If you’re planning a visit to New Zealand, then the likelihood is that the wealth of natural beauty is probably a big part of the reason that you want to visit.  There are rolling hilly landscapes, sweeping sandy beaches, precipitous peaks, and enormous glaciers to explore. Cramming it all into a single holiday is often a considerable challenge!

Among the most distinctive natural phenomena in the country are a network of sunken valleys on the South Island, known as the Marlborough Sounds.

Geographically speaking, the term ‘sound’ refers to something quite specific – though the word is used in such a haphazard way when naming places that it’s barely useful. The word ‘sound’ stems from a Norse word, ‘sund’, which found its way into the English language with Viking contact with England centuries before the first European settlers arrived in New Zealand. The term describes a large ocean inlet which separates two or more bodies of land. Wherever there are long protrusions of land with water between them, that water might be known as a “sound”.

Today, we’re going to introduce to the spectacular Marlborough Sounds.

Where are the Marlborough Sounds?

You’ll find the Marlborough Sounds on the north-easternmost tip of the South Island, sandwiched neatly between Tasman Bay in the west and Cloudy Bay to the east. Look at a map of the country, and you’ll see a set of protrusions of land that almost look like they’re reaching toward Wellington.  The entire area covers around 4,000km2, and so you’ll probably find enough in this part of the country to keep you entertained for an entire holiday!

The History of the Marlborough Sounds

The Marlborough Sounds were formed from river valleys, which over time became flooded. The result is a jagged shoreline with barely any beaches, and an ocean floor which continues to slope beneath the water. They were formed at the end of the last ice age, some ten thousand years ago, as rising water levels flooded the valleys.


Before humans arrived, the Sounds were covered in forests composed principally of beech. The area today is home to a considerable diversity of plant life, as the rising waters brought with them considerable changes to the local ecosystem. The winds blowing in from the Cook Straight have also played a role in sculpting the local flora, with the coastal cliffs being covered in hardier herbs and shrubs, which can withstand stronger breezes and elevated salt levels.


Of course, these changes in plant life had knock-on consequences for the animals living in the area. Fish-eating birds roost on islands here, and you’ll even be able to catch a glimpse of orca, dolphins, and seals when you pay a visit to the area’s ten wildlife and conservation centres.


Among the most significant animals to settle in the region are human beings. The sheltered nature of the waters here made them a bountiful source of food for the area’s first Maori settlers, who moved to the area in droves. Maori would move across the sounds using enormous canoes, which they’d be able to carry across low saddles in order to cut out longer sea journeys. Maori tradition states that New Zealand’s South Island is itself a giant canoe belonging to the mountain Aoraki (or Mount Cook, as it’s otherwise known).

Cook himself paid a visit to the Marlborough Sounds in 1770 in search of food and shelter. During his stay, he discovered a plant known as ‘Cook’s scurvy grass’, whose high vitamin-C content provided welcome relief to the scurvy-riddled crew of the Endeavour!

Cruising the Marlborough Sounds

If you’re looking to pay the Marlborough Sounds a visit, then securing a suitable boat is crucial. While there’s a great deal to see from the shore, to get a truly up-close look at what’s on offer, you’ll want to get out onto the water.

Boats can be chartered at Picton, a small town on the southern edge of the Sounds. Along with Havelock, to the west, it’s among the most easily reachable settlements which provide access the sounds. You’ll be able to get there via train, bus or car.

If you’re just looking to spend a few hours exploring the sounds, then a water taxi is the way to proceed. These boats provide scenic cruises of the area which last for two to three hours, during which you’ll be able to get a flavour of the area. If you’d prefer a slightly longer trip, on the other hand, you might try a longer ‘eco-cruise’. Some operators will even allow you to disembark and go on a short hike. There are a good selection of companies offering water taxi services in town, with the largest of these being ‘Cougar Line’.

Another option for those looking to take in the area is the Interislander Cook Straight Ferry, which will take you from Picton to Wellington (or vice-versa). You’ll travel northward, navigating the watery pass between Arapawa Island and the mainland before emerging onto the Cook Straight that runs between the North and South Islands of the country.

Other Ways to Experience the Sounds

The Sounds have a great deal to offer besides natural beauty. Among the area’s most famous exports is Sauvignon Blanc. Grapes here flourish under an agreeable combination of conditions. Marlborough’s wineries are responsible for some 76% of the country’s total output, and 90% if we’re just talking about Sauvignon Blanc. If you’re a wine-lover, then you’ll want to include a trip to the area’s vineyards into your trip – with a long ripening season and warm weather, the area is also home to some stunning pinot noirs and craft beers, too.

If you’re looking to sample some of the best food and drink that the country has to offer, then a seafood cruise launching from either Havelock or Picton will provide a great way of doing it. There are high-quality restaurants scattered across the coastline, and the area’s tour operators will know the best of them.

For those who’d prefer to explore the area on dry land, there are several hiking trails snaking across the coastline. These include the Wither Hills farm park, whose fifty kilometres will take you across a working New Zealand farm, and to the top of a ridge from which you’ll be able to survey the surrounding countryside. If you’d prefer something a little shorter, on the other hand, there’s the snout-track, which starts at the Picton foreshore and will offer a series of fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. The main trail takes around four hours on foot (and less if you’re travelling by bicycle). If you’d prefer to cut things short, on the other hand, then there’s a slightly shorter three-hour route starting at the Snout Track car park, in Victoria Domain.

For experienced hikers looking for a real adventure, there’s the Queen Charlotte track, which offers several days’ worth of spectacular scenery, including bays, ridges, forests, and grasslands. You’ll get an unrivalled view of the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru sounds, and you’ll find several cafes, campsites and luxury lodges along the way. You can even arrange to have your luggage transported from site to site via boat. New Zealand is a paradise for hikers, and this route is among the best the country has to offer – so why not incorporate it into your trip?

Marlborough Sounds Vs Milford Sounds

Of course, Marlborough Sounds aren’t the only sounds on offer in this part of the world. On the western flank of the South Island, several hundred kilometres away, lies the Milford sound. This location is also a considerable draw for tourists, and for much the same reasons; it’s packed with natural beauty, and provides some of the best hiking and boating opportunities in the country.

If you’re struggling to choose between the two sounds, then it’s worth comparing them side by side. Let’s do that right now!


The first obvious difference between the two locations is that Marlborough Sounds cover a much great area, and so offer a greater quantity of things to do and see. Of course, if you just have a few days of your trip to spare, then this might not matter too much.


Being located at opposite ends of the South Island, your visits to the two locations will hinge upon the rest of your trip. If you’re going to be staying in Wellington or Blenheim, then a trip to the Marlborough Sounds will be easy to accommodate. If you’re going to be scaling Mount Aspiring, then you might prefer a short trip to Milford.


The cruises at Milford Sounds are shorter and less expensive than those around Marlborough. You’ll be taken out for two hours for around $55. You’ll be taken out to the Tasman Sea and back. Though the experience is memorable, boats must stick to a rigid timescale, and thus you won’t have the freedom to explore offered by some cruise operators in Marlborough.

So, there we have it; a whistle-stop introduction to the Marlborough Sounds. Ready to explore the Marlborough Sounds? Why not contact us today? Our friendly staff are experts in tailormade holidays to New Zealand and will be able to help you start planning your dream holiday, today!