The timeless magic of Waterfall Bay

Featuring a pop-up private restaurant in the forest with Giulio Sturla

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A world apart, I can still remember vividly waking up with the sun streaming brightly on my face during my week-long getaway to Waterfall Bay earlier this summer.

It certainly feels like a lifetime ago now, you know, with this whole unprecedented global pandemic gripping us by the throats. Less than two months ago, my partner Giulio and I piled up my truck with books, food, and essentials, with our SUP boards tied precariously to the roof.

It took almost a whole day to make the drive up to the remote Marlborough Sounds from Lyttelton, where I now live outside of Christchurch, New Zealand. A pumping 33 degree Celsius day, I regretted not getting the aircon fixed in my car.

Luckily New Zealand is pretty unique and was made for road trips.

Thankfully, the temperate dropped as we made our way inland from the hot Canterbury valleys towards coastal Kaikoura. Winding our way north with Waitangi weekend traffic as kiwis headed towards the wilderness for a bit of a holiday, I couldn’t wait to get to Waterfall Bay.

For us, it was a bit of both holiday and work, business and pleasure, relaxation with a couple of intense days in the kitchen. I suppose that’s one of the great perks of being self-employed. Perhaps you might not know when that next payday will hit your checking account, but you do get to be in charge of working while on holiday.

So in collaboration with one of Marlborough’s celebrated vineyards, Seresin Estate, Giulio, and I were putting up a small pop-event dinner deep in the heart of the Marlborough Sounds.

I’ve mentioned Giulio on the old blog a few times, but I can’t remember if I mentioned he happens to be one of New Zealand’s greatest chefs. And that’s not just me talking.

Giulio Sturla was the owner-chef of Roots in Lyttelton, the only restaurant to be awarded three hats (NZ’s version of Michelin Stars) outside of the Auckland CBD til last year, not to mention he was named chef of the year here. A jack of all trades in the kitchen, Giulio occasionally offers pop-up events and dinners around the world.

And one place he’d been dying to get back to is Waterfall Bay.

The Marlborough Sounds are one of New Zealand’s greatest treasures. Often overlooked by visitors, as they’re not the most accessible of locations, it’s an incredible part of the South Island worth exploring.

Don’t be put off by the complexities of planning an adventure here.

The top of the South Island is wild, full of hidden bays, dead-end roads, and beaches without a name. Many tourists come through on the ferry between Picton and Wellington, only getting a glimpse of the timeless magic here while in transit.

The Marlborough Sounds hold over 1,500 kilometers of coastline that were once ancient river valleys now filled by the Pacific. Here are endless forests, quiet coves, and plenty of national parks. The preferred mode of transport is by boat.

The most well-known of these are Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru and Pelorus Sounds.

Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the Marlborough Sounds is the hidden restaurant in Waterfall Bay, one of the most charming and picturesque spots to get away to.

It’s here that the celebrated New Zealand cinematographer Michael Seresin built a bolt-hole on one of the most incredible pieces of land I’ve been privileged enough to visit. An hour or so from his vineyard estates around Blenheim tucked away and hidden in the bush in Waterfall Bay; you’ll find 75 acres of incredible native forest.

Home to a historic cottage and, of course, a waterfall, he also built an incredible house from upcycled timber and glass a la Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as a mysterious pop-up restaurant.

Hidden amongst the ferns and flax, there is a historic wooden building overlooking the sounds, that once in a while is taken over by a celebrated chef for a special occasion.

This time it was Giulio’s turn to take over Waterfall Bay and dream up something special.

Along with a few friends helping us put on a weekend of pop-up dinners, we stayed at the historic cottage in Waterfall Bay, which you can rent too.

Joining us were fellow Canterbury food lovers, Alex Davies from Gatherings in Christchurch (yum – one of the best spots for a meal), and Angela and Nick from the Food Farm (an organic farm that runs growing your own food workshops and courses).

Only a couple of minutes by boat from Picton (you can also drive) to the private jetty, the cottage was built in the 1940’s and is so idyllic and charming I didn’t want to leave. Honestly, it was so hard to leave. I could have stayed forever.

