Whether it's an afternoon relaxing in the sun or an exhilarating week of hiking, biking, fishing and sailing, there is plenty to do in Picton to suit everyone!
Picton - gateway to the stunning Marlborough Sounds
Picton is mostly seen as the jumping off point for New Zealand holidays further afield on the South Island. But this little portside town, nestled on the edge of Queen Charlotte Sound, is a packed with activities to experience the great Kiwi outdoors of the Marlborough 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, 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 the delights of Picton waterfront.
Read on to find out more about:
- Things to do in Picton
- The Coastal Pacific train
- Eating out in Picton
- Where to stay in Picton
- Getting to and from Picton
- The history of Picton
Picton offers secluded beaches to spend a sunny afternoon. Close to the city centre is Shelley Beach which is also a great spot for watching the Picton ferry come and go. If you’re after a little more seclusion, Bob’s Bay may be more for you. This bay, just a little further on from Shelley’s Beach, you can reach from Lower Bob's Bay track which is signposted or for an easier walk, use Upper Bob’s Bay track.
If you want to feel pristine white sand between your toes and total seclusion, Governer's Bay is a perfect spot. The bay is 15 minute drive away via Queen Charlotte Drive following by a 10 minute walk. Alternatively, hire a bike or kayak or catch a water taxi to reach this sheltered bay.
Walks in Picton
The Queen Charlotte Track is one of New Zealand’s greatest cycling and hiking routes. On foot, the 70km Queen Charlotte Track takes 3-5 days, spanning New Zealand's from Ship Cove to Anakiwa. The trail starts from the historic Ship Cove, where Captain James Cook first landed in New Zealand, and is a moderately easy hike back to Anakiwa. From there, you can simply catch a local taxi back to Picton.
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.
Alternatively, contact one of the organised tour companies on London Quay, such as the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company, to organise transport, accommodation, a guided tour or to hire a bike.
Take in some of Picton's history
Immediately next door to our Picton ferry terminal is the Edwin Fox Ship Visitor Centre. Don't be fooled by the unassuming entrance, this ship is the ninth oldest ship in the world! Built as trade ship in 1853, the Edwin Fox soon found herself carrying troops to the Crimean War. Later she carried convicts from England to Australia, before becoming a settler ship in 1873. In her final years' she made four trips from England, carrying a total of 751 settlers, before finally settling herself in Picton in 1897 as steam vessels came to the fore.
Picton EcoWorld Aquarium
Between Picton Foreshore and our Picton ferry terminal is the Picton EcoWorld Aquarium & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. Within the centre you will discover everything you could want to know about natural environment surrounding Picton and the Marlborough Sounds. Exhibits include dozens of endemic fish species and mammals that you are unlikely to see anywhere else in the world! They also have petting sessions with New Zealand's living fossil, the Tuatara, and a Blue Penguin.
Meet the local wildlife with E-KO Tours
Setting off in their catamaran from Picton marina, E-Ko Tours offer a variety of seasonal tours that will guide you through the best Marlborough Sounds' natural wonders. If you are eager for something exciting, then the Dolphin Swim Tour gives you the opportunity to swim with Bottlenose, Dusky and ultra-rare Hector dolphins. If you’re heading to Picton during the winter months, E-Ko Tours also offer great whale watching opportunities as Humpback whales migrate through the Cook Strait.
Picton kayak, sailboat & bike hire
There are many ways to explore the beautiful Marlborough Sounds, but car is not one of them. The area is best-known for it's remote properties, isolated bays, unfettered natural beauty and undisturbed wildlife. The best way to enjoy these is under the natural power. Be it the ancient art of kayaking, the gentle art of sailing, or the gruelling art of mountain biking, you will find all transport options available for hire on London Quay. There are two main companies to choose from, Wilderness Guides and the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company.
