The Marlborough Sounds have got to be one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places in New Zealand.
With 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) of coastline, this is a paradise of secluded bays made up of old river valleys filled with the brimming, blue Pacific Ocean waters. If that hasn’t sold you, the steep hills covered in lush forests surrounding these are sure to!
Whether you explore the Sounds by boat, plane, or land, there is much to see and do. It’s the perfect place to do some of the top New Zealand activties from getting out on the water, looking for wildlife like bottlenose dolphins and tiny penguins, or hiking amongst the stunning natural beauty at every turn.
If visiting the Malborough Sounds is in your travel plans, keep reading to find out what you need to know!
1. About the Marlborough Sounds
The Marlborough Sounds are a flourishing, remote area of native islands that draws in both local and international visitors. Its untouched, natural landscapes and epic outdoor activities like water sports and some of the best hikes on the South Island keep people coming back!
Located at the top of the South Island, the picturesque Marlborough Sounds consists of four main sounds. They are: Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, Mahau, and Pelorus Sounds, and each is uniquely beautiful.
Queen Charlotte is one of the most popular thanks to the stunning Queen Charlotte Track. This multi-day hike links to Kenepuru Sound, spanning 72 kms (44 miles), and takes around 4 days to walk.
Pelorus Sound is the largest of the bunch and is recognized as the mussel capital of the world! Brimming with sea life, Pelorus and Kenepuru are the top spots to go fishing and diving.
Mahau Sound tends to be shallower than the others and is nice and sheltered. It’s a perfect spot to avoid crowds and enjoy the peaceful area with excellent birdwatching.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) looks after over 50 reserves in Marlborough Sounds. This helps preserve the area and its wildlife, while also making it easy for visitors to navigate. There are even predator-free islands here where local wildlife including birds like the endangered kiwi can thrive.
If you can get to the Malborough Sounds for even a couple of days, it’s a beautiful secluded escape.
2. Where are the Marlborough Sounds?
I mentioned this is a remote area, but it’s not impossible to get to! The Marlborough Sounds and its assortment of valleys are on the northeast part of the South Island – basically the very top of the island.
The area is between Tasman Bay and Cloudy Bay and encompasses around 4,000 square kms (1,500 square miles).
Most people visit from either Picton, Nelson, or Blenheim. If you’re doing the drive from Christchurch to Picton, it’s around 4 hours. There are also direct flights from both the South and North Islands to the tiny Marlborough Airport.
It’s possible to drive right along this amazing landscape on Queen Charlotte Drive – a winding road between Picton and Havelock. It’s a bit like a scenic cruise … from your car!
If you happen to be taking the ferry to the South Island from the North Island, you’ll pass right through this area! The Interislander Ferry is a great way to get here and enjoy the scenery (more on this later!).
Related read: If you’re staying in Picton, make sure you check out some of New Zealand’s most beautiful beaches nearby!
3. What is the best time to visit the Marlborough Sounds?
I recommend visiting Marlborough Sounds during the summer! In New Zealand, this is during December, January, and February.
Exploring the area during the summer gives you the freedom to enjoy all the best water activities with the greatest chance of having nice weather to do so.
Visiting in the summer does mean it will be busier – it is the best time to visit New Zealand, after all. But you can still carve out really peaceful and private experiences – whether you’re kayaking, hiking, or just enjoying the view.
If you still want great weather but want to avoid the crowds, you can also visit in March or April. This is autumn here, so expect nights to be a bit cooler and days a bit shorter, but you’ll still get lots of sunshine.
4. What are the best towns to explore the Marlborough Sounds from?
Picton is one of the most popular towns to explore the Marlborough Sounds from. It’s right at the top of the South Island, so it’s closest to the heart of the sounds.
Getting here is an easy drive along the main highway from Christchurch or there’s a small airport here as well. Of course, it’s also where the ferry from the North Island comes in from Wellington.
This port town is an excellent base for activities in the Marlborough Sounds. You’ll find many tours will start and end in Picton, or you can simply drive yourself along Queen Charlotte Drive, just outside of town, and explore.
Blenheim is another town you can leave from, about 25 minutes south of Picton and Havelock. You can head to either town to get to the Marlborough Sounds as they are on opposite sides of the scenic Queen Charlotte Drive.
Blenheim is the foodie capital of New Zealand and a must-visit if you love wine (like me!). There are over 30 wineries around here and the Marlborough wine industry is well-loved for a reason. Make sure you go on a wine tasting or two before heading off to the Marlborough Sounds.
