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When visiting the Marlborough Sounds, getting out on a boat cruise is an absolute must! It’s really the best way to see this remote and beautiful part of New Zealand, so if you’ve come all this way, then you really can’t miss the chance to enjoy one.
The Marlborough Sounds are a network of sunken river valleys and far-flung islands, so getting out on the water is really the only way to fully appreciate this stunning area. Fortunately, the gorgeous little town of Picton is close to the heart of the sounds, so booking a cruise from here is easy peasy. Most will take you around the Queen Charlotte Sound, which is breathtakingly beautiful.
Since I live in Queenstown, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the Marlborough Sounds plenty of times, and I love cruising around this natural wonder. I’ve rounded up the top cruises from Picton to help you make the most of your time here and ensure that you love it as much as I do!
Don’t have time to read the full article? Combine your sightseeing of the Marlborough Sounds with wine tasting on this full-day catamaran cruise. It’s the best of both worlds as you stop for lunch and winery visits while taking in the area’s natural beauty.
6 Best Cruises in Picton, NZ
1. Half-Day Cruise in Marlborough Sounds from Picton
This half-day cruise takes you on a chilled-out journey through the clear blue waters of Queen Charlotte Sound to admire the spectacular scenery, wildlife, and plant life that it has to offer.
There’s a guided commentary on board so that you can learn all about the history, ecology, and cultural significance of the Marlborough Sounds. You’ll also disembark at Ship Cove for a guided walk, during which you’ll see a memorial of Captain Cook, as well as Maori carvings and even more gorgeous scenery! You’ll definitely see why Captain Cook kept coming back here!
If you see dolphins, the captain will pull up close to them to make sure that you can get better views, and you can also spot seals, sea lions, and lots of sea birds. It’s a great way to discover the Marlborough Sounds, and you’re also welcome to bring your own food and drinks on board.
This tour is super well-rated and very family-friendly, so it’s a great one to do if you’re traveling with kids.
The tour costs $96 NZD per person, making it the most affordable tour on my list. The cruise leaves from London Quay. It departs at 9 am every day and lasts for 3.5 hours. It’s such a relaxing way to spend a morning in Picton!
2. Full-Day Marlborough Catamaran Cruise with Wine Tour and Lunch
You know I love visiting wineries all across NZ, so it’s no surprise that one of the boat tours I absolutely love is this full-day catamaran cruise with wine and lunch. It’s the best of both worlds – scenic water views and excellent wines, something I’m sure a lot of us can get behind.
In the morning, you’ll cruise through the sounds on a comfortable catamaran, taking in all the spectacular coastal scenery cruising around Queen Charlotte Sound. The water here is so clear and perfect for photos! You’ll also get a chance to stop at Ship Cove.
Around lunchtime, you’ll go ashore to Saint Clair Winery to enjoy lunch and a wine tasting. You will also visit up to 2 other wineries on this tour, turning this already scenic cruise into its own little wine tour! There are a number of wine tours in the Picton area, and this is one of the best. Pick-up and drop-off are available from both Picton and Blenheim.
Pickup is between 8-8:30 am depending on where you are staying, and the experience lasts around 7 hours.
This tour starts from $345 NZD per person, and you can book online here in advance.
Related Read: If you want to discover more of the country’s famous wines, be sure to read my guide on the best Gibbston Valley wine tours from Queenstown!
3. Marlborough Sounds Greenshell Mussel Tasting Cruise
Did you know that the Marlborough Sounds is the mussel capital of the world?
Well, it is! So this mussel tasting cruise is absolutely perfect for seafood lovers – and the fact that you also get a glass of the area’s world-famous Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t exactly hurt, either.
You’ll cruise around the Queen Charlotte Sound and enjoy spectacular views alongside a bowl of freshly steamed greenshell mussels on a luxurious launch boat. Sounds like a pretty good afternoon to me!
There are indoor and outdoor viewing areas on the boat, and you get to head ashore to visit a local mussel farm and learn more about how they go from sea to table. It’s a small-group tour with a maximum of 20 people, so it feels close-knit and friendly, and there’s also a cash bar on board if you want something more to drink after the first glass of wine.
The crew takes great care of you and also provides really interesting commentary about both the Marlborough Sounds and the food that you’re eating. This is a great way to take in the beauty of the area while sampling some of the best local produce around!