In contrast to most other great train journeys, the Coastal Pacific glides within touching distance of the sea, roaming across beaches, skirting around bays and tunnelling through rocky outcrops and cliff-faces of Kaikoura's mountain ranges. Little wonder then that the Coastal Pacific train is featured as one of Lonely Planet's Best Train Journeys You've Never Heard of. Certainly, if snow-capped mountains, sandy beaches, turquoise sea and salty sea breezes are your favourites, the Coastal Pacific train is a Picton must-do activity.
The Coastal Pacific Picton to Christchurch train departs from Picton station in the early afternoon. First stop is Blenheim in the mid-afternoon - the perfect time enjoy a wine-tasting tour at the heart of New Zealand's world-famous Marlborough wine region before settling down for some award winning food!
In the late afternoon, the Coastal Pacific train eases into the gorgeous seaside town of Kaikoura. Set beneath the immense Kaikoura mountain ranges, Kaikoura is famed for it marine life encounters, including Whale Watch Kaikoura and Dolphin Encounter. More recently, the earthquake of 2016 has made Kaikoura a poignant destination of scientific and historical interest.
Hop on and off for free!
With a Flexi or Flexi Plus Coastal Pacific train fare, you can hop on and off the Coastal Pacific at all stops along the route. So make the Coastal Pacific part of your holiday and give yourself a few ultra-relaxing days to travel from Picton to Christchurch.
Unsurprisingly, Picton's picturesque waterfront is dedicated to al fresco drinking and dining, with cafes, bars and restaurants gazing out into the sparkling harbour and beyond. And a seaside town wouldn’t be seaside town without offering a great seafood dish, in Picton's case, New Zealand King Salmon.
Restaurants in Picton
If you want to sample the delights of Picton’s signature dish, the New Zealand King Salmon which is farmed locally in the Sounds, Le Café is a good place to start or check this great list of restaurants serving NZ King Salmon. While in the infamous Marlborough wine region, it would only be right for this to be accompanied by a fine glass of Chardonnay. Or if you just want to go straight for the wine, Picton is also a great starting point for wine tours in the region where you can also grab lunch or dinner. Check our blog on the wineries of Marlborough to get your taste buds tingling!
The nearby town of Blenheim is only a thirty minute taxi ride or drive away and has many more upmarket dining choices. So if you are looking for a fine-dining experience you should consult TripAdvisor's list of recommended Blenheim restaurants.
One thing to note: Kiwi culture is to eat early and a lot of Picton restaurant kitchens close by 9pm. So if you are arriving late, you should call ahead to book a table and make sure the restaurant will be open for your arrival.
There's not a lot if difference between cafés, bars and restaurants in Picton - all three do food, coffee, wine and beer. With Picton being a very small town, it is as easy to walk around looking for a café or bar that suits you as it is to surf the internet looking for one!
Without doubt, the place to start is on London Quay (view map). You won't need a map to find the bars and cafe's, they are all in a line along this street!
Undoubtedly the best option is to find a holiday home tucked away in the Marlborough Sounds. These exclusive feeling retreats are easy to find online with options for most budgets. Accommodation in the Sounds cannot be reached by car and often comes with a private boat, kayaks and your own beach.
If you are just staying overnight, then there is also a great variety of hotel, motels, villas and camping in town. To find something to suit your taste, Destination Marlborough has the lowdown of all the available options.
Picton Top 10 Holiday Park
Picton Top 10 Holiday Park is conveniently located in the heart of the town (view map) and offers full-blown holiday villas, a wide range of high-spec cabins, self-contained units, powered sites (for camping and campervans) as well as standard camping. Don't forget, if you are a Top 10 or Big 4 holiday parks member, then you can get a Coastal Pacific discount.
Picton Yacht Club
Picton's most iconic hotel stands on the edge of the marina. With rooms offering beautiful views of Picton Harbour and overlooking the large private swimming pool, the Picton Yacht Club is one of Picton's most salubrious spots.