This small fishing town with only 500 people is famous for its gold mining history and the Greenshell Mussels (or Green-Lipped Mussels). It’s the gateway to the Pelorus Sound – the biggest of the four that make up the Marlborough Sounds.
This is the perfect destination to jump on a cruise, hire a kayak, or take on one of the amazing trails with views that are worth the hike.
Nelson is another good spot to stay if you want to explore the Sounds, but also enjoy the activities and conveniences of a larger city. Nelson is one of the oldest cities in the region and one of the largest on the South Island!
Nelson itself is beautiful as it’s surrounded by mountains on three sides and Tasman Bay on the other. It’s also central to other popular destinations like Abel Tasman National Park with tours of Abel Tasman leaving from Nelson. Plus, the city is super cute with lots of shopping, art galleries, and even New Zealand’s oldest pub!
It is a bit further away from the Marlborough Sounds, but still not bad. You’ll follow State Highway 6 heading east to Havelock and then it’s a simple left-hand turn onto Queen Charlotte Drive to explore the sounds and all the activities.
Related read: If you’re coming from the North Island, the Marlborough Sounds are just one of the top day trips from Wellington!
5. What are the best things to do in the Marlborough Sounds?
Okay, where do I start?!? There aren’t many places in the world where you can go on a scenic cruise, help deliver mail (by boat!), swim with dolphins, hike to epic viewpoints and see wildlife galore.
The Marlborough Sounds have a bit of everything, it’s no wonder they are among the top places to see on the South Island. If you’re only here for a short period of time, these are the experiences you shouldn’t miss.
Go on a cruise
With water this clear and landscapes this gorgeous, you HAVE to get out on a boat to enjoy it. It’s a totally different viewpoint of the Marlborough Sounds and cruising along will end up as one of your (many!) highlights of visiting here.
There are a ton of cruises to choose from, but one of my personal favorites is this particular Mail Boat Cruise. Would you believe the mail is delivered by boat in the Queen Charlotte Sound and has been for over 150 years!?
Join the postman on mail day as he delivers letters and parcels to hard-to-reach homes along the Sounds. You will also likely stop at one of the secluded beaches in Queen Charlotte Sounds if time allows. This is a truly unique way to see Queen Charlotte Sound with a seasoned local. Prices start from $112 NZD per person and you should book in advance to secure your spot.
The other boat tour I personally love is this boat tour combined with a wine tasting tour. The best of both worlds – scenic water views and excellent wines! In the morning, you will cruise through the Sounds on a catamaran, taking in all the spectacular coastal scenery.
Around lunchtime, you will go ashore to Saint Clair winery to enjoy lunch and a wine tasting. You will also visit up to 2 other wineries on this tour. Pick-up and drop-off are available from Picton and Blenheim. This tour starts from $305 NZD per person and you should book online in advance.
Join a dolphin cruise or swim with dolphins
Dolphins are a regular sight around here and so incredible to see up close! On this 4-hour dolphin cruise, keep your eyes open for up to 3 different species of dolphins (hector, bottlenose, and dusky) frolicking in the waters of the Marlborough Sounds.
Along the way, your knowledgeable guide will tell you all about the marine life here and point out fur seals, rare seabirds, and dolphins of course. This is a great tour option for photography lovers as the boat will bring you as close as is safe to the sea life. This tour also includes a short tour of the Motuara Island bird sanctuary. It costs about $130 NZD.
If you’re up for a more unforgettable experience, why not swim with dolphins? This tour from Picton actually allows you to swim with wild bottlenose, common, or hector dolphins – provided the water conditions are favorable. You will receive all the necessary gear (wetsuits with hoods and booties), and your experienced guide will be on-hand to go through the safety briefing.
The water temperature here averages 17°C (62.6°F). It’s some of the warmest waters in New Zealand – which is a big plus for me! This tour is Department of Conservation permitted and classed as eco-friendly, meaning the utmost care and consideration is given to the wild dolphins.
Hike the Queen Charlotte Track
One of the most popular hikes in New Zealand is the Queen Charlotte Track, which lies between Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds. The walking track has unrivaled views of both Sounds as well as viewpoints down to gorgeous bays and the chance to explore lush native bush.
