The ferry journey between the North and South islands is as lovely as the destination, writes Neil Porten.
It was the furry critter sunning itself on the end of the pier that sealed the deal.
In the midwinter Marlborough sunshine it wriggled on its back, folding and unfolding both sets of flippers in an effort to get comfortable — unconcerned at the four North Islanders snapping photos on the otherwise deserted wharf at Anakiwa, Queen Charlotte Sound.
Our decision to take a day trip from Wellington to the top of the South Island was delightfully vindicated by this casually brief encounter with the local wildlife.
It's a straightforward proposition to spend a day sampling Marlborough's perfectly pitched attractions. We had six hours on the ground in the South Island, plenty of time to fit it all in.
We took advantage of a discounted Interislander ferry fare for day excursions. Once on board the Kaitaki's 8.30am sailing, and with barely a whiff of sea air to sharpen their appetites, three hungry passengers in our group devoured a large cooked breakfast before the ship had even slipped its mooring.
My daughter and I were happy to haunt the bar and listen to the guitar man sing Dave Dobbyn's Whaling. But the calm sea and blue skies tempted us on to the viewing decks to savour the sights of this iconic New Zealand voyage.
The ferry glides between the Miramar peninsula and Pencarrow Head and bears north into Cook Strait. Wellington's steep south coast is to starboard and the snow-topped peaks 100km or so away in Marlborough's hinterland rise up in front. The shifting vista of the ocean and two land masses demand constant reappraisal. Fur seals aside, this is the hands-down highlight of the day.
Watching the ship's approach to the South Island is like a widescreen shot in a Tolkien-esque epic: surely there is a gap in that sheer fortress of coastline, but guessing exactly where it is is impossible until, at the last moment, a small white beacon indicates the way through and the ferry eases into the Tory Channel.
Turning into Queen Charlotte Sound is like a cruise on an alpine lake. Bay after quiet bay slips past, some with secluded homesteads, others with regimented rows of submerged mussel farms.
Our disembarking at sunshine-bathed Picton is quick and we are soon catching glimpses of sparkling water as we head north out of town on Queen Charlotte Drive to Anakiwa at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, home to the Cobham Outward Bound School.
Thousands of New Zealanders have come to this place since 1962 to challenge themselves in the outdoors. On this day, a dozen or so students are shrugging on wetsuits and carrying kayaks to the water's edge to begin their instruction.
Moored at the end of the pier is a pair of the school's short-masted clinker-built cutters. It is while checking out the cutters that we chance upon the fur seal sunbathing at the end of the wharf. The possibility of loading it into the car boot as a souvenir is discussed before we head on our way for lunch.
Our late lunch at Havelock's Slip Inn Cafe is a relaxed affair. The seafood platter stacked with local steamed mussels, prawns, calamari, smoked salmon and battered fish, washed down with a Stoke ale, was top-notch.
We dragged our full bellies into the car at 2pm, heading south to Blenheim. The 20-minute drive, crossing the Wairau River and through New Zealand's largest wine region, is as picturesque as it gets: snow on the close grey hills, rust-red canes on the leafless vines, busy woolly sheep chomping weeds beneath the wires and posts. Nautilus, Giesen, Allan Scott, Cloudy Bay — countless wineries flash by before we arrive at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre.
This place is a marvel and worth every minute of the hour and a half we spent surrounded by aircraft that flew over the battlefields of Europe 100 years ago. First up is the Caproni Ca 22, an Italian two-seater built in 1913, and the only one left in the world. Many of the full-size reproduction aircraft are in flying condition, including four triplanes made famous by the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen. One of the museum's most prized artefacts is the actual fabric cross cut from the fuselage of von Richthofen's triplane when he was shot down and killed in April 1918.
Our final stop was at the Makana Confections chocolate factory. All I can say is that none of the macadamia butter toffee crunch survived the 20-minute drive back to Picton.
With an hour still up our sleeve, any of the attractions on the Picton waterfront, including the dry-docked Edwin Fox merchant ship, built in 1853, playing on the playground, or checking out the National Whale Centre — could have made up up the difference.
On schedule at 6.45pm the Aratere slipped out of Picton and we headed back to Wellington in the dark. We had time and room to snooze, eat dinner and play cards.
Below deck there is also a play area, cinema, video games and TV to while away the three-hour voyage back to the capital. In the last hour, it's worth braving the cold ocean air to watch Wellington's big-city illuminations colour the night as our day-trip ends.
Getting there: If you don't arrive by ferry, Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Blenheim from Auckland with up to nine return services daily.