Jasmine Court Motel
Also located in the centre of Picton is the family run Jasmine Court Motel which offers comfortable 4-star quality with a friendly feel.
Escape to Picton Boutique Hotel & Restaurant
If you are looking for something different, more romantic and extravagant, then book yourself into the Escape to Picton Boutique Hotel and Restaurant. Although it doesn't have harbour views, the voluptuous décor will certainly keep your eyes entertained.
Picton has been the gateway to the South Island since 1962, when it welcomed the first Interislander Wellington to Picton vehicle ferry from the North Island. Since then more than 40 million passengers have crossed Cook Strait on Interislander ferries, passing through Picton en-route. The Interislander ferry remains the number one reason for travelling to Picton - and the most popular way of getting there and away!
Interislander Cook Strait ferry
The Interislander Cook Strait ferry runs between Picton and Wellington, connecting the New Zealand's North and South Islands. Several Interislander ferries arrive and depart each day from the Picton ferry terminal, taking both foot passengers and vehicles to and from Wellington.
The Cook Strait ferry has two major advantages over other means of transport. Firstly, it sails through New Zealand's finest scenery and is rightly called "one of the most beautiful ferry journeys in the world". Secondly, it is incredibly convenient, with several ferries a day. You can also connect with the Auckland to Wellington train called the Northern Explorer. This is the longest of The Great Journeys of New Zealand and combined with the ferry gives you an extraordinary way to travel Auckland to Picton.
Coastal Pacific train
Our long-distance Picton to Christchurch train is called the Coastal Pacific and it departs Picton railway station daily. The Coastal Pacific is one of the most scenic journeys in New Zealand and stops at popular holiday destinations, Kaikoura and Blenheim. This great train journey is far more than just transport, with specially designed scenic carriages creating a sociable and relaxing way to travel New Zealand by train.
Picton car hire
If you are looking to explore the Marlborough and Nelson regions, then hiring a car is the simplest way. There are several major companies in the Interislander Picton Terminal. which is very convenient for those arriving on the Wellington ferry!
Car rental firms at the Picton ferry terminal include: AVIS, Budget, Europcar, Ace, Hertz and Thrifty. If you are an AA member then you may be eligible for a Thrifty AA discount and can use our Coastal Pacific discount!
InterCity national coaches
The closest airport to Picton is in neighbouring Blenheim, 34km to the south. The Blenheim regional airport has daily flights from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Paraparaumu. To get to Picton from the airport, there are options of taxis, shuttle services, rental cars or the InterCity bus.
Originally, Picton was a Maori Pa (fortified village) called Waitohi, which had existed for over 300 years. Then, in 1844, the land was bought from the Maori people, Te Āti Awa, by the Governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey, and Francis Dillon Bell.
The town was initially named Newton, but was renamed several times in it early history. In 1859, it was formally named Picton 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 to the North Island and overseas ports with shipping of wool and food.
However, neighbouring Blenheim was also thriving due to its central Marlborough location. In 1865, Marlborough Council moved from Picton to Blenheim and ten years later built a railway between them. The helped populations in both small towns 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 from Picton and Christchurch began operating, called the Picton Express. Due to a lack of interest and profitability, the train was reduced to three times a week. Over the following years, falling patronage led to fewer trains, smaller carriages and seasonal service that only ran during the summer.
In 2013, KiwiRail transformed the depleted "TranzCoastal" long distance passenger train into the Coastal Pacific tourist train experience. The service was becoming increasingly popular as people started to choose relaxing scenic rail journeys around New Zealand as part of their sightseeing itineraries. However, the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake led to the service being suspended for two years.
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. Overnight, the quaint fishing harbour became the gateway to the South Island for passengers, road and rail main routes. As demand grew, so did the number of ferries and frequency of trips. Today, Interislander operates three ferries, Kaitaki, Aratere and Kairahi, completing up to 5 return trips a day.
Visit NZ History for more on the history of Picton.