In the higher reaches of New Zealand’s South Island, you’ll discover a thrilling range of wildlife experiences, culinary delicacies and cultural insights, all wrapped in the stunning natural environment for which the country is so renowned.

The ferry journey from Wellington at the foot of the North Island takes you across the Cook Strait and into the spectacular Marlborough Sounds. Steep, native bush-clad hills plunge all the way down to the waterline along 1500 kilometres of winding coastline. As you gently cruise through the sounds, you become acutely aware of the tranquillity of these waterways. There is no more sublime way to arrive at what the locals call ‘the mainland’.

You’ll notice a number of attractive holiday homes dotting the hillsides, which are perfectly accessible despite being half-hidden by verdant New Zealand bush so that a stay in the sounds is as convenient as it is idyllic. Looking further afield, there is a superb selection of accommodation options available throughout the Marlborough region to cater for all budgets and desires.

This area is a haven for marine and birdlife. On Motuara Island in the Queen Charlotte Sound, little penguin and many other rare native species of bird, including the iconic Kiwi, thrive in a predator-free bird sanctuary. You can also walk the scenic Queen Charlotte Track, one of the South Island’s most renowned walks, or a short stretch of it.

The charming town of Picton is the heart of the Marlborough Sounds, and this is where the Cook Strait ferry arrives. From here it’s only a short drive to Blenheim, gateway to the world-renowned Marlborough vineyards. Marlborough put New Zealand on the international wine stage in the 1980s with its Sauvignon Blanc and today the region boasts around two thirds of New Zealand’s total vineyards. With over 30 cellar doors available for tastings, finding out what’s so special about Marlborough wine is a wonderful experience. Guided tours are available, and if you fancy a little exercise you can also cycle around at your own pace, sampling as you go.

Famous wines of the Marlborough region, as well as multi-award-winning New Zealand craft beers, can be paired with local produce and gourmet cuisine. The Marlborough Sounds are well-known for the quality of their salmon and green shell mussels, while fresh crayfish is readily available from the East Coast. Many visitors remark that this area is something of a culinary paradise, and they’re not wrong.

The drive south from Marlborough along the east coast is one of the most picturesque routes in a country that’s hardly short of them. Snoozing seals can often be seen stretched out on the rocky outcrops along the wild Pacific coastline. Eventually, you’ll reach Kaikoura, New Zealand’s marine Serengeti. This quaint little seaside town is an absolute must-visit on any South Island itinerary, for its blend of world-class wildlife experiences and rustic charm.

A deep undersea trench off the Kaikoura coast provides a rich feeding ground for abundant sea life, including dolphin and several species of whale. Companies such as Whale Watch Kaikoura and Encounter Kaikoura offer whale and dolphin-watching trips with a sustainable ethos, while you can also see many forms of birdlife including albatross, and of course seals. Don’t forget to stop at the roadside caravans for a delicious fresh seafood takeaway, where you can have a chat with the friendly vendors while taking in the incredible views.  

Naturally, Kaikoura also offers an excellent selection of accommodation options, from hosted bed-and-breakfasts to motels and many luxury properties. This is one very special New Zealand town, with distinctive Maori and marine cultures, and a raft of unmissable wildlife activities to be enjoyed.

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Author: Steppes Travel