The cruise costs $150 NZD per person and leaves at 1:30 pm. It lasts for 3 hours and departs from the Picton Waterfront. It’s available all year round and although the best time to go is during the summer, in the winter months you can book it for the slightly cheaper price of $125 NZD. (The price is $150 NZD during the summer).
For a delightful afternoon of wine, mussels, and beautiful sights, book your tasting cruise in advance here.
4. Half-Day Dolphin Viewing Eco-Tour from Picton
One thing that I’ve so far neglected to mention is that the Marlborough Sounds is a fantastic place to see dolphins! You can spot hector, bottlenose, and dusky dolphins playing in the water on this half-day eco cruise, and between October and May, it’s also possible to spot orcas.
What I really appreciate about this cruise is that the tour company behind it is certified by the Department of Conservation, which means that it’s a sustainable and eco-friendly activity. I love a cruise with a conscience!
Your guide will help you to spot dolphins, seals, and seabirds along the way, and teach you more about the animals as you view them up close. There are also binoculars and wildlife cards on board to help you identify the creatures that you see, and you get hot drinks and cookies to warm you up on the way home.
The cruise costs $149 NZD per person and lasts for 4 hours. You’ll need to meet your guide in the morning at the Picton Waterfront for a safety briefing, and then you’ll be back on land in time for lunch. This tour is available on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and some Sundays during the summer, and in winter it runs daily. It’s a fantastic way to see dolphins in their natural habitat without risking their wellbeing or threatening the preservation of the Marlborough Sounds.
For a chance to spot dolphins plus enjoy the beauty of the Marlborough Sounds, check availability and book this half-day cruise online here.
Why I Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Check out the Viator website here!
5. Captain Cook and Dolphin Cruise
What sets this cruise apart for me is that it combines history and dolphin spotting. You’ll have marine biologists on board who will point out not only dolphins but also seals, rare seabirds, and even orcas if you’re lucky! And of course, you’ll have stunning views of the Marlborough Sounds the entire time.
On this tour, you’ll learn about the area’s significance to the Maori people, how Captain James Cook was the first European to land here in the 1700s and about his interactions with the Maori. Plus, you’ll visit Ship Cove, where Captain Cook docked multiple times during his three expeditions to refurbish his ship and let his crew get some rest.
You’ll be given binoculars to use to help you spot marine life. A portion of the tour proceeds goes towards conserving the Marlborough Sounds, so this is another cruise that you can feel good about. The fact that you get complimentary hot chocolate and cookies on board is a nice touch, too.
This tour runs daily and lasts for 4 hours. You can choose to depart at either 8 am or 1:30 pm, and the meeting point is really easy to get to from the i-Site visitor center – just follow the blue line! The cruise costs $149 NZD per person, and there are high-resolution photos of the wildlife you see available for purchase in the shop after the tour.
To learn about the area’s history while also enjoying its natural beauty, you can book this cruise online here.
Related Read: Another great place to see wildlife is on a whale-watching cruise in Kaikoura!
6. Queen Charlotte Sound Mail Boat Cruise
One of my favorite Marlborough Sounds tours ever is this mail boat cruise!
Yup, believe it or not, the mail in Marlborough Sounds is all delivered by boat – and it’s been that way for over 150 years. There are some very remote homes around the Queen Charlotte Sound, but they still need their letters and parcels, so this tour allows you to join the local postman and cruise along the coast in the afternoon as he makes his rounds.
This tour is such a unique experience. You’ll hear all about what life is like for the residents of the Sounds and see how excited their dogs get when the boat arrives at the delivery spots! The postman will share some funny stories about his more colorful deliveries with you, and you’ll learn some Maori history along the way.
And of course, you’ll have plenty of time to take in the stunning views of the Marlborough Sounds and spot wildlife along the way. You’ll see places where cars just can’t take you (hence the need for a mail boat), and between October and April, there’s also usually a stop for a walk at Ship Cove – as long as the mailman isn’t too busy!
This tour costs $112 NZD per person and lasts for around 4 hours. The boat leaves at 1:30 pm sharp but you’ll need to meet your group at the tour office beforehand. It’s best to be early because the post can’t be late! It runs every day except Sunday since there’s no post on Sundays.
