We were due for better weather after spending ten days driving, hiking, and camping in mostly rainy and messy conditions on the North Island where there was no doubt it was spring. It felt odd given it was October, but, as you most likely know, things are reversed in New Zealand. The healthy dose of sunshine we basked in upon landing in Picton was exactly what we’d been promised by our guidebooks. Picton is the tiny town at the top of the South Island that welcomes passengers getting off the Interislander Ferry.
The Jucy on the ferry which sets sail from Wellington and which lived up to its windy reputation.
No one sticks around Picton for long, including us. We made a beeline straight down SH1 for Blenheim. Like the other quaint towns we visited, it had a few streets lined with unique mom and pop shops. But we weren’t there to shop. We were there to drink — and not at its restaurants. The always arid and summer-like conditions of the South Island’s northern tip has made it a naturally perfect place to grow grapes. You’ve probably tried a New Zealand “savy” — Kiwi-speak for sauvignon blanc — the Marlborough region’s most popular export. I know I had. My chef brother had gotten me hooked on Oyster Bay a few years back. I had plans to visit and sip from the source but it turns out it’s just a big industrial, secretive grower not open to visitors. Oh well. There are dozens of smaller, family owned, friendly wineries, along the Marlborough Wine Trail, some of which we visited by bike on a day-long excursion. It was one of those things we couldn’t do on our recent trip, and one we might not be able to do again for, say, um, 18 more years.
Biking and drinking probably shouldn’t go hand in hand, but we’ve never been big boozers. The region’s roads are flat, light on traffic, and worry-free even when you throw a little alcohol into the mix. The only real danger we encountered was a bird that was pissed (not in the British sense of the word) and decided to take its anger out on Iggy’s red bicycle helmet.
The day was otherwise peaceful with short bouts of cycling between winery visits. We enjoyed some bubbly at the slightly pretentious No. 1 Family Estate, but preferred lounging on the sun-drenched indoor patio at Forrest Wines. It was the only winery where we ordered a flight of both white and red samples. Our host was chatty and fun. An American with a weird accent, sort of like the one Madonna started using in the early 2000s. I shouldn’t hold it against her (our host that is…Madonna is another story), given the extra glass she treated us to free of charge.
If I’m drinking white, I tend to be an either savy or prosecco girl so was surprised that the best sips of the day were from bottles of riesling at Framingham. We got to talking with another interesting local who poured our glasses there. She was an older broad whose sardonic, quick banter caught us off guard given her pretty, put together appearance. We bonded over a random connection — her son was, like us, an expat living in China.
Mary Jo was her name and her hippy-chic style matched her wit and the overall laid back, rock-n-roll atmosphere of the place. Lyrics from music greats were etched into concrete slabs that made up the outdoor walkway leading into the tasting room. Below it, we took a quick wander around the museum-like cellar that included displays of vintage vineyard machinery and historical information about the vineyard and region. Framed posters from previous years’ Harvest Concert hung on the walls. We were bummed that our visit didn’t coincide with the annual event held each March (their autumn). But we left with a magnum of riesling that I dragged back to China and then on to the U.S. where months later we popped it open after announcing my pregnancy to the family in my childhood home.
We made other stops, too. A quick one at Wairau River where families snacked on picnics under a pergola draped in colorful spring flowers. We ate an artisanal cheese pizza paired with three wines as we sat in Gieson’s small outdoor courtyard. We finished off the day at MOA, a craft brewery, where for $5 NZD we sampled a cider, hefeweizen, lager, pilsner, and a bock that tasted, I kid you not, like beef jerky. The biking must’ve helped us burn the alcohol off quickly because by the time we returned to Bike 2 Wine we weren’t even the least bit tipsy.
Wine and its affable ambassadors aren’t the only highlight of the region. It’s also known for secluded deep blue bays surrounded by rimu and black beech forest-covered hills known as the Marlborough Sounds. We devoted another full day of our 2014 trip to one of them, Pelorus. Instead of biking, we took the only option available, the local mail boat. It may not sound thrilling but stick with me.
