The Must-Dos and Best Boat Trips in the Marlborough Sounds
Covering one-fifth of New Zealand’s coastline, the Marlborough Sounds is a mecca for all things coastal. As a haven for wildlife, a treat for landscape lovers and an area steeped in history, the Marlborough Sounds makes the perfect setting for some awesome activities. So whether you’re into mountain biking, hiking, watching wildlife or just relaxing, you’ll certainly find some awesome things to do in the Marlborough Sounds.
Located at the north of the South Island, the Marlborough Sounds are typically accessed via Picton and Havelock. Many travellers’ first introduction to the sounds is when they take the ferry between Picton and Wellington. Believe us, the stunning mountainous hills rolling into the ocean is just the beginning. Just scroll down to see the gems this labyrinth of inlets hides, including how to get there with the best Marlborough Sounds boat trips.
1. Walk or Cycle the Queen Charlotte Track
An excellent way to spend some time in the Marlborough Sounds is by doing the Queen Charlotte Track. This 70km (43-mile) walking/biking trail winds its way through native forest and high mountain ridges overlooking the Marlborough Sounds. While the full multi-day hike is the best way to make the most out of the track, there are options to do sections as day hikes or rides. More details are available on Viator and Tripadvisor. For more information on biking the trail, check out The Ultimate Guide to the Queen Charlotte Track and Mountain Biking in Marlborough.
Location: Boat transport to various sections of the Queen Charlotte Track can be taken from Picton Marina. See the guides linked above for more details.
2. Spend Time at a Resort
Not quite a typical New Zealand activity, but the Marlborough Sounds is home to quite a few resorts and lodges packed with things to do. What’s more, they are pretty affordable. Many of the accommodations on the Marlborough Sounds have their own kayaks, paddleboards, snorkelling gear, beaches, bush walks and more. So why not take a boat out to one of these paradise-like locations for a couple of days and relax?! Try Anakiwa Lodge, Punga Cove Resort and Lochmara Lodge.
Location: Boat transport and water taxis can be taken from Picton Marina.
3. Watch Birds at the Motuara Island Sanctuary
New Zealand is home to some fascinating native birds. Many of which can be seen on the pest-free Motuara Island. An hour’s walk takes you up to a stunning viewpoint across the Queen Charlotte Sound. However, we recommend spending a good amount of time at the watering hole with a seating area looking onto it. The birds will come to you! For more about New Zealand’s birds, check out the 10 Things You Did Not Know About New Zealand Wildlife.
Location: Boat trips out to Motuara Island depart from Picton Marina with E-Ko Tours (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor), Beachcomber Cruises (on Viator and Tripadvisor) and Cougar Line (on Viator and Tripadvisor).
4. Cruise Around the Marlborough Sounds
There is no lack of boats in the Marlborough Sounds! Just take your pick from Picton or Havelock and cruise out into the majestic setting of Queen Charlotte or Kenepuru Sound. A popular choice is a mail boat cruise, with Beachcomber Cruises (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor), Cougar Line (on Viator and Tripadvisor) and Pelorus Mail Boat (on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook), taking passengers out on the water to the remotest stretches of the Marlborough Sounds to deliver mail.
Location: Boat transport can be taken from Picton Marina and Havelock Marina.
5. Swim with Dolphins in Their Natural Habitat
Bottlenose dolphins are regular visitors to the Marlborough Sounds. The playful dolphin species are often seen riding the bow of the many boats out on the water. To get a real close encounter with these fascinating creatures, join a dolphin swimming tour with E-Ko Tours (more info on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook).
Location: Tours depart from 1 Wellington Street, Picton Marina.
6. Take a Trip to Historic Ship Cove
Check out this heritage icon of New Zealand near the entrance of the Queen Charlotte Sound. Not only did the first Maori to discover New Zealand, Kupe, stop at Ship Cove 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. Sculptures, memorials and heaps of interpretation panels help tell the story of these early days in a stunning coastal setting. Ship Cove is also the start of the Queen Charlotte Track (see above).
Location: Cruises with Beachcomber Cruises to Ship Cove depart from Picton Marina. Find out more on Viator and Tripadvisor.
7. Kayak or Hike in Okiwi Bay
Those who have their own car or campervan can experience an awesome road trip through the Rai Valley to Okiwi Bay. Once in this quiet corner of the Marlborough Sounds, there’s kayaking to be done and hikes to tackle. Try the Goat Hill Track, Seaward Valley Track or Okiwi Bay Lookout Walk to see some wildlife, get awesome views and walk through native forest.
Location: Okiwi Bay, approximately 112km (70 miles) from Picton.
8. Do a Road Trip Down French Pass
To get well and truly off the beaten track, extend your visit to Okiwi Bay and drive down the French Pass Road. This beautiful drive reveals far-stretching coastal views all the way out to D’Urville Island. Stop along the way to visit a beach and some ferocious whirlpools. Once you reach French Pass, go camping or hop on a water taxi to D’Urville Island. For more information, check out The Guide to French Pass and D’Urville Island.
Location: French Pass Road starts from the eastern end of Okiwi Bay (see above).
9. Go Fishing in the Marlborough Sounds
Marlborough is renowned for its abundance of delicious seafood, particularly its salmon and greenshell mussels. A great way to see the Sounds while experiencing the thrills of catching your own dinner is by fishing! Hop on a fishing charter and see just how easy it is to grab yourself a blue cod or aim for something a little more challenging like gurnard, tarakihi, snapper, kahawai and scallops (in season). Fishing charters are available with Sounds Connections and Reel Therapy in Picton and Local Knowledge Charters in Havelock.
Location: Fishing charters depart from Picton Marina and Havelock Marina.
10. Take the Cook Strait Ferry
Well, when money’s tight and you need to get between the North Island and South Island, the Cook Strait ferry is actually a pretty good way to see the Marlborough Sounds. The ferry taking passengers and vehicles between Wellington and Picton travels right through the Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sound, providing some stunning photo opportunities along the way. Find out more in our guide to the Ferry Between the North Island and South Island and book your tickets with Interislander to Wellington on Direct Ferries, Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook. Alternatively, take the Bluebridge ferry available on Direct Ferries and Klook.
Location: Interislander – 1 Auckland Street, Picton. Bluebridge – 1 Lagoon Road, Picton.
For More Must-Dos and Things to Do in the Marlborough Sounds…
That’s it for our list of the best things to do in the Marlborough Sounds including the best boat trips. For more experiences in the Marlborough Sounds, take a look at our alternative guides:
Finally, plan your entire trip to Picton and the South Island using The Complete Travel Guide to Picton and the 51 Best Things to Do on the South Island.