If you are looking for things to do in the Marlborough Sounds right here in New Zealand, then you’ve come to the right place.

The Marlborough Sounds are located at the very northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island and are one of New Zealand’s relatively hidden gems. All too often, visitors and locals alike are in too much of a rush to head to some of New Zealand’s headline destinations like Queenstown or the glacier region.

Whilst the neighbouring Abel Tasman region does attract thousands of visitors every year, the Marlborough Sounds are often overlooked, however, we’re here to convince you to add the Marlborough Sounds to your New Zealand bucket list.

Why should you visit the Marlborough Sounds?

The Marlborough Sounds cover one-fifth of New Zealand’s vast coastline and have quickly become a mecca for all things coastal.

The area is jam-packed full of amazing activities including many on land as well as on the water. From the sheltered bays to the forest-covered headlands, the Marlborough Sounds is a great destination for anyone who loves the outdoors.

Whether it’s tramping, swimming, kayaking, mountain biking, wildlife watching or simply relaxing and kicking back, the Marlborough Sounds cater for everyone.

On top of all of that, the Marlborough Sounds are also one of the sunniest regions in New Zealand and they enjoy long hot summers that are perfect for getting out and exploring everything there is to offer in the area.

So, let’s take a close look at 11 of the best things to do in the Marlborough Sounds and uncover some of the best attractions and activities in the area.

1.      Walk or cycle the Queens Charlotte Track


With over 1,500kms of New Zealand coastline, the Marlborough Sounds are made up of three main bodies of water: Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru and Pelorus Sounds.

One of our favourite things to do in the Marlborough Sounds is to explore the Queen Charlotte Track. This is definitely one of New Zealand’s untapped gems and can be experienced by bike or on foot. There are heaps of options when it comes to exploring the track. It is possible to take a water taxi and hike or bike certain sections of the track, however, for the full experience, we recommend a multi-day hike or cycle, stopping off overnight at some of the stunning locations along the way.

The Queen Charlotte Track is 70km and winds through native forest and high mountain ridges, all the while overlooking the stunning waters of the Marlborough Sounds. You can read more about the Queen Charlotte Track in our dedicated post.

2.      Wine tours in Marlborough


Marlborough is one of the great wine regions of the world so a trip to the Marlborough Sounds would not be complete without a visit to at least one of the amazing wineries located in the region.

The region is most famous for its Sauvignon Blanc and there are a number of vineyards to have produced award-winning Sauvignon Blancs that have gone on to receive international recognition including Oyster Bay Wines and Wairau River Wines.

There are over 150 wineries to choose from and 50 exclusive cellar doors so you are spoilt for choice when it comes to tasting some of the best wine produced here in New Zealand.

The region is also a mecca for foodies and craft beer lovers so make sure you sample plenty of the local produce when you are exploring the Marlborough Sounds.

3.      Bird watching at Motuara Island sanctuary


The Marlborough Sounds are home to several predator-free sanctuaries for native wildlife and all of them make for a great day out with a picnic.

One of our favourites is Motuara Island. The island provides a wonderful opportunity to see several rare bird species such as saddleback and yellow-crowned parakeet and get up close and personal to some of our more common species like kererū, tūī, grey warbler and bellbird.

There are a few options when it comes to getting to the island including E-Ko Tours, Beachcomber Cruises and Cougar Line. Once there, you will not be short on activities. A short but steep one-hour walk will take you to the highest point on the island where you will be rewarded with some spectacular views of the Queen Charlotte Sound.

Lower down, you will find a number of watering holes and this is where you will be able to spot the majority of the species that call Motuara Island their home.

4.      Explore the Hobbit filming locations


As many of you will be aware, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit franchises used locations throughout New Zealand for filming and the Marlborough Sounds was one of those spectacular locations chosen.

The warm and sunny weather and diverse landscapes made the Marlborough Sounds one of the best destinations in New Zealand for filming and Sir Peter Jackson took full advantage of his local knowledge to identify some spectacular locations.

Whilst there are a number of filming locations dotted around the Marlborough Sounds, perhaps the most memorable and certainly the one that attracts the most tourists is found on the Pelorus River near Havelock. This was the destination Jackson chose for the filming of the famous and dramatic escape by the dwarves down the river in the barrels in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

You can take a guided kayak tour down the river if you want to get the full experience, however, there are plenty of viewing spots from the land of this very recognisable location.

5.      Swim with dolphins

 

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There are a number of places located around New Zealand where it’s possible to swim with dolphins and the Marlborough Sounds are just one of them.

One of the best things about the Marlborough Sounds when it comes to swimming with dolphins is the calm water. For those nervous about being in the open water, the Sounds bring a calming feel and this also attracts a number of different species to the area including dusky, bottlenose, common, orca and the rare Hector’s dolphins.

E-Ko Tours are one of the best operators in the area and have a Department of Conservation permit that allows them to seek out and interact with all species of marine mammals that live in the Sounds.