The day we chose to go was typical of those we spent in the sun-drenched region — warm temps and blue skies with scattered puffs of clouds here and there. From Havelock, we set off early in the morning with to go cappucinos and bagged lunches in hand from the Inlet Bakery & Cafe. The boat chugged slowly along and followed a route established by steam ships a century ago when anything from mail to groceries to livestock was delivered to the rugged individualists who called the remote reaches of the Sounds home.
“Just a few weeks ago we had dozens of chickens onboard,” our skipper Jim told us, explaining that not much has changed. He had a thick Scottish accent that warbled out of the boat’s PA system on and off throughout the day.
But the mail that day was less exciting. Limp, beige canvas sacks were strewn about the small boat’s cabin floor bearing the surnames of the families living off-grid in the Sounds. These are people who have chosen to live in a place only accessible by boat. A place where there’s no internet, cell phone coverage, and where power is supplied by the DIY hydro-electric schemes built using repurposed engines from laundry machines.
Without tourists like us, the delivery service would’ve gone broke a long time ago, we learned from Jim. As proof, he passed around a photo of tourists aboard a mail boat in 1918. Their smart tweed suits made our crew look pathetic, most of us sloppily dressed in old jeans, sweatshirts, and sneakers.
Jim is the ninth owner of the business, but he’s no ordinary mailman. I couldn’t tell which role he relished more: that of “sea postie” or history teacher. He easily shifted from the economics of the Sounds’ green-lipped mussel industry to explaining the Department of Conservation’s takahe breeding program on Maud Island. His enthusiasm for the area was infectious. He seemed genuinely chuffed to have stumbled upon the Sounds fifteen years ago as a backpacker.
A mussel farm in Four Fathoms Bay.
When we came across a group of playful white-bellied dusky dolphins found only in the Southern Hemisphere, he shouted to no one in particular: “I love my job! Where else in the world can you stop and watch dolphins moseying about like this?”
He then cut the engine and scrambled around the boat’s top and bottom decks taking iPhone photos of everyone gawking at the acrobatic creatures gliding and twirling through the clear water. Later, when it was Penny’s turn to steer, he walked around showing everyone the photos he’d taken.
“Ah, fantastic, that’s a great one of you two!” he told Iggy and I. “What’s your email address? I’ll send them over to you.” And he did right there and then.
Penny had her own back story that she shared with us as we helped ourselves to the self serve tea and cookies. She was a Marlborough native who worked in the regions’ big industries, tourism and wine. She’d spent time in Australia and Spain before coming back to the area to care for her aging mother. She told us about the families we met throughout the day, some of whom greeted us at narrow docks that jutted out from isolated beaches.
There was a fifth generation commercial fisherman and his wife at Waihinau Bay who helped their teenage granddaughter board the boat. For $50 NZD, she caught a ride back to Havelock. In Waitata Bay we met George, looking like the quintessential New Zealand outdoorsman in his polo shirt and loose khaki pants shoved into calf-high Red Band gum boots. He had a mellow yellow lab as company and a more excited, noisy, and, above all, disgustingly slobbery sidekick named Pumba. A fitting name for an 80 kilo pet pig.
No one was in sight at Port Ligar. They were probably too busy home schooling some of their 10 kids or running their sheep station, fishing lodge and mussel farm. It’s the only stop where we didn’t chit-chat with the locals. Jim gave Penny just enough time to reach inside the mailbox (a cut out black buoy) to place their mail sacks on the wooden slat inside. Later, before heading back to Havelock, we briefly floated by a king shag colony that claimed a tiny islet in Forsyth Bay.
The ride back was slow-going due to the low tide, but we didn’t mind. We munched on homemade lemon sponge cake given to Jim and Penny by one of the Sounds residents. It was just enough to keep us full for the drive ahead of us that evening. We followed the meandering SH6 through the Rai Valley. It was carpeted in gorse, an invasive blooming yellow weed for New Zealand, but for us another pretty reminder of spring. We passed Pelorus Bridge, where we had camped the night before in our bright green beast and continued on another 50 kilometers to Nelson. I’ll have to tell you more about it another time. Yeah, I know. By now you’re probably wondering how many more pro-New Zealand posts can I write? Well, we’ll just have to see…