You can bring or purchase a reusable cup for refreshments on board, but you’re also welcome to bring your own food and drinks which is pretty cool. It’s also best to wear closed-toe shoes for the walk at Ship Cove, so bear that in mind.
To experience this one-of-a-kind boat ride for yourself, check availability and book a spot online here.
Other Activities to do in Picton
While I’m always up for a cruise especially somewhere as beautiful as the Marlborough Sounds, there are plenty of other things to do in Picton. Be sure to check out some of my other favorite things to do in this charming coastal town:
- Hiking – If you’re always on the hunt for the best trails, you’ll love the Queen Charlotte Track. While this entire hike takes about 4 days to complete, you can also choose shorter options like Ship Cove to Endeavor Inlet which will take about 6 hours to finish. If you’re short on time, I recommend the Tirohanga Track which usually takes less than 45 minutes to hike.
- Visit the Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary – Take a boat to Motuara Island where you can spot all kinds of birds from parakeets to penguin chicks to kiwis. This wildlife sanctuary is now predator-free and I recommend going on this half-day cruise to get some amazing sightseeing opportunities while visiting the sanctuary.
- Take a train ride – One of the best ways to enjoy the views is on this Coastal Pacific train journey. This trip is very popular as it showcases some of the South Island’s best scenery. It takes you from Picton to Christchurch, and you’ll definitely want to bring your camera for this adventure.
- Eat great seafood – Picton is known for its seafood which is no surprise considering its location on the ocean! The snapper and red cod are local favorites along with mussels and oysters (which I loved!). Cortado Restaurant and Bar is my pick as it has a large menu of fresh seafood and waterfront views.
- Go on a scenic flight – Get a truly magical view of Picton while exploring from above. This 30-minute flight offers epic sightseeing of the nearby bays and mountains. If you want to treat yourself, check out this scenic flight which includes 45 minutes of air time while you travel over islands and coves, and includes a short landing on a remote beach.
Where to Stay in Picton, New Zealand
Picton may be a small town, but there are a ton of great places to stay. The truth is, picking a hotel with a great location is important because, let’s face it, you really want to enjoy the natural scenery and be near the coast after you finish your cruise!
Atlantis Backpackers – $
If you’re a budget traveler, I’m sure you will love Atlantis Backpackers! I stayed here once when I was transporting my car from Auckland to Queenstown and simply wanted a cheap place to stay. The hostel is tons of fun, and it’s easy to meet other travelers. It’s located close to the marina and right next to Picton Memorial Park.
A bed in a dorm here starts from around $25 NZD per night – talk about scenic views on a budget! You can check availability and book your stay online here.
Harbour View Motel – $$
If you can spend a little more, then you’ll really get a nice upgrade. The Harbour View Motel is one of my favorite hotels in Picton because of its amazing location and views. From your room, you can stare out at the gorgeous marina and enjoy sunset drinks on your balcony – pure travel bliss!
The staff here are also super friendly and happy to help you out if you have any questions during your stay in Picton. Rooms here start at $173 NZD per night for a double room, and you can book in advance on Booking.com here.
Picton Waterfront Luxury Apartments – $$$
Are you looking for a luxury stay? Well, I’ve got you covered! The Picton Waterfront Luxury Apartments is one of the most luxurious options in Picton. These self-contained apartments are as waterfront as you can get, and the rooms come with large balconies and ocean views.
You’re also just a 2-minute walk from Picton town, perfect for grabbing a bite to eat at the end of a busy day. With rooms starting at around $500 NZD per night, it’s not the cheapest place to stay, but you do get some serious Picton luxury for your money! You can check availability and book your stay here.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. My top choice for a motorhome company is Star RV because they have beautiful motorhomes at affordable prices. You can check prices and availability for Star RV motorhomes online here. Alternatively, you can use Motorhome Republic to search all motorhomes in NZ. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
Seeing the Marlborough Sounds for yourself is an incredible experience. Since a cruise is the best way to explore the area’s river valleys and islands, hopefully, this post has helped you pick one! You’re going to love seeing the natural wonders and wildlife of the Sounds.
If you need more ideas for your visit to New Zealand, I’ve got you covered. I’ve road-tripped all over and explored both islands. I’ve written tons of posts on New Zealand that can make planning your trip easier. Here are a few popular guides to get you started: