Sarah Bennett has high hopes as she rides around her hometown
Growing up in Blenheim, the only bike I owned was one of those hand-me-down, cobbled together jobs with one gear and a bad attitude. But when my older sister bought a sexy new 10-speed to commute to her job at the lingerie factory, I sensed there could be more to biking than just getting to school, marching practice or the Saturday night roller disco.
Too true, it turns out. My own obsession with the mode has been happily matched by a nationwide boom in biking that even Marlborough is getting in on. The region's official visitor guide promises "an abundance of acclaimed mountain and road trails", then lists 28 rides from Molesworth to D'Urville Island.
Most of these, however, are challenging rides in hard-to-reach places. Key to connecting them is the Whale Trail, the 210km Picton to Kaikōura cycleway under construction. Various sections are already rideable, with work progressing on vital links such as the Wairau River Bridge clip-on, and from there to Picton (build scheduled to start late this year).
Dr John Forrest, winery owner and project champion, says the Whale Trail will be the backbone of Marlborough's cycling network. "It has the potential to be one of New Zealand's most successful trails, not only as a blue-ribbon tourist attraction but as a connector for our coastal communities," he says.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Blenheim appears as flat as a pancake on the lower Wairau Plains. In fact, it slopes gently upwards as it meets the Wither Hills. The Taylor River cuts a path around and through town, where it joins the Ōpaoa River winds to Cloudy Bay.
Blenheim's handful of town attractions can all be reached by bike. Several bike shops offer hire.
Other attractions are a longer bike ride or car ride away; the wineries, Wairau Lagoons and other seaside sights. Significant trails such as the Queen Charlotte and Nydia tracks are closer to Picton, which is a whole different story altogether.
GETTING YOUR BEARINGS
While the rides listed in the Marlborough Visitor Guide aren't well described or mapped in print or online, there's enough info to get a handle on what and where.
It's worth seeking out the free, glossy maps for Blenheim, the Wairau Plains (i.e. wineries), and Wither Hills Farm Park, which detail walking and cycling trails. The Wairau Plains one helpfully features a series of on-road cycle routes making the most of flat and mostly quiet rural roads.
A TOWN TOUR
Winding 5km from town to the Wither Hills, the Taylor River Trail traverses a heroic riverside reserve complete with friendly locals, romping dogs, riotous California poppies and sundry public improvements. Funnily enough, I never saw this potential back in the day. It was all a bit scrappy and spooky, and frequented by underage smokers, drinkers and canoodlers. Or so I have heard.
The partially paved, flat trail follows both sides of the river. A series of bridges enable loops of varying lengths, or you can follow it all the way to the Taylor Dam Reserve, a leafy spot for a picnic.
A side track leads to Wither Hills Farm Park, Blenheim's beloved recreation reserve threaded with super-scenic biking and walking trails. Its highpoints afford stupendous views across the Wairau Valley and Cook Strait.
The essential ride is the Stockyard and Rifle Range combo, two connecting, gently undulating trails tracing the foothills. Singletrack fans should detour into the ever-improving Wither Hills Mountain Bike Park, my happy place. All the Wither Hills trails are glorious in the late afternoon light.
Biking is a great way to get around a dozen or so of Marlborough's wineries clustered around Renwick. With bucolic scenery, vineyard gardens and cellar-door restaurants, it's a pleasant outing, even if tasting isn't your thing.
Start at Vines Village on Rapaura Rd where Explore Marlborough offers bike hire, maps, and guided tours. The Vines is also home to a garden cafe, several cool shops, and the Gin Room, home of the Roots brand.
Our wine-tour hit-list invariably features No. 1 Family Estate, Framingham, Forrest and Wairau River.
Set alongside a picturesque club airfield, Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum is essential viewing for its collection of WWI and WWII aircraft displayed amid remarkable dioramas that flesh out their dramatic histories.
Held next in April 2023, Omaka's biennial Classic Fighters Omaka Airshow is thrilling. To go higher, consider a joy flight in a Yak 3, Avron Anson or Boeing Stearman biplane. A few years ago my partner Lee lucked in to an hour-long flight in a Nanchang, a 1960s Chinese training plane. It certainly had him peaking!
Just 3km from Blenheim via a cycleway (part of the Whale Trail), the Grovetown Hotel is a friendly watering hole with a notable beer list, authentic Japanese food, and courtyard garden bar. Highly recommended day or night.
Boomtown's boosters suggest Marlborough cuisine is all wine and seafood. Not so. The ultimate indulgence is Makana's Macadamia Butter Toffee Crunch. Buy it from Makana's factory near the wineries.
The Sunday Farmers' Market at the atmospheric A&P Showgrounds. Our go-to goodies are Pinoli Pinenuts, Traditional Country Preserves' Maharajah chutney, Eden Orchard cherry juice and Cranky Goat cheese. We follow up with Feast Merchants' brisket sandwich, washed down with Ritual espresso. There's ample bike parking in the stock stalls.
HAZARDS & CAUTIONS
Blenheim gets hot, so biking is best avoided in the midday summer sun. Cooler alternatives include lolling on Pollard Park's lush grass, having a beer at 5-Tapped, swimming at White's Bay, or an alfresco lunch with stone-cold bubbles at Wairau River Wines.
BIKE TOWN RATING
Marlborough claims to be a "pedaller's paradise with thrilling adventure, low-key rides, and everything in-between". Though the reality feels a bit hard and disconnected, the Whale Trail will bring the sea change the region needs.
Blenheim looks ready to ride the wave, with loads of people riding bikes and better trails being developed year-on-year. When it gets the no-brainer off-road routes through to Picton and Renwick wineries, it can genuinely blow its own trumpet.
Destination Marlborough marlboroughnz.com
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