Exploring The Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand

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The Marlborough Sounds consists of beautiful forested mountains, sunken valleys and 1500km of stunning coastline. Situated on northern edge of New Zealand’s jaw dropping South Island. They are formed of four main sounds which make up this area.

Marlborough is known around the world for its wine making. In fact I spent 3 months working on the vineyards here as well as a few weeks covering in a wine bottling factory. During this time I was living in Blenheim and using every excuse to travel and explore the south island on my days.

Exploring The Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand
Near Port Underwood, Malrlborough Sounds, New Zealand | © Travels and Wandering

How To Explore The Marlborough Sounds

This area is perfect for so many outdoor adventures including: hiking, camping, road tripping, cycling, diving, kayaking, exploring by boat. The Māori’s traditionally believe the Marlborough sounds are the prows of the sunken wakas of Aoraki. There are four main sounds that contribute to this waterway network of sunken valleys.

Here is everything you need to know to plan your own trip around the marlborough sounds. Hike, bike or take to the water.

Take A Road Trip Around The Marlborough Sounds

The state highway 6 from Nelson to Blenheim (which includes the Queen Charlotte Drive) via Havelock and Picton, is on of the most under rated road trips in the country. This is definitely something you should consider adding to any road trip itinerary around New Zealand.

For about 9 months of my time in New Zealand I loved in Blenheim. I spent 2 summers working as a housekeeper at the beautiful Chateau Marlborough, I was very lucky to get my afternoons from 3pm free to explore the local area. I would often end up heading out with a friend or my partner at the time to the sounds. It was great for an afternoon swim or afternoon hike. The drive alone is enough of an attraction. No matter how many times we went down this road to explore (or sometimes through to Nelson to stay there, Kaiteriteri or The Abel Tasman) I was just in awe.

Hiking The Marlborough Sounds

One of the best things about this area is you could do a day trip or multi day road trip exploring the sounds. Fit in activities or just relax in nature. It is accessible and close to towns.

There are so many trails you can do from short easy routes taking up to an hour all the way to multi day hikes like the famous Queen Charlotte Track. I have only done short sections of this, joining friends during their longer hikes at the beginning and meeting at Punga cove for a stay and doing some more of the walk. This is on my bucket list for my next visit to New Zealand.

I’d reccomend checking out the availability of the sites or lodges you want to stay in first then going from there. They can get booked up almost a year beforehand.

I’ve recently started using All Trails as an app, and I’m not sure of what I think of it just yet for my own area, however the trails for the sounds include the main ones I’ve done and some more I haven’t heard of yet. Here is a link to check them out – Click here for the Marlborough hiking trails website link. You do not have to pay the subscription to get the initial information, this can be a great starting point.

Explore The Marlborough Sounds By Water

Obviously the sounds are bodies of water that have engulfed the sunken valleys, so it would be strange not to consider exploring the water networks.

In Picton you can hire out kayaks and you will need to sign a disclaimer to do so. This will allow you to explore at your own pace. I’d only reccomend this if you have experience. I’d also suggest you arrange for a pick up point at havelock or somewhere more in the sounds. Alternatively Punga cove and a few of the resorts hidden in the sounds have this available for guests (or you can ring up and book ahead when it’s in the shoulder season).

There is a lot of ways you can do this but it will need to be booked ahead. Here are main links to the experiences I have first hand experience with and really loved. The kayaking uses local guides and company that supports local marine conservation. The dolphin watching is also the same and money from this goes back into logging, supporting and learning from the marine life in the sounds.

The private yatch tour I wasn’t able to attend due to being unwell on the day but a group of the travellers I loved with booked this and have the most amazing day. I am insanely jealous and will be booking this next time I head back.

Which Marlborough Sound Should I Explore?

Pelorus Sound

Views from Cullen Point Looking Towards Pelorus Sound | ©,Travels and Wandering
Views from Cullen Point Looking Towards Pelorus Sound | ©,Travels and Wandering

The true name of Pelorus sound is Te Hoiere and it is the largest of the Marlborough sounds.

