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Sounds good

22 September 2023
Picton Marina. Photo: Mike Yardley

Christchurch-based travel writer Mike Yardley enjoys some serene spring encounters in Marlborough’s Queen Charlotte Sound.
Words Mike Yardley

Nature rules supreme in Queen Charlotte Sound. I was kept amused by your typical group of teenagers out cruising. Frisky, playful, and rather shameless attention-seekers. A large pod of juvenile bottle-nose dolphins turned on quite the spectacle as I purred across Queen Charlotte Sound from Picton, on Beachcomber’s Mail Boat cruise.

The frolicking dolphins basked in the boat’s wake before unleashing their acrobatic impulses, leaping out of the water and flying through the air like seasoned circus performers, before finally splitting off after one final celebratory splash.

Our ebullient skipper Phil peppered the cruise commentary with a feast of fascinating insights. Māori call Queen Charlotte Sound Tōtaranui, because they think the sound resembles the shape of the mighty tree. Many of the old weatherboard homes in Wellington have a direct connection with this sound – the timber was milled here.

We gazed out across to the Edwin Fox, on Dunbar Wharf. It’s the world’s second oldest surviving merchant sailing ship, and the only surviving ship that transported convicts to Australia – well worth a visit when in Picton.

We rendezvoused with one of New Zealand King Salmon’s farms in Ruakākā Bay, heavily fortified in perimeter fencing to stop the fur seals doing a drive-by feed. They make a hideous mess if they manage to break in. Workers live on-site, two weeks on, two weeks off. Processed in Nelson, they are the largest producer of farmed king salmon in the world.

In Resolution Bay, we fed fish off the side of the boat – colossal-sized blue cod and yellow-eyed mullet.
The water was positively swarming with fish, because it’s part of Long Island Marine Reserve. Fishing is strictly prohibited, although I did feel rather peckish. We even spotted a lumbering fur seal snoozing on the back of a luxury yacht at anchor. Mr Seal must have taken the boat’s name to heart – ‘Feeling Nauti’.

We also met some of the local legends who call the solitude of the Sounds home, including a 14-year-old black labrador who was trained as a pup to take his owner’s mail bag down to meet the boat and collect the incoming mail.

If you’re keen to combine cruising with a spot of hiking and an overnight stay, there’s a variety of sizzling options. On arrival at Ship Cove, I dabbled in the creek where Cook made home brew for his crew, before surveying the magnificent Captain Cook monument commemorating his repeat visits to the area.

Remarkably, one of the original cannons from Endeavour adorns the monument. The cannon was salvaged from Cape Tribulation in North Queensland, after the Endeavour ran aground on a reef and the crew had to throw numerous equipment overboard, to free the ship.

A gorgeous carved pou whenua (pole) was installed at Ship Cove 16 years ago, showcasing the legend of Kupe and the giant octopus he chased in these waters.

After soaking up the history and the tranquil beauty of Ship Cove, and with my walking boots firmly laced up, I struck out for a taster of the Queen Charlotte Track. The full 73km traverse from Ship Cove to Anakiwa is typically a four-day affair, but if you’re itching for a bite-sized chunk of this celebrated trek, I definitely recommend the first day’s section from Ship Cove to Furneaux Lodge.

Fashioned from pioneering era bridle paths, the track was officially opened by DOC in 1991, in conjunction with private landowners, who continue to help its maintenance. The 15km section starts with a steep, thigh-burning haul, climbing away from the beach, through regenerating native forest.

But after that initial gut-buster, the rest of the four-hour-long trail was a breeze, with gentle undulations up and down panoramic ridgelines.

Gregariously chirping fantails, fluting tūī calls and the limpid notes dropped by bellbirds were a constant avian soundtrack, as I threaded my way through forests of mānuka, kānuka, tawa, tree ferns and beech. Curious weka shuffled by, wood pigeons whooshed, but I didn’t see any wild pigs – first released in these parts by Cook.

