Fancy some stunning scenery, world-class food and wine and a bit of indulgence?
This is what a Marlborough Sounds luxury escape can offer you. I’ve been to this area several times over the years, and always loved the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. Far away from real life, worries and cares.
Visitors to New Zealand who take a ferry between the country’s north and south islands will glimpse a little of what I’m talking about. The southern end of the trip sails along Queen Charlotte Sound, a wide and tranquil fjord surrounded by peaceful bush-clad hills. It’s a world away from the bustling capital at the northern end of this journey, so it’s a favourite getaway destination for Wellingtonians like ourselves.
The southern terminal, Picton, is the gateway for onward forays into the many bays, coves, inlets and other Sounds that make up this ecologically diverse and scenic region. Scheduled water taxi services can take you to your destination, whether it’s a lodge, bach or backpacker’s hostel. Alternatively, you can base yourself in Picton and take your choice of the many day trips on offer.
For those with big budgets, private water taxi travel is also available, or even helicopter transfer in some cases! One guest did arrive by helicopter during our stay – which was rather exciting.
The Marlborough wine district, near Blenheim, is half an hour’s drive away from Picton. A number of tour companies offer day trips for wine tasting, sometimes with lunch.
The luxury option – Bay of Many Coves Resort
After a couple of years of lockdowns, Covid-related holiday cancellations and MOOT (Missing Out on Travel), we decided to treat ourselves to a top end getaway. We chose the Bay of Many Coves Resort, the only 5-star property in the area, which had glowing reviews. The resort is a pleasant half-hour water taxi ride away from Picton. On arrival at the jetty, we didn’t have to worry about a thing – our bags were taken care of, and we were shown to our lodgings.
Guests are housed in individual cabin-style apartments tucked into the hillside. They are constructed in a rustic, organic style and are well suited to their location. A series of winding paths lead from the units to the resort’s facilities – the Kumatage and Foredeck restaurants, the laundry, heated pool, hot tub and the Quarterdeck waterside bar.
We booked a one-bedroom apartment, which had an open-plan kitchen, lounge and dining area leading onto a deck, a separate bedroom and a bathroom. To the front, the views across the bay were stunning, while the back window looked out to a verdant row of pungas (tree ferns). The setting was certainly beautiful – and we loved the fact that our unit was totally private. No neighbourly noise through walls, or being overlooked. That was a huge bonus.
The unit was simply furnished in neutral shades. It was attractive and well-equipped, although we wouldn’t describe it as 5-star. It was quite dark and in need of a refresh perhaps; the clear perspex roof over the deck certainly needed a clean. But we do understand the challenge of maintaining a property in a location like this, with its maritime setting and occasional extreme weather conditions. Besides, the spectacular views made up for any minor shortfalls.
For those who love watersports, there was plenty on offer – kayaking, sailing trips, paddle-boarding, fishing, dolphin-spotting. The resort also has its own walking tracks. We tried one of the shorter ones, to a small waterfall, which I found quite tough going. It was steep and difficult in places. I could see why the resort had provided walking sticks!
Being a slow traveller, I was happy just to chill out and enjoy the relaxing environment, the pool and the hot tub. It felt like being in the middle of nowhere, with just the buzzing and clicking of cicadas, the tuneful song of tuis and bellbirds, the lapping of gentle waves on the shore below, and the occasional gentle hum of a passing boat. There was also the gasping of a local seal, whom we later discovered was named André by the staff!
The deck of our apartment was the perfect place to do this. But there were plenty of other options – such as the Quarterdeck bar, for a bit of social interaction – or various nooks and crannies where there might be a picnic table with shade, or a lawned terrace with sun loungers.
The resort has an on-site spa and also a library, both of which I would have patronised if we’d been staying longer or if the weather hadn’t been so good.
One point to note – and for me, this was a good thing – is that cellphone reception is almost non-existent. We found that the only place to receive calls was in the Foredeck restaurant. The resort does have wifi however.
Food and drink
Marlborough is home to some of New Zealand’s most famous wineries and is particularly noted for its world-class sauvignon blanc. It’s well worth taking any opportunity to visit a winery if you can – Saint Clair and Framingham are two I’d recommend. But if this isn’t possible, then the wine list in the resort’s restaurant has plenty of local wines on offer.
Marlborough is also known for fine foods, including fish and shellfish. We dined in the Foredeck restaurant on both of our evenings at the resort. We could choose a 5-course degustation menu, or a 3-course alternative which included a first course and dessert from the degustation menu, with a larger main course dish. I tried each option on successive nights.
Although the dinners were very good, again we didn’t think they quite made 5-star standard. Some courses were excellent, while others were ordinary. But the view from the restaurant is stunning, and we were entertained on the first evening by a pod of orcas playing out in the bay! – so that made the experience rather special.
Breakfasts were served downstairs in the Kumatage, which was a less formal setting with a lovely outdoor dining area. There was a range of continental breakfast items plus cooked breakfast options. I’m not a fan of continental breakfasts so I was pleased to be able to have a cooked option.
It was good to see some imagination in the breakfast offerings, which were a little different from standard café fare. My husband’s favourite was the creamed mushrooms, while I really enjoyed the scrambled eggs with spinach, which were more like a folded omelette.
