Scenic view of the marlborough sounds nestled between lush green mountain ranges under a sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, with a small boat creating ripples on the water surface

The Best Picton New Zealand Cruise Port Guide: Marlborough 2024

As the first light of dawn breaks over the horizon, bathing the Marlborough Sounds in a soft, golden hue, the picturesque beauty of Picton comes into view from the balcony of the cruise ship. It’s a moment that captures the essence of arrival in New Zealand’s premier cruise port – a gateway to adventure in the heart of the South Island.

From the minute I stepped off the cruise ship, the town welcomed me with open arms, eager to showcase its stunning natural beauty, historical sites, and the adventurous spirit of the Marlborough region.

Based on my own adventures and thorough research, this guide is crafted to navigate you through all that Picton has to offer – from essential travel tips and the best local dining experiences to the top attractions and hidden spots.

This post may contain affiliate links (of companies I book through). This means I may receive a small commission if you book through them. You can read the disclaimer for more information.

Navigating the Picton Cruise Ship Terminal

Arrival and Disembarkation

Cruise Ships either berth at Waimahara Wharf in Shakespeare Bay or Waitohi Wharf, close to the town, depending on their size. Waimahara Wharf is mostly used for log exports and as a berth for large cruise ships, so you cannot walk around the port. Therefore, Port Authorities arrange a complimentary shuttle bus into town.

Our cruise ship, Celebrity Solstice, docked at Waimahara Wharf, and it took five minutes by bus to get to the I-Site Visitor Information Centre.

The port was well-equipped to handle the ship’s arrival easily, offering a seamless disembarkation process. Clear signage and helpful port staff guided me through the terminal. Remember to have your identification and necessary travel documents ready for a smooth transition from ship to shore.

ripples on the water with mountaisn behind cruising into marlborough sounds nz
Cruising into Marlborough Sounds

Port Facilities and Services

The Picton Cruise Port, while compact, is designed with travellers’ needs in mind. Facilities at the port include:

  • Information Centre: Right on the waterfront, the Picton i-SITE Visitor Information Centre has maps, brochures, and personalised advice on making the most of your time in Picton and the wider Marlborough region.
  • Wi-Fi and Connectivity: Stay connected with complimentary Wi-Fi available at the visitor centre, library, and in various spots throughout the town.
  • Transportation Services: Just outside the cruise terminal, you’ll find a range of transportation options, including shuttle buses, taxis, and car rental services, making it easy to explore the town and its surroundings at your own pace.

Tips for a Smooth Visit

  • Plan Ahead: While spontaneous exploration has its charms, having a rough plan can help you make the most of your time in Picton, especially if you’re only there for a day.
  • Check the Weather: The weather can change quickly in New Zealand. A sunny morning can turn into a rainy afternoon, so it’s wise to wear appropriate clothing.
  • Local Currency: While many places accept credit cards, having some New Zealand dollars on hand for small purchases or tips can be helpful.
A bustling street scene of Picton town with parked cars, shops, and pedestrians, under a cloudy sky with mountains in the background, and directional signs pointing towards local attractions including an art and craft market.
Picton Town Centre

Things To Do from Picton Cruise Port

Marlborough Sounds

Queen Charlotte Sound Mail Boat Cruise

On this popular tour, you visit the remote communities of Queen Charlotte Sound aboard a working mail boat. This scenic four-hour boat cruise departs Picton in the afternoon and makes New Zealand Post rural delivery service along different routes each day of the week. The boat captain shares regional history and stories of these isolated hamlets while you enjoy complimentary tea and coffee onboard. From the 1st October to 30th April, you get to disembark for a 15-minute stop at Ship Cove, a favourite anchorage of Captain Cook and the site of early contact between Maoris and Europeans.

This cruise books up fast, so check availability here.