Three of the most popular routes on the track are Ship Cove, Endeavor Inlet, and Torea Bay, all varying in length. For example, the Ship Cove to Endeavor Inlet is 17 km (10.5 miles) and will take 5.5 hours, and Endeavor Inlet to Camp Bay is 11.5 km (7.4 miles) and will take 4 hours.
If you wish to walk the entire Queen Charlotte Track, it will take you four days, and it’s 73.5 km (45.6 miles) in length, but there are several accommodation options on the track.
This particular tour takes the guesswork out of how to get to your hike by providing return boat transfers from Picton for $96 NZD. It is a self-guided hike and you’ll need to choose your route, so it’s good to do some research on each track beforehand. If you’re on a tight schedule, it’s worth noting that you will not be returned to Picton until approximately 6 pm.
Related read: Keep the hiking adventures going by tackling some of the best hikes in New Zealand – we have 50 for you to try!!
Get up close to sheltered coves and beaches on this half-day sea kayaking tour through the western side of the Queen Charlotte Sound. See if you can spot blue penguins, fur seals, and even dolphins from your kayak. On the journey, your guide will tell you all about the history of the area as well as point out any important sights or wildlife along the way.
The tour starts in Picton and you will be kayaking for approximately 3 hours. Even though the waters here are generally calm, it’s still a workout, so a reasonable level of fitness is advised.
This is a small group tour and tickets cost $100 NZD per adult.
Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary
Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary is a restored 40-hectare island connected to the mainland near Picton Harbour. It’s one of the best places around the Marlborough Sounds for wildlife viewing and was once a ‘kai’ or food-gathering site for Maori people.
On the 2.7 km (1.6 mile) loop track, you will spot lots of native wildlife like tui, bellbirds, fantails, kereru, korora (also referred to as “the little penguin”), and a native type of gecko.
From March through July, you are likely to spot dozens of New Zealand fur seals on the jetty here too. It’s a relatively easy walking track and is suitable for the whole family. I recommend allowing 2 hours to complete the full loop track.
You can reach Kaipapu on a 10-minute boat ride from Picton, or you can rent a kayak in Picton and kayak here yourself, parking your kayak on the kayak ramp here. It is free to visit, but a donation is welcome.
Go on a scenic flight
One of the best ways to see the Marlborough Sounds is on a scenic flight. From the sky, you’ll have an EPIC view of the sparkling blue waters of the Sounds, secluded homes, native bush, and during certain times of the year, whales! There are several tour options to choose from, and all are surprisingly budget-friendly!
This 20-minute flight option flies over the Pelorous, Kenepuru, and Queen Charlotte Sounds and prices start from $119 NZD per person.
This 45-minute flight takes in all three Sounds as well as D’Urville Island, Port Gore, and Ship Cove. It even includes a short stop on a remote beach. This particular tour costs $249 NZD per person.
And finally, the longest flight option is this 1 hour 15 minutes tour which follows the Koromiko Valley to the Wairau River and then into wine country. You will also be treated to seeing Tasman Bay and Nelson from high up above before stopping for 20 minutes at a remote beach. This tour costs $349 NZD per person!
A scenic flight is definitely one of the most romantic things to do in the Marlborough Sounds and as you can imagine, is especially popular with couples.
Related Read: In nearby Kaikoura, you can do a scenic flight that is also a whale watching tour! Learn all about whale watching in Kaikoura before you go!
Queen Charlotte View
If you’re after a short walk that offers phenomenal views, then the 30-minute walk from the Snout Track car park to Queen Charlotte View has to be one of the best short walks in the area.
It is quite a steep climb to the viewpoint, hence why it’s rated as moderate. But the walk-up is relatively clear, meaning there’s not much bush in the way so the views pretty much the whole climb are great!
Take a picnic and enjoy the incredible views of Queen Charlotte Sound from the viewpoint. This is also one of the best places to catch the sunset in the Marlborough Sounds!
Visit the Snout
Essentially a longer version of the previous hike, the Snout Track is a firm favorite with locals. That’s because you’re still getting a decent workout in (allow at least 4 hours to complete the track), and you’re witnessing some of the best views in the Marlborough Sounds on your walk. In fact, many locals complete this track before or after work during the summer months.
The track starts at the Snout Track car park, above Endeavour Park. The first section of the walk takes you to the Queen Charlotte View, and from here, it’s about an hour to the picnic area at the tip of the headland. Both viewpoints boast excellent views of the ocean and Sounds.
You can walk a slightly shorter version by starting at the Victoria Domain car park. This option will take about 3 hours return.
