The magnificent waterways of the Marlborough Sound at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island are a spectacular maze of bays, channels, peninsulas and islands – and at times, they don’t seem quite big enough for our ship.
A sharp right turn is needed to leave the narrowest part of Tory Channel, then it’s hard-left to enter Queen Charlotte Sound – the white wake streams out behind in graceful curves and densely-forested hillsides rise steeply from the water.
We’re aboard the Aratere, one of the three Interislander ferries that ply the waters of Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds, making the 30-hour crossing from Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, to the port of Picton.
The Aratere was a big enough vessel even before it was cut in half in a Singapore shipyard so that a new 30-metre section could be slotted into the middle. Now it’s a really substantial ship, able to swallow railway carriages as well as vehicles.
Not many driving tours start aboard a ship – and without a car – but that’s how we’re doing it, because it makes sense to cruise from Wellington and pick up our hire car in Picton.
From the port, it’s a pleasant drive through forests and farmland to reach the wide expanses of vineyards that surround Blenheim, centre of the famed Marlborough wine region. We enjoy a day’s wine-tasting, cycling from vineyard to vineyard and savouring a variety of the region’s signature sauvignon blancs.
Nearby, the city of Nelson is known as a hot-spot of art and culture – the World Of WearableArt (WOW) began in this city nearly 30 years ago and although the performance is now hosted in Wellington, Nelson is home to the museum that celebrates the WOW experience.
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After visits to some of Nelson’s galleries and art studios, our journey continues north-westwards, towards the golden beaches, sky-blue waters and green forests of the Abel Tasman National Park.
From our motel in Motueka, it’s a short drive to Kaiteriteri at the southern gateway to the park, which is accessible by road at either end. The only way to explore is on foot or on water, by sea kayak or cruise boat.
It takes four or five days to walk the full 60-kilometre length of the track, climbing through beech forests, skirting granite cliffs, dropping down to hidden beaches and crossing wide tidal estuaries.
The timing has to be right – at Torrent Bay, we splash refreshingly through knee-deep water at low-tide, but a few hours earlier or later would have seen us on a longer route around the head of the bay.
The cruise operators make it easy to discover the national park on day walks or kayaking trips. The boats have extendable gangplanks and kayak racks. The skipper edges in close to the steeply-shelving beaches. Out goes the gangplank and in go the kayaks. We step off without getting our boots wet and a few hours later, our walk ends at another beach and the pre-arranged boat pickup.
Our seven days of walking and touring include driving as far as it’s possible to go, to the long hook of Farewell Spit, where Golden Bay meets the Tasman Sea. Then we head back to Picton, drop off the car and catch the Interislander for the return voyage to Wellington.
There’s a brisk sea breeze as the ship leaves the Marlborough Sounds and enters Cook Strait. Albatrosses wheel on the wind and white horses ride the waves. The South Island falls away in the distance beyond the ship’s wake – before long, far across the water, the craggy coastline of the North Island scribbles a grey line on the horizon.