From the moment you disembark from the inter-island ferry in Picton after cruising through breathtaking Queen Charlotte Sound, there’s no doubt in any visitor’s mind that the South Island is very special. SH1 takes us south to Blenheim, NZ’s premier wine growing region, then follows a rocky, kelp-strewn shoreline to Kaikoura, where snowy mountains plunge dramatically into the sea. Amid this stunning coastal alpine scenery, a wealth of ecotourism oriented activities are on offer, from whale watching to seal snorkelling and much more! We take three days to travel from Picton to Christchurch. We sample the award-winning wines of the region, dine with our jolly kiwi-Italian hosts, join an awe-inspiring whale watch tour, relish the flavour of succulent Kaikoura crayfish, visit a lavender distillery and swim with dolphins that are so playful and friendly, Bob can’t believe that they’re wild!
The drive from the Ferry Terminal in Picton to the vineyards of Blenheim takes around twenty minutes – especially when a keen wine connoisseur, like Bob, is behind the wheel. “Stay on the LEFT!” I warn (as I always do) whenever we approach a new town. But to give credit where it’s due, Bob’s taken to right-hand drive like a duck to water!
In Blenheim we find there’s more than vineyard-hopping to keep us amused. We begin our exploration at the Millennium Public Art Gallery, then walk through The Forum, where a lively market atmosphere permeates, and relax in the sun over a reviving latté before taking a stroll through the immaculately groomed gardens of Seymour Square.
A short drive leads to the Marlborough Provincial Museum and Beavertown, a replica village of old Blenheim, and here we soak up local history. It is part of the Brayshaw Museum Park complex, which is also home to a vintage farm machinery museum displaying rows of faithfully restored tractors.
En route to Montana, we visit Prenzel Distillery and Tasting Room where we meet Chris Steadman, who presses a taster of butterscotch schnapps with a ‘lair’ of butterscotch cream into our eager hands. It’s delicious and there’s also a variety of brandies, schnapps, infused olive oils and chocolate liqueurs on offer.
Bob picks up a bottle of butterscotch schnapps while I depart with a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc Vinegar, wood-aged in oak in the traditional Orleans method.
“Perfect with blue cod,” I say to Bob as we drive through the striking entrance of Montana’s Brancott Winery. Many of Montana’s leading labels are produced at Brancott Estate including Deutz Marlborough Cuvee, the winery’s specialty, produced in partnership with the French House of Deutz.
Seated at Brancott’s café-restaurant we peruse the menu. It provides a variety of fresh, Marlborough-inspired dishes, each teamed with a matching wine. Bob enjoys a deliciously fresh salad while I (motivated by my earlier vinegar purchase) feast upon blue cod fillets. After lunch we take a guided tour, which departs from Montana’s visitor centre every hour from 10 am to 3 pm. It’s an ideal introduction to NZ’s premier viticulture region and concludes with a tasting in a private room.
Later, armed with a copy of the free local wine map, we drive to Renwick, the hub of Marlborough’s wine growing country where the region’s high sunshine hours, long cool nights and low summer rainfall provide near-perfect grape-growing conditions.
“It would take a week to see all the vineyards here,” says Bob, deciding in the end that we should visit Cloudy Bay, home of the legendary Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, and Grove Mill where, as well as wine tastings, there’s a ‘vine library’ and an art gallery.
Our last port of call is the magnificent, Tuscan-inspired Highfield Estate on Brookby Road. Situated on a crest overlooking the vineyards of the Omaka and Wairau Valleys, the views from its tower are stunning and this, combined with its small but select range of fine wines, makes it one of Marlborough’s most popular wineries. In February wine-lovers gather near here for the annual BMW Wine Marlborough Festival which celebrates local wine.
All graped out – not for the first time on our circumnavigation of NZ – we retreat to our accommodation for a well-earned sleep.
After a hearty breakfast of deliciously light crepes served with blueberries, cream and maple syrup, we bid farewell to Blenheim and drive south on SH1 through a thirsty landscape to Seddon, where lush, regimented rows of vines cover its slopes.
We’ve had our fill of wine – and the boot is crammed with bottles – so we continue on past the salt works at Lake Grassmere to Wharanui, where the road meets the Pacific Ocean and follows the railway line south to The Store at Kekerengu. It’s midway between Kaikoura and Blenheim and here we pause for refreshment, sipping flat whites on the terrace just metres from the shore.
Revived, we continue on the road that hugs the rocky, kelp-lined coastline to the tiny township of Rakautara, where Nin’s Bin, a caravan embedded in the rocks by the sea, sells freshly harvested and cooked crayfish to passersby.
Further on at Ohau Point New Zealand fur seals bask on the rocks. “Look,” says Bob, pointing to a seal flapping its flipper at a fly, “he’s waving to me!”
“Pace yourself,” I say, as he snaps merrily away, “there’s loads more to see yet... sperm whales, Dusky dolphins, Royal albatross and even the endangered Hector’s dolphin if we’re lucky.”
“Why do they congregate here?,” asks Bob as we return to the car, and I explain about the Hikurangi Trough, a huge, submarine chasm complete with plains, ancient volcanoes and gorges just off the coast near Kaikoura. Here warm northern waters mix with a nutrient-rich Antarctic flow and its upwelling’s provide a rich source of food, attracting a wealth of marine life.