A white 'Mail Boat Cruises' vessel named 'MATUA' moored at a wooden jetty on a sunny day, with passengers boarding and a dog waiting on the dock, set against a backdrop of clear blue skies and lush green hills
Mail Boat Cruise Picton by Miles Holden

Water and Wilderness Scenic Flight Tour

The Water and Wilderness Scenic Flight Tour is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the spectacular Marlborough Sounds from the air. See the Queen Charlotte, Kenepuru, and Pelorus Sounds from above and land on a remote beach. The tour will have a maximum of 6 travellers.

See photos here.

Enjoy a Wildlife Eco-Tour

Picton’s location at the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds makes it an ideal starting point for wildlife eco-tours. These tours offer the opportunity to encounter local wildlife, including dolphins, seals, and native birds, in their natural habitat. A cruise through the Sounds highlights the area’s natural beauty and emphasises conservation efforts to preserve this pristine environment.

Half day Sea Kayak Guided Tour from Picton

Half-day tour of the western end of Queen Charlotte Sound on a kayak adventure from Picton. Follow an expert guide from the waterfront to sheltered coves and remote beaches as you search for eagle rays, cormorants, little blue penguins, New Zealand fur seals, and dolphins. Learn about the area’s natural history from an expert guide and, as numbers are limited, you will receive personalised attention. There’s the choice of morning or afternoon tours.

See Pricing here.

E-Ko New Zealand Wildlife and Dolphin Tours

E-Ko New Zealand runs various tours from Picton, but the times of your cruise ship arrival and departure will depend on what ones you can do.

The Half-Day Dolphin Viewing Eco-Tour is a 2-hour cruise run by certified Department of Conservation operators, allowing you to interact with dusky, bottlenose, and orca dolphins in a safe, fun, and eco-friendly way.

The Marlborough Sounds Ultimate Cruise offers an amazing, fully-guided experience. This small-group tour allows you to view some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery and wildlife. You will visit Motuara Island and cruise the calm waters of the majestic Queen Charlotte Sound led by enthusiastic and fun guides.

Visit the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum

The Edwin Fox Maritime Museum tells the story of the world’s second-oldest surviving merchant sailing ship. This immersive museum offers a fascinating glimpse into maritime history. Visitors can explore the ship and learn about its various voyages, including transporting convicts to Australia and immigrants to New Zealand.

An aerial view of Picton town with densely packed buildings, nestled between rolling green hills. The marina is filled with boats, and a large parking lot is visible in the foreground, under a bright sky.

Indulge in the Marlborough Wine Region

There are several options to visit the Marlborough Wine Region from Picton Cruise Port, depending on your preference and budget.

Marlborough Hop On Hop Off Wine Tour

The Hop On Hop Off Wine Tour lets you discover the wonders of Marlborough in your own time. You can plan your day by following the bus timetable on your self-guided tour. You may need to pay for tastings at the various venues.

If you’re not a drinker, there is still plenty to see, with a range of activities like museums, bike tours, a chocolate shop, and delicious food to be sampled.

See the bus stops here.

Picton Shore Excursion Marlborough Wine Region Small-Group Tour

This Picton shore excursion visits at least six boutique wineries. You will travel by minivan from Picton Cruise Port through this beautiful wine region in the South Island, sipping award-winning New Zealand wines and sampling delicious chocolates at Makana Boutique Chocolate Factory. You can opt to buy a gourmet lunch on this small-group tour, which is limited to 11 people.

Find out more here.

Private Marlborough Winery Tour

The tour will tailor a Marlborough wine tour, especially for you or your group’s needs. You decide when to start and finish the tour and get behind the scenes for a private tasting. They can focus on boutique, organic wineries, breweries, fine wine, and food; anything is possible with this private tour. If you have children under 12, the tour can visit wineries more suited to young families.

Book here.

lunch with glass of white wine in a vineyard

A short drive from Picton, the Marlborough wine region awaits. Known worldwide for its Sauvignon Blanc, the area offers a plethora of wineries and vineyards. Wine-tasting tours are a popular way to experience a variety of flavours and learn about the winemaking process from knowledgeable vintners.