6.      Mussel tasting in Havelock

 

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Havelock is one of those towns that you don’t know much about before you go there, however, once you have, you will literally want to tell everyone about it. It is a small town located at the mouth of the Pelorus and Kaituna rivers and it is packed full of charm and culture as well as being located in something out of a picture postcard.

The town was originally a gold mining settlement and has some gorgeous buildings from New Zealand’s colonial period. There are some great museums in town as well as some great art galleries and delicious places to grab a bite.

Talking about things to eat, Havelock is well known as one of the best places in New Zealand to eat green-lipped mussels and is, in some quarters, referred to as the “green-shell mussel capital of the world”. There are a couple of places that have fast become tourist favourites when it comes to sampling the local delicacy – Mills Bay Mussels and the Mussel Pot Café – make sure you give them a whirl when you’re next in town.

7.      Kaipupu Point Wildlife Sanctuary

 

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We’ve already touched on one of the amazing wildlife sanctuaries located in the Marlborough Sounds and Kaipupu Point Wildlife Sanctuary is another wonderful place to visit.

The sanctuary is located just a 10-minute boat ride from Picton, the largest town in the Marlborough Sounds region and the gateway to the Cook Strait – the main connection between the North and South Islands. You can hop on a boat or for the more adventurous, hire a kayak and paddle yourself across.

Once on the island, there is a wonderful 2.7km circular track that will take a leisurely 1.5-2 hours to complete.

The bush-clad hills are home to many of New Zealand’s unique native wildlife including tui, korimako (bellbird), piwakawaka (fantail), kereru (NZ woodpigeon), korora (little penguin), weta, raukawa gecko and waiharakeke grass skink.  New Zealand fur seal can often be found lazing on the jetty over autumn and winter.

8.      Fishing in the Marlborough Sounds

 

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As you would expect from a destination with over 1,500kms of coastline, the Marlborough Sounds are a great place to try your hand at fishing. It is renowned for its abundance of seafood, particularly salmon and green shell mussels as we have already touched upon.

For those that want to head further afield and explore the Sounds by boat, a fishing charter is a great way to get some spectacular views back towards land from out on the open water as well as exploring some of the sheltered inlets and rocky outcrops that are dotted around the coastline.

The Marlborough Sounds are home to around 200 species of fish and you can expect to catch blue cod, snapper, gurnard, tarakihi, kahawai and scallops when you head out on a charter.

9.      Explore French Pass and D’Urville Island


If you love to take a drive and want to explore one of the most beautiful roads in New Zealand, we recommend heading out to explore the French Pass – the gateway to the remote and stunning D’Urville Island.

The first part of the drive to get to the French Pass will take you through the Rai Valley to Okiwi Bay. This is a great stop off along the way and there are some great opportunities for kayaking and hiking in the area. The Goat Hill Track is the most popular track in the area and is worth a tramp.

The French Pass offers some stunning views across to D’Urville Island. You can stop off along the way to visit a beach where you might find some ferocious whirlpools. Once you reach French Pass, there are some great camping options and you can also hop in a water taxi and head across to explore the remote D’Urville Island.

10. Deliver the mail on a unique cruise experience

 

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If you are looking for a unique experience when you are exploring the Marlborough Sounds, then we highly recommend giving the Mail Boat Cruise a try.

The Mail has been delivered by boat for over 150 years in the Queen Charlotte Sounds and Beachcomber Cruises are proud to carry on the long tradition by continuing to deliver the mail to the remote areas dotted around the Queen Charlotte Sounds. They offer the only official licensed New Zealand Post Rural delivery service by boat in the country, and you can be a part of the experience.

The Mail Boat Cruise is designed to take you off the beaten tourist path so you can experience the real Queen Charlotte Sounds/Tōtaranui.

Operating from Monday to Saturday, no one day is the same as the route changes daily covering a different area delivering the Mail. If time allows, the Mail Boat Cruise will also take short stop-offs at some of the amazing locations situated on and around the Queen Charlotte Sounds.

11. Take a trip to historic Ship Cove

 

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Located near the entrance to the Queen Charlotte Sound, Ship Cove is one of New Zealand’s most historic sites.

Not only did the first Māori to discover New Zealand, Kupe, stop here on a voyage of the Marlborough Sounds, but it was also an anchorage for Captain James Cook, the first European to land on New Zealand.

This site is internationally recognised as James Cook’s favourite New Zealand base during his three wide-ranging voyages of exploration.

Ship Cove is part of the Queen Charlotte Track and whether you choose to do the full track or you just want to pay a specific visit to Ship Cove, Beachcomber Cruises offer a trip to Ship Cove from Picton Marina.

This site has visitor facilities reflecting the cultural themes of the site and interpretation covering the Māori and Cook stories of Meretoto/Ship Cove and the surrounding area.

Round-Up

The Marlborough Sounds are one of New Zealand’s hidden gems and a place we would recommend adding to your list of places to visit this summer.

There are so many things to see and do in the Marlborough Sounds and hopefully, this list of eleven of the best things to do in the Marlborough Sounds will kick off your list and give you some great ideas of what to do when you get here.

For more information about the wider region, make sure you check out our Marlborough destination guide and also take a look at some of our related posts below.

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