The maritime township of Picton (population 4,000) lies at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound and is the arrival point for ferries from the North Island, as well as a growing number of international cruise ships. It plays a major role in providing services and transport by water taxi to a multitude of remote communities in the vast area of islands, peninsulas, and waterways that make up the Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park. There's plenty to do in town, with crafts markets in summer, historical sights to see, and walking tracks to scenic lookouts over the sounds. The main foreshore is lined by London Quay, which looks up Queen Charlotte Sound to the bays beyond. High Street runs down to London Quay from the hills, and between them these two streets make up the center of town.
Edwin Fox Maritime Museum. The preserved hulk of the Edwin Fox, now the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, demonstrates how young New Zealand's European settlement is. The ship was used in the Crimean War, transported convicts to Australia, and brought settlers to New Zealand. Now drydocked and restored, it serves as a museum, bringing to life the conditions the early immigrants faced. Check out the interesting interpretative displays upstairs, which outline the ship's history and service, before walking through the ship, where you can imagine how the settlers felt when shut below decks for months at a time, seasick, homesick, and unsure of what awaited them at landfall. Dunbar Wharf. Admission charged.
Picton Museum. The Picton Museum details much of Picton's early seafaring history. The area was first a key Māori settlement called Waitohi, then an important whaling and sealing location for European immigrants in the early 19th century. Until 1860 there was no road access to Picton, so all trade and travel was done by sea. London Quay. Admission charged.
Blenheim. Many people come to Blenheim (pronounced bleh-num by the locals) for one reason-wine. There are dozens of wineries around this town, and taste-the-good-life restaurants and hotels are springing up all over, ready for the resulting wave of oenophiles. Blenheim itself is developing fast, though its center still has a small-town veneer, with narrow streets, paved crossings, and low-slung buildings. Most years, Marlborough has lots of sunshine, and this daytime warmth combines with crisp, cool nights to give local grapes a long, slow ripening period. The smooth river pebbles that cover the best vineyards are a bonus-they reflect heat onto the ripening bunches. All these factors together create grapes with audacious flavors. Whites reign supreme, including sauvignon blanc and riesling. Cabernet sauvignon has mostly been pulled out after disappointing results, but recent examples of pinot noir have been pretty impressive.
From the start, Kevin Judd of Cloudy Bay Vineyards produced first-class sauvignon blanc, and an equally impressive chardonnay was added to the portfolio soon afterward. That was the intention of Australia's Cape Mentelle Vineyards when it got Cloudy Bay up and running in 1985. Its sauvignon blancs are consistently highly rated for their notes of citrus, pear, and passion fruit; these are generally ready for immediate drinking. The chardonnay is more complex and can take medium-term cellaring. Jackson's Rd.
Therese and Hans Herzog planted their first vines along Jeffries Road back in 1994, while still living much of the year in Europe. Now full-time Kiwis, they produce a superb range of wines under the Herzog label from their pesticide- and chemical-free vineyard. Pinot gris, pinot noir, and what may be the area's only montepulciano are standouts, and the tasting area invites you to spend a long sunny afternoon exploring the delights of the cellar. You can enjoy an elegant bistro lunch in the tasting room, or, if you've made reservations and want to really experience gustatory nirvana, you can have a full meal at the adjoining restaurant-widely considered to be one of the best in the country. 81 Jeffries Rd., off Rapaura Rd.
With plenty of bells and whistles, the impressive Montana Brancott Winery is a new departure for Marlborough. The visitor center includes a tasting area, a restaurant, a theater, and of course, retail. Their star vintage is sauvignon blanc; their pinot noir is on the rise as well. Tastings cost a few dollars, and if you plan to come in summer, you may need to reserve in advance. State Hwy. 1, 21/2 mi (4 km) south of Blenheim.
Ernie Hunter, of Hunter's Wines, pushed Marlborough into the international spotlight with his natural marketing talents; after his tragic death in a car crash, his wife, Jane, with winemaker Gary Duke, forged ahead and expanded the vineyard to 2½ times its original size. They have a reputation for remarkable wines, including an oak-aged sauvignon blanc, and have won dozens of awards. Likewise, the winery's restaurant is worth seeking out. Rapaura Rd.
Marlborough Sound. Picton is the base for cruising in the Marlborough Sounds, the labyrinth of waterways that was formed when the rising sea invaded a series of river valleys at the northern tip of the South Island. Backed by forested hills that at times rise almost vertically from the water, the sounds are a wild, majestic place edged with tiny beaches and rocky coves and studded with islands where native wildlife remains undisturbed by introduced species. (Operators run tours to several of these special islands.) Māori legend says the sounds were formed when a great warrior and navigator called Kupe fought with a giant octopus. Its thrashings separated the surrounding mountains, and its tentacles became parts of the sunken valleys. These waterways are one of the country's favorite areas for boating, but for rugged grandeur they are in a class of their own.
Most wineries have extremely well-stocked gift shops. Be sure to visit the visitors' center at Montana Brancott (State Hwy. 1, 21/2 mi [4 km] south of Blenheim) if you taste there.
Diving. The Marlborough Sounds has an excellent dive site in the Mikhail Lermontov. In 1986, this Russian cruise ship sank on her side in 30 meters (100 feet) of water in Port Gore. (Only one life was lost.) The 200-meter-long (600-foot) ship is now an exciting dive site for anyone with moderate diving skills. Highlights are the swimming pool in its glass veranda room, the bridge, and the huge funnel. September and October are generally the best months for good visibility.
Kayaking. The best way to experience the Marlborough Sounds is by sea kayak-and the mostly sheltered waters of Queen Charlotte Sound are the perfect place to try your hand at kayaking. The bays are ringed by dense native forest, echoing with the trilling calls of native birds; the water around you ripples as dolphins glide past.
Port Photo: Torpe/flickr