By: Christopher Cookson
It can take its time to arrive, but when summer in Marlborough finally gets its act together, then there's a pretty good chance if you haven't exhausted your annual leave and ended up confined to work, you'll be looking for a place to cool off. Marlborough might not be as famous as the Tasman region or the Coromandel for its beaches, but there are still plenty of great places for a swim.With that in mind, I've compiled a list of popular swimming spots around Marlborough. I'm sure I've probably missed a few, so if you have a favourite swimming spot you think I've missed, you're welcome to contact me (preferably not in the middle of winter, as I'll need to check out your recommendation) and I may add it. I've included some warnings about some locations, as although New Zealanders love their water, tragically far too many people drown each year, so it's really important to assess you and your family's ability and stay within your limits.
In addition to swimming skills required for a location, water quality is another important consideration, as the last thing you want is to get sick from your summer recreation. This can change quite quickly, so I've included a link at the bottom of the article to LAWA, where you can check out current water quality at the different locations mentioned in this article.
Marlborough Swimming Beaches
This has probably got to be Marlborough's favourite beach. It's under half an hour from Blenheim, surrounded by native bush, and has a long sandy beach with surf life savers on patrol. The water sometimes can be a bit cold, but it's a good safe swimming beach, although on a really hot day especially at the weekend or on a public holiday, it can sometimes be hard to find parking.
The quickest way to get there from Blenheim is to drive north to Tuamarina, then turn off to the east to Rarangi, then take Port Underwood Road to the end of the seal, where Whites Bay is well signposted.
Robin Hood Bay
Continuing along Port Underwood Road, the road is unsealed, rutted and dusty, but if you're prepared to brave the rougher conditions, Robin Hood Bay is well worth the effort. The bay is popular with surfers. Although the bay itself is a lot larger than Whites Bay, the southern part of the bay has a shingle beach, but the northern end of the bay has a nice area of sandy beach, with vehicle access right to the beach, so ideal for launching kayaks or dinghies. Personally, I've tended to find the water at Robin Hood Bay a bit warmer than Whites Bay, but that's just my experience.
Picton residents are lucky enough to have a swimming beach right in their back yard. Shelley Beach , right next to the Picton foreshore has a swimming platform and an area marked off with buoys for swimmers to keep boat traffic away. The beach itself is more fine gravel than sand, and there isn't much beach at high tide, but this is compensated by the grassy foreshore reserve where you can relax under a palm tree if you want some shade, or lie out and soak up the sun.
Taking Queen Charlotte Drive from Picton, you'll eventually come to a DOC sign at the top of a steep hill on a bend in the road advertising Governors Bay reserve. There's about a five minute walk down a steep track through native bush to the beach, but it's worth it. This small bay has a golden beach that varies between fine gravel to silt, depending on which part of the beach you're on. At high tide, there isn't actually very much beach, but most of the time there's plenty. At either end of the bay there is a rocky coastline with a variety of marine algae providing a hiding place for fish and crabs. I've enjoyed snorkelling here many times, although some parts of the bay are a bit silty and have limited visibility under the water, particularly near the western end of the bay it's possible to float quietly watching the fish swim about beneath you. There can be wasps around the beach, which usually aren't too much of a problem, but if you take food for a picnic, you need to make sure you can keep it well closed so that it doesn't attract the wasps.
Anakiwa is famous for its Outward Bound adventure school, and being one end of the Queen Charlotte Track, but it's also quite a good spot to go swimming. Near the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, the water is relatively shallow, and has the opportunity to warm up with the sun. There is quite a reasonable beach with nice golden sand and fine gravel that extends a good distance, although as the tide goes out it reveals quite a silty bottom. There is a jetty and a swimming platform, and it's possible to wade quite a long way out from the shore without getting into deep water, so it's pretty safe for kids.
Umungata (Davies) Bay
If you've made it as far as Anakiwa, and are prepared to do a bush walk for a couple of kilometeres, (and lay claim to having actually walked on the Queeen Charlotte Track), then Umungata Bay is even better than Anakiwa as a swimming beach. It isn't silty like Anakiwa, and instead has fine golden sand/coarse gravel that extends out from the shore a considerable distance. The shallow water over the sand absorbs the warmth from the sun and makes for a very pleasant area for a swim. There can be stingrays about, but generally they are very shy, can easily be seen, and will flee if disturbed.
Continuing on around Queen Charlotte Drive, you'll eventually arrive at Linkwater, and a sign pointing to Keneperu Road. Keneperu Road is long, narrow and has lots of bends, and although it has lots of attractive scenery, there aren't too many places with public access to the beach. Cowshed Bay is one exception, and in addition to having a DOC campsite, also is an attractive bay. It's not the sort of place you probably want to lounge around on the beach, as the shore is mostly gravel, and there is quite a lot of broken glass amongst the gravel both on the beach and in the bay itself, although grinding action from tides has rounded off a lot of the sharpest edges. If you can tolerate these issues, the water is clear, and can be quite warm, so it's a pleasant bay for snorkelling.
Ōkiwi Bay is one of the more remote beaches in Marlborough, so thankfully there's a private camp ground there, so once you get there you can stay overnight. Getting there involves taking State Highway Six to just past Rai Valley, then turning off and taking Ronga Road over Ronga Saddle. The western parts of Ōkiwi Bay have a fairly rocky shore that isn't suitable as a swimming beach, but at the eastern end of the bay, after negotiating some rocks, there is a nice area of sandy beach amongst the rocks at low tide, surrounded by native bush. You probably don't want to come all this way just for the beach, but if you're considering a road trip out to French Pass, and want to cool off somewhere along the way, this is your best option, as the only other bay with road access along the route is Elaine Bay which has quite a stony shore.
Marlborough River Swimming Holes
Wairau River at Spring Creek
Just over the Ferry Bridge at Spring Creek is a popular swimming spot on the banks of the Wairau River. The river is quite deep here and has a moderate current, so this is definitely a spot only for good swimmers, and definitely not a place to take young children. I can swim, but I'm not a strong swimmer, and the combination of the cold water and current nearly resulted in me drowning here on one occasion, so I'd strongly recommend only confident swimmers who can swim 100m easily attempt swimming here, but if you are one of those lucky enough to have strong swimming skills, then this is probably the closest swimming hole to Blenheim.
Head up the Waihopai Valley to just past the second bridge over the Waihopai River, called Craiglockhart No. 2, and on your right, you'll see a vehicle track through scrub to the river. This swimming hole is a perennial favourite for Marlburians. There is a deep pool with a curious shaped rock above it on one bank, with the river running over shingle upstream and downstream of the pool. The pool itself is probably too deep and extensive for young children, however they can paddle in the shallower river upstream. For older children and adults with moderate swimming skills, as long as they have the ability to stay afloat till the current carries them downstream to the shallower water past the pool, Craiglockhart provides a great swimming spot.
Pelorus Bridge is probably Marlborough's most famous river swimming hole. If you want to cool off, you definitely will here, as the water tends to be notoriously cold. There are deep pools for experienced swimmers, but there are also shallower areas suitable for children to paddle in. Even adults have got into difficulty in some of the deeper pools due to the coldness and depth of the water, so you should know your limits. Sandflies are ever present and voracious, so you need plenty of insect repellent.