Many travelers to New Zealand (as well as New Zealanders themselves) know of Picton as the gateway to the South Island. Travelers coming from Wellington with their own vehicles must cross the Cook Strait that separates the North and South Islands, and the most common commercial route is between Wellington and Picton. The small town at one end of Queen Charlotte Sound is located in what must be one of the prettiest regions of New Zealand, the Marlborough Sounds. Instead of just passing through after disembarking from the ferry, it's worth hanging around in Picton for a few days to explore the area.
Here are some of the best things to see and do in and around Picton.
Spot Dolphins and Penguins on a Nature Cruise
There are quite a few places around New Zealand where you can see dolphins and penguins, but Picton has to be one of the most convenient. Despite the relatively high amount of sea traffic that passes through Queen Charlotte Sound, it's still easy to spot penguins and dolphins here.
You might get lucky and see them from the large InterIslander Ferry, but you'll probably have more luck on a dedicated wildlife watching cruise from Picton. These go out on smaller boats and can maneuver into smaller bays and nearer bird colonies. E-Ko Tours offers a great half-day trip all the way out to Motuara Island, a bird sanctuary not far from the open ocean, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound. As well as Little Blue Penguin colonies and pods of Dusky, Bottlenose, and Common Dolphins, you'll see many cormorants (shags). You may even get lucky and see a rare Hector's Dolphin or Orcas.
Ride a Vintage Steam Train to Blenheim
The 100-year-old steam train the Marlborough Flyer is a fun way to get from Picton to nearby Blenheim. The 18-mile journey takes an hour, passing hills, forests, marshland, and vineyards. Each carriage is named after a different local winery, and passengers can sample wine from that company while enjoying the views. There's a small outdoor viewing platform. You can either use the train service to get to Blenheim or return to Picton later the same day.
Cruise to Isolated Bays in Queen Charlotte Sound
Queen Charlotte Sound is one of the four sounds that comprise the Marlborough Sounds, and although it's more populated than Pelorus, Kenepuru, and Mahau Sounds to the west, that doesn't mean there's very much here! Many parts of the sound can only be reached by boat as there are no road connections. Picton is the only town on the sound, but isolated bays, beaches, hiking trails, viewpoints, and lodges/restaurants can be reached by private boats, charters, and scheduled ferries/water taxis. If you don't have the time (or inclination) to do a long trek through Queen Charlotte Sound, taking a water taxi around is a great way to experience the peaceful nature. You can stay overnight at remote waterside lodges or just drop in for lunch.
Check Out Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary
Picton's Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary is attempting to restore the native forest to an island in Picton Harbour. Visitors can see native New Zealand birds (such as tuis, wood pigeons, falcons, and more) and fur seals that hang around the jetty. A predator-proof fence rings the sanctuary, and there's a circular walking track around the island that takes about two hours to complete. It's a short boat ride from Picton, by water taxi or kayak. Entry is free, although donations are welcomed.
Feast on Fresh Seafood on a Seafood Cruise
Fresh, good-quality seafood can be found throughout New Zealand, but the Marlborough Sounds produces some of the country's finest. Salmon and mussel farms are dotted throughout the clean, calm, cool waters of the sounds. Greenshell mussels, in particular, are a sounds delicacy, and the vast majority of New Zealand's greenshell mussels are farmed here. As well as finding them on Picton's restaurant menus (and supermarket shelves), joining a half-day seafood cruise is a fun way of learning more about seafood farming and the people who make Queen Charlotte Sound home, as well as sampling some of the world's best seafood.
Kayak on Queen Charlotte Sound
Calm waters, lots of sunshine, abundant bird and sea life, and gorgeous scenery make Queen Charlotte Sound a perfect place to explore by kayak. Join a guided tour for as little as a couple of hours or as long as a few days. Some tours start directly from Picton, while others drive a little way around the sound to even more peaceful waters. There's a good chance you'll spot dolphins, stingrays, cormorants, and penguins, as well as other birds and fish. Lunch stops are often spent at hidden beaches that you wouldn't find any other way.
Spend a Rainy Day at Museums and Aquariums
Although the Marlborough Sounds experience some of the highest annual sunshine hours in New Zealand, this is still New Zealand, and visitors should expect rain at any time! Luckily there are a few great indoor activities on the Picton Foreshore, especially attractive to visit with kids.
The Eco World Aquarium & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre houses many marine, fish, bird, and reptile species, many that need care before being returned to the wild. They also house a preserved giant squid!
The Edwin Fox Museum houses the restored remains of the Edwin Fox, the world's ninth-oldest ship! It was built in 1853 in India, out of teak and saul timber. When in service, it was used for passengers, to send troops to the Crimean War, transport convicts to Western Australia, and more. It arrived in Picton in 1897, where it's remained ever since.
The Picton Heritage & Whaling Museum displays artifacts and tells the story of the Marlborough Sounds' whaling history and other aspects of local history. The old photographs of early 20th-century life around the sounds are fascinating.
Hike Short Trails (or Get Fit for the Queen Charlotte Track)
One of New Zealand's most celebrated multi-day treks, the Queen Charlotte Track, starts and ends not far from Picton. The full hike takes around five days, but you don't need to commit to all that to enjoy some hikes in and around Picton.
The Tirohanga Track up to the Hilltop View is a short but steep 90-minute round-trip hike that offers amazing views across Picton and beyond. Less steep is the two-hour return walk to Waikawa Marina, via the pretty Picton Marina. There are numerous other short trails around Picton, too.
Join a Hop-on, Hop-off Wine Tour
Although wine isn't produced in Picton itself, the Marlborough region is New Zealand's premier wine-producing region. Nearby Blenheim is the center of this, and from the road between Picton and Blenheim, you'll see dozens of vineyards across the flat land. So everyone in your group can enjoy wine tasting and not have to worry about being the designated driver, join a hop-on hop-off tour of wineries from Picton. Although a range of different types of wine are produced, the Sauvignon Blanc is the standout.