Picton, on the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand, is a lovely town within easy reach of the famed Marlborough wine region. As you wander the small settlement, it's easy to feel like a local. There's a laidback yet genuine welcome from the residents who see just enough cruise ships to not be fazed (or overrun) by them.
Understandably, those stunning views across Queen Charlotte Sound, backdropped by steep mountains, encourage visitors to dial back their stress levels and simply relax in the waterfront park or on the beach. Picton also has plenty of cafes, galleries and gift shops to keep the wanderers happy.
There's much more to do in the surrounding area, so be sure to check out the hiking trails, water activities and, of course, the wineries.
Ships berth in Shakespeare Bay, at Waitohi Wharf, just across a narrow peninsula from the town of Picton, a short shuttle bus or taxi trip away.
There is an information kiosk at the wharf, although it's probably easier to visit the main i-SITE Information Centre in town, on the Foreshore, opposite the train station. There are no other facilities at the wharf, except a complimentary shuttle bus for the under five-minute trip into town. This is preferable to walking, as the port also services local industries and cargo ships.
Just so you know, many New Zealanders (who don't mind being called Kiwis, even though it is their national bird) think the accents of other English speakers are pretty hilarious, too. Be prepared for some gentle ribbing and invitations to say 'six', which sounds (to them) like sex.
On Foot: Most of Picton’s tourist attractions are within a 10-minute distance of the port.
By Train: To get your bearings, visit the i-SITE Information Centre on the Foreshore, opposite the train station. Open daily: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phone 0800 777 181 (in NZ). Trains are generally long distance passenger trains to/from Christchurch, Auckland, Wellignton, and Greymouth.
By Bike: In Picton there is are bicycle rental angencies. Picton has a selection of scenic bike tracks like the Queen Charlotte Track that are popular among bikers.
By Bus: In Picton, there is an Intercity bus service to Marlborough and Blenheim.
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful, cheap and metered. Water Taxis are also available at London Quay.
By Boat: For a great overview of the Sounds, take a scenic cruise on the Sounds on boats that leave from the harbour terminal. The harbour also has facilities for Interisland ferries to the North Island.
By Plane: Sounds Air offers 25minute flights Wellington - Picton/Picton - Wellington.
The local currency is the New Zealand Dollar (NZD), which has 10, 20 and 50 cent coins, and one- and two-dollar gold coins. Banknotes are coloured and come as $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. Take time to look at the beautiful artwork on them featuring important New Zealanders as well as local birds, flowers and scenes.
ATMs can be found in Picton and, 28 kilometres away, there's a Bureau de Change at the Kiwibank in Blenheim PostShop, 3 Scott Street, Blenheim, capital of the Marlborough region. Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Phone: 0800-501-501.
For current currency conversion figures visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
English is the main language, although the New Zealand accent may take some getting used to. There is a vowel-shift going on, so that 'ham' becomes 'hem' and 'best' sounds more like 'bist'. Fish and chips, which is hugely popular in this country of pristine waters richly endowed with seafood, is pronounced like the 'u' in 'push' -- fush'n'chups.
New Zealand's menus are rich in the stunningly fresh and varied fruits of the seas that surround the country. The Marlborough region was formerly home to Maori fishing villages, so of course the local seafood is worth sampling. Watch out for King Salmon and the succulent green-lipped (Greenshell) mussels, a specialty of this region, which provides 70 per cent of NZ's export mussels.
If you are out and about touring wineries, many cellar doors offer meals and snacks or bar food, and you will almost certainly find somewhere to dine (and wine) extremely well.
For such a small town, Picton has a surprising number of good places to stop and eat along London Quay and Wellington Street. Seafood -- everything from the ubiquitous fish'n'chips (sometimes with excellent kumara chips instead of potato fries) to the best local mussels or scallops you may ever taste.
