A weekend escape that is not too far, yet far enough away from home can be enough to get that holiday feeling, writes Sadie Beckman.
How often do we pass through a place without taking it in?
Picton is the perfect example of a place that is beautiful in its own right, yet the fact it is a travel hub connecting the South Island to its northern neighbour means this quaint and friendly harbour town is sometimes overlooked as a destination in its own right. As I recently discovered though, visitors are missing out if they don't stop for a while.
I had set off from Wellington on a grey day, partner in tow, children safely ensconced at their grandparents' house. We were off for a weekend away from home, work, parenting and life in general, which I firmly believe is an entirely healthy thing to do.
When you only have limited time, making the journey part of the holiday is one way to extend the effect, and so it was we boarded the Interislander ferry in Wellington as foot passengers, lounge tickets in hand as a special treat. I was surprised at how much of a good deal the lounge option was — $55 extra per person got us access to a comfy, peaceful space with Wi-Fi, blankets, a continuous buffet and all manner of refreshments, including a bar stocking some top quality local wines and craft beers, all included in the price.
Indoor offerings aside, the ferry trip involves a route through some of the most beautiful scenery around, and the views are priceless.
As Wellington recedes, the Cook Strait swell can pick up, but it's not for long, and the serene beauty of the Marlborough Sounds does something to your soul.
It's common to see little blue penguins diving below the surface, or dolphins leaping out of the sparkling water. I like to spot the remote baches tucked into the bush-clad, roadless hills and imagine retreating to a simple, off-grid existence, where the hassles of urban life are a distant memory.
So, in a suitably whimsical mood, we arrived in Picton refreshed. It was just a short stroll to the Picton Yacht Club Hotel, a multi-level, tasteful, modern building looking out over the harbour. We checked into a comfortable, well-appointed room on the third floor.
Picton is not very big, but it has a vibrant little waterfront with eateries, bars and shops.
We found a place for dinner with live music and slightly stand-offish staff, but the food was great. Later, we switched into an entirely different setting at a tiny, packed Irish bar, which did what all good Irish bars all over the world do so well — music, dancing, Guinness and the obligatory quirky local characters.
The next day, after a squiz round the shops — which had some gems, such as ethical art store The Paper Rain Project tucked away in their midst — we walked around the waterfront and out on a bush track that hugged Picton's bay. The world-renowned Queen Charlotte Track begins near town, but with limited time we chose a much shorter and closer alternative called Bob's Bay Walk.
Starting off, you are directly opposite the huge ferries belching and breathing as they are loaded and unloaded in a hive of activity, but they disappear from view as you round the craggy curves of the path. It isn't long before it's just you and the Marlborough Sounds.
The day was clear and sunny, the water glittered while the bush above our heads hummed with life. Suddenly, and right on cue, a black shape broke the surface of the water and a single dolphin leapt into the air. It doesn't matter how many dolphins you have seen before, I defy anyone to not feel their magic every time.
More glistening shapes emerged and the pod made its way across the bay, before disappearing from view. After soaking in the nature surrounding us, the time came to reluctantly make our way back towards civilisation.
A connection with the water is everywhere in Picton. From the EcoWorld Aquarium, to the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum, with its mostly-intact 19th-century convict and cargo ship on display, watery or nautical themes greet you at every turn.
Hundreds of boats, from humble fishing dinghies to multi-million-dollar yachts are moored in the harbour, and companies offer water sports, cruises, fishing trips or water taxis out to places in the multitudinous bays and destinations in the Sounds.
At our hotel, the marine theme continued at the Boatshed Bar and the Chartroom Restaurant, where we had a spectacular dinner. I had a twice-cooked goat's cheese souffle (which is puzzling, as souffles are hard enough to cook once, let alone twice — although maybe they were talking about the cheese) followed by a delicious herb marinated chicken breast with saffron and pear chutney and carrot slaw. Dessert, which I miraculously found room for when I saw the menu, was an orange and white chocolate panna cotta — a dish I believe restaurants can be measured by. The Chartroom certainly passed that test — it was melt-in-the-mouth stuff.
Later, on the hotel balcony, glass of wine in hand, I looked at the twinkling lights of the town as they reflected on the water and counted some blessings. I know that might sound a bit saccharine, