Glacially formed valleys flooded by the ocean form the splintered coastline of the Marlborough Sounds. A waterworld of bays, inlets and hidden coves, above the sealine it’s spliced with ridges clad in native forest and peppered with small farming and fishing villages.
The sounds are worthy of exploration in their own right. But, they’re also the gateway to the South Island’s Marlborough wine region, and the two areas can be easily explored alongside each other. It only takes about half an hour to drive between them, and they form a great first stop on any South Island road trip.
The Marlborough Sounds are many people’s first glimpse of New Zealand’s South Island if approaching overwater from Wellington. You step off the ferry into Picton, an unassuming town with a palm-lined waterfront, tucked into the foot of green hills. It’s only a half-hour drive to Havelock, the region’s other main town, which devotes itself to touting New Zealand’s succulently oversized greenlip mussels ― grown in the sounds. You can get there via the winding Queen Charlotte Drive, a scenic road with lookouts over the sounds.
However, to experience the sounds at their most peaceful, you need to venture out from Havelock or Picton to one of the guesthouses tucked away in the coves, which are usually only accessible by water taxi. From here, you can rent a sea kayak or canoe to get a seal’s-eye view of the waters. There are dolphin-watching boat trips, and orca have also been known to surface here. In-between the main sounds, you’ll find several barely visited beaches.
One of the country’s Great Walks, the Queen Charlotte Track, begins at Ship Cove out in the sounds. We explain the appeal of hiking here in our expert guide to walking and trekking in New Zealand. If you don’t want to take on something of that scale, there are many shorter tracks.
The winding, weaving Sounds are home to wildlife, including the rare Okarito brown kiwi, which lives in the coastal forest fronting the sheltered waters. The dawn chorus here is a particularly tuneful one as birdlife flourishes in the sounds: you can hear the calls of fantails and tauhous, among others, from the bush. Motuara Island, just off the coast from Ship Cove (the trailhead for the Queen Charlotte Track) even acts as a bird sanctuary, with a population of rare king shags.
Heading inland, you come to Blenheim, the main town of the Marlborough wine region. An attractive town with floral gardens and a community of craftspeople, it’s really just a base for exploring the vineyards themselves, which first sprung up in the 1970s. You can follow driving routes around the region, popping in for informal tastings at cellar doors ―we recommend combining big-name wineries, such as Cloudy Bay, with smaller boutique places.
Even better, explore by bicycle. You’ll wind along roads flanking neat rows of vines with views out to green hills — the hazy Richmond Range (hazy because this is one of the sunniest regions in all New Zealand). While in the area, you could also call into the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, which has a display of World War I aircraft masterminded by Peter Jackson.
Best time to visit the Marlborough Sounds
October and November (springtime), then March and April, offer a good compromise between fairly warm temperatures and fewer crowds. Though, you can visit year-round if you’re prepared to risk rainfall.
Suggested Marlborough Sounds itinerary
This sample itinerary will give you an idea of what is possible when you travel in Marlborough Sounds, and showcases routes we know work particularly well. Treat this as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.
Map of Marlborough Sounds
Places & hotels on the map
Places near Marlborough Sounds
- Picton 11 miles away
- Blenheim 27 miles away
- Wellington 37 miles away
- Nelson 43 miles away
- The Kapiti Coast 51 miles away
- Abel Tasman National Park 62 miles away
- Martinborough 72 miles away
- Greytown 72 miles away
- Wairarapa & surrounds 74 miles away
- Collingwood & Farewell Spit 81 miles away
- Kahurangi National Park 86 miles away
- Kaikoura 90 miles away
- Whanganui National Park 99 miles away
- Hanmer Springs 116 miles away
- Taranaki & New Plymouth 145 miles away
- Tongariro National Park 154 miles away
- Punakaiki 158 miles away
- Hastings 179 miles away
- Arthur's Pass National Park 180 miles away
- Christchurch 181 miles away
- Hawke's Bay 188 miles away
- Napier 188 miles away
- Akaroa & Banks Peninsula 193 miles away
- Hokitika 194 miles away
- Lake Taupo 201 miles away
- Waitomo 207 miles away
- Rotorua 238 miles away
- Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers 263 miles away
- Waikato 263 miles away
- Tauranga 264 miles away
- Bay of Plenty 266 miles away
- Lake Tekapo 270 miles away
- Eastland & Gisborne 271 miles away
- Mount Cook National Park 271 miles away
- Thames & Kauaeranga Valley 288 miles away
- Twizel 296 miles away
- Auckland 300 miles away
Accommodation choices for Marlborough Sounds
We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit Marlborough Sounds. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.
Ideas for experiencing Marlborough Sounds
Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Marlborough Sounds, and which use the best local guides.