A Marlborough break includes historic heroes and a unique mail service, writes Shandelle Battersby.

It's easy to become completely immersed in the dozens of heroic stories told through lifelike dioramas at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre's Dangerous Skies World War II exhibition. But the tale of ace Soviet fighter pilot Lydia Litvyak lingered long after we'd stepped back outside into Blenheim's weak winter sunshine.

A mannequin of her, designed by Weta Workshop, stands near the end of the display in the "snow" next to an impressive Soviet Yak-3Ua fighter jet, one of the planes Litvyak flew during the war.

Her story is extraordinary, explains our guide Peter Jolly. Not only did she start flying in her mid-teens, but she quickly gained her instructor's licence and had trained 45 students by the time the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

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Notoriously rebellious and strong-willed — and fond of unauthorised aerobatics and victory rolls — Litvyak forged her air force application papers to inflate her flying hours so she could go to war. She became the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft (much to the dismay of its male pilot) but her record-breaking run, which included 12 solo and four shared kills over 168 missions, ended during the Battle of Kursk in 1943 when she was shot down over what is now the Ukraine. She was just 21 years old.

Another great story is told at the start of the exhibition, where a diorama shows handsome Timaru-born pilot James "Spud" Hayter accepting a glass of champagne from a dazzling redhead in a clingy purple dress. Hayter, who had a chequered flying career full of close calls, but who lived until 2006, had just escaped his burning Hurricane during the Battle of Britain when he landed on a posh estate in the Kentish countryside during a cocktail party.

The glamorous redhead happened to be a doctor who took care of Hayter's minor head wound and, as legend has it, later sent the pilot a bill for her time, perhaps unimpressed when his fiance arrived at the party to escort him home.

A look around Omaka, 10 minutes from Marlborough Airport, is a great way to start or top off a weekend in Marlborough. As well as Dangerous Skies, there's also Sir Peter Jackson's excellent World War I exhibit Knights of the Sky to wander through.

Our time was up, however — we had a pressing task at hand, the daily Marlborough Sounds mail run on board Beachcomber Cruises' Matua catamaran.

This family-run company operates the only official licenced New Zealand Post rural delivery service by water in Queen Charlotte Sound as well as several other tourism offerings including scenic cruises and various options for accessing the Queen Charlotte Track.

The Magic Mail Run Cruise, which takes about three hours, operates six days a week on different routes, delivering mail and groceries to various lodges and about 100 local residents who live so remotely they may not see anyone else for days.

A friendly seal gave us a wave as we left Picton Harbour on what was a beautifully clear and calm winter morning, and skipper Julian began his commentary that took in everything from the local history and native wildlife to interesting tidbits about life in the Sounds, past and present.

After about an hour we arrived in East Bay where our first customer was waiting on his jetty to exchange his mailbag and receive groceries. The Saturday route then swung due north to isolated Cape Jackson, where we hovered next to a tender boat as three people and two dogs from Uncharted Wilderness Tours clambered on board for the journey back to town.

We turned around to sweep through Endeavour Inlet (home to 13 accommodation providers, 50 houses and 17 permanent residents) on the way back to Picton. Most of those we encountered were accompanied by at least one dog, to whom Julian would hand a snack, including the very cute Sooty at Furneaux Lodge.

During summer (when the days are lighter for longer) the boat stops at Ship Cove, one of Captain Cook's favourite anchorages, for 15 minutes to see the monument named in his honour. Today however, accompanied by a glorious sunset, we headed straight for home and our cosy accommodation at the Marlborough Vintners Hotel on Blenheim's Golden Mile wine trail.

Dinner was a sensational five-course degustation dinner courtesy of the hotel's new chef, French-born and trained Arnaud Mallet. The food was matched with local wines from the likes of Saint Clair, Clos Henri and Brancott Estate.

The next day we rented the hotel's bikes to explore the area, first dropping into the excellent artisan hub of The Vines Village across the road for a tasting of the bike-themed Golden Mile Brewing craft beer range.

The Village is great for kids, with a mini sports ground (complete with rugby and soccer goal posts) and playground out the back.

Our final stop on the bike was also beer-themed, at Moa Brewing Co.'s tasting room, where we sampled some of their more inventive brews (rhubarb and apple cider, cherry sour and milk chocolate stout) while admiring the burgers, po' boys and tacos emerging from Sandy's Grilled Meat Company, the food truck housed in a 1974 converted Land Cruiser often found onsite.

There was only just enough time to return the bikes to the hotel before heading to the airport. We'll have to save the wineries on the Golden Mile and its surrounds for next time.

Fact Box

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand and Sounds Air both service Marlborough Airport.

STAYING THERE
Marlborough Vintners Hotel is on the Golden Mile wine trail at 190 Raupaura Rd, Blenheim. Degustation Packages start from $580 for two, while standard rooms start at $170.

DETAILS
marlboroughnz.com