A must-do when in Marlborough, is a cruise through the Marlborough Sounds. Now, you may be curious as to what a sound actually is (just saying coz I also asked that very same question). It's like a fjord, but different in the way it's created. A fjord is carved by a glacier melting, but a sound is formed by the sea flooding a river valley. For all intents and purposes, both a fjord and a sound appear to look the same, but that little factoid was cool to learn, so there you go...geography 101!
There are many cruise options through the Marlborough Sounds but the Seafood Odyssey Cruise with the Marlborough Tour Company, is by far the most luxurious. The cruise, which meanders the Queen Charlotte Sound, the most populated Sound of the three sounds forming the Marlborough Sounds, may also be the priciest (NZ$145 per pax), but I think the slightly-steeper pricetag is totally worth it.
You get to luxuriate on a 20 meter power catamaran, with properly clean (and dry!) bathroom
facilities, and guided by the most awesome staff on board.
We were taken care by Fjord, the skipper, and Angus, his first mate and chef, for the 3.5-hour cruise. Yes, seriously, the captain's name is Fjord...I mean, how could he not be destined to live out his life on the seas, am I right! And that's Angus mucking around the galley kitchenette, adjacent to the comfy lower deck. There's an iPhone charging station as well, should your phone run out of power, what with all that non-stop photo-taking.
Both are natives of the Marlborough Sounds, and extremely passionate about the region. I learnt a gazillion interesting facts about the Marlborough Sounds, and it stays with you, because nothing beats being explained a geographical fact, while seeing it with your very own eyes.
The deck, though scorching in the height of the Summer sun, offers the most magnificent views of the Sounds. The captain will inform you the sights, through the loudspeakers while steering the vessel in the upper deck lookout. There is additional seating in the upper deck next to the captain too, if you don't want to get a tan. In any case, bring lots of sunblock.
Both effervescent men also regaled us with personal nuggets of life in the Marlborough Sounds, like that one time, when the skipper was out spear fishing with a friend, and had hung his catch on a line above the boat. He'd felt a tap on his shoulder when he was underwater hunting for more fish, and turned around to come face-to-face with an orca! That orca looked at him, nodded his head as if to inform his intentions, before brazenly taking his catch (on the line) and swimming away. Did you know orcas are actually dolphins? They're really quite the smarty pants, and can differentiate between a human and fish prey. Barring those traumatised in captivity, wild killer whales are harmonious, gentle creatures that rarely attack humans.
Or that one time Angus was on a recreational trip with friends cruising through the Sounds, and came across a pod of dusky dolphins, and one of them had actually made eye-contact with the skipper, ostensibly to ensure his eye was on the dolphin, before doing a double backflip for show.
The itinerary was simply to visit a mussel farm, and a salmon farm, but because the Marlborough Sounds is so rich in marine life, we bumped into a native seal feeding on an octopus! That was AH-mazing! It was like National Geographic come to life. You always read about seals playing with their food, but we saw it live, barely 10 meters away in the water!
We took a couple of videos of the seal playing with the octopus, and boy, it was vicious!
One of the main pitstops was a Greenlip Mussel Farm at Hitana Bay. So, the story of mussel farming goes like this: greenlip (or greenshell as it's more commonly known internationally) mussels used to grow in the wild, before an enterprising local realized its farming and money-making potential. He'd gone to America to market his product, greenlip mussels, to a disappointingly tepid response. So, he returned to New Zealand, made some tweaks, and half a year later, told his American investors he'd a new product for sale. He had on hand, greenshell mussels, which was met with fanatical enthusiasm. Turns out, the product was the same, but the Americans didn't fancy the idea of eating "green lips". Ahh, the power of marketing, right. So that was a lifetime ago, and greenlip/greenshell mussels are now one of Marlborough's biggest exports.
Angus steamed some of the mussels simply in Framingham's riesling, and holy crap, these were the best mussels we'd ever eaten in our lives. These were meaty and sweet and fresh; so good on its own that the Hubs was popping them like popcorn. I've never seen him eat mussels like that, and the freshest ones we've ever had in Singapore can't compare. It's the waters of the Marlborough Sounds, clean, clear and constantly invigorated by the nutrient-rich Pacific Ocean seawaves.
We were also brought to see Waikawa Bay, the largest settlement in the Marlborough Sounds.
Because Waikawa Bay has no road access to the mainland, most residents have their own boats. And while a home here costs about NZ$600k, a low-frills boat like that would cost about the same or more. And that's excluding the maintenance and running costs. So, if you thought New Zealand was a more affordable place to stay than in Singapore, think again.
That was the cutest little cheery boatshed mere steps away from a resident's home.
The Waikawa Bay School, which has a total enrolment of just 10+ children. Apparently, kids here spent most of the time learning in the outdoors. What a wonderful way to learn, huh?
The last main pitstop was a King Salmon farm at Roakaka Bay.
There's just the one salmon farm in Marlborough Sounds, which is manned by a skeleton crew, and upclose, you can see the ponds covered over with a netting.
That's to prevent the seagulls from eating all the salmon, but still these opportunistic ones are patiently perched all day at the farm, watching and hoping to score a wayward salmon.
Best smoked salmon ever, it was fatty and sweet, with the barest hint of smoky char, and totally melt-in-your-mouth. So incredibly delicious we regretted not chartering the vessel privately; no need to share with the other 10 passengers then!
We also had some Cloudy Bay clams, steamed with a bottle of NZ's finest Sav Blanc, I think, from Framingham as well. Fat, juicy, and absolutely scrumptious! And when you're done with the clams (as with the mussels), just throw them back into the water! Don't worry, it's not littering, the shells will decompose into the sea, and release nutrients back from whence they came.
The view of the Picton waterfront, where you check in at 1.15pm at Jetty 5 at the right side of the private vessel marina (opposite end of the public ferry terminal), for a 1.30pm departure. Note that forward bookings are essential.
The Picton waterfront is where the ferry connection between New Zealand's North and South Islands, namely Wellington (the southernmost point of the North Island) and Picton (northern tip of the South Island) respectively, docks. That's the massive ferry leaving for Wellington from the Picton ferry terminal.
Seafood Odyssey Cruise