Cruising Marlborough Sounds

13th January 2016

For Christmas this year, James and I decided against buying each other presents (where would we put them?! We have so much stuff!) and instead treated ourselves to a day out doing something we wouldn’t normally do – a cruise in the Marlborough Sounds.

The Marlborough Sounds are situated at the Northwest end of the South Island, and have been occupied by Māori for over 800 years. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to sight the sounds in 1642, but he never came ashore. Englishman James Cook anchored his ship in the sounds for 170 days between 1770 and 1777, provoking the first contact between Māori and outsiders.

An abundance of inlets, bays and islands, the Marlborough Sounds primarily consists of 3 smaller sounds: Pelorus Sound, Keneperu Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound. See the map below for a bit of guidance. Considering that the ferry from Picton to Wellington passes through Queen Charlotte Sound, ideally we wanted to see either the Pelorus or Kenepuru Sounds.


We went into Picton i-Site and had a look through various leaflets from tour providers, before asking the customer assistant what sort of tour would suit us. We were keen to do the Mail Boat run, which departs from Havelock into the Pelorus Sound 3 times a week while delivering the mail to the islands and difficult-to-reach land. Unfortunately this option was a bit too pricey for us! Instead, we opted for the Cougar Line’s Early Bird Eco-Cruise.

At 8:00am we departed from Picton Town Wharf for Motuara Island. Motuara Island is a predator-free bird sanctuary, where you can see many rare species of birds, and we had two hours to explore the island. Since we’ve been in New Zealand, I’ve become a bit of an overly-keen bird-watcher so this was more than ideal for me! Stepping off the boat and into the bush, we were welcomed by a chorus of birdsong.

A short track leads to a memorial and a lookout, where you can spot kererū/ NZ wood pigeons trying to camouflage themselves in the trees (they don’t seem to realise they are too big/fat to balance on thin branches!) We saw a few friendly South Island Robins, who will look for insects in the ground at your feet if you scuff the earth a little. The melody of the bellbirds’ song rung out through the trees (often mistaken for the call of the tūi, but there are no tūi on the island.) We were lucky enough to see a few saddleback/tīeke (who are very camera shy unfortunately) and, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we saw the bright green flash of a parakeet hiding amongst the leaves! Day = made.

A South Island Robin on James’ boot!


Marine life such as seals, dolphins and gannets can be spotted along the coastline of the Marlborough Sounds, although we didn’t see any while we were on the island. We quietly lifted up the nesting boxes dotted along the track, where we saw a Little Blue Penguin keeping her babies/eggs warm! The DOC assures you that the animals on the island are all relatively comfortable in humans’ company (probably due to daily tours), but we didn’t want to frighten the penguins while they were nesting so we quickly took a (non-flash) photo before quietly closing the lid.

A bellbird on flax

A Little Blue Penguin!

At 11:00am, our boat returned and took us across to Resolution Bay, stopping at Ship Cove en route. Ship Cove is where Captain James Cook anchored his vessel on his voyage to New Zealand in the 1770s, and there’s a memorial to commemorate it. We didn’t go ashore here, but there are options to on other Cougar Line cruises. We got off the boat at Resolution Bay and walked up the hill to join the Queen Charlotte Track.

The full Queen Charlotte Track is 70km long and can be tramped in 5 days, or mountain biked in 2-3 days. Some parts of the track cross private land, so a pass is required. Unlike other walks in New Zealand, there are no backcountry huts en route, only campsites or private guesthouses, lodges and homestays. Additionally, the only way to get to the start of the track at Ship Cove is via boat. James and I want to trek this route, but decided against it for now since it’s so much to organise and will be quite expensive considering the cost of the boat + homestays. Nevertheless, we were thrilled that the cruise we chose included trekking part of the track.


We walked the 11km track from Resolution Bay to Furneaux Lodge. Despite the cloudy sky, the views of the Sounds were beautiful. We stopped en route to have our lunch where we were joined by a friendly weka. Weka are strange-looking birds, somewhere between a chicken, a pukeko and a pheasant. They’re very curious but feeding them can make them ill. Although you often come across them on the South Island, they’re actually endangered! We continued along the track, marvelling at the remoteness of the houses, with boats on their driveways instead of cars. Arriving at Furneaux Lodge, we enjoyed a cold beer and cider in the sun.

At 3:00pm we were picked up from Furneaux Lodge and the boat took us back to Picton, stopping at many of the inlets and bays on the way. We enjoyed the views while sitting on the deck with a free cup of tea and coffee, and we even spotted some dolphins in the water!


Cougar Line Early Bird Ecotour

Brief itinerary (times are guidelines only):

What’s included:

What to wear and take with you:

Have you ever taken a tour of Marlborough Sounds? Have you trekked the Queen Charlotte Track? Do you enjoy birdwatching? 

Thanks for reading & happy travels!

Abbi x

Note: All information is true and correct based on our experience on 18th December. All photos are my own. We each paid $95NZD and I have not received any money for talking about the tour in this blog post – I just really enjoyed the cruise & recommend it to others!


3 responses to “Cruising Marlborough Sounds”


    Love Marlborough Sounds but it’s been a few decades since I last visited. Thanks for rekindling the memories 🙂

  2. Nice article and great photos! Will add to bucket list

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


I’m a travel-loving sustainability advocate, on a journey to live a low-impact lifestyle alongside seeing the world. I’m obsessed with my two dogs, secondhand shopping, and growing vegetables.