Kayaking and Paddleboarding

For the adventurous, kayaking and paddle boarding in the Marlborough Sounds offer tranquillity and excitement. Rentals and guided tours are available, allowing you to explore the secluded coves and crystal-clear waters at your own pace.

a serene sunset at sea with a large, red ship cruising on calm waters. The sun hangs low in the sky, casting a golden pathway on the water's surface, flanked by dark silhouettes of mountains in the background.

Explore the Queen Charlotte Track

One of New Zealand’s premier hiking trails, the Queen Charlotte Track, is accessible directly from Picton. This stunning track offers panoramic views of the Sounds, with options ranging from short walks to multi-day hikes. For those on a tighter schedule, a day hike or a guided tour can provide a taste of the track’s breathtaking scenery.

Queen Charlotte Drive

If you want to do your own thing, hire a vehicle from one of the car rental companies in Picton. We use Europcar, but there are plenty to choose from.

After collecting your hire car, head north on Queen Charlotte Drive towards Havelock. The panorama is amazing, and there are plenty of bays to pull over to capture the views, like the one below. It is regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world.

It’s 40km of winding roads, so care needs to be taken when driving, but it’s an easy and stunning drive.

A panoramic view of a lush green landscape with a lake nestled among rolling hills. Puffy white clouds dot the blue sky above the serene Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand
View from Queen Charlotte Drive

Groves Arm Jetty

Groves Arm Jetty is a lovely place to stop to take a break from driving and enjoy the astounding view.

The road then crosses Linkland, which is 5km of land between the head of Pelorus Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound. It’s a straight part of the drive before starting the twists and turns of the final journey.

A serene view of a speedboat cruising through the clear waters of Marlborough Sounds with larger boats in the background. The foreground features vibrant purple wildflowers, with lush green hills rising around the calm bay under a blue sky scattered with clouds
Groves Arm Jetty

Cullen Point Lookout

Cullen Point Lookout is 5.5 km along Queen Charlotte Drive from Havelock. There’s a car park and toilets, and it’s a 10-minute walk to the lookout, which provides views of Mahau Sound and Kaituna and Pelorus estuaries.

This drive ends in the town of Havelock.

A view over the estuary of Havelock, New Zealand, showing a mix of exposed mudflats and water channels at low tide, with surrounding verdant hills and a cloudy sky above
Cullen Point Lookout

Visit Blenheim

You can head back south to Blenheim, a town in the heart of the Marlborough region. There are plenty of shops and cafes, or you can relax in Seymour Square. This beautiful park has a clock tower commemorating those killed in the Great War (World War I). It also has a gorgeous World War II Memorial Fountain, which E. Hubbard designed. The garden beds are spectacular, and the park is used for the annual garden fête during Garden Marlborough.

A vibrant public square in blenheim new zealand featuring a large fountain with water jets in the center of a bright blue pool. In the background, a historic stone clock tower stands under a clear blue sky, flanked by lush green trees and well-maintained lawns
World War II Memorial Fountain Seymour Square Blenheim

Relax at Picton Waterfront and Marina

Picton is a pretty seaside town with plenty of options for sampling this region’s delicious seafood. There are numerous walks to take which provide marvellous views of the area.

The town park, Picton Memorial Park, gets very busy, with a mixture of locals and tourists enjoying the weather and all that the park offers.

Coathanger Bridge, near Picton Marina, connects the town to Shelley Beach and Bob’s Bay. Shelley Beach is only a 10-minute walk from the foreshore.

View from a shaded porch framing a scenic seaside park in picton new zealand with palm trees, with a large passenger ferry docked in the background, against a backdrop of a calm sea and a cloudy sky.
Picton Memorial Park

Ride the Marlborough Flyer

When your ship pulls into port, board the Marlborough Flyer, a historic World War I Memorial Locomotive (Passchendaele (1915). On this restored heritage steam train, you will see two towns in one day as you follow your guide on a scenic rail journey between Picton and Blenheim.

Vintage black steam locomotive with number 608 displayed, billowing white steam as crew members engage in operation. The train is framed by green hills in the background
Marlborough Flyer, Picton

Local Eats and Dining in Picton

Picton may be small, but it has a vibrant dining scene that reflects the Marlborough region. Picton’s eateries offer something to please every palate, whether you’re in the mood for fresh seafood, classic New Zealand dishes, or international flavours.

