Many visitors breeze through the little seaside town of Picton but it's worth stopping in this picturesque place, even if it's just for a day. We’ve got some suggestions of things to do in Picton, where to stay, places to eat and how to get to Picton to start you off.
Visit Picton - gateway to the south
Picton is mostly seen as the jumping off point for New Zealand holidays further afield on the South Island. But this little port side town, nestled on the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound, is a packed with activities to experience the great Kiwi outdoors of the Sounds on foot, boat, bicycle or even helicopter! Not only that, the coastal paradise is home to some spectacular native wildlife both in the water and island sanctuaries and resorts which protect New Zealand’s most endangered species. And if the weather isn’t playing nice to get outside, you can still explore Picton’s foreshore.
You can find out more about:
- Things to do in Picton
- The Coastal Pacific train
- Eating out in Picton
- Getting to and from Picton
- Where to stay in Picton
- The history of Picton
Go for a walk:
Picton is one of the best bases for getting out to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, The Queen Charlotte Track. The 70km track takes 3-5 days one way, spanning from Ship Cove to Anakiwa. It’s certainly something you have to plan ahead to do as you’ll need to book a pass to the track through DOC, accommodation and transport to and from the track.
If you aren’t venturing on the Great Walk, you can still enjoy some beautiful walks from Picton which will give you a stunning view of the Queen Charlotte Sounds. Tirohanga Track is said to be the ‘must do’ walk from Picton, which will lead you through native bush to views of the Sound, Picton town and neighbouring Waikawa. If you aren’t a big walker, the shorter walks of Harbour View Track or Bob’s Bay Walk might be more to your liking being around 10-30 minutes.
Take in some history:
If you’ve not had your fill of trains after a trip on the Coastal Pacific, catch the historic Marlborough Flyer from Picton to Blenheim. The journey on this World War II steam train takes an hour, but if you want more leisurely tour, you can add in wine tasting, lunch or even tasting at the boutique chocolate factory. Alternatively, explore the decks of one of the world’s oldest ships, the Edwin Fox, which dates back to 1853. The ship, which still has its wooden hull intact, can be seen at the Edwin Fox Maritime centre on Picton’s waterfront.
Meet the local wildlife :
If you weren’t lucky enough to spot a dolphin in the Cook Strait if you travelled to Picton on the Interislander, a trip with Eko-Tours could solve that! You can stay on the boat or dive in and swim with Bottlenose, Dusky or the rare Hector dolphins. If you’re heading to Picton during the winter months, Eko-Tours also offer great whale watching opportunities as Humpback whales migrate through the Cook Strait.
Alternatively, experience some of New Zealand’s endangered birds like the Saddleback and King Shag with a cruise to Motuara Island or stay on dry land and visit EcoWorld Aquarium and Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, close to the Interislander Picton Terminal, which is a delightful way to get up close to some of Marlborough’s marine life.
Enjoy the crystal clear waters of the Sounds:
Sail, kayak, mailboat or cruise on the Interislander! There are so many ways to explore the sheltered waters of the Marlborough Sounds and explore some of the pristine bays only accessible by boat. Undoubtedly, you’ll encounter some of the incredible sea life that graces these waters and closer to shore, native birds.
A seaside town wouldn’t be seaside town without offering a great seafood dish. New Zealand King Salmon is served at a number of restaurants and cafes along the waterfront and the signature dish of Picton. Check online for some of the dining options in Picton here. Also, being in the infamous Marlborough wine region, it would only be right for this to be accompanied by a fine glass of Chardonnay. If you just want to go straight for the wine, Picton is also a great starting point for wine tours in the region.
As the gateway to the South, Picton has a number of great transport options to get you to and from the town.
Interislander ferry, Picton terminal:
For those coming from the North Island, you can head across the Cook Strait on the Interislander ferry. A great option if you want to pack up your car with all your holiday supplies and break up your journey between islands if you’re on a longer road trip. Best of all, you get to sail through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds and spend time on the viewing deck, enjoying the sights. Ferries travel daily to and from Wellington and further sailing times are here.
Picton train station, Coastal Pacific:
The Coastal Pacific departs daily from Picton train station during the summer months (October to April) running from Picton to Christchurch. It departs after the first Interislander ferry arrives at Picton Terminal around lunchtime. This long distance train is a relaxing alternative to driving or even the bus as you can stretch your legs, socialise, all the while, taking in the mesmerising views of the Kaikoura coastline.
Intercity national coaches:
The Intercity coaches operate daily connections around the South Island from the Interislander Picton Terminal and can be booked as part of your onward journey from the Interislander or Coastal Pacific train.
Picton car hire:
The majority of car rental companies are clustered in the Interislander Picton Terminal. If you hired a car from the North Island, a number of car rental companies will let you leave your car in Wellington, hop on the Interislander ferry and pick up a new car when you reach the South Island. You can either pick this up at Picton or if you want to enjoy the Coastal Pacific to Christchurch, alternatively you can pick up your next rental car here.
The closest airport to Picton is in neighbouring Blenheim, a regional airport with daily flights from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Paraparaumu. To get to Picton from the airport which is 34km south, there are options of taxis, shuttle services, rental cars or the Intercity bus.
For a small town, there is a remarkable amount of accommodation to choose from! You can indulge in five star hotels, get a waterfront apartment, bunk in with the backpackers, stay on a boat, pitch a tent…there really is a lot to choose from! To find something to suit your taste, Destination Marlborough has the lowdown of all the available options.
Originally, Picton was a Maori Pa (fortified village) called Waitohi which had existed for over 300 years. The land was bought from the Maori people, Te Āti Awa, by then Governor of New Zealand Sir George Grey and Francis Dillon Bell in 1844.
The town was initially names Newton but after 10 years of being known for many different names, it was finally christened Picton in 1859 in memory of Sir Thomas Picton, a hero from the Battle of Waterloo. In this same year, the region of Marlborough was established and Picton was crowned the provincial capital. Picton quickly became a vital link between the South and North Island as well as overseas ports with shipping of wool and food from here.
However, neighbouring Blenheim was thriving due to its central location and the council shifted to this location in 1865. Ten years on, the railway between Picton and Blenheim was opened and populations for both small towns began to grow – however, Picton was a little slower to thrive and didn’t pass a population of 2,000 until 1956.
Opening of a train from Christchurch to Picton:
In 1945, a daily train service began operating between Picton and Christchurch called the Picton Express. Due to a lack of interest and profitability, the train was reduced to three times a week and over the years, falling patronage led to smaller trains and carriages and a service which only ran during the summer months. In 2006, Toll NZ sold the then TranzCoastal to KiwiRail who in 2013 relaunched the long distance passenger train now known as the Coastal Pacific. The scenic train journey allows people to see the stunning Kaikoura coastline as the train runs alongside the Pacific Ocean during the summer months. Due to the Kaikoura earthquakes in 2016, the Coastal Pacific is currently not running but is hoped to return in late 2018/early 2019.
The birth of the Interislander ferry:
The introduction of the first roll-on, roll-off Cook Strait ferry in 1962 had a huge impact on Picton and launched it as the gateway to the South Island for passengers, road and rail main routes. Little old Picton was thriving. As demand grew, the number of ferries and frequency of trips increased and the Interislander now operates three ferries, Kaitaki, Aratere and Kairahi with up to 5 return trips a day.
Visit NZ History for more on the history of Picton.