It's famous as our most prolific wine country but there's plenty more that makes Marlborough a great place to visit as a family. Stunning scenery, wildlife experiences, cycling-friendly terrain and outstanding cuisine.

Arriving leisurely in our motorhome by way of State Highway 6 from Nelson, our first point of call in the Marlborough region was Havelock, "The Greenshell Mussel Capital" of NZ. It was too early to reach mollusc heaven at The Mussel Pot Cafe, so we opted for scones with jam and cream and a trusty flat white, in the pretty surrounds of Apples for Charlotte. Sated, our journey into the region continued — three days of discovering Marlborough.

EXPLORE

The river plains surrounding Blenheim are home to scores of cellar doors, and because the area is so flat, exploring by bike is delightfully non-strenuous. We hired bikes from Karen and Andy of Explore Marlborough, including a tag-along attachment for our five year-old, and set out to visit several cellar doors within a couple of kilometres around the Rapaura Rd. My initial slight nervousness about cycling on the open road (a first for our seven-year-old) was put to rest as we quickly saw there was ample space on the shoulder, and we were also able to take a few cycle paths Karen pointed out on the map they gave us.

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At our first stop, Giesen, we enjoyed tasting the organic wine the brand has recently started producing. We found Forrest Estate well set-up for kids, with activities to keep them occupied out in the garden while we explored some of the lesser-grown varieties and interesting approaches for which the winery is known — the Bubbles for Beth sparkling Syrah/Malbec was a surprise pleaser and the Petit Manseng was lovely too. We started to venture west but the wind — an unusually strong nor' wester, literally turned us around, so it was time to drop off the bikes and call it an afternoon.

The Marlborough Sounds are the region's major taonga, so we set aside a day to have a gander, with a trip to Lochmara — a "lodge meets wildlife centre and artist's haven" on the Queen Charlotte Sound. Although we didn't spot wildlife on the boat ride over (dolphins and seals are often sighted) that was more than made up for at Lochmara. We watched the eels being fed and were allowed in the big aviary to hand-feed the confident, chattering kakariki. The highlight was the new underwater observatory. A permanently moored glass-bottomed boat offers a viewing station for local marine life.

Aviation Heritage Centre at Omaka, Marlborough. Photo / Anna King Shahab
Aviation Heritage Centre at Omaka, Marlborough. Photo / Anna King Shahab

Only a few weeks old when we visited, the observatory was already rich in variety — our kids excitedly ticked off jellyfish, blue cod, kina, sea cucumber and more on their scavenger hunt.

We fed the stingrays that hang round the wharf and the kids — anxiously at first, then with squeals of delight — dangled their legs in the water for the rays to brush up against. They learned from marine biologist Ailie that if you're swimming where there may be stingrays on the sandy seafloor you can do "the stingray shuffle", to gently let them know you're there and give them a chance to swim away without getting all defensive and barby. Lochie the resident terrier had no stingray anxiety whatsoever — happily jumping in the water among the stingrays as they lunched on silvery chunks of mullet.

At the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre I realised I really didn't know much about the way wars had shaped aviation technology and vice versa. Taking a guided tour around the Knights of the Sky (World War I) and Dangerous Skies (World War II) exhibitions here was a serious knowledge-booster.

Home to an impressive collection of aircraft (many of the WWI craft are owned by Sir Peter Jackson), many are set up in detailed scenes featuring Weta Workshop mannequins. There's a sense of gravitas and it can be a little scary, but hope makes its way in, too — stories like that of Marlborough lad James Hayter, who bailed out of a Hawker Hurricane fighter plane at 25,000 feet after being targeted by the enemy, and parachuted right into a garden party, where he joined the high-society guests for a G&T (this delightful scene greets you as you enter Dangerous Skies), and that of Russian flying ace Lydia Litvyak, illustrating the boosted role women played in WWII. Our kids hadn't been exposed to this topic before and they took everything in with wide eyes; we spent three hours there, which was pretty impressive.

We stocked up our campervan fridge and pantry after a beautifully sun-kissed mooch around Sunday's Marlborough Farmer's Market - a proper country farmers' market it is, set in the A&P Showgrounds.

EAT

Our first meal in Marlborough is set to remain one of the highlights of a whole year of eating. Having already dined a few times at Arbour, it was top of my list for this visit. Owner-operators Brad Hornby (head chef) and Liz Buttimore (front of house) are passionate about using their region's top-quality produce; to dine here is to experience New Zealand cuisine at its best — the best local ingredients treated with respect and intelligence. It's also fun — Liz is one of the best hosts in the country.

An early dinner at Twelve Trees, the bistro at Allan Scott, was an especially relaxing one as the kids were given activity packs as part of their main-and-dessert meal option. Their dinner of roast chicken and pork with sides also kept them happily occupied, then they toddled off into the lovely garden to play. For us, the warmed "The Nag" goat's cheese on asparagus was a highlight, as was the seriously hearty braised beef shortrib.

Cheese on asparagus at Twelve Trees, the bistro at Allan Scott. Photo / Anna King Shahab
Cheese on asparagus at Twelve Trees, the bistro at Allan Scott. Photo / Anna King Shahab

In the centre of Blenheim, MIA (Made in Aotearoa) is a surprise: its rather unassuming frontage belying a warm welcome, heartfelt cuisine and one of the best wine services you'll find. Owner and manager, former winemaker Jetti Walker offers something different as well as the usual by the glass options: tasting flights of three wines to compare, a great way to expand your knowledge Chef Wayne Olsen's food is sophisticated but unfussy.

We headed to Cloudy Bay on what must have been one of the most blustery (but still very warm) days of the summer, but freshly shucked oysters and a glass of their 2015 Chardonnay were the perfect remedy, and there are big swings hanging from the trees, so the little people were sorted.

The view from the newly refurbished dining room at Wither Hills is a stunner, and the food by also-new head chef Ross Harrison matches the hills' splendour.

Plenty of local produce is used; when we visited this included delicious Marlborough salmon, berries, pork and mussels — and meals are reasonably priced, too. The wine is also a drawcard, of course and if you have time, I recommend booking in to their wineblending experience. We learned about the viticulture and winemaking process before trying our hand at blending three different pinot noirs to create our "perfect" blend which was then judged. I won, so it was even more fun.

FACT BOX
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Blenheim.

Getting around: We travelled around Marlborough in a fourberth Fiat from RoadAbode; it was our first time in a motorhome and we're now eagerly converting all our friends. The family-run business supplies all the linen, duvets, pillows, crockery and so on, so it was likeahotel on wheels. Conversely, because of the convenience of always having our things with us wherever we were, it also felt like being comfortably at home.

Staying there: Blenheim Top 10 holiday park is right beside the town centre and also handy for getting on SH1 to head up to Picton. We had a powered site right on the riverbank and welcomed the ducks for breakfast each morning. Yes, those were our kids breaking the calm surface of the pool at 7.30am — it was open till 9.30pm too so there wereafew dusk dips.

Further information: marlboroughnz.com

WIN A WEEKEND FOR TWO IN BLENHEIM

Wither Hills Cellar Door and Restaurant is giving away a Blenheim weekend experience.

The prize includes return flights for two people to Blenheim, lunch at Wither Hills' recently re-designed restaurant, where you will enjoy a selection of local produce matched with award-winning Wither Hills wines, and one night's accommodation.

To enter, email sundaytravel@heraldonsunday.co.nz no later than 5pm on Wednesday, June 14, with WITHER HILLS in the subject line.