Le Cafe: Don't be misled. Just because this cafe has wide waterfront views, it is more than just a pretty space. Green lipped mussels in a garlicky broth are a specialty and these get rave reviews from diners. Forget all you thought you knew about mussels. These are giants, and a dozen makes a full meal. The cafe serves home-made ice cream, and most dishes use local and seasonal produce. What more do you want? Diners rank the friendly NZ service highly, too. (12-14 London Quay, Picton; 64-035-735-588; open daily for lunch)
Cafe Cortado: This restaurant, cafe and bar has pretty much everything covered. Good coffee (maybe with a latte-art face and a tiny teddy biscuit on the side), great views across the park and beyond towards the harbour and, as the name suggests, a slightly South American infused menu firmly based on the local produce. We're talking pizza, green-lipped mussels, ceviche, clams, spaghetti vongole, and some good local wines. It's a popular place and things can get busy, especially when there's a ship in town, so grab a chair at a pavement table and kick back and admire the view. The food is worth some patience. (Cnr High Street & London Quay, Picton; 64-035-735-630; open daily for lunch, 11.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m.)
The Irish: OK, so this place is a pub -- and a pizzeria. Run by an American. Sounds crazy, but the locals love it, and while it's not strictly a lunchtime venue they would also reckon you should know about it. Why? Well, a late lunch works well when you're on holidays. The Guinness is poured perfectly, too, and the build-your-own pizza menu comes with alternative suggestions of hot chips and curry, or a Baileys' Slushy! (25 Wellington Street, Picton; 64-035-738-994; open daily, 3 p.m.)
The larger town of Blenheim has more to offer, but much of it happens at the various vineyards and cellar doors in the region, and many of the finer dining restaurants open only in the evenings.
Vintners Room Restaurant: This is an ideal place if you would like a late lunch in a lovely setting overlooking the restaurant's gardens. The dining room opens late and offers a menu of small plates such as a summer vegetable medley with a free-range poached egg, prosciutto and the house olive oil, or New Zealand scallops served with fennel and orange vinaigrette. Of course no meal is too small or simple to pair with something from the restaurant's hand-picked wine list featuring local well-known cellars and boutique wineries. (190 Rapaura Road, RD3, Blenheim; 64-035-725-094; open daily, 2:30 p.m.)
Watery Mouth Cafe: As the name suggests, the food at this main street cafe is truly mouth-watering. Take the lunchtime (from 11.30 a.m.) big brekkie with mini sausages and portobello mushrooms, for instance. Or the corn and fetta fritter stack, or a minted NZ lamb burger served on ciabatta with minted yoghurt dressing. There's always a wide selection of choices (both healthy and indulgent) as well as gluten-free and vegetarian treats, and all meals are made from scratch in the cafe's kitchen. (71 High Street, Blenheim; 64-035-783-828; open daily, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m)
Twelve Trees: If you are a fan of seafood chowder, this estate, eight kilometres from Blenheim, will be home base for you. Head Chef Matt Gibson has a simple and effective food philosophy. He likes to keep the menu &fresh & local&. While many things change seasonally, the runaway favourite, seafood chowder, remains on the menu year round. Other dishes people talk about from the lunch menu are the harissa-marinated pulled pork sandwich on garlic ciabatta, and the oven-steamed Razors Edge Marlborough salmon served with a wild fennel chop suey salad. Obviously a step ahead of many places, but the relaxed and rural setting appeals to everyone. (Jacksons Road, Blenheim; 64-035-727-123. Bookings essential; open daily, 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.)
The Mussel Pot: Quirky and unassuming, this little place just 33 kilometres west of Picton has been serving up the region's best mussels for more than 20 years. The owners are proud to say their menus are based on fresh local produce which is sustainable, free range and organic wherever possible. A favourite dish, particularly for groups, is a platter of mussels cooked in various ways. If seafood is not your thing, that's fine, as the burgers are well worth trying, and you can finish up with a rich mud cake or some delicious homemade gelato. (73 Main Road, Havelock; 64-035-742-824; Lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner from 5:15 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. Closed for winter from June to August)
Picton is a good place to pick up some local artworks at the town's galleries, or high-quality artisan craft work from the many souvenir and gift shops. Especially worth looking at are merino wool garments, hand-blown glass articles and the local Pounamu jade or greenstone, as well as rare New Zealand 'blue' pearls (see Shopping below).