New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds: One of the country's most exhilarating landscapes

Captain James Cook knew a thing or two about real estate. During three voyages through the Pacific, the great navigator visited Tahiti, Hawaii, Tonga, the Cook Islands and Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

As a connoisseur of palmy nirvanas, where did the captain choose to spend most of his time? Ship Cove, in the Marlborough Sounds, at the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island. In total, Cook spent more than 100 days at Ship Cove on five separate visits between 1770 and 1777. That's not just fondness, it's a serious love affair.

Ship Cove probably still looks much as it did in Cook's time, a pebbly beach rising to an encircling forest of tree ferns and rata trees. The freshwater stream from which Cook replenished his ship's casks still trickles across the beach. Pleasant enough, but worth a trip to the other end of the world? Drop anchor in the Marlborough Sounds and you'll get Cook's point.

This is one of the most exhilarating landscapes in all of New Zealand, a series of valleys that drowned when seas rose at the end of the last Ice Age. What remains is a marine paradise, a filigree of broad waterways separated by forested peninsulas and islands – and a world of wonders for wilderness lovers.

Rising sharply from the water's edge, the steep terrain also defies those who would tame it, its 1400 kilometres of coastline so precipitous that beaches, roads and houses are few. The way to experience the Sounds is from the waterline. Unless you have a boat of your own and a week to spare, the essential journey is the Beachcomber Mail Cruise. Departing daily except on Sundays, the catamaran departs from Picton, deep inside Queen Charlotte Sound, and makes a half-day journey delivering supplies to houses around this serpentine waterway. For passengers, it's a great opportunity to take a close-up look at the sounds, meet some of the characters who live there and hear their stories.

The Sounds are also home to one of the finest all-seasons walking trails in New Zealand, the Queen Charlotte Track. Measuring some 72 kilometres end to end, the track winds along the peninsula that separates Queen Charlotte Sound from Kenepuru and Pelorus Sounds.

There are several ways to walk the track. "Freedom walkers" carry their own food and gear and stay overnight at designated campsites. At the other end of the scale, the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company operates a fully supported five-day walk. At the end of each day, hikers saunter into a plush lodge, take a hot shower, dine with a well-chilled wine and fall into a comfy bed. Personal gear is transported from lodge to lodge, leaving hikers free to walk with just a water bottle, a packed lunch and a smile. There is also an in-between option involving a mix of comfortable lodges and home stays.

Despite its maritime glories, the area is more usually associated with wine. Wairau Plains, a flat, funnel-shaped area enclosed by soaring hills, is a centrepiece of the Marlborough vineyards and also one of the sunniest parts of the country, a key factor behind the long, slow ripening period that gives the Marlborough wines their distinctively vibrant character.

The towns of Picton and Havelock have accommodation in various shades, but a better option is one of the lodges scattered around the sounds. At a remote spot on Kenepuru Sound, Te Mahia Bay Resort sits surrounded by giant tree ferns above a beach that eases into the lapping water. Visitors can fish, paddle a kayak, swim, hike the Queen Charlotte Track, have a massage, watch the sunset over cocktails on the deck … A barefoot paradise awaits those who make the one-hour drive from Picton. If only James Cook could know; he'd probably be delighted.