There are not many cities on New Zealand's South Island, and the town of Blenheim (population 26,000) at the top of the island is one of them. It's the capital of the Marlborough region, famous for the Marlborough Sounds and for being the largest wine-producing area in New Zealand.
Blenheim offers many wine-related activities, and visitors could spend their whole time visiting wineries and restaurants. But, there are other non-alcoholic activities to enjoy in the riverside town, too. Blenheim is a convenient stop between Nelson or the Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island, and the whale-watching town of Kaikoura further down the coast. Here are a few of the best things to see and do in Blenheim.
Ride the Marlborough Flyer Steam Train From Picton
Whether you're staying in Picton and just want to make a quick trip to Blenheim or are looking for a fun way to travel between the two towns, hop aboard the Marlborough Flyer steam train. The train is more than 100 years old, and the passenger carriages transport you back to 1915. The journey from Picton to Blenheim takes an hour, passing hills, forests, marshland, and vineyards. Each carriage is named after a different local winery, and passengers can sample wine from that company while enjoying the views. There's a small outdoor platform where you can enjoy the wind in your hair (just don't forget to duck indoors before going through a tunnel, otherwise you'll get a bit of smoke in your hair, too!)
Lead Your Own Wine-Tasting at The Wine Station
The Marlborough Flyer stops in Blenheim at the railway station, where The Wine Station is conveniently located. At regular wine-tasting venues you will usually sample a few wines made at one winery. There is often no pressure to buy, but if you do, the options will be limited to those produced at the same winery. The Wine Station, on the other hand, offers a different kind of wine tasting. Several cabinets display different types of wine: one cabinet for local Sauvignon Blanc, one for local red wines, and so on. Visitors purchase a reusable card at the counter, which you swipe at one of the wine cabinets to release your chosen sample. You can have just a small sample, a half glass, or a full glass, and the prices vary depending on the size and the brand. It's a fun way to sample a variety of wines and easily compare the differences in taste between them.
Admire Local Art at the Millennium Gallery
Driving around the Marlborough Sounds it's hard not to notice the many independent art studios with views over the water and surrounded by bush. Marlborough is certainly an inspiring place for artists, and Blenheim's Millennium Gallery showcases local artists. Opened in 1999, it's one of New Zealand's newest public art galleries. Temporary exhibits display mostly contemporary art by local and New Zealand artists, as well as some international artists, too.
Learn About Aviation History at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
Opened in 2006, the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a family-friendly place to learn about aviation history. It displays vintage World War I and World War II-era airplanes and artifacts donated by aviation enthusiasts like Peter Jackson, director of the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" movies. Every second year, the Classic Fighters Omaka Airshow is held in Blenheim, using some of the aircraft on display at the museum.
Do a Lap on a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
Hop-on hop-off bus tours of Blenheim are an ideal way to visit several vineyards around the countryside without having to worry about who will be the designated driver. Buses can be arranged from Blenheim or Picton. Most stops are at wineries, with the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre added to the mix for some variety.
Discover New Zealand's Early History at the Marlborough Museum
The Marlborough district is significant in New Zealand history: not only is it where Captain James Cook declared sovereignty over the South Island on behalf of the British king in the late 18th century, but it's where the first Polynesian explorers to New Zealand are believed to have settled, at Wairau Bar in the late 13th century. Displays of archaeological artifacts at the Marlborough Museum give an idea of what life was like in Aotearoa during its early years of human habitation. There are also exhibits on the history of wine in Marlborough, and European settler history.
Watch Birds at the Taylor Dam
The Taylor Dam is a flood protection dam and recreational reserve built in the 1960s located southwest of Blenheim. The lake at the dam is an important site for black swans, coots, mallards, pukeko, paradise ducks, shags, fantails, swallows, harrier hawks, and other species. The lake is not good for swimming, but it is ideal for bird watching. It also connects to the Taylor River. A long cycle path runs alongside the Taylor River, leading to central Blenheim.
Stroll Beside the River at The Quays
Central Blenheim's riverside development area is known as The Quays. There are boardwalks beside the calm river, and a number of restaurants with good views. The design and landscaping of The Quays was intended to reflect Blenheim's alluvial plains, which contribute to it being such a fertile area. Keep an eye out for the cute beaver statues: Blenheim's nickname is "the Beaver" because of its history of flooding, particularly before the Taylor Dam was built on the Taylor River.