Art is a man on a mission: to spread happiness through delicious, healthy greenshell mussels.
The entrepreneurial and thoroughly likeable Netherlands native waxes lyrical about these local treasures (also called kuku or kūtai) as we bathe in sunshine at a table outside his Mills Bay Mussels Tasting Room and Eatery in Havelock's marina.
They call Havelock (a half hour drive from Blenheim) the greenshell capital of the world, and Art must be its mayor.
While I listen to his enthusiastic fact-firing (world famous and only harvested in New Zealand! Available all year round! Wonderfully high in protein, iron, omega-3!) I am seriously distracted by the delicious array of plump, juicy specimens on the mixed platter in front of me.
There are mussels any way you can think of (and some you can't): red curried, crunchy crumbed, garlic buttered, beer battered and more … my mouth is literally watering as I type these words and explains why this place has a near-perfect rating on Trip Advisor.
While you can't buy Mills Bay mussels at your local supermarket, you can buy them online, and plenty of top restaurants serve them, such as the acclaimed Mr Morris at Auckland's Britomart.
Art never discovers my secret: that I've never really been a mussel fan. It's academic anyway, as by the time we leave, I've been converted. Mission accomplished, Art.
With my newfound love for Aotearoa's most iconic seafood, I'm keen to know more. And - don't judge me - to eat more, despite having scoffed an indecent amount of the "shared" platter.
So it's all aboard the Marlborough Tour Company's Greenshell Mussel Cruise, which conveniently departs just metres away, right after lunch.
Going to the source
The catamaran MV Spirit can carry 35 passengers but there's only about a third of that number on this beautiful late autumn day as we leave the marina and set out to explore some of Queen Charlotte Sound - specifically Pelorus Sound (Te Hoiere) and Kenepuru Sound.
It's the ideal way to learn about local history while soaking up the stunning scenery, which is as equally easy to snap from inside the boat as it is from the decks at the bow and stern.
Bonus: because of the sheltered Sounds waters, seasickness is highly unlikely.
As we pass remote homesteads accessible only by boat, our guide/skipper Jason explains that while some are holiday homes, most have permanent residents and in his former role as the Sounds postie, he encountered two types: the ones who clearly loved the isolation and who would barely grunt when he greeted them; and those that couldn't or wouldn't stop talking once he pulled into their cove. Cue husband laughing as it seems to describe our marriage (and yes, I'm the chatterbox).
But it's a mussel cruise, so inevitably we turn our attention from the life above the tideline to the life below. Greenshell mussels are one of the most sustainable seafood products in the world, grown as they are with little interference and no additives.
Those black barrels floating in formation? They're a mussel farm, and as we pull up alongside, our other crew member Heather shows us the longline technology that uses continuous crop ropes to grow the mussels on. By now the sea air has stirred the appetite once again, so Heather busies herself in the galley, steaming batches of fresh mussels to serve with a glass of the equally famous Marlborough sauvignon blanc (or in the husband's case, an apt bottle of local brew Pelorus Pilsner).
The abundant seafood and your first drink are included in the cruise price, though you can buy more refreshments if you want (and we do) - despite the remote location the mobile eftpos machine works fine.
Heather explains how to tell whether the mussel is male or female: the female is a rich apricot colour, while the male is creamy white - a rare example in nature where the female gets to be prettier (I'm looking at you, birds). She also shows us how to remove the beard (and the tongue if you desire) from the shell before eating, and reminds us if you take it from the sea, you can return it to the sea - so it's fun to slurp plump mussels with our fellow travellers then see who can throw the beard and shells the furthest off the back of the boat.
Packed to the rafters
Heather does double-duty for Marlborough Tour Company - once she's set up MV Spirit for tomorrow's crew, she bundles us into a Mercedes van destined for Picton.
It's a 45-minute trip via scenic Queen Charlotte Drive, likened to "cruising the Marlborough Sounds without a boat" and it's a pretty accurate description. We stop several times for photo ops with turquoise-watered backdrops, and Heather introduces me to a new kind of plant, the noxious but beautiful banana passionfruit vine with tubular pink flowers and oval fruit that droops over the road as we negotiate tight corners.
Heather's bubbly banter is a winner. We've had a dinner table booked for us at Oxley's Bar and Kitchen in Picton, and we laugh a little as we approach: it's Thursday night in a small town, the restaurant looks enormous - we have visions of entering an empty echo chamber with a single "reserved" sign in the far corner and an ambience of awkwardness.
We needn't have worried. The worry would be if you hadn't booked at all. The place is packed, not a single spare table in sight. Oxley's is a large gastropub with a warm Kiwi welcome, a vast menu with an emphasis on local produce, and service that's impossible to fault.
While shellfish are a specialty, we're a little mussel-weary today so opt for sticky pork belly and seared snapper, and both are smashing. Try the Queen of Anything cocktail or any of the local drops to accompany and you'll be as satisfied as we were. Weekly rituals, live music, meat raffles - this place has it all, including an original facade that dates back to 1870.
We've worked the mussels - now it's time to work the muscles! Picton is the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds, so we're up at dawn next day to make the most of the glorious weather and the stunning surroundings.
The 7.30am check-in for our water taxi is too early for breakfast at our hotel, but there's local cafe offering up great coffee and snacks, so allow for extra time unless you want to march on an empty stomach.
Cougar Line has been transporting people to and from Queen Charlotte track, resorts and homes throughout the Sounds for more than 25 years, and has a reputation for quality vessels, outstanding service and fast, efficient transport. All of this is true, but the real highlights are all around us (and helpfully pointed out by our pilot): portside, a performing seal; starboard, pairs of little blue penguins bobbing around; here a gannet diving for fish before gliding many metres back to its waiting mate; there a seal, basking on a rocky outcrop.
Just 50 minutes later, we've arrived at Ship Cove (Meretoto), Captain James Cook's favourite New Zealand base during his three voyages of exploration (in all, his expeditions spent 170 days at this anchorage between 1770 and 1777) and the first place of prolonged contact between Māori and Europeans.
It's steeped in history, and takes my breath away. It's the start of the Queen Charlotte Track where this unfit woman is about to have her breath more literally taken away by a 17km trek to Endeavour Inlet.
Cougar Line take our luggage to our next overnight stop, so it's with small day packs containing just water, sunscreen and our lunches that we set off on our walk.
I'd describe the track as long rather than arduous, though it's steep in places, rockier than anticipated and slippery in parts - my light runners feel some of the sharper stones and slide quite easily, so I rue that I haven't packed my trusty tramping boots.
However it's billed as a five and a half hour walk and we complete it in less than five, even allowing for scenic pics (so many emerald coves), mountain bikers (you have to stop and step aside to let them pass, not always with much warning) and lunch (ours was packed by Gusto in Picton, and I can't recommend it enough: a gastronomic sandwich, fruit, a healthy slice but best of all, the best ginger crunch I've ever tasted with large pieces of crystallised ginger within - worth every bit of the walk!).
It's the most time the husband and I have spent together, alone, in a long time and we love it. We spot South Island robins, peer at a pod of dolphins, walk with weka, take a thousand photos and laugh like drains. Who knew reconnecting with nature would help us reconnect with each other? A memory to treasure.