From day hikes to winery tours to dolphin swims and more epic adventures, there are plenty of things to do in Marlborough whether you’re travelling cheap or treating yourself.
One of the sunniest regions in New Zealand, Marlborough is a year-round destination with a huge range of activities and attractions to fit all budgets and travel types.
This little corner of Te Waipounamu (the South Island) offers a variety of landscapes tightly packed within easy reach of the main two hubs, Picton and Blenheim. Explore the striking Marlborough Sounds, take a day hike or bike trip, or dive tastebuds-first into the thriving culinary and viticulture scene of the renowned Marlborough wine region.
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Whether you’re doing a mega South Island road trip or are just heading to Blenheim or Picton for a weekend getaway, Marlborough is one of the best places to visit in the South Island and is well worth adding to any South Island itinerary.
Here are my top recommendations for the best things to do in Marlborough, New Zealand.
Where is Marlborough?
The Marlborough region takes up the northeastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island, with the Nelson/Tasman regions to the west and Canterbury to the south.
How do you get to Marlborough?
Marlborough is easily accessed by ferry, plane or car.
If you’re coming from the North Island, the Interislander and Bluebridge ferries will arrive in Picton after a 3.5 hour trip from Wellington.
If you’re flying, it’s just under 1.5 hours from Auckland to Blenheim, 50 minutes from Christchurch or 25 minutes from Wellington.
Marlborough is also an excellent addition to any South Island road trip, with Blenheim being a 1h 45m drive from both Nelson and Kaikoura, or 4.5 hours from Christchurch.
Things to do in Marlborough
Swim with wild dolphins in Picton (ethically)
This is my number one pick for Marlborough activities, and it’s a top highlight of my own New Zealand adventures (which is saying something!).
Locally-owned and operated Eko Tours takes dolphin swimming and wildlife spotting tours out into the Marlborough Sounds from their base in Picton. We opted for a dolphin swim but also managed to see seals and rare seabirds as a bonus!
They’ve worked with the Department of Conservation to ensure their tours adhere to all regulations around interaction with marine mammals. The dolphins are totally wild, they aren’t fed or manipulated in any way. This means you can hang out with these playful creatures knowing that you’re not doing them any harm.
Eko Tours also have a No Seasickness Guarantee, the water in the Sounds is basically perfectly calm and in 10 years of operation they’ve never had any passengers get sick. So if you’re keen to swim with dolphins in New Zealand but aren’t super comfortable on the water, this tour is for you.
Learn more and book your Picton dolphin swim here: Eko Tours Dolphin Swim
TRAVEL HACK: Bookme.co.nz is a last minute deal website for things to do around New Zealand, and they often have between 20%-50% off activities and tours. Check out all their Marlborough deals here.
Go on a wine tour
Marlborough’s wineries account for 75% of all wine produced in New Zealand, so if you fancy yourself as a bit of a wine connoisseur then set aside a couple of days for visiting vineyards.
Blenheim and the smaller town of Renwick offer easy access to plenty of cellar doors and winery restaurants for a leisurely lunch or tapas-style meal.
You can explore by car (with a designated sober driver, obviously), rent e-bikes and hit the wine trail, or opt for a guided tour with a local wine expert.
Recommended winery experiences: Self-guided bike tour | Hop-on hop-off bus tour | Private wine & gourmet tour | 3-course lunch and wine pairing at Cloudy Bay | Full day wine tour
Enjoy a classic food and wine experience on a seafood cruise
Sample fresh local delicacies and learn about Marlborough’s seafood industry as you cruise through the breath-taking Queen Charlotte Sound.
You’ll get to try salmon, mussels and clams paired with the jewel in Marlborough’s crown, a Sauvignon Blanc, and there’s an onboard bar serving up a range of other beverages.
See all the details about the Seafood Odyssea Cruise here: Marlborough Seafood Cruise
Mail boat cruise
The Pelorus Mail Boat has been delivering mail to isolated residents of the Marlborough Sounds for more than a hundred years. Yep, you read that right!
Play postie for a day and jump on board to learn about the area’s history and ecology, spot birds and marine life, and witness the unspoilt beauty of some of the most remote parts of the Sounds.
See all the Mail Boat details here: Mail Boat Cruise
Hike the Queen Charlotte Track
The Queen Charlotte Track is often overlooked for nearby hikes with “Great Walk” status (I’m looking at you Abel Tasman Coast Track), but that just means there are less people to share the views with!
