Marlborough – Gateway to the South Island.

We cruised into Picton on the Interislander Ferry.

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Marlborough (9 of 75)There was a brief stop to check in at our hotel, Park Regis – which overlooks the waterfront and Marlborough Sounds – before dinner at Le Cafe. Situated in a prime location on the foreshore, Le Cafe is a restaurant, bar and live music venue. During our delicious three course dinner the owner, Pieter, joined us. Having been in Picton for 17 years, and originally hailing from Switzerland, he shared many entertaining stories.

After an amazing sleep at Park Regis we enjoyed their buffet continental breakfast before stepping on board Dolphin Watch Ecotours. These guys offer Dolphin swimming and viewing, scenic wildlife cruises, bird watching expeditions and private charters. Kitted up in wetsuits we set off into the Sounds eagerly searching for Dolphins. Conditions were not favourable and increasingly deteriorated throughout our tour. Not that it dampened anyone’s spirits!

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We encountered Hector’s dolphins, the world’s smallest and rarest oceanic dolphin, which are found only in New Zealand. Two mother’s were swimming with their calves. This was the first time the skipper had encountered this pod and he informed us that the mothers’ were quite possibly introducing their calves to humans for the first time. How special is that?! They showed great interest in us but because Hector’s are incredibly rare we couldn’t swim with them.

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Throughout the tour we encountered Little Blue Penguins, New Zealand Fur Seals and a King Shag, a rare species which is endemic to New Zealand. Because the larger dolphins didn’t make an appearance we didn’t enter the water. It didn’t detract from the experience however, the Dolphin Watch Ecotour guides made up for it with their friendly and informative persona.

As we docked at Lochmara the rain really set in. We quickly dashed up the jetty to the warmth of the Lodge. There is no road access to here, like most places in the Marlborough Sounds it can only be accessed by water or the Queen Charlotte Track. Lochmara offers a variety of day trip options and is a multifunctional place; an accommodation provider, arts centre, and wildlife recovery site.

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Unfortunately, due to the weather, we didn’t get to explore the place but the restaurant was a feature in itself. We dined on fresh seafood and sampled local wine. Definitely not a bad way to pass time while we waited for our water taxi ride back to Picton. Conditions forced us to abandon mountain biking along Snout Track so we stopped in to meet Juliearna at Escape to Picton, a Boutique Hotel, Restaurant and Bar.

By the time we reached our accommodation at Marlborough Vintners Hotel the sun had broken through the clouds, producing a beautiful sunset. MVH comprises luxury apartments in a vineyard setting. We dined at Hanz Herzog Estate Bistro Restaurant. The service, the food, the wine – it was all impeccable. I can’t imagine what it must be like to experience their fine dining restaurant… I wouldn’t know what cutlery to use when!

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After a peaceful nights sleep and buffet continental breakfast we headed to the Omaka Heritage Aviation Centre. Wow! This place was incredible. I didn’t know what to expect but I was blown away! The Knights of the Sky exhibition is outstanding, featuring Sir Peter Jackson’s own collection of WW1 aircraft and artifacts. The story of aviation progression during the Great War is brought to life in impressive innovative visual displays. Captivating scenes depict the aircraft in context, incidents that occurred are recreated. Rare memorabilia, which you wonder how it came to be in a Blenheim museum, is also on display. From beautifully crafted ‘trench art’ through to personal items belonging to the famous Red Baron himself, this is definitely a world-class destination for the appreciation of historic aircraft.

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I could’ve spent an entire day at Omaka. It was no wonder that we were an hour behind schedule by the time we left the premises, there is just so much to see! The experience was greatly enhanced by our tour guide, Bruce, who really knew his facts. He had us enthralled as he shared his knowledge of the events that took place during WW1 and described the evolution of the aircraft on display.

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Next stop, the Wither Hills Tasting Room and Cellar Door. We wandered through the Vine Library, visited the Barrel Hall to absorb the scent of oak and yeast fermenting, and sampled their award winning Sauvignon Blanc. (Their 2012 Organic Vintage is delicious by the way!) A feature of Wither Hills is the four story tower that overlooks a valley of vineyards and an open grassed Courtyard area where you can laze on beanbags.

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Brancott Estate was our destination for lunch. Formerly labelled Montana, Brancott Estate are the pioneers of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Up until the early 1970s the South Island was thought to be too cold for vineyard plantations. In 1979 the first vintage was released. Fast forward to today and there are more than 100 wineries in Marlborough. It’s the largest wine producing region in the country, contributing 79% of New Zealand’s total active wine production.

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The Brancott Estate Heritage Centre restaurant, which overlooks the original vineyard. The clear conditions even allowed us to view the North Island from our window-side table. The gourmet dishes of seasonal produce included duck, lamb, salmon and fish. After dining we cycled around the vineyard on bikes Brancott provide for customers.

Our time in Marlborough concluded with kayaking on the Pelorus River. The kayaks are inflatable, increasing stability in rapids. Simon, the owner of Pelorus Eco Adventures, was our tour guide. This tour allowed us to explore a famous Hobbit location, which included the exact spot the Hobbits floated down the river in barrels. It’s a beautiful spot, the river is lined with native forest so you totally forget it’s nestled amongst farmland.

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Unfortunately we did not have time to visit The Mussel Pot, Havelock’s original iconic restaurant and bar. Next time…