Waitohi / Picton

Last Modified: 13-3-2024 12:51

Picton ferries
Picton ferries
Santa Regina (Bluebridge) and Aratere (Interislander) berthed in Picton.
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

Picton or Waitohi is the second largest population centre in Marlborough District and largest populated place in the Marlborough Sounds with a population of 3110 at the 2018 Census, or or 4650 including Waikawa, which is part of the greater Picton urban area. Of this total population, 18.7 percent identified as Māori.


When Europeans sailed up Queen Charlotte Sound for the first time they found an well established village at its head. This was known to the Maori as Te Wera a Waitohi, the burning of Waitohi, or simply Waitohi and had a population of around 200. Realising the value of the site for settlement The New Zealand Company sent Francis Bell to purchase the land from the Maori who agreed to move to Waikawa. In the next few years there seemed to be some doubt as to what the settlement should de called. Captain Steine had named it Horne Bay in 1832 but it was renamed Newton Bay in 1847. New Zealand Company officials suggested Cromwell and Beaconfield which were used briefly before Picton was finally adopted in honour of Sir Thomas Picton, the hero of Badajoz, one of the Duke of Wellington's generals in the Peninsula War. Sir Thomas died in the Battle of Waterloo.

By 1850 Picton was fully established and had begun servicing the antimony, copper and coal mines in the area as well as gold mining up the Pelorus valley. As the population and farming increased a number of processing units set up to service the town. Eventually the railway linking Picton to Blenheim and the rest of the country was built. This resulted in Picton becoming the main inter-island travel port.
Picton was made capital of the Marlborough province at about this time, leading to tense relations with Blenheim, not to be resolved until Blenheim was finally made capital. When it was realised that a more central location was required than Auckland for New Zealand's capital, again Picton was recommended, only to be abandoned in favour of Wellington. 

Up until 1989, Picton had its own borough council, which amalgamated with Blenheim Borough and Marlborough County Councils to form the current Marlborough District Council.


Picton is a deep water port, and provides the southern terminus for Cook Strait freight and passenger services. The first road/rail ferry, the Aramoana entered service in 1962 between Picton and Wellington. In 1992 Strait Shipping (later renamed to Bluebridge) started offering freight, later expanding to include passenger services in competition with the Interislander. From the mid 1990s to mid 2000s, fast ferries were operated from Picton, however high operating costs, issues in heavy seas, and speed restrictions imposed in the Marlborough Sounds due to wake damage to the seabed and shore resulted in their withdrawal by 2005.

The Interislander and Bluebridge provide freight and passenger links between the North and South Islands through Picton, and cruise ships typically visit the town over the summer months. The Interislander also has the capacity to carry rail wagons on the Aratere and links the Main Trunk Line between the North and South Island. The Coastal Pacific passenger train service runs from Picton to Christchurch from spring to autumn.

In the past there have been proposals to shift the rail port to Clifford Bay 14km south east of Blenheim, which would place more emphasis on tourism, with Toll, former owner of New Zealand's railways considering this option. After the rail network was renationalised as Kiwirail, Clifford Bay was again investigated before finally being rejected, guaranteeing the future of Picton as a major port.

An old freezing works site at Shakespeare Bay has been demolished and converted into a second port for log export. Use of methyl bromide as a fumigant at the facility has caused a considerable amount of controversy. The Shakespeare Bay port is also used for larger cruise ships that cannot be accomodated at the main Picton port. 

Community Facilities

Picton has a museum operated by the Picton Historical Society. A modern library and council service centre opened in November 2017. Two primary schools serve the area with one in Picton itself and one at Waikawa. Up to 2017, St. Josephs School was a Catholic primary school in Picton, however due to falling roll, the school closed in 2017. Queen Charlotte College is a co-educational secondary school for the area. Endeavour Park provides sports grounds and a pavillion that can be used for local events.


Picton's economy is based to a large extent around the port and port services. The port facilities themselves are owned by a Marlborough District Council owned company, Port Marlbororough. In addition to supporting Cook Strait shipping, the port is also home to fishing boats, and vessels servicing the aquaculture industry including salmon and mussel farming. The town is also a popular tourist destination in its own right and also acts as a gateway to the Marlborough Sounds, with a variety of services offering access to the Sounds. It has a small shopping mall, Mariner's Mall, including a supermarket, banks and other retail outlets. A number of shops sell crafts and souvenirs targetted at the tourist market, and there are also a number of cafés and bars.

Recreation and Visitor Attractions

Visitor attractions include the Edwin Fox, a wooden sailing vessel that has been preserved and is on display, an oceanarium, cinema, and mini-golf near the foreshore. Walkways in Victoria Domain and Esson's Valley provide access to areas of native forest. Tirohanga Track climbs steeply to a lookout point over the town. The foreshore is a popular recreational area with a children's playground, and a beach suitable for swimming. The Link Pathway, a walking and cycle trail connects Picton with Havelock at the other end of Queen Charlotte Drive. Kaipupu Point wildlife sanctuary forms the western limit of Picton harbour, and is isolated from the mainlaind with a predator proof fence, with boat access only from Picton.


Each Summer, since 2004 Picton hosts the Picton Maritime Festival, a family festival of entertainment held on the foreshore reserve. In 2019, Picton was part of the nationwide Tuia 250 commemorations, with its own Tōtaranui 250 commemorations celebrating the voyages and navigational achievements of both Polynesian and European navigators to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Captain James Cook.


Picton Foreshore
Picton Foreshore
© Christopher Cookson  License this image
Picton and Waikawa viewed from Tirohanga Track lookout
© Christopher Cookson  License this image

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Waitohi / Picton. (2024) Retrieved May, 29, 2024, from