As the probable landing place of the first waka ever to visit New Zealand, Marlborough is the home of the very first people ever to travel to this country.
The Wairau Bar, a long finger of gravel protecting the mouth of the Wairau River, is a rich repository of archaeological evidence, and digs there have revealed artifacts and human remains that have been radiocarbon dated to around 1300 AD. The discoveries could mean that New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world to be able to locate exactly where its first humans arrived, and the ancestors of Māori today still rest in its rocky soils – the country’s very first graveyard.
A permanent exhibition at the Marlborough Museum, Te Pokohiwi – The Wairau Bar 1250 AD, tells this story, as well as that of other significant developments in the region’s history: gold, farming, and wine.
Marlborough grew on the backs of farming settlers as well as wine pioneers coaxing a unique sauvignon blanc from the region’s stony alluvial soils. With its high sunshine hours, minimal rainfall, and freedom from frosts, Marlborough is one of the biggest wine-producing regions in the country, and the industry has grown up to offer plenty more varieties, all on offer at interesting cellar door experiences.
One of the more unusual is at Brancott Estate Heritage Centre, where you can meet a kārearea, or native falcon, one of the fastest birds in the world. Brancott operates the aviary in partnership with the Marlborough Falcon Trust, and it’s a popular tourist attraction. Small wonder: it is one of just two places in the country where kārearea are bred and raised, and to see them fly and dive is a thrilling experience.
For a more active wine tour, the perfect way to test all those options is by bike. There’s an overwhelming number of wineries in Marlborough, but many are packed in close together, and cycling gives you a manageable target area as well as an energetic or cruisy way to get about. Choose a cycle touring company based in the vineyards, such as Renwick’s Wine Tours By Bike, which is located within 5 kilometres of more than 20 cellar doors. They’ll pick you up from town and drop you back, and outfit you with everything you need: maps, bottled water, and wine bottle carriers. A couple of glasses with mates and some gentle weaving along the off-road paths is a fine way to spend an afternoon, and best of all you get to take some of that bottled sunshine home with you.
Another unique rural experience and a glimpse into some of the tough farming history of this region, is a visit to the bold black-and-white striped lighthouse at Cape Campbell, right on the tip of the South Island’s eastern shoulder. Built in 1905, it was the base for the 2016 film The Light Between Oceans and is situated on Cape Campbell Farm, steeped in farming and maritime history – and which holds records for the lowest rainfall in the country. Cape Campbell is a wild, invigorating place, and you can visit by hiking a few hours from nearby Marfells Beach and book the historic cottages featured in the movie. Staying there is the only way to actually climb up to the lighthouse to visit, but if you’re short on time, it’s easily viewed from the beach below.
Further west, the Marlborough Sounds are a holiday-maker's paradise and a community with a unique history and flavour. The people who live here are hardy, resourceful and appreciative of the beautiful spot they’re lucky enough to enjoy. The Sounds are river valleys drowned by the deep workings of a fault line, with dark green bush-clad peaks rising above gentle, clear blue waters which are often home to dolphins and orca. They’re also famous for large and meaty greenshell mussels, grown in farms dotting the bays and bringing in a fair whack of Marlborough’s income.
An astonishing one-fifth of New Zealand’s coastline is sequestered in the Sounds, which gives some indication of how much there is to explore. Get out to see the cloistered bays somehow – join a local fishing charter and catch some blue cod, for which the Sounds are famous, or visit Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary on a guided tour, one of the best ways to learn about the ecology of the area.
A classic way to see the Sounds is on the Pelorus Mail Boat Run, one of the last genuine delivery boats in the world. From the fishing village of Havelock, the service has been bringing groceries, passengers, and mail to isolated Sounds people for nearly 100 years, and now adds tourism to its repertoire. A slightly more energetic and leisurely journey is by sea kayak, and there are a variety of operators offering kayak hire or guided tours dotted around the region, with services depending on your budget. Paddling out of the wind and salt spray towards a campsite in another gorgeous bay is a special way to experience the beauty of this area.
Awash in history, grapes and sunshine, you can’t really go wrong in Marlborough; the vineyards make for a beautiful setting at most times of the year. Though summer brings the people, the bays, hills, and vines are even more appealing in the milder months, when both the crowds and the sun are less intense.
As you leave, don’t forget Picton, a bustling seaside tourist town; there’s lots more to do here than just drive off or onto the Cook Strait ferry. Apart from the maritime history, aquarium for the little kids, dolphin and whale-watching tours, adventure operators and eco-tourism ventures based here, visit Picton for a simple picnic, ice-cream or swim, then bob about in the water watching the arresting spectacle of the ferries churning past – always, always, with a cool glass of something local.