Sunset over the Sounds
For travellers arriving in Picton and heading south via the east coast, Blenheim is an easy 30-minute drive on SH1. However, there is another option. Overlooked by many, the road along the coast is worth the detour for those who enjoy nature and remoteness – and who don’t mind travelling at snail speeds on winding roads.
Travellers arriving in Picton off a Cook Strait ferry should take the time to explore this picturesque little town before continuing onwards. Enjoy a beautiful walk along the foreshore, browse the shops in the main street, and let the kids burn off some energy at the pirate-themed playground.
Or relax with a coffee or ice cream and watch the ferries coming and going. Those who feel like something a bit more active can head towards Waikawa via the walking and cycling track or walk up to Tirohanga Track for great views over Picton.
Once you’re ready to leave Picton, head northeast on Waikawa Road, however, make sure you stock up on food and drinking water and visit the dump-station before heading off as it will be a while before you get another chance.
On the way out of Picton, a detour through Victoria Domain offers fantastic views over the Sounds. If you have the time, consider walking the popular Snout Track which starts from the northern-end car park at the top.
The Sound Track is great for biking and walking
If you’re driving through Victoria Domain, enter via Sussex Street as it is one way from there. The road up has some steep turns so might not be suitable for towing long caravans. Either leave the caravan at the bottom and drive up in your car or park up at the Port Marlborough Pavilion and walk up to the Snout Track car park and lookout from there by following the road.
Since Victoria Domain is only a few minutes out of Picton, you could also leave your RV there and walk or cycle up to the lookouts. After taking in the views, continue your journey along Waikawa Road, which soon turns into Port Underwood Road.
After about 6.5km, as you come to the top of the hill, you will see Karaka Point lookout on your left which is worth a stop for another stunning view over the Sounds. As you come down the hill, turn left after the one-lane bridge for the Whatamango DOC campsite.
While this is only 20 minutes out of Picton, it’s worth spending a night or two here. The campground is on the waterfront, and if you don’t arrive too late, you should get a spot with amazing views.
Paddle Boarding in the sounds
At low tide, take a walk around the rocks, and those who have boats, kayaks or paddleboards will love exploring the Sounds from here. When you’re ready to move on, continue east on Port Underwood Road. Be aware though, that the way over the hill is winding, and you might encounter the occasional logging truck.
You can usually hear them coming from a mile away, and the road is still fully sealed and, in most places, wide enough for easy passing. Once you come to the top of the hill and the road starts turning south, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of Port Underwood and Oyster Bay.
There is a large area just before the road starts heading downhill where you can safely pull over and take a few photos. As you come down the hill, park up on the side of the road at Oyster Bay and go for a little wander along the beach. This is also an excellent spot for a lunch or coffee break.
After Oyster Bay, the road turns to gravel and becomes narrower. But you’re less likely to encounter any logging trucks, and generally, there is not much traffic on this road. There are a couple more scenic bays before reaching stop No 2, Robin Hood Bay.
Here, there is a small free DOC campsite at the southern end, but most visitors in certified self-contained RVs seem to prefer to park up on the grass area above the beach – and who
can blame them given the amazing views over the bay?
Robin Hood Bay is a beautiful sandy beach where swimming is safe on most days. The bay is also popular with fishermen who come here to launch boats or fish straight of the beach. However, more than anything, Robin Hood Bay is a place to relax and enjoy the peacefulness.
You might have a hard time pulling yourself away from the beauty that’s Robin Hood Bay, but don’t worry, the next scenic stop is just a short 15-minute drive away. At Whites Bay is another DOC campsite. This beach is popular with locals, especially on summer weekends.
It offers safe swimming, there is a surf club that patrols on summer weekends, and if you’re a surfer, you might even get some waves. Whites Bay is also the only spot along this road where you will find a network of walking and mountain-biking tracks.
There is something for everyone whether you feel like a stroll through the bush or want to climb up the hills to take in the views. The Black Jack Track is particularly popular thanks to the spectacular views from the lookout at the top of the hill – but be prepared for a bit of a climb.
From Whites Bay, either head straight to Blenheim or make one more stop at Rarangi. There is another well-maintained DOC site here and a walking track that leads back to Whites Bay or a short 10-minute walk to Monkey Bay.
Rarangi beach is rocky, so it is less suitable for swimming and walking but the sunrise views in the morning are worth spending a night here if you have the time. And then, before you know it, you’ve made it to Blenheim via the long road.
Depending on how many days you spent getting there, you might be excited to be back in the city with its cafés, restaurants, shops and other attractions. Go for a stroll through the city centre, Pollard Park is worth a visit and if you’re a wine-lover, keep yourself busy for days by visiting the many vineyards in the area.
This journey is just another example of how it’s often worth taking the slow road from A to B. It takes longer – much longer in this case – but it’s worth it to experience such a beautiful part of New Zealand.
If you’re worried about driving the narrow roads, consider heading to Whatamango Bay from Picton, then taking the main highway to Blenheim before driving to Whites Bay from there. That way, you avoid the gravel sections but still get to experience some of this beautiful part of the world.
Where to stay
There are several holiday parks in Picton, and NZMCA members can park for free at the Crow Tavern (but it can get busy here so have a plan B if you’re arriving late).
Along Port Underwood Road
There are four DOC campsites along this road:
- Whatamango Bay
- Robin Hood Bay (this is a small site, and most self-contained visitors choose to park on the grass area above the beach)
- Whites Bay
Except for Robin Hood Bay, all the campsites are spacious and have flushing toilets. Whites Bay and Rarangi even have cold showers. All campsites are well-signposted from Port Underwood Road so can’t be missed.
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There are many options here, ranging from holiday parks to NZMCA Park-over Properties and even two freedom-camping sites just outside of town.
Key stops along the way and where to find them
To drive up to the lookout, head north on Waikawa Road from Picton town centre and then turn left onto Sussex Street. The road through the domain is one way from here. To walk up, park at the Port Marlborough Pavilion car park of Joseph Sullivan Drive and walk up the hill via the road.
Karaka Point Lookout
8km north of Picton on Waikawa Road, which becomes Port Underwood Road.
13km north of Picton on Waikawa Road, which becomes Port Underwood Road.
From Whatamango Bay, continue on Port Underwood Road for about 20 minutes (9km). The road is winding but sealed.
Robin Hood Bay
Continue south on Port Underwood Road for about 30 minutes (15km). This part of the road is gravel and narrow in some sections.
From Robin Hood Bay, a short 15 minutes (7.5km) drive will take you to Whites Bay.
Continuing south for about 7 minutes (4.5km) from Whites Bay will take you to Rarangi Beach, the last stop before Blenheim.
For more information
Make sure you get all the information you need before leaving Picton (or Blenheim if you’re doing the trip the other way around). There are no i-SITEs in between, and cell phone coverage can be patchy.
The Picton i-SITE Visitor Information Centre is right at the foreshore.
The Blenheim i-SITE is located at 8 Sinclair Street, Mayfield, Blenheim.
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