There’s also a mountain biking trail, which takes you to the Snout – the Kanuka Trail is a Grade 2 return trail, which is 3.5 km (2.1 miles) in length. The trail begins from the Westside mountain bike trail.
Stay at a remote lodge or resort
There are some really neat accommodations to stay at while visiting Marlborough Sounds. Remote lodges, little resorts, and guest houses are dotted around the area to provide you with the shelter and amenities you need and often, a gorgeous scenic view! Just note that some of these properties are so remote, you’ll need to catch a water taxi from Picton.
Hopewell Lodge is the place to stay around Kenepuru Sound. There are a variety of different rooms or you can choose to rent out an entire cottage for your family. Some of the best things about the lodge are the private beach and hiking trails that start right on the property. You can also hang out in a hammock amongst the trees, enjoy a soak in the hot tub, and if you want to post some of those amazing vacation pics, they also have free Wi-Fi.
For a beautiful beachfront lodge that you won’t want to leave, Lochmara Lodge is our choice. In addition to the standard amenities that you would expect from a gorgeous Marlborough Sound lodge, they also have a great bar, restaurant, and cafe on site that provides fresh seasonal produce and also a relaxing massage service. Guests also have free access to the Wildlife Recovery and Arts Centre.
Punga Cove Resort is a 4-star resort located in Queen Charlotte Sound. Staying here, you can expect to sit out on the sunny terrace and enjoy postcard-worthy views. Fishing, cycling, using the hot tub, and hiking along stunning bush walks are popular activities to do here. There are two amazing restaurants on site, a swimming pool, and nearby beach.
Furneaux Lodge is family owned and operated and situated in the gorgeous Endeavour Inlet. There are stunning views from the rooms and this beachfront location (only accessible by water taxi) feels like you’ve escaped to a little piece of paradise. It’s convenient to stay here if you’re planning some hiking or biking in the area or just relax and soak up the views.
Drive French Pass Road
Traveling around Marlborough Sounds in your car? Take a scenic drive along French Pass Road!
The road was built back in 1957 and is a narrow road that winds through stunning scenery and farmland with spectacular ocean views of the French Pass and D’Urville Island. This is a classic rural New Zealand road – so don’t expect a smooth ride!
If you start the drive at Okiwi Bay, the full length of French Pass Road is about 38.3 km (23.7 miles) long, with the highest part being 413 meters (1,354 feet) above sea level when you reach Saddle Hill.
Make sure you pull over to admire the view a few times including the French Pass. It has the fastest tidal flows in New Zealand and the powerful agua-colored waters are beautiful to watch.
Go wine tasting
For all you wine lovers out there, you bet you can go wine tasting in Marlborough Sounds!
With Marlborough being a top player in New Zealand for world-class wine, it would be a shame to not go on at least one wine-tasting tour.
What’s not to like when you can combine two of the best things in the Marlborough Sounds – a cruise and wine. This wine-tasting tour is an all-day experience that will have you sipping great wine and taking a scenic cruise through the sounds.
You’ll start off in either Blenheim or Picton and head to some of the best wineries in the area. Sip some fabulous New Zealand wine and stroll through the quaint vineyards as you enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at how the wine is made. Then you’ll enjoy a delicious lunch at a waterfront restaurant.
The day continues with a cruise paired with a fresh seafood platter and more amazing wine – specifically Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. This is a small group (max 10 people) so you won’t feel crowded. You’ll need to book at least four spots at $250 NZD each to secure the tour – so grab a couple friends and enjoy a day out!
Alternatively, if you are not interested in going on a cruise, this full-day Marlborough scenic wine tour gives you the scenery and wine you’re craving! You’ll start in Picton and head out on the stunning drive to Havelock. After some time to explore there, you’ll take the scenic route back to Picton along Queen Charlotte Drive. Your afternoon is spent visiting four outstanding New Zealand wineries.
The entire tour takes place in a small group, so no crowds here. You’ll probably make a few friends though! With a cost of $201 NZD per person, this very popular tour will take care of all your transportation while you relax and have a good time!
6. Does the Interislander Ferry visit the Marlborough Sounds?
Yes, the Interislander Ferry does visit the Marlborough Sounds!
Marlborough Sounds, specifically Queen Charlotte Sound, is en route between the North and South islands. The stunning natural landscape is easy to admire right from the ferry deck!
