Sat, Dec 23, 2023 12:00 PM
The Marlborough Sounds are regarded as one of New Zealand’s most idyllic spots – and Lochmara Lodge love to share their slice of paradise with all visitors.
The Lochmara adventure starts on the Picton dock, and I knew we were set for an incredible day when a pod of dusky dolphins began following the boat into Queen Charlotte Sound and playing alongside before shooting off into shallower waters as we pushed across the sound.
As we stepped onto the Lochmara dock, we gave an early insight into what I could expect.
Adventurers pushing out into the bay in kayaks, walkers getting a cup of coffee, people were happily lounging in bean bags, and cheeky weka trotted freely around the grounds.
Owners Niki and Chris Bensemann have been operating Lochmara for the last year, after being enchanted by the lodge as visitors themselves.
“It’s always hard to put Lochmara into a few words - our slogan is “Once discovered, never forgotten” because there’s so many different facets to the place and it means so many different things to different people”, says Niki.
“We took over in July 2021, so it’s been a hectic start to ownership on the back of COVID, floods and landslips, but it’s been a consistently wonderful place to wake up, share a piece of Kiwi paradise with visitors, and make sure it’s a place people want to return to,” expands Chris.
The land, which was previously owned as a farming homestead of the Vavasour family, was naturally reclaimed by bush.
Alongside accommodation and a great restaurant, the lodge cares for local wildlife through their predator control actions and breeding programmes.
“People come over and do as much or as little as they like – visitors come over specifically to come for a meal at the restaurant, but also many just relax and read a book, walk the grounds or learn about the native flora and fauna”, says Viki.
“Some come along to tackle some of the Queen Charlotte Track or walk the many paths we have on our 11 acres or explore Lochmara Bay aboard the kayaks or paddleboards.
“We’re also very privileged to have one of two underwater observatories in the country and being able to run guided tours with our marine biologists and zoologists, because I learn something new from them every time.
“I always love going walking around the grounds because it is so peaceful and warms the heart and soul, and there’s so many quirky bits to the place that even I’m still discovering new spots.”
Marine biologist and zoologist Maia, who led the underwater observatory tour and animal feeding exhibitions, ensures the wildlife are admired in a proper and sustainable manner.
“It’s a privilege to work here daily and pursue my passions in such a stunning spot,” she says.
She has a special connection to the bay and the rockpools around the lodge.
“Some days I just get paid to go rock hopping and show people my marine wildlife passions for fun,” she says, while searching out various vibrant starfish in their ocean-connected display tank.
“Not everyone is as confident in the water or on the rocks to go out and meet our wildlife in the wild, but we all know how precious it is so having the underwater observatory and our tanks are always an interesting experience.”
Once we’d met some of Lochmara Bay’s marine residents, we took off up one of paths through the regenerated native bush to search out some of the creative spaces.
Much of Lochmara’s charm comes from its lush surrounds – from ‘home base’ picnic tables to the art installations which weave into the pathways and use the trees as a canvas. There’s also the tranquil hammock hangout looking back over the bush, buildings and bay.
The team are especially proud of Lochmara’s accessibility.
“On every given day we know who we’re bringing out, but people make their way across by their own steam because we’re open to all visitors, and close to Picton”, says Niki.
“For example our Picton Rowing Club will row across to us and stop in for a halfway coffee, or school and walking groups because it’s a one stop shop to learn about the Sounds.
“We’re not 5 star and we don’t aim to be, that brings expectations of price and exclusivity which isn’t what we want this place to be – our aim is to ensure it is available for anyone to enjoy.”
Niki is also keen to ensure that the Lochmara staff enjoy their time at the Lodge as much as their customers do.
“Our staff that don’t live on site have free travel over whenever and we’re proud that we look after them and they want to come back year on year”.
“We close over winter and staff find seasonal work or travel and come back when we reopen in September which I think is a huge credit to the enjoyment they get out of every day being here.
Husband Chris, who is a Marlborough boy born and bred but moved away when young, sees his role more as a guardian than owner.
“We were after a change in direction, and I had always felt a pull back to the Sounds so finding this little slice of paradise has been a great change”.
“Ongoing improvements to our operations are always key because this place will never be ‘finished’ – we can only put our touches on it and continuing to improve the already wonderful experience.
“Lochmara has been stunning before us, and we hope it remains stunning long after us with our assistance.”
The trails delivered on the promise of a new experience around every corner.
Thought-provoking installations, locally crafted carvings, recycled crafts, the Lochmara International Airport staffed by Lulu the Arapawa Goat, and possibly the most scenic long drop in the country dotted the 11 acres.
By the time I’d covered the trails on the grounds and appreciated what I could, it was time to meet the rest of the animals.
Maia took a group of us through daily education and animal feeding tour, feeding and learning about native Green Gecko, Tuatara, Kunekune pigs, escape artist goats, the llama, eels, cheeky Kākāriki, as well as the Weka that scuttled past on the paths.
“I love that we run such a broad and thorough programme of animal husbandry and breeding programmes while educating people and sparking passions – especially the work with visiting younger people who are keen to learn,” says Maia.
“It’s also been really fun to work with the Kākāriki and it’s also been an honour to work with tuatara, but we make sure all of our animals here whether wild or domesticated are respected.”
The ecological passion and multifaceted engagement of visitors is a striking accomplishment for a small organisation, and the care that the owners and staff hold for the place rubs off on visitors throughout the day.
“This place made memories for us, and we know first-hand just how amazing it can be,” sums up Chris.
“We want to share a space that is special to us with anyone who wants to make those memories themselves and recognise just how special the region we have here in Marlborough is by showing them the best sides of the region.”
Lochmara Lodge accommodation, day trips and other enquiries are available at https://www.lochmara.co.nz/ or at offices in Blenheim and Picton.