Here’s a road trip for the ages. One that takes you from gold rush memories to modern-day community hubs, from seafood nirvana to winery heaven, from riverside fun to coastal paradise. There’s only one place that this could all come together in one sweet weekend trip, and that’s the top of New Zealand’s South Island. Your adventure starts in Nelson and takes the scenic route (would you have it any other way?) to the Marlborough Sounds, returning to Nelson via Rapaura, a.k.a. Sav Blanc central. If you’re an EV cruiser, all the necessary spots for charging are included in this itinerary, so you can just sit back and enjoy the ride.
A region of incredible landscape diversity and even more incredible sunshine statistics, Marlborough will take your breath away (whether that be because of the scenery or the rather chilly waters). The world really is your oyster when it comes to this part of New Zealand. Or perhaps your green-lipped mussel, as it were.
We’re yet to discover a breakfast that’s better than that eaten first thing in the morning at the market, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of artisans and shoppers, and the smells of freshly baked goods. Breakfast at the Nelson Market is no different, which has been a Saturday morning ritual for locals for 40 years. Park up near Montgomery Square and stroll through the arts, crafts, plants and yummies. There’s sure to be something amongst all the food trucks and stalls to tickle your tastebuds. By the way, the market is a self-proclaimed ‘politics free zone,’ so leave your baggage at home. Except your reusable shopping bags, of course.
Marty McFly yourself back a couple of centuries by popping off State Highway 6 at Canvastown, where an 1860s gold rush town still packs a punch in 19th century charm. In 1864, nearly £100,000 of gold was found in the surrounding Wakamarina Valley, making Canvastown a flood of (canvas) tents filled with fortune-seekers, i.e. a bunch of smelly dudes. Now, the spot doesn’t house much more than a vacant (but yellow!) church, retired store and old hotel, but there’s something about Canvastown which makes it hard to resist. Maybe there’s still a bit of gold in her yet. Grab a pint at the Trout Hotel which, built in 1903, embodies the historic legacy of this little riverside cove. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.
For million-dollar views of the Pelorus Sound through the glittery waters of the Havelock Marina, the Slip Inn Café is a Marlborough must. A seafood mecca, with a sophisticated and shiny inner to boot, the Slip Inn is more than just a place to slip in to, it’s a place to stay for hours on end. In terms of the menu, you’re spoilt rotten for choice. Havelock is the green-lipped mussel capital of the world, so could you really order anything but the kilogram of these multicoloured mollusks, steamed in white wine, garlic and butter? We don’t think so, but a seafood platter wouldn’t go amiss either.
In you’re driving an EV, stop off at the Havelock Four Square to boost your charge. It’s a jaw-droppingly gorgeous but battery-suckingly hilly and windy road to get you to Picton, so you’ll need to charge for a good 20 minutes to keep you going. Drive slowly and carefully along this coastal road, the turns are sharp and narrow. But it’s worth it, trust us.
Would you believe that the Marlborough Sounds make up one tenth of New Zealand’s coastline? We can’t quite either, but there’s no denying the immensity (or the beauty) of these incredible sea-flooded valleys. If there’s a job which involves testing out all swimming spots along this 4000 km coastline of sounds, islands, and peninsulas, sign us up. Just 15 minutes before Picton is one of these blink-and-you’ll-miss-it coastal gems, a golden sand beach tucked away in Governors Bay Scenic Reserve. Pull over to the provided car park just off the road, and zigzag the easy 10 minute track down to the beach for a welcome breath of fresh air and stretch of the legs. Here’s hoping you packed your togs.
When you reach Picton, how about a hilltop walk to orientate yourself with your surroundings? The Tirohanga Track is a 45 minute steep climb through gorgeous chirping native bush, which brings you to a lookout with the kind of views that could usually only be seen from a plane. Start at Newgate Street or Garden Terrace to the top, then return on the loop track and through the Picton streets. When you hit the summit, take in the heart stopping vista of Picton, Waikawa and the Marlborough Sounds, in all their ocean-deep, mountain-high glory. It all looks so much better when you’ve sweated to get there, right?