The locals recommended SISU for shared plates, Shai Shai’s for fish and chips, and Escape to Picton’s for lunch.

Weather in the Marlborough region

December to March has the best weather, with temperatures ranging from 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. The warmest month is February, while July is the coldest, with maximum temperatures around 12 C. The Marlborough region is said to have the best climate in New Zealand.

Travel Tips and Best Practices for Visiting Picton

I’ve compiled a list of travel tips and best practices based on personal experiences and comprehensive research to ensure you make the most of your time in this picturesque town and its surroundings. These insights will help you navigate your trip smoothly and enhance your adventure in Picton.

Pack for All Seasons

The weather in Picton, like much of New Zealand, can be quite variable, even within a single day. Layering is key. Bring a mix of lightweight and warm clothing, ensuring you’re prepared for sunny days as well as cooler evenings. A waterproof jacket is a must-have, allowing you to enjoy outdoor activities regardless of a sudden rain shower.

Respect the Environment

Picton and the Marlborough Sounds are renowned for their natural beauty. It’s important to respect these environments by following the principle of “Leave No Trace.” Dispose of rubbish properly, stay on designated trails when hiking or biking, and be mindful of wildlife and plant life. Preserving the area’s natural beauty ensures it can be enjoyed by future visitors.

Use Local Transportation Wisely

Picton is well-serviced by local transportation options, including buses, taxis, and rental cars. Consider the length of your stay and what you plan to do when choosing transportation. Renting a car might offer more flexibility to explore nearby attractions or vineyards. However, for closer sights or if you prefer not to drive, the local shuttle services and taxis are convenient and reliable.

Explore Beyond the Beaten Path

While Picton’s main attractions are well worth visiting, there’s much to be discovered by going off the beaten path. Ask locals for recommendations or visit the Picton i-SITE for advice on hidden gems. Whether it’s a secluded beach, a lesser-known hiking trail, or a small vineyard, exploring beyond the tourist spots can lead to some of the most memorable experiences.

Support Local Businesses

Picton’s charm is largely due to its vibrant community and local businesses. From artisan shops to cafes and restaurants, supporting these local enterprises enriches your travel experience and contributes to the local economy. Try local specialties, purchase crafts from local artisans, and engage with the community to get a deeper sense of place.

Be Prepared for Adventure

Picton is the gateway to countless outdoor adventures. Whether you’re interested in hiking, kayaking, cycling, or wildlife tours, being prepared will enhance your experience. This means having the right gear, knowing your limits, and being aware of the conditions. Safety should always come first, so heed local advice and use reputable tour operators for activities.

A country road stretches towards the horizon, flanked by lush green fields and dense forests leading up to rolling hills. Power lines run alongside the road under a vast sky filled with fluffy white clouds
Queen Charlotte Drive

Picton Facts

The Māori name for the town, Waitohi, translates as “waters of the tohi ritual”, a baptismal ritual of warriors before they went into battle. The Te Atiawa o Te Waka-a-Māui iwi occupied Waitohi Pā (Māori village) on the site of the present town.

Sir George Grey and Sir Francis Dillon purchased the land in 1850 from Te Āti Awa, who moved to Waikawa Bay. In 1859, the Marlborough province was established, and the newly named Picton became the provincial capital, which moved to Blenheim in 1865.

Picton is named after Sir Thomas Picton, who was killed in the Battle of Waterloo. However, due to his treatment of slaves and the authorisation of torture while Governor of Trinidad, there have been calls to rethink the name ‘Picton’ prompted by Black Lives Matter protests worldwide.

Conclusion

As my comprehensive guide to Picton draws to a close, it’s clear that this charming New Zealand town is more than just a scenic stopover; it’s a destination brimming with opportunities for adventure, relaxation, and cultural enrichment.

a tall waterfall gushing into the fiord from the cliff top
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