If you’re starting from the South Island, you’ll need this ferry ticket from Picton. If you’re on the North Island, grab this ferry ticket from Wellington. The one-way ticket is $75 NZD per person, no matter which point you’re starting at.
The Interislander Ferry is one of my favorite ways to get between the two main islands. You’ll drift through the Cook Strait and glorious Marlborough Sounds on the 3-hour trip. While a practical mode of transport, it is a beautiful ride!
With that said, you don’t get up close to the islands and remote areas of the sounds like you would on a guided tour or boat cruise. To properly explore the sounds, I recommend doing another boat cruise or going on a hike.
7. What wildlife can you see in the Marlborough Sounds?
The Marlborough Sounds are filled with wildlife! It’s a wonderful home for all different kinds of species. It’s a bit like a game of I-Spy to see what you can spot!
There are five dolphin species including the bottlenose and dusky, that love spending time in the waters here. Your best chance to get a glimpse is on a tour or swimming experience like we mentioned above.
If you’re here between October and March, keep an eye out for orcas. They love to hang out closer to shore in the shallower areas as they chase stingrays for their lunch! If you see a large dorsal fin moving quickly through the water, chances are, it’s an orca!
In the winter in New Zealand, if you’re realllllly lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a humpback whale. They migrate around the edge of the Cook Strait and sometimes come into the area.
All year round, you can find the New Zealand fur seal sunbathing on the rocks or having fun playing with other seals in the water. They are such a joy to watch!
Motuara Island is now a bird sanctuary and is located in the Queen Charlotte Sound. It has been a reserve since 1920 and is home to tuis, fantails, rare king shags, little blue penguins, and more. This island is free from predators – keep an eye out for the penguin nesting boxes with cute, fluffy chicks inside!
The island is also home to the rare king shag. There are only around 500-600 of these birds left. They are large, black and white birds with pink feet and are quite reserved creatures. You might see them diving under the water to catch a meal!
I can’t forget the Little blue penguin, also called Korora in Maori. It can be identified by its blue feathers and white chest and is the smallest penguin in the world. You’re likely to see them close to the shore at night and they can be quite vocal, so you may hear them before you see them!
The kiwi is New Zealand’s national bird and it’s of utmost importance to keep these birds on predator-free islands in the Sounds to increase their population. These flightless, tailless birds are fast runners due to their powerful legs. They are nocturnal animals so it’s unlikely that you will see one during the day. But it’s pretty special knowing you are close by!
There are so many amazing animals in New Zealand, and you can see a ton of them in the Marlborough Sounds.
Related read: If you do want to see a kiwi up close, head to the largest kiwi hatching facility on the South Island – just one of the great things to do in small town of Franz Josef!
8. How many days do you need to see the Marlborough Sounds?
Ideally, you want at least two days to explore Marlborough Sounds. Three days would be better if possible, so you can go on a cruise or hiking tour one day and then explore other attractions or just relax on the beach over the next couple of days!
I usually spend around 4-5 nights in the area, which includes Nelson, Abel Tasman, Picton, and Blenheim. All these places are relatively close together, so you can explore them all by staying in one or two places.
9. Do you need a tour to explore Marlborough Sounds?
No, but a tour really helps you explore and see more of this incredible place! It’s also nice to have a cruise along the water with an expert telling you about the area and helping you spot wildlife.
If you have a car, either you own one or a rental car, driving along the roads and visiting different bays is possible. You can create your own road trip tour!
Cycling, kayaking, and hiking are also other ways to get around and see Marlborough Sounds, and can be done with or without a tour. I would recommend exploring using a mixture of all these different ways!
10. Is visiting the Marlborough Sounds worth it?
Without a doubt, yes!!
Visiting the Marlborough Sounds is totally worth it. I suggest visiting in the summer to fully embrace the outdoors, and make the most of the hiking trails, water activities, and the beautiful natural landscape that the Marlborough Sounds has to offer.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (QUEEN5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually purchase it as soon as we land in the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
With rolling hills surrounding sunken valleys, the spectacular landscape of the Marlborough Sounds is one of those sights that is even more beautiful in person. I promise the water really is that blue and the hills that green! It’s such a vibrant place full of some of the most beautiful sights and amazing wildlife in the country.
I hope this guide to the Marlborough Sounds has been helpful as you plan your trip. If you need more ideas for exploring New Zealand, make sure to check out my other blogs. I’ve done plenty of road trips and explored both islands to help you find the best activities and experiences for your time here.