To Picton By Train – Discover New Zealand


Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

A town that’s more quaint than I expected.

(This is the seventh post in a series. Missed the first six? Click here to see them all.) For most of my New Zealand travels I used the Intercity FlexiPass and traveled by bus. However, to head up further north, I was told that I would have nicer views by rail, and, as it happens, there’s a sale going on when I book my ticket with New Zealand Rail to Picton, so it ends up cheaper than traveling by bus!

I should mention that I’ve had to fully book, in advance, my rail ticket as well as my accomodation in Picton, and, since I’m heading up to Auckland to stay with some friends who will pick me up in Morristown, I’ve even booked my lodging for Rotorua and Morristown. After more than two years of slow, last minute, travel, I don’t enjoy booking in advance. The problem is, if I don’t, I find that everything affordable is already booked. I’m missing the joy and reduced stress of last-minute bookings. 

Inside the train to Picton.

Photo by Heather Markel, copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

I’m so happy I booked the train, as it works out. First, I’m exhausted from an early start, and since it’s pre-dawn, enjoy a nice snooze. When I wake up, the scenery is truly gorgeous. I can’t believe how close we’re traveling to the sea, and there are no roads for much of the trip, so there’s no way I’d have seen most of these views from a bus. I stumble to get my phone out to photograph the giant lobster we pass along the way. Frankly, most of the ride I’m running from side to side of the semi-empty train car to get the gorgeous views on camera. At one point, I venture to the outdoor viewing car – I can’t believe it! It’s a car with no windows where you can view nature in the wide open. If it weren’t so chilly, I would have stayed longer. As it is, I’m amazed at the visceral sensation of seeing, and feeling, the nature we’re passing.

Giant lobster seen from the train.

Photographs by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020

We wind around a beach and are treated to some sea lions frolicking. I’m delighted with the scenery, but my tummy is rumbling for lunch. I get myself a small sandwhich and figure I’ll have a coffee and a sweet when I get to Picton. When we finally do arrive, the station is small and using, it looks like my hostel is too far for me to walk. I check Uber, and it doesn’t work. I think about calling the hostel to see if they can pick me up because there are no taxis, when a van pulls up. I inquire and learn she’s the only service in town, and it’ll cost me $20. Seems like a lot, but it’s starting to rain, so I agree, and jump in with another couple. They get dropped off, then the driver asks if I’d mind her returning to the station to pick up another couple because my hostel is further out, and she drops the price to $10. Hakuna matata. Eventually, I end up at Tombstone Backpakers. It’s a cute place; the staff is lovely, the rooms are comfortable and quiet, and there are plenty of bathrooms, and an included breakfast with fresh-made scones. The owner gets me situated and I book a tour of Marlborough Sound on the mailboat. (I later learn that even with the hostel discount, it would have been cheaper to book online.)

“The mailboat is a definite highlight of my visit.”

View from the train – traveling VERY close to the water’s edge.

Photos by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

I walk less than ten minutes and find myself in downtown Picton. It’s unexpectedly charming. Sure, there are tourist shops, but, it also has a beautiful view of the bay and a few nature walks, and even crossing the train tracks I find the views really pretty. I decide to have that cup of coffee and some carrot cake at Le Cafe because it’s perfectly placed to admire the bay while caffeinating. I place my order at the counter, sit outside, and wait. And wait, and wait. I see the people who arrived after me getting their coffees and food, but I’m not. Next thing I know, the couple next to me yells at the waitress saying they’ve been waiting 30 minutes for their order! She returns almost instantly with their food. I bond with them, then head inside and ask where my order is, a bit frustrated. They claim it’s coming. After five more minutes of watching everyone else get their order, I once again ask the passing waitress where my order is, and it finally arrives. Despite my frustration, I spend a good deal of time at the cafe, taking in the view, and then decide to explore the city.

View from the harbor in Picton and a boat in Marlborough Sound.

Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

The harbor is quite beautiful and a lot of people are out on their boats. I peruse the moderate downtown and then cross a bridge and find myself on one of the hiking trails. It’s getting to be late afternoon, and I’m alone, so I don’t venture too far. Having spent so much time as a female solo traveler, watching my surroundings, I still haven’t adjusted to the belief that I’m totally safe, anywhere. It’s a bit strange, really, because New Zealand appears to be one of the safest places on earth. I’ll have to work on that! I treat myself to a nice dinner since I’ve skimped on food the rest of the day, and head to Oxley’s. Because I’m a little early, I get a table without a problem, and I soon see how lucky I am because the place gets packed. The servers are lovely and I soon have myself a bowl of mussels and a lovely glass of rose wine. The mussels are huge and very hearty, much different than I’m accustomed to.  They’re delicious, and I sit and enjoy a little luxury before heading back to my hostel.

The next day, I take my Marlborough Sound tour. We queue up for the boat and I head upstairs since it’s a beautiful day. I knew I was on a mailboat, but the concept doesn’t quite hit me until we pull up to the first house. My brain went something like, “OH! People live in houses accessible only by boat. The only way they can get their mail is when the boat delivers it!” Each time we pull up to a dock, there’s at least one dog, very eager for our arrival because it gets a biscuit! At one stop, there are three tiny dogs, and I swear, the biscuit is bigger than their head, and I’m not sure how that’s going to work, but somehow they sort it out. Along our journey, we see some spectacular bays and inlets and even the ferry that’s heading to Wellington. I watch it disappear into the sea, knowing that I’ll be taking that same boat tomorrow.

People and dogs eagerly await the arrival of the mail boat. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

Clouds eventually roll in. It starts to get a little chilly so I head downstairs. I’ve brought a bottle of rose with me to enjoy during the ride, and it seems like the right time. Of course, shortly after I head downstairs, dolphins appear, and we’re running to open spaces to snap photos, thus I leave my glass of wine for a moment. While I’m running around, I notice a guy from my hostel. I walk over to him and ask if he’s also staying at the Tombstone, and, well, he is not. Now I feel like I’ve used a bad pick-up line, but we end up chatting and he’s game to share my wine with me since I can’t drink it all. His name is Clay and he’s from Canada and he’s beein in New Zealalnd for two months. He took a work break, and has another month and is planning to meet friends in Auckland, so we’re more or less heading the same way. He’s even taking the ferry to Wellington tomorrow, but earlier than me. We chat all afternoon. Everyone debarks at a stop where we get to see a bit of history about Captain Cook and the Maori people, then back on the boat, picking up some more passengers before arriving back to Picton.

Dolphins following us.

Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

Clay and I are both hungry so grab a bite to eat at The Thirsty Pig. I had seen it the day before and wanted to try some lamb, so did Clay. Unfortunately, we learn they’re out of lamb. I go for a steak, instead, and Clay takes some fish and chips, which he regrets, because he really wants some red meat. My steak is delicious, and I shock the hell out of Clay when he asks my age, lol. We talk about the lives we both want and, before saying goodbye, discuss potentially meeting up in the north island. I’m staying in Wellington for three days, Clay may, or may not, just drive right through it. I walk back to the Tombstone, and have an early night to be ready for my ferry ride to Wellington the next morning.

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