By: Christopher Cookson
Marlborough has become world renowned for its wine, however if you've got kids in tow, a winery tour isn't going to be an ideal activity, and if the outdoors are more your thing, it might be a bit of a stretch to get a young family to do the entire Queen Charlotte Track. With multiple cling-ons in tow, you need to manage attention spans, stamina, and often budgets. I only have one small person, but I understand how children change the dynamic of recreational activities. With that in mind, in no particular order, I've put together a list of family friendly activities around Marlborough that can be enjoyed over the summer. I've tried to include a mix of free and paid activities, and there are at least a couple of options that work if the weather isn't great. This isn't a complete list by any means, but should help give you some ideas.
The Vines Village
OK, so you really want to sample some of Marlborough's famous wine, but have kids in tow, and think the two don't mix? Fortunately the good folk at the Vines Village have thought of this and have a nice outdoor play area with various child friendly activities along with a great cafe serving local wines, a selection of shops selling local artisan products, a cellar door, and a craft brewery if you're more into beers than wine. Located only a short distance east of the intersection of SH 63 and SH 6, it's less than five minutes drive from the mountain bike park at Foxes Island, so if you want to take your kids for a fun ride in the forest and then relax over a meal, with outdoor activities for the kids if they get fidgety, then it's an ideal spot. I don't seem to be able to find a photo of this one, probably because I was enjoying the food too much, and honestly, I think it spoils your digestion if you're busy focusing on taking photos when you've got dining to do.
There are lots of DOC campsites around Marlborough, but only a few of them are more than flat areas of ground to pitch your tent with a long drop, and an honesty box to insert your money to pay for the privilege. Momorangi Bay is different. It is a fully serviced campsite in the heart of Queen Charlotte Sound, with hot showers, kitchen facilities, and even a shop, so if you forget to bring enough food, you can always order fish and chips, or an ice-block on a hot day. The beach isn't the nicest in terms of swimming, as it's pretty muddy, although people do swim there. It's better for boating, including kayaking, and there's a small children's playground near the beach. Behind the campsite there's a short bush walk with signs identifying native plants. Momorangi Bay is also only about a 10-15 minute drive to Anakiwa, the start (or finish) of the Queen Charlotte Track. Anakiwa has a beach that's nicer for swimming, at least at high tide, and it's only and easy 2-3km to Umungata (Davies) Bay via the Queen Charlotte Track, which is also nice for swimming, and gives you the opportunity to at least say you've been on the Queen Charlotte Track, even if you're not able to do all of it.
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
Marlburians, especially those in Blenheim, don't like to admit that it rains here, but if it does, then the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is probably one of the best ways to pass a few hours indoors. It's actually great in any weather, with the same talent that had orcs and hobbits roaming around New Zealand's landscape turning its hand to recreating the drama of early aviation, particularly during the First World War. Most of the aircraft used in the displays are airworthy, and take to the sky once every two years at Easter during the Classic Fighters air show. There's a cafe and shop too, so if kids start whining, you can feed them, or grab a caffeine fix if you need one yourself. Because it's based at an operating airfield, there's a chance you might get to see some classic aircraft in action too.
If you've got kids in tow, romantic walks along the beach might not be quite what you'll achieve, at this spot on the coast between Seddon and Ward, but at least it's a scenic spot to let them burn off some energy. This isn't a swimming beach, but since the Kaikōura earthquake, there has been considerable uplift, making it easy to walk from Marfells Beach to the lighthouse at Cape Campbell. This is a bit of a walk, and younger children might find it a bit tiring, but you can do a shorter walks along the beach to Mussel Point which children should be able to cope with. At the start, there's a good area of sandy beach before it becomes more rocky, and while it's not really suitable for swimming, it's fine for getting feet wet. There are quite a few interesting varieties of shells that can be found on the stonier part of the beach that can keep children interested. It's almost always windy here, which can actually be quite refreshing on a hot summer's day, but it pays to bring windproof jackets just in case.
Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve is about half way between Blenheim and Nelson on SH 6. It's a small remnant of the forest that once covered the Pelorus valley. There's a fully serviced DOC campsite with kitchen facilities and shower block nestled amongst the native forest, and the river is popular for swimming in summer, although it's not the warmest, and you do need to brave waves of miniature airborne vampires in the form of sandflies. The river is also ideal for kayaking, and there are several bush walks in the area including one to a big swing bridge over the Rai River. There's a cafe with pies, coffee, ice cream and other freshly prepared fare, if you tire of camp cooking, or just want to go for a day trip, and forgot to pack a picnic.
Picton foreshore is a great place for people of any age. There's a children's play area with a pirate ship, and also various water play equipment that's ideal for a hot summer's day. There's nearby mini-golf featuring some of Marlborough's landmarks, a merry go round, and a model railway, although the model railway only operates Sundays, public holidays, and school holidays. The Picton aquarium is only metres away from the play area, if you want something different to do, and even if you're not interested in looking at live marine life, they sell iceblocks and icecream which can be handy on a hot day. On a hot day, a swim at Shelley Beach is also a great way to cool off if the water play equipment isn't enough. For bigger kids who enjoy something educational, the Picton Museum is at the edge of the foreshore reserve and the Edwin Fox museum is just around the corner from the aquarium. Just across the road to the south are various cafes, so there's plenty crammed into a small area suitable for all the family.
Pollard Park is one of my daughter's favourite places, and I regularly get asked to take her there. The combination of the playground area, gardens, and stream make it a great place for a family outing. My daughter usually starts on the playground equipment, and after having explored each item, she then runs off to the native rock garden for a game of hide and seek. After that, it's a race around the park to show how much better form she has than her father on the outdoor gym circuit. After that, it's time to relax and smell the roses as we walk back through the rose garden. Plenty of families take the opportunity to have a picnic in the park, and there's an electric barbecue if you want something hot. Most importantly there are good toilet facilities, which tends to be fairly necessary with children, although it's quite a walk from the far end of the park back to the toilets, so encourage your kids to go before they embark on a grand adventure.
Whites Bay is the closest sandy and swimming beach to Blenheim. Surrounded by native bush, it's a great place to take the kids for a swim in summer, as the beach is patrolled by lifeguards. The water can be a little chilly, although kids don't seem to notice too much, and there's plenty of sand to build sand castles. There are also some nice bush walks, although if you have a young family, you probably don't want to take them up the track that looks out over Port Underwood, as there are steep bluffs alongside the track, although the view is magnificent. The beach can get pretty crowded on hot days over summer, as your family almost certainly won't be the only one that's decided to head for the beach. You can camp out if you want to, as it's also a DOC campsite, with basic facilities. If you do decide to camp out and it turns out you've forgotten something, Blenheim is only a short distance away, and there's even a small supermarket at Spring Creek which is even closer.
Harling Park, or Howling Park as my daughter used to call it, has developed a reputation for sliding down a grassy hillside on pieces of old cardboard packaging. This has become so much part of its identity that the council provides a bin to hold the cardboard. Kids (and adults) love sliding down the hill, but there's also an extensive flat area suitable for playing sport, and a Japanese garden. The hillside used for sliding has a track that climbs up and connects with the Wither Hills Farm Park, which is also great to explore if your children are up for some hill climbing.
Stadium 2000 Aquatic Centre
My daughter is a little fish. She leaps at any opportunity to go swimming. Although a nice trip to the beach sounds romantic, it's not always practical if the weather doesn't suit or you've got other things going on. Fortunately Blenheim's Stadium 2000 has a great aquatic centre with pools to suit all ages from toddlers up. In summer, in addition to the various heated indoor pools, there's also an outdoor pool available. Personally, I don't like the smell of chlorine much, but being indoors means you don't have to worry about sunscreen, and because this is an artificial environment, you won't be attacked by hordes of hungry sandflies. The flip side to that is there is an entry fee, however if you just want to read a book while the kids enjoy the water, you only pay for the children, and you get to have some personal time while keeping an eye on your family. Although not permitted poolside, there's food and drink available in the stadium foyer, in the form of Subway, also coffee and gelato.