There are a number of tracks you can walk from here including the cullen point tracks leading to the above view or the pelorus river track.

The Pelorus river has an accessible walking track (named the Peloris bridge track) with so many great views, it’s densly packed native bush is a haven for wildlife. You will get multiple views of the Pelorus river along the track where you will feel lost in the wild. You can either do the short loop or the long trail (both aren’t too challenging but just a lovely walk through nature).

As you look down the river you may get a sense of familiairity, this is because it was used as a filming location in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug. The famous scene where the characters escape in barrels down a river, was filmed here in lovely Marlborough on the Pelorus River. You can even book kayaking tours down the river. During my time living in Blenheim when this was being filmed and we kept seeing the actors around town, with some of the crew staying in the hotel I was working in.

The archer track is less popular and a longer tramping route, where you will have plenty of exciting views, you will also hear and see lots of native birds and cicadas.

There are a number of campsites owned by the Department of Conservation (DOC) around Pelorus and it’s extensive walking tracks. Some of these are only accessible by boat and it is advised that you book ahead especially during summer (as some sites only have 4-6 pitches) Click here to find more information about each of the sites and ameneties. These campsites are also listed under the same as Kenepuru due to the fact these two sounds feed into each other. Angel the Wanderlust has also written a fantastic guide to camping in New Zealand to help you with your planning.

The town of Havelock sits at the foot of the sound which also has some alternative experiences on offer.

Kenepuru Sound

The pelorus sound also feeds into the Kenepuru sound. You can drive up Kenepuru but there will be areas where the road turns to gravel and lose scree, so check your insurance before heading too far along by car.

Part of the famous queen charlotte track runs along the Kenepuru sound. This is a favourite for hikers from all over the world. The hopewell loop track is another favourite of trampers for a short tramp with amazing views.

This area also has some trails that are well equipped for mountain biking and I would definitely reccomend this option if you get a chance. Because of the native bush being quite densly packed in this area and dramatic inclines of the valleys to the water, I’d also reccomend trying to get out on a boat, kayak or paddleboard. I’ve put a bit more information of exploring the sounds by water further down in this article.

If you fancy something a little more relaxed then there is also a golf course and a spa on the sound.

If you are camping here then you may be lucky enough to experience seeing glowworms as the sun dissappears. You can see them around New Zealand and the sounds but this area is quieter than some others for noise and disruption of habitat so you will tend have a better chance of seeing them.

Portage resort is a place that we passed during one of our visits and offers the perfect luxury stay on a reasonable budget. This could be a great option for a base to explore the sounds but have your home comforts. They offer plenty of options for day trips with local guides by water or land. The views of the bay are just amazing (I know I have said this a lot).

There are a few holiday lets and campsites around Kenepuru sound.

Queen Charlotte Sound

Tōtaranui is on the east side of the sounds is the most well known. It is covered in native bush, deep coves and hidden bays where you can get your own little slice of heaven for a day and most likely only see one or two people. This area is known for the multi day track of the same name that also starts from this sound and extends to other areas.

The town of Picton sits at the south base of the queen Charlotte sound and is where the interislander and blueridge ferries depart to take you to the north island. Therefore it is also the most accessible sound if you are limited by time but staying in the town of picton before your ferry, I’d reccomend giving yourself even an hour or two to explore some of the short looping tracks around here.

Because this sound is a little more open and has more movement it is really common to see dolphins following the wake of boats or being curious around kayakers. Seals, penguins and gannets can also be seen around the waters here and are protected by the local conservation groups which also offer tours.

Mahau Sound

Exploring the marlborough sounds at Mahau Sound | © Travels and Wandering
Mahau Sound | © Travels and Wandering

Mahau sound is probably the lesser known and quieter sound out of the 4. One of the cool things here are the sandy bays and shallow waters, alongside quirky villages that look like they were plucked right out of a hallmark movie. If you are here in summer and think the other areas of getting a bit busy (which sometimes happens) then head to Mahau for some peace and quiet, but don’t forget to fill up your petrol before hand (It can be a long stretch between).