The lookout point at Tawa Saddle serves up seraphic views across Queen Charlotte Sound, while more pixel-burning vantage points loom large as you descend into Resolution Bay.

In the higher reaches of the track, the elevated views offer mouth-watering glimpses of some of New Zealand’s most remote holiday homes, glorious little escape pads of supreme seclusion.

From Resolution Bay, the final stretch followed a well-graded old bridle path over a ridge and into Endeavour Inlet, threading along the shoreline.

An unexpected surprise was the short detour to ogle one of New Zealand’s largest and oldest trees, a 1000-year-old rimu, in Howden Forest. A viewing boardwalk was recently built around the tree to safeguard its ancient roots. What a stunning specimen it is.

Feeling weary and somewhat jelly-legged, I toddled across the finish line with a flourish, sweetly surrendering to the laid‑back hospitality embrace of Furneaux Lodge.

Built by the Howden family nearly 120 years ago, the original homestead was thronging with thirsty patrons, chilling out and swapping tales, before boarding the boat at 5pm for the return run to Picton.

The second stage of the Queen Charlotte Track connects Furneaux Lodge with Punga Cove on a flat/easy 12km coastline track around Endeavour Inlet, through lush regenerating native bush, soundtracked with birdsong. It’s a doddle. I struck out on this trail on my most recent sojourn in Queen Charlotte Sound. (It’s easy to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs if you only want to walk one way.)

On my latest encounter in the Sounds, I based myself at the magnificent Punga Cove Resort. Its name pays homage to the plentiful punga ferns that thrive in this high-rainfall area of the Sounds. There are also many rimu, mataī and miro trees near the coast, while further away the red beech is predominant.

Nestled amongst sublime scenery, Punga Cove is a blissed-out retreat, draping the hillside, overlooking the jewel-like hue of Endeavour Inlet, backed by a procession of peaks. The range of accommodation spans all tastes and budgets, from bunkrooms and retro chalets to stylish apartments and suites.

Crowning the hillside, I bedded down in one of the Frond Suites, a cradle of relaxation and pampered comfort. It’s the spacious private deck, with those gloriously wide vistas that kept commanding my attention.

Heading to bed with a star-flecked sky above, I awoke to an ethereal dawn, feeling transported to the brooding intensity of Fiordland. Coiling fingers of mist caressed the ridgelines and tumbled down to the waterline, recasting Endeavour Inlet in glowering alpine drama before the sky split open and it rained bullets. An hour later – bluebird skies resumed transmission.

Dining is another triumph, with the Punga Fern Restaurant cooking up a storm with à la carte breakfast from daybreak to fine evening dining, from its hilltop roost, where menus are proudly assembled from local produce.

For dinner, I enjoyed an entree of Cloudy Bay clams with linguine, citrus espuma, creole and herbs. It was a tough task singling out a main, but I plumped for the divine Canterbury duck breast, which was served as croquettes, topped with carrot puree, beetroot and jus. Drool!

There’s a feast of activity options including the complimentary use of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. Add to that, the on-site swimming pool and spa tubs, plus wine tours, seafood cruises and sailing, diving and fishing charters on offer nearby.

But with limited time, I chose to stretch the legs on another hearty slice of the Queen Charlotte Track, striking out to reach Eatwell’s Lookout.

It’s quite the lung-buster on this four-hour return workout, with a particularly steep ascent to reach Kenepuru Saddle from Punga Cove, before climbing even higher to reach the view of all views on the Queen Charlotte Track, Eatwell’s Lookout.

Drink in that soul-singing 360-degree panorama. The lookout is named in honour of Rod Eatwell, a private landowner on part of the Kenepuru ridge that was made available for the public track. He’s dubbed the grandfather of the walkway. (You will need to buy a pass from reception to access this part of the track. It’s just $12 for the day pass.)

But no matter how active or languid your stay may be at Punga Cove, all of your senses are engaged in this definitive New Zealand experience. Your camera can’t do justice to its beauty.

Click here to read this story in our digital issue of 03.

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