Juliette Sivertsen escapes the city for a private ocean-to-table experience in the Marlborough Sounds
There's a haunting sound of wind chimes echoing through an otherwise silent bay. I look around the inlet, puzzled as to where the sound is coming from, before realising the gentle whistle is the breeze travelling through the metal pipes of our boat. It's eerie, but peaceful, accompanied by a gentle lull of the Katabatic on the Marlborough Sounds.
Rather appropriately, I have a glass of Cloudy Bay Pelorus in hand - the Marlborough winery's bubbly, named after the famous Risso's dolphin Pelorus Jack. The tale of Pelorus Jack dates back to the 1800s, when he made a regular appearance near the French Pass, apparently helping guide boats through the treacherous stretch of water. Cloudy Bay's bottle caps all carry an icon of the dolphin.
"You can drink and eat a lot more when you're on a boat than on land," says our skipper and chef, Grant Orchard. I laugh, but he assures me it's true. I'm keen to test out the theory.
Moored in the tranquil Resolution Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound, Grant cooks up a seafood feast for dinner on a barbecue on the stern.
Just a couple of hours earlier we'd reeled in some perch, which was now expertly filleted, coated in beer batter and bubbling in hot oil. The aroma of melting butter and sizzling garlic is tantalising and, for once, I'm excited to eat the pāua being sauteed. I know it will be tender, unlike the rubbery texture of overcooked greasy pāua fritters from a beachside fish and chip shop. This pāua is gourmet, prepared and cooked by a man with 23 years experience as a chef.
I can see Grant's heart belongs to the Sounds. His father was a local boatbuilder, so Grant grew up on the water. His dad had plans to build a boat to retire on but died before he could finish the vessel. Grant, who opted for a career as a chef rather than as a fisherman, felt called to complete his late father's project.
Over the following years, he split his time between working overseas as a chef on luxury mega yachts to save up money and returning home to work on the boat, eventually finishing the dream in 2013.
Every aspect of the Katabatic is custom-made, and the layout is based on the style of his father's previous vessels. The ship's wheel is a family heirloom from previous boats. The rimu interior is made from pieces of timber salvaged from his parents' house, which burned down in a fire, a scorch mark still visible. Even her name, Katabatic - which, for the non-sailor, is a type of wind known in the Marlborough Sounds - was a suggestion his father had made.
Grant runs charters for guests who want to cruise the Sounds, combined with the chance to catch and gather fresh seafood and have it cooked on board. Grant's latest venture is for hikers on the Queen Charlotte Track, dropping them off at one bay and picking them up several hours later down the track, preparing a seafood meal on their return, with the chance to stay overnight. Grant describes the experience as glamping, but on a boat. Sea glamping.
The pāua is soft and buttery. I text my husband, a pāua diver himself, and share a photo of the cooked meat, beautifully presented in its vibrant shell.
"Is it chewy?" he asks. Grant sniggers in the background when I read out the text.
"Not in the slightest," I reply.
"Ask him how he makes it not chewy!"
The secret is all in the tenderising, by bashing the hell out of it with a mallet. A brick, apparently, also works. Then, sliced and quickly seared on a high heat. It's delicious and I want seconds.
My friend Keegan has joined me on the trip and with Grant, we sit around the polished rimu table inside to finish our pāua, perch and Pelorus, topped off with Whittaker's chocolate for dessert. The vibe is relaxed and ripe for storytelling, so we spin yarns and share some laughs, which get heartier as the bottle of Pelorus empties.
That night, I fall asleep to the gentle lapping of the water on the side of the hull and a rocking motion, as if I'm lying in a hammock.
I wake the next morning to the sound of bacon and eggs sizzling on the barbecue. Grant's already up and cooking a breakfast burrito, complete with halloumi and sriracha sauce. He then drops Keegan and I off at the predator-free Motuara Island for a short hike through the scenic reserve for some birdwatching. We're then taken to Ship Cove to begin our five-hour trek along the Queen Charlotte Track to Furneaux Lodge.
Grant packs us cheese and salami sandwiches and some biscuits for sustenance. We greedily tuck in about 90 minutes too soon, fighting to find the last remaining energy reserves in the final hour of the hike.
But I find strength in the scenery. Tall ferns and koru line the track, bold weka pick at the ground around my feet. Birdsong drowns out the sound of my stomping boots. Golden sandy inlets wash under the aqua shallows before deepening into the dark blue sea.
Grant waits for us at Furneaux Lodge, where Keegan and I arrive thirsty, tired and with sore feet, but invigorated from the hike. Grant grabs us both a well-deserved Corona before we return to the boat for another homemade lunch.
We watch gulls dive-bombing into the ocean and see multiple fins poking through the surface of the water. Dolphins. Dolphins everywhere, leaping out of the ocean, riding alongside the vessel. It's like a tumble dryer of grey bodies as they churn through the wake and bounce up out of the water in front of us.
For dinner, it's another ocean-to-table experience. Grant prepares ceviche and goes freediving for kina and green-lipped mussels. The mussels don't need any sauce and the kina is served with fresh lemon juice and green Tabasco sauce. It's like eating a freshly shucked oyster.
I ask Grant what he thinks makes Marlborough Sounds so special, but he doesn't give me an answer. He wants me to find out for myself. As a travel writer, it's a little annoying as I want to quote him, not me. On our final morning, as we shelter inside the cabin from a downpour of rain, he reveals a few words.
"No matter what the weather is doing, there's always a secluded little cove somewhere," he says.
"It's the water, it's the coves. It's pretty shitty out there today but it's fine in here."
He's right. It's wet outside, but the little inlet we're moored in is peaceful. We stop at several coves during our journey, each one offering a sanctuary of serenity.
It's hard coming back to Picton, knowing it's time to fly back to city life and return to the rush hour with cars rather than boats. As I disembark, Grant hands me a plastic bag with a pāua inside, to take back to my husband.
Back home, we follow Grant's instructions and bash it with a brick. A hot pan with butter and garlic and a quick fry and it's ready to sample. It's pretty good, but there's something missing - a backdrop of the Marlborough Sounds, the gentle lull of the boat and the haunting whistle of the vessel's wind-chime musical.
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Blenheim. airnz.co.nz
Katabatic Charters specialises in tailor-made cruising, sightseeing, fishing and overnight charters. kcandm.co.nz