Marlborough, South Island
Whether you arrive by ferry from the North Island, or have made you way north theough the vieyards of the Marlborough region, you'll find Picton a pretty little place to stop for a while. The harbour here is very sheltered (a fact much appreciated if you've just experienced a rough ferry crossing- and Cook Strait can be very rough indeed). You'll probably want to move on if you've just landed, but stop long enough to check out the museum here devoted to the barque "Edwin Fox" - one of the last great teak East Indiamen to be built and certainly the last to survive. In her long years at sea she served as a trading ship all around the world, carried some of the last convicts to to be transported to Western Australia and emigrants to New Zealand before ending her days at sea as a coal storage hulk in the harbour here at Picton. Constraints of money and location have made the dream of restoration fade, but the partially restored hulk is well-cared for in a preservation programme and has a very devoted band of volunteers who run the museum. It really is worth a look.
The website here has a very detailed history of the barque - you probably won't want to read it all but there are some great photos and contemporary drawings.
You cannot do a lot there but it is a spectacular view that you should not miss. In nice weather the colour of Lake Grassmere, about 20km south of Blenheim, is absolutely shocking pink, well, not just a bit surreal.
This lake is the major source of New Zealand's salt production. As it does not rain a lot in this sunny region this low-level lake offers perfect conditions for the salt industry. The salt works can be visited - but only on Tuesdays and Fridays, as far as I remember. The enterprise's name is Dominion Salt.
60,000 to 70,000 tonnes of salt (of which most is exported) are harvested from Lake Grassmere each year. Sea water is pumped into the 688 hectare main lake continuously throughout summer. Evaporation increases the sea water's strength, and it is pumped into a series of concentrating ponds, where further evaporation takes place. When the brine reaches saturation point it is transferred into crystallisation ponds during the summer months. You cannot miss the 20 metre high white salt piles from the road.
The pink to purple colour of the crystallisation ponds is caused by natural microscopic green algae that change to pink in the high salt concentration. There are also small pink shrimps in the water that thrive in this salty environment. Of course, the colour appears most striking in sunshine.
If you turn left (when travelling to the south) after the lake or right before the lake (when travelling north) you reach wonderful and peaceful Marfells Beach (see extra tip).
I did not really know about Marfells Beach before I got there ;-) In fact, I only went there because a "private road" sign stopped us driving to Cape Campbell where I had wanted to go after I had spotted it on the map. But this became another typical New Zealand disappointment thanks to a farmer :-(
Cape Campbell and its lighthouse are indicated on the signposts from SH1 (20 km south of Blenheim) but only when you would have to turn right after several kilometres the "private road" sign indicates that you should not drive there because some farmer blocks the direct access. Still you have a chance to get to the Cape - if you make a full-day walk along the coast from Marfells Beach, checking the tides and not drowning... High springtides can make the bluffs impassable. The lighthouse is from 1903, replacing the original one from 1870.
Marfells Beach is named after Richard Marfell who that arrived from Gloucestershire in England in 1881. He started farming north of Lake Grassmere and then subsequently aquired the land behind the lake. It remained in the family until 1982.
Camping is allowed on a short stretch of the beach, from the end of the access road around Clifford Bay to a gate a short way behind the toilet block. The facilities are rather basic and primitive. I read that during the peak season in summer it can happen that 100 people spend the night at Marfells Beach. When we were there in March 2007 there were only two or three parties staying there.
If you carry on walking after the gate you get to Mussel Point where the walk to the lighthouse starts after a sharp right turn.
The beach is rough, picturesque and peaceful. But there is a cloud hanging over it, as TranzRail has applied for consent to build an interislander ferry harbour there, and this application has found consent - which is hard to swallow, given the beauty of the place. But as long as several appeals have to be dealt with the Department of Conservation (DOC) will keep on looking after the care of the beach and the camping facilities.
Sure, the Montana Brancott Winery is NZ's biggest and Marlborough's most famous winery. But there are so many more wineries in the region around Blenheim that I would surely forget many if I tried to list them all. If you travel north, west or south of the town you will always pass lots of vineyards and wineries where you can make tours or just purchase wine. Many wineries offer gourmet dining packages.
Montana has impressive buildings and looks like a bit like a rustic European castle, including a eight metre high cathedral ceiling. It is located south of Blenheim on SH1, easy to spot. The Marlborough Wine and Food Festival takes place at the Montana Estate every year in February.
Other famous brands which you will also find in every supermarket are Matua, Wither Hills, Hunter's, Cloudy Bay, Grove Mill and Highfield Estate. Just to name some.
Marlborough Wine Tour operators:
15A Murphys Road, Blenheim
Phone (03) 577 9046, Mobile (027) 434 6451
Phone (03) 577 9997
A selection of wineries (Renwick is west of Blenheim, on the the West Coast route SH6) and links:
Montana (and restaurant), Riverlands, SH1, www.montana.co.nz
Matua, New Renwick Road, Email: email@example.com
Clifford Bay, Rapaura Road, SH6, www.cliffordbay.co.nz
Wither Hills, New Renwick Road, www.witherhills.co.nz
Hunter's Wines, Rapaura Road, www.hunters.co.nz
Herzog Winery (and luxury restaurant), Jeffries Road, www.herzog.co.nz
Grove Mill, Cnr Waihopai Valley Rd & SH63, Renwick, www.grovemill.co.nz
Highfield Estate, Brookby Rd, RD2, www.highfield.co.nz
Forrest Estate, 19 Blicks Rd, Renwick, www.forrestwines.co.nz
Huia Vineyards, Boyces Rd, RD3, www.huia.net.nz
Drylands, Hammerichs Rd, www.drylands.co.nz
St. Clair, 156 New Renwick Rd, Liverpool St (Riverlands) and Cnr Rapaura & Selmes Rds, www.saintclair.co.nz
Allan Scott, Jacksons Rd, www.allanscott.com
... and lots more!
If you have no time to visit Blenheim, do not worry: There is not a lot to see. What makes Blenheim known all over the place is the wine that grows around this little Marlborough town which BTW is the capital of this region. New Zealand's biggest wine producer is located near Blenheim, it is Montana, and everybody knows the Montana Wine Festival.
The town itself, as said, has not a lot to offer. There is a nice square in the centre with a clock tower, and Seymore Square with another - bigger - clock tower, palm trees and nice flower beds. Some minutes from the centre is Pollard Park which is an English style garden. It is situated between the Old Renwick Road and Parker Street (parallel to SH 6).
Apart from the wine Blenheim is famous for another superlative: It is the town with most sunshine hours in NZ. In average the sun shines 2438 hours per year, so the town dubbs itself as the sunshine capital of NZ. When we there the last time it was a hot day, and the hills around the town were so dry that they looked as if covered in desert sand.
If - for whatever reason - you spend more than an hour in Blenheim, for example for some wine-tasting days, you can do water activities like housboating on the Opawa River (you can stay for the night), or hire a boat for cruising and fishing, and you can do punting and kayaking on Taylor River. They also have a Riverside Railway which runs on weekends normally.
Houseboating Opawa River, tel. (03) 577 9205
Boat Hire, freephone (0800) 934 262