Window on Picton, New Zealand

It could have been a lovely day like this on January 15, 1770, when Captain James Cook sailed into what he later called Queen Charlotte Sound.

His ship, HMS Endeavour, at just 32 metres in length, was considerably smaller than the vessel we arrived on almost 250 years later. His ship's company numbered 94, while our cruise ship held over 3000 passengers, plus crew. When most of our fellow travellers disembarked and spread out over the Marlborough region, they almost doubled the population of the tiny town of Picton where we chose to spend the sunny summer afternoon.

When Cook and his ship appeared, he recorded in his log that the locals – about 100 Maoris – were not keen to see them. Fortunately for us, we found a warm welcome in this delightful town (pop. around 3000) which is located at the entrance to perhaps New Zealand's most famous wine region.

Almost any wine-drinker recognises Marlborough as the region which produces some of New Zealand's finest white wines (see a video on it). Noted for its production of sauvignon blanc, which some experts say is the world's best, the area accounts for around 60 percent of New Zealand's vineyards.

While the two islands of New Zealand are quite distinct, you can see from the map (above) that at this point they are separated by just 22 kilometres of Cook Strait. Inter-island ferries to and from Wellington arrive and depart here by way of the Marlborough Sounds

The 'sounds' are not true fjiord-like sounds, as are those in the South Island's west coast and in Norway, for instance. These are more 'drowned valleys' covering about 4000 square kilometres. The Maori people had a better explanation. According to M?ori mythology, the sounds are the prows of the sunken waka (canoe) of Aoraki. The sounds were extensively travelled and partly inhabited by M?ori groups before the coming of the Europeans, using the sounds as shelter from bad weather and relishing the rich food sources, much of it fish and crustaceans. Little wonder they did not welcome their first visitors too warmly!


WATCH THIS VIDEO to get a feel for the area.

While navigating unknown waters was enough of a problem, keeping almost a hundred people safe and healthy in cramped conditions just added to Captain Cook's problems. One great concern was the danger of scurvy, often brought on by the sailors' poor and unvaried diet.

So we can imagine the excitement when he discovered a plant (see above), dubbed Cook's Scurvy Grass, a member of the brassica family and high in vitamin C which helps to cure and prevent scurvy. The leaves have a strong peppery taste similar to the related horseradish and watercress plants.

Picton is named after Sir Thomas Picton, the Welsh military associate of the Duke of Wellington, who was killed at the Battle of Waterloo. It is the usual starting point for holidays to the region, where people come to enjoy fishing, walking, the Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand Track, kayaking, diving, boating and other water activities.  

While there is much to do around these parts, we could see why many people just like to hang out on the waterfront, in the cafes and souvenir shops, or at the beach too.

If you are a wine lover, you will not want to miss out on a wine tour. There are now about 70 wineries throughout the area, the first of which opened in 1976.  Though most famous for its Sauvignon Blancs, the area is also well known for many other varieties of wine, both red and white, and you will get a chance to taste several wines at each of the wineries.

The reason, the winemakers will tell you, that the wines here are so good is the  strong contrast between hot sunny days and cool nights. These perfect wine-growing conditions extend the ripening period of the vines resulting in unique flavours and characters. 

For those staying in Picton, you can get your bearings using the information boards. Allow several hours (or more) if you plan to hike the longer walking tracks that skirt the sound.

If you happen to arrive in February, the Marlborough Wine and Food Festival is held every February (Feb 14th in 2015).

At any other time, the magnificent waterfront is the ideal place for an ice cream - especially with your family.

Then there's paddling, beachcombing, swimming .....

...and there's also the chance of some impromptu entertainment as well!

Then climb the steps to the shops....

...passing through the impressive War Memorial gate.

As befits a holiday town, in addition to backpacker hostels and other accommodation, dining is an important part of the economy. There are a number of cafes and takeaway shops, most with a view of the water.

If you ask nicely, the barista at cornerside Cortado Restaurant and Bar might make you a coffee with a teddy-bear face too!

The main square of the town, opposite the War Memorial, has another bonus. You should be able to log-on to free WiFi. Le Cafe, a few doors along has plenty to keep you interested too. If you do nothing else, make sure to order a brimming bowl of the local Marlborough green-lip mussels. Some years back, these featured as a healthy addition to the diet, and you could buy capsules of their oil in health shops. These days most people just want to enjoy them straight from the local waters (well, via the mussel cooking pot, of course!).

New Zealand chefs pride themselves on the country's clean fresh produce, and in places like Picton, surrounded by clear cold waters, the wealth of seafood is amazing - and amazingly good.

On the street facing the waterfront, we discovered this (ahem!) gem of a place. Seaside Gems is an Aladdin's cave of gems, jewellery, hand-blown glass and the local Pounamu jade. What's more, they gently brought out of the display case, something we did not know even existed - rare 'blue' pearls which are farmed in New Zealand waters.

With so many tourists, Picton is a great place to pick up some local artworks at the town's galleries, or artisan craft work from the many souvenir and gift shops. 

These tall native flax plants, attractively framing the view, were of much more interest to Captain Cook for practical reasons. When he first saw them, he thought he had found a fibre that could be used for making ropes and sails for his ships, but he found they were not suitable. The local Maori people, however, used the leaves for clothing and a wide number of other things.

Once you've had your fill of the town, look at your other options:

• Hike the walking tracks

Cruise Queen Charlotte Sound

• Take an eco-tour of a bird sanctuary

• Go bush walking or cycling

• Go kayaking on  the sound....

....or many other things


It is said that Captain Cook spent more time at the nearby scenic semicircular bay, Ship Cove, than anywhere else except Whitby where he began his seafaring career was a young man. The reasons he stayed (he said) was because the cove offered a safe place for provisioning and to take time out to clean and refurb his ship.

However, after visiting this area, it seems more than likely that he too was smitten by the peaceful beauty of the sounds. Like us, he would have found it just so hard to leave.

More information....

Read more about Captain Cook....


- by Sally and Gordon Hammond


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