There is a Freedom camp site in Double Bay or you can rent a classic Kiwi “bach” (beach house) close to havelock but all the charm and quite this sound is often overlooked un comparison to it’s larger sound counterparts. This sheltered sound can be reached if you follow the road to the right of pelorus sound.

Towns of The Marlborough Sounds


Looking Towards The Kaituna River That Runs Through The Valley Next To Havelock In The Marlborough Sounds From Cullent Point Lookout | © Travels and Wandering - Nicole
Looking Towards The Kaituna River That Runs Through The Valley Next To Havelock In The Marlborough Sounds From Cullent Point Lookout | © Travels and Wandering – Nicole

Havelock’s claim to fame is that it is the green lipped muscle capital of the world. I had never tried them until I moved to New Zealand, and tried my best to avoid them but I soon discovered they were really tasty as long as they were cooked right.

Marlborough’s world-famous former residents include rocket scientist William Pickering and the Physicist Ernest Rutherford who won a nobel prize.


View Of The Marlborough Sounds Near Picton | © Travels and Wandering
View Of The Marlborough Sounds Near Picton | © Travels and Wandering

Picton is the gateway to the south island, with most visitors to New Zealand flying into Auckland (and over 3/4 of new zealands population living on the north island), this will be most people’s first views of the south island. And what a welcome Picton is… This charming waterfront town has a laid back atmosphere, plenty of places to stay and a good choice of restaurants and cafes to eat in.

It is also a great shout if you only have one night in the area, stay here for a base and you can walk to the north east of the town along the cook straight towards some gentle trails and hidden bays. There are arcades, mini golf, cinema but the best thing about here is the number of tours that run from picton around the sounds, to the marlborough vineyards (with many big tours and itineraries cutting this beautiful area out), go swimming with dolphins etc. I’ve popped a link to picton activities below.

The Cook Straight Ferry (North – South Island / South – North Island)

From picton you can obviously head back up north via the interislander or bluebridge which runs between Wellington and Picton.

Top Tips:

  • If you are travelling by coach I’d reccomend an intercity bus. and a flexi pass. The pass hours can include the ferry crossing between north and south and works out a lot cheaper.
  • Make sure you book ahead for best prices.
  • Take food and drink with you to save money. It’s no where near as bad as european price hikes on ferries, ports and in service stations, but it still adds up to more than on land.

The Islands of the Marlborough Sounds

I should mention the islands of the sounds. Some of these are private marine or wildlife reserves, others are Moari reserves. On my next trip if I get chance to head to any I will do a write up on my experience and share more about these.

  • Motuara Island
  • Maud Island
  • Blumine Island
  • Kokomohua
  • Awarpawa
  • Long Island
  • Te Paruparu
  • D’urville Island

More Images From Exploring The Marlborough Sounds

They aren’t the best and most are over exposed as most of these were taken 12 years ago with an old click and go digital camera that was already 4 years old at the time. It didn’t have any fancy lenses or ability to minimise shake or focus the camera quite as well. I much prefer my DSLR or even my phone to those days. Still I love the memories and you can still see how great the scenery is.

Don’t Forget To Pin For Later

Explore the Marlborough Sounds situated on the northern edge of the New Zealand south island. With beautiful forested mountains, sunken valleys and 1500km of stunning coastline.

If you are planning to stay here don’t forget to check out my other articles on the South Island in New Zealand (below)

Follow Nicole:

Owner of Travels and Wandering | Lecturer by Day, Nomad at Heart Adventure Travel Tester | Outdoor Instructor | Mountaineering and Outdoors Researcher | Strength and Conditioning Coach | Yoga Instructor | Personal Trainer | Fitness Pro | Endo Warrior, Pelvic Congestion Syndrome, Spoonie

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