Sitting pretty on the edge of the Picton Marina is Oxley’s Bar and Kitchen, a local frontrunner when it comes to dining (and all the wine-ing that comes with it at this time of the day). A classic Kiwi pub with food quality that should make more upper-class restaurants tremble in their boots, Oxley’s has all the makings of your new favourite spot. Grab a pint and bask outside amongst the charming bustle of the Picton waterfront, or soak up the pub atmosphere with a steak or fish & chips inside, where they screen live sports on Saturday nights. We told you it was a classic Kiwi pub.
Set up your nest at the Parklands Marina Holiday Park in Waikawa, just a 5 minute drive from Picton past the Victoria Domain. Offering campsites (powered and non-powered), cabins and self-contained units, this holiday park is surrounded by the beautiful native wildlife that defines the Marlborough Sounds. Picton’s peaceful and picturesque cousin, Waikawa will feel like the natural spot to pull up and make your home for the night. They also have parking available for electric vehicles, so you can rest easy knowing your wheels will be as ready for the next day’s adventures as you are.
Sometimes it’s the smallest spots that have the most to offer, and this sure rings true at Picton’s Gusto cafe, which serves breakfast and lunch daily for hungry and caffeine-deprived locals (and visitors). With enough character to compensate for its lack of space (with plenty left over too), Gusto is the perfect place to enjoy a salmon eggs bene in the sunshine. If you’re a coffee drinker, say hello to your new best friend. Gusto will give you the fuel to power through your day.
If you haven’t quite had enough of private swimming coves (we’re not sure we ever will), then Bob’s Bay is your Sunday morning calling. Hiding just around the corner from Picton’s main port, in a sheltered bay surrounded by the Victoria Domain, Bob’s Bay is the ideal vantage point from which to watch the morning ferries and cruise ships come in to dock. Just a 30 minute walk from Picton through the domain, or a few minutes from neighbouring car parks, what better way to kick off your morning than with a burst of exercise and a fresh dip in the ocean. There’s not many things we’d rather be doing at this time of the day.
A unique collection of artisan stores, local dining and family-friendly activities, The Vines Village brings together the best of Blenheim and Marlborough into one convenient Rapaura package, with a pretty good view to tie it all together. The brainchild of local twins Tim and Jeff Fulton, this hub is a one-stop-shop for wine tasting, boutique shopping and all-round chilling out, with 4 hectares of lakeside grounds, free wifi, and live music on Sundays. Right in the heart of the Golden Mile, the cycling trail which features some of the best of Marlborough’s world-famous wine region, The Vines Village is the ultimate place to while away the rest of the morning before kicking into some afternoon vino tasting.
Hire some wheels from Bike Hire Marlborough in The Vines Village (we told you it has everything you need!), and get those pedals moving; you’ve got wine to taste. Nine wineries within an easy 6 km trail, complete with that unbeatable Marlborough scenery, the Golden Mile is an afternoon of fun just waiting to happen. Several cellar doors also have adjacent restaurants where you can stop for lunch along the way, with Giesen, Wairau River Wines or Hans Herzog standing at the top of our podium for delicious eats. It’s only recommended to visit a maximum of 5 cellar doors in a day, but you might only be able to squeeze 2 or 3 into one afternoon anyway. Just make sure you have a responsible designated driver, or you might find yourself having to check in to some Blenheim accommodation for the night!
What might seem like any normal bridge over any old river at first glance is actually far from it at this next stop, which has Middle Earth magic sprinkled all over it. The Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve is an enchanting riverside scene with bush walks, native wildlife and spots for bombing into the freezing water galore. Peter Jackson must have seen the charm too, because he chose it as the filming location for the iconic scene in The Hobbit where the dwarves escape down the river in barrels. Channel your inner Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Dori, Nori... you get the gist, and hop on in. BYO barrel.
Seafood and cocktails… Possibly the only two things we’ll ever need. Okay, maybe not quite, but it’s a pretty powerful coupling. You can find the best of the two at Cod & Lobster Brasserie, a restaurant which is punching well above its weight in little old Nelson. Opened by a young couple from seafaring families, the Cod & Lobster has a mouth-watering range of both seafood and non-seafood dishes to devour, which can be matched perfectly with basically any cocktail available under the sun. Check out their drinks menu online and you’ll see what we mean. The PDF is named This-is-quite-a-long-drinks-menu, and long it is (44 pages to be precise), just like your night is going to be. Who said you can’t have fun on Sunday nights?