We ordered a platter for our arrival on the first day, as we had been travelling for several hours on the overnight ferry which departed Wellington at 2 a.m! The platter was lovely – a mix of cheese, crackers, deli meats, fruit and nuts. It kept us going for 2 days so we didn’t need to buy lunch. But if we’d wanted to, we could have gone down to the Quarterdeck bar, where food was available all day.
If one or two aspects of the Bay of Many Coves didn’t quite live up to our 5-star expectations, this was one that exceeded them. It’s the lovely staff that really make the difference to a stay here. From the warm welcome and farewell at the jetty, to the smiling friendliness and willingness to help, we couldn’t fault the service level or the attitude of the staff.
Our travel arrangements were altered several times because of disruptions to the interisland ferry service – of which more later – and the resort staff not only took this completely in their stride, but went the extra mile to minimise the impact on us also. For example, our unscheduled arrival an hour before check-in time was no problem – we were offered coffee and snacks while waiting in the Kumatage for our room to become available.
Little touches such as exquisite chocolates in our apartment, the provision of binoculars and torches, and ecologically-appropriate little gifts on departure, were very much appreciated.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Bay of Many Coves, mainly thanks to the beautiful location, stunning scenery and wonderful staff. We were also blessed with gorgeous weather. Which was very fortunate, because 2 days after our departure, Cyclone Gabrielle struck and brought strong gales, rain and severe travel disruption to New Zealand.
The resort is a member of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ group and it certainly has the facilities to meet that standard. We did feel that one or two areas need a bit of TLC and maintenance, however. The hot tub certainly needed a good clean-out. But we do understand that the last 2 years have been very difficult for the hospitality industry, particularly in this area which is still recovering from a major weather event that took place in August 2022.
So, all things considered, we thought the staff did a great job. But the final, key question – which qualifies any addition to my list of unforgettable bucket-list hotels – is, would we go back there in a heartbeat? The honest answer is, no. It takes a unique wow factor, or an emotional connection, to make us want to return to a place – and we didn’t get those at the Bay of Many Coves. It’s hard to pinpoint why.
The only other rustic luxury we’ve experienced was at Adrift in Golden Bay, some 250k to the west. We fell in love with this place, and would go back tomorrow. We connected with it. Sometimes these things are hard to explain. Nevertheless, we would recommend the Bay of Many Coves Resort to anyone looking for a Marlborough Sounds luxury escape.
A night in picton
Our stay here was an unexpected consequence of the ferry disruption that we referred to earlier. The interisland ferry, that we had originally booked for our return journey to Picton from Wellington, was taken out of service a week before our trip. The knock-on effect of this was significant: I worked out that I had to make 10 travel rearrangements in total, for what was originally a 2-night trip away!
So, thanks to ferry cancellations, we ended up booking a flight home instead, a day later than planned – and booking this extra night in Marlborough. There was little accommodation still available, but we found this wonderful apartment, perfectly located right opposite the water taxi terminal in Picton. The building was called Oxley’s and ours was a Marina View apartment. We rolled off the boat and rolled in!
PICTON WATERFRONT APARTMENTS
This accommodation couldn’t have been more different from where we had just left. It was modern, carpeted and luxurious, furnished and equipped as well as if it were a permanent home – and we loved it. When the weather turned that evening and a rain shower arrived, it was cosy. I could have happily spent a few more days there. Our airport shuttle pick-up point for the next morning was located just a few metres along the street.
As at the Bay of Many Coves, the staff at Picton Waterfront Apartments were happy to accommodate our changed travel arrangements and allow us to check in a little earlier than arranged. We were extremely grateful. We made our own food and entertainment that evening, buying a bottle of wine to enjoy on the sheltered balcony and watching the many comings and goings from the boats and ferries.
So if you need a stay in Picton during your Marlborough Sounds luxury escape, we would definitely recommend Picton Waterfront Apartments – especially the Marina View ones.
This very disrupted trip – I’ve missed out the full story in order not to bore readers – was nightmarish at times. Our weekend break would not have succeeded without the help, patience, kindness and next-level efforts of various people and companies. It seems only fair to give them a shout-out.
Rianne and Chris from Bay of Many Coves Resort, for their exceptional service and care.
Bluebridge Cook Strait ferry company who rescued us when our original booking, with a rival company, fell through due to operational issues.
Cougar Line water taxis at Picton – friendly, professional and efficient, switching both our original bookings with no fuss or bother.
Staff at Picton Waterfront Apartments – helpful and accommodating when faced with our changed arrival time.
Sounds Air – for transferring us to Blenheim when our flight to Wellington was diverted due to strong winds at Picton, and for an awesome flight home.
At the time of writing (Feb 2023), New Zealand is being hammered by Cyclone Gabrielle. Interisland ferry crossings, already disrupted as a result of technical problems, have ground to a halt. This has resulted in many people being stuck on either side of the Cook Strait, unable to progress to their destination. Some of these travellers are visitors with flights and connections.
All this has brought home to us the vulnerability of our island country, and the vital role that ferry and transport services provide. It also makes us realise how few options there are for crossing the Cook Strait, and how it doesn’t take much disruption for those few services to be come strained and overwhelmed when unexpected events occur. So it’s good to have insurance, a plan B and probably a plan C!
If you are interested in New Zealand, you might like my posts on Russell, New Zealand English, Dunedin, Katherine Mansfield, Wellington street art, best beaches in Wellington, Whanganui and Queenstown.
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