Arriving in Kaikoura we fortify ourselves with wholesome seafood chowder served with home baked bread at Hislops, a popular organic café on SH1, then after confirming our whale watching cruise with Whale Watch Kaikoura we drive through town to the information centre.
From the acclaimed whale watching tours, to swimming with Dusky dolphins, albatross watching, snorkelling, diving, sea kayaking, and rides in glass-bottomed boats, the town offers a marine-based activity for everyone.
For landlubbers there’s the local arts and crafts trail; the Maori Leap Caves; wine tasting on the decks of the Kaikoura Wine Company overlooking the ocean; the District Museum; and horse trekking or golf – just to name a few options!
We sit on Kaikoura’s shingle beach admiring the view of the jagged ranges which plummet to the sea and watching local fishermen camped on deck chairs pull in sizeable snapper. Bob walks over for a look-see and then we drive up the rocky Kaikoura peninsula past historic Fyffe House to the Kaikoura Wildlife Refuge.
It’s a popular place to view seals – and to swim with them, as we discover after scrambling over twisted limestone rocks to watch a group of snorkellers. “They’re really playful,” an American backpacker tells Bob as she emerges from the water, “curious and friendly.”
It is late afternoon when we check into a B&B on the outskirts of town, before joining our whale watch tour and travelling out to sea aboard Aoraki, an 18-metre catamaran. A large screen shows our depth and we watch in awe as we pass over the continental shelf and the depth changes from 60 metres to a radical 1236 metres!
Captain Hama locates a whale’s position on the GPS, then turns off the engines and listens on the hydrophone for its rhythmic, clicking sonar. We stand on the viewing decks scouring the water.
“Thaaarrrr she blows,” cries Bob suddenly, pointing to a whale that surfaces with a spurt of misty vapour.
Silently we watch this great mammal re-oxygenate against a dramatic mountain backdrop as the sun begins to set. Our guide, Gemma, tells us he’s a young sperm whale. They often frequent this coast and feast upon its abundant food supply.
Suddenly to our right another huge column of spray is blown sky high as a second whale empties its lungs. Captain Hama monitors its breathing to make sure he’s relaxed and happy with our presence. “It’s Te Ake,” says Gemma, recognising his prominent dorsal fin, “he likes the boats.”
Our first whale slowly lowers its blowhole into the water, flicks its graceful tail, and departs. We watch Te Ake until he finally does the same, flicking his tail with a flourish as if to bid us farewell before disappearing with the sun. Our boat returns to base and after a delicious meal of succulent Kaikoura crayfish at The Craypot, we return to our B&B and with Te Ake’s plume-blowing firmly etched in our memories fall into a peaceful slumber.
At breakfast Bob asks if I fancy a swim with the Dusky dolphins. “You never know, we might see another whale too,” he says enthusiastically. At Dolphin Encounter’s base we don wetsuits and, after a bus ride to South Bay, board a boat and travel along the shore. Before long we see our first pod of Dusky dolphins, but since they are resting near the shore, we continue to deeper waters where another group dances upon the ocean.
“Play with them,” instructs our guide, Mark, as we dive off the stern one-by-one. “They’ll go away if they get bored so I want to see lots of ducking and diving,” he says.
As Bob and I swim away from the boat I’m thankful for my wetsuit. Suddenly, from somewhere in the green murky depths comes a call. “Eeeeeeeeeeee.” It sends waves of shivers up my spine and Bob gives me a startled look as seawater fills my snorkel and I blow it out like a submerging orca.
In no time at all there’s company - a fast moving shape slides beneath. Panic is rapidly replaced with excitement as two Dusky dolphins come into view. They swim in unison and scrutinise Bob and I in our strange rubbery suits.
One dolphin leaves, obviously concluding that we’re no fun, but the other stays, peering at us playfully. We both roll and he immediately copies, and so we do it again. For a few minutes we twist around and around in the water until it’s hard to say who’s copying whom! In a final farewell he leaps up out of the water into a perfect arc and back down with a sleek splash. Bob gives it a go but fails dismally; the result is a resounding belly flop and laughter from the boat.
It’s super-exciting but we sit out the next round and instead watch these acrobatic dolphins from the boat. Bob’s got his camera ready and within moments they’re leaping out of the water and showing off their beautiful luminous white bellies. As they become more excited their tricks increase; before long they’re spinning, side-slapping and somersaulting both forwards and back.
It’s hard to leave, but a hot shower at the base is in order, as is a late lunch. We eat chilli mussels at Mussel Boys, then follow this up with a little retail therapy at Lavendyl Lavender Farm before leaving town.
There are five and a half acres of lavender and after we’ve explored the gardens Gary Morris kindly demonstrates how the oil is extracted using steam. Their small store provides a variety of handcrafted lavender products for sale, from lavender-infused olive oil, to soaps, and lavender and rosemary massage cream. I buy a couple of treats and we head south towards the garden city of Christchurch, following the coast then travelling inland to Cheviot and on through the wine-growing region of Waipara to Amberley.
Bob’s editing his photos (apparently the waving seal turned out well) and as we cross a long bridge over the braided Waimakariri River he suddenly starts waving his camera in front of my face and hopping with excitement. “Wow, this one’s right out of the water!” he shouts, as I crane my neck to keep my eyes on the road.
Bob shakes his head. “Those Dusky dolphins are just amazing,” he says, clicking rapidly through his photos, “I wouldn’t believe they’re wild if I hadn’t seen it for myself!”