Once the sun was up in the morning, the forest came alive with summer cicadas singing, and Giulio and I would walk barefoot down to the jetty and sip our coffee talking.

** Don’t forget you can join Airbnb today using my code for $69 off your trip to Waterfall Bay

As the summer sunshine warmed us up and the crystal clear blue water twinkled below, we would reflect on how crazy the past year was for both of us, wondering what was in store next. Alone and at peace, as the scents of the morning forest mixed with the smell of the sea, we were overcome with happiness and nostalgia.

We would keep our eyes peeled for the resident stingrays gliding through the water, debating on whether we should take the SUP boards out for a paddle now or later on at low tide. What a perfect escape.

Most often, we didn’t even know where our phones were or what time it was. Yes, this is paradise.

The immense beauty of the New Zealand native forest gets me every time; it really does.

Here at Waterfall Bay, the chorus of the summer cicadas was deafening, making the woods feel even more alive. And if you didn’t already think you had stepped into a fairytale, at night the forest along the track around the property is lit by a million glowworms, twinkling blue like stars trapped on earth.

New Zealand, you’re magic.

At low-tide, we would slide our Moana SUP boards into the calm water and go exploring around the neighboring harbors, inlets, and bays.

Giulio is passionate about local ingredients and foraging from the land and sea. We spent the week relaxing and catching our own food, including the most amazing green-lipped mussels, a Marlborough specialty.

We even found ones that were almost a foot-long.

Finally, as Waitangi Weekend rolled around, we got back to business, showered, dressed, and put on shoes after a week in our swimmers, and prepared for a feast.

Just imagine gliding along the still waters of the Sounds at sunset, with only the birdsong and the lapping of the water for sound. Imagine docking and walking through the lush native forest, only to come across a small wooden cabin lit by candles beneath the stars.

Welcome to Waterfall Bay! Showtime baby!

Bubbles were sipped as guests arrived at sunset. I had an up-close and personal view of the magic in the kitchen. This was a real glimpse into the behind the scenes of those incredible dinners I was used to.

Six-course degustation dinner with wine pairings from Seresin full of surprises offered our visitors a real taste of the Marlborough region. Passionate about how food and ingredients reflect the land and people, Giulio pulled out all the stops to make this meal unforgettable.

Every dish tells a story.

Key kiwi ingredients featured at Waterfall Bay by Giulio Sturla:

  • Cranky Goat Cheese – made nearby in the Queen Charlotte Sound by a local family and featured in his iconic pan de yuca cheese bread (shared on his Instagram and saved in the highlights)
  • Cloudy Bay storm clams – an institution in New Zealand and delicious. Giulio prepared a delightful dish of clam with tomato, eggplant, and pickles
  • Oak and Spore mushrooms – which he’s featured with homemade shoyu, black garlic, and porcini crackers. His mushroom dishes always get me!
  • Afterward, we enjoyed Premium Game wild venison with carrots, shallots, and cultured cream.
  • Pinoli Pine nuts with rhubarb, Rimu-verbena and smoked chocolate for dessert number one
  • And honey, stonefruit and honeycomb from Roots for dessert number two
  • Seresin Estate wine matching of course (2008 Sun and Moon Pinot Noir COME TO ME)

I’m drooling about remembering this trip. Different from my usual travel escapades, it was so special getting to share an incredible part of New Zealand with friends and family. I love seeing my partner Giulio work and watch people’s faces light up when they try his meals.

I know for sure that the Marlborough Sounds beckon me back already. Food, wine, sea, and views, what more could you want?

Have you experienced the magic of the Marlborough Sounds too? Have you ever been to a place like this? Are pop-up restaurant events your jam too? Share!

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7 Comments on “The timeless magic of Waterfall Bay

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  1. Such a beautiful mental escape you’ve written. Your passion and personal connection to this places exudes through your visual storytelling! Can’t wait to feel the magic and visit someday.

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