The entire 71km hike will take 3-5 days one way but there are day walk options either using a round-trip water taxi tour, or walking from the “end” of the track at Anakiwa (which requires a day pass for $12).
Hit one of the bike trails
The Queen Charlotte Track is also open to mountain bikers for most of the year, except for a section of the track that’s closed to bikers from December to February.
DOC recommends setting aside two or three days to ride the Queen Charlotte Track, but you can do a day ride from either end and back.
Mountain bikers can also check out the Kanuka Trail, the Link Pathway and Wakamarina Track, while road cyclists or more casual riders could do a trip around the brilliant wine trails near Blenheim.
Treat yourself to a five star getaway
Fancy staying at a secluded waterfront resort only accessible by boat or helicopter? Of course, why wouldn’t you!
The Bay of Many Coves luxury lodge is nothing short of a sanctuary, with an exclusive on-site fine dining restaurant, a day spa and easy access to day walks or kayak adventures.
It’s obviously not a budget option but there are brilliant deals on right now (as of April 2021) due to low tourist numbers, with rooms from only $800 a night in the low season and from $1095 in the shoulder season.
Check your dates at Bay of Many Coves and book online here.
Explore by kayak
The Marlborough Sounds are best seen from water level, so slap on some sunscreen and get your arms ready for a paddling workout!
These guided kayak tours leave from the understated seaside village of Anakiwa, letting you experience the Queen Charlotte Sound with minimal distractions.
You can choose from a return tour including a picnic lunch (and time for a swim if you’re lucky) or a one way tour where you hike for an hour or so back to the start point past native forest and mind-blowing viewpoints.
Learn about WWI and WWII at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
The Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a museum 5km out of Blenheim with aircraft and artefacts from both World Wars on show, including memorabilia and planes from Sir Peter Jackson’s private collection. This is one of the best things to do in Marlborough on a (rare) rainy day.
Tickets are $39 per adult to get into both exhibitions, or $25 for WWI and $20 for WWII.
Buy tickets online here.
Find some Lord of the Rings filming locations
Like much of New Zealand, the Marlborough Sounds boasts a number of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit filming locations.
One of the best-known ones is Pelorus Bridge, where the dwarves floated down the Forest River in barrels in the Desolation of Smaug.
Pelorus Bridge is a short drive from Havelock, towards the western side of the Sounds, and you can either park your car and walk a few minutes to the river’s edge or get right amongst the river with a kayak trip.
Even if you’re not a LOTR fan (I’ll admit I haven’t even seen it… my bad!) Pelorus River is still worth a visit, the iconic bridge in the background, rocky beach in the foreground and crystal clear water makes for epic photos.
Eat mussels in Havelock, the Greenshell Mussel capital of the world
Famous for its incredible locally-grown greenshell mussels, Havelock is worth at least a lunch stop to try the delicacy. Mills Bay Mussels Tasting Room is the best-rated spot in town, and they serve fish and chips and other classic kai for anyone not so shellfish-inclined.
If you really love mussels and want to make a day of it, this afternoon Havelock & Marlborough Sounds Mussel Cruise includes a cruise through Pelorus and Kenepuru Sounds with steamed mussels, a glass of local sav, and a visit to the mussel farm.
One of the coolest things to do in Marlborough for seafoodies! (That’s a word now).
Book the cruise here.
(Currently on hold due to COVID)
Waikawa Dive Centre offers guided SCUBA dives, SCUBA courses and freediving lessons from Picton.
The Sounds is home to abundant wildlife, so if you’re lucky you might spot little blue penguins, a variety of dolphin species, crayfish, octopus, blue cod and rays.
Where to stay in Marlborough
Budget: [email protected] Motel is the best-rated cheap option in town.
Mid-range: We stayed at the most stunning holiday home in Blenheim on my recent trip to Marlborough, it’s called The Nineteenth and it overlooks the golf course and endless vineyards. Two huge bedrooms, full kitchen and washing facilities, extra amenities like golf clubs and mountain bikes, and open plan living ideal for a family or two couples. The best part is it’s only $290 a night in shoulder season or $340 in high season, which is so cheap. That’s incredible value for what you’re getting!
Luxury: You can’t go past the Bay of Many Coves for a special getaway, check your dates and book online here.
Have you got your Marlborough Sounds itinerary all sorted? Hopefully this list of the best things to do in Marlborough has helped you plan your trip to this sunny little corner of the South Island! If you have any questions about the region or any of the activities mentioned just let me know in the comments.
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