotte Drive) and Pelorus Bridge are exceptionally nice and easy to reach. If you make the drive all the way out to French Pass, there's also a DOC campsite there.

If you're looking for a little more luxury, the Marlborough Sounds offers this aplenty, usually with a massive serving of isolated serenity, too. Look for boutique lodges in sheltered bays—even better if there's no road access, and they can only be reached by boat! Lochmara Lodge is quite close to Picton, on the Queen Charlotte Sound, and has its own underwater observatory. The Portage is on Kenepuru Sound and within walking distance of the Queen Charlotte Track.

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