Sailing along the edge of the world during his great voyages of discovery, Captain James Cook charted the coastlines of New Zealand's North and South islands and, on January 14, 1770, dropped anchor within the protective arms of Queen Charlotte Sound, named by the master mariner after the wife of England's King George III. Gazing across the body of water - one of the Marlborough Sounds, in the northeast corner of South Island - from the deck of the Interislander ferry, which links the two halves of New Zealand today, it's possible to imagine the relief of Cook and his men on finding a place of such beauty and sustenance. Rugged hillsides cloaked in a soft green mantle tumble into still, jade waters. Cameras appear and people pose with wind-tousled hair as the ship glides past forested fingers of land. Three hours ago, the ferry slid out of the bustling national capital, Wellington, a charming and sophisticated city on the North Island, for the passage across Cook Strait. The scenery, coupled with the luxury of travelling in the Kaitaki lounge, makes it one of the world's best cruises, your companions being pods of inquisitive bottlenose dolphins, drifts of smoky clouds and the occasional watercraft slicing across the ship's churning wake. Half a million salmon are being farmed in a small inlet in the strait, a venture that's not lost on the local seal population. At one point, the farm was losing thousands of dollars worth of fish a day and efforts to relocate the seals only made them more determined to return to their sashimi takeaway. Double-netting the fish farm solved the problem and we're informed that New Zealand is now exporting 'Canadian' salmon to Canada. At the picturesque harbour village of Picton, a boarding fee must be paid by passengers wishing to explore the oldest merchant ship in the world. Constructed in a Calcutta shipyard in 1853, the partially restored Edwin Fox was the last of more than 1,000 ships used to transport convicts to Australia and bring settlers and goods to New Zealand. Copper bolts protrude through a teak hull covered with remnants of verdigris copper plates. Sun streams across the great iron ribs on the lower deck, where convicts, sentenced to life for forgery and 10 years for stealing sacks, were housed in cramped conditions. Nothing cramps your style on board Cougar Line's white cruiser and the 30-minute trip to the Bay of Many Coves. Accessible only by water, it's both a resort and a community; 80 houses are discreetly sprinkled through forested hillsides that slide into Queen Charlotte Sound. Constructed in honey-warm timbers, 11 eco-friendly 'baches', as New Zealand's beachside holiday homes are known, provide one- and two-bedroom boutique bolt-holes with panora- mic water views. A dawn chorus of bellbirds and swooping kereru provide an echo of what naturalist Joseph Banks would have heard in 1770, when accompanying Cook's first expedition to the South Seas. I make for the lookout, hiking through bush land haloed by a morning sun that polishes a laby- rinth of waterways below. Just 20 kilometres south of Picton, 130 wineries, ranging from internationally known labels to boutique family-run outfits, pepper the Wairau Valley's broad plain. The trees have begun to oxidise from green to burnished bronze and the gold of a lightly oaked chardonnay. Driving through Blenheim, the region's capital and named after the Duke of Marlborough's 1704 victory, expansive vineyards run arrow-straight to the foothills of the St Arnaud range. Famous for its sunshine, Marlborough produces 65 per cent of New Zealand's wines, from signature sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to estate-grown pinot noir. Montana pioneered winemaking in Marlborough in 1973, when it planted the region's first commercial grapes, and a wine tasting at its Brancott Winery provides a fine introduction to the region's varietals. At the winery, dry-stone walls encircle a French provincial-style visitors centre and loggia of ancient wooden beams festooned with vines. People sit and sip on the sun-splashed square enjoying 'terroir' platters of local produce and Montana wines. Depicting the gentle beauty of the Richmond Ranges, Cloudy Bay's wine label has become synonymous with sauvignon blanc around the world and a tasting at this local hero's cellar door is a must. Across the road, Allan Scott's family-owned vineyard specialises in the aromatics: sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and gewurztraminer, and boasts the oldest riesling vines in the district. Its Twelve Trees restaurant, housed in a rammed earth and timber-beamed building, is a popular lunch spot. Not all tastings in Marlborough are of the liquid variety. The unmistakable aroma of chocolate laces the air at the Makana Boutique Chocolate Factory, part of a gourmet triangle of tasty temptations in the heart of Marlborough. Here, women fashion tasty morsels and have a 'try before you buy' policy, giving visitors the chance to sample the calorific goods, such as the macadamia caramel corn and espresso sticks. The welcoming smell of wood smoke and exuberant chatter swirl up to greet you at Herzog's small tasting bar. Hans Herzog brought 400 years of European winemaking heritage to the eponymous 'new world' winery he and his wife, Therese, planted a decade ago. Unfettered by the traditions of the old world, Herzog creates whatever wines he wants to and his experiments have attracted accolades from international wine critics and a dedicated following. Artisan in his approach, he produces single-estate wines using wild yeast and minimal interference. He can be found lovingly pressing hand-harvested, ruby-rich Nebbiolo grapes, creating wine that reflects the natural splendour of the Marlborough landscape. Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( www.cathaypacific.com ) and Air New Zealand ( www.airnewzealand.com.hk ) fly from Hong Kong to Wellington. The Interislander ferry ( www.interislander.co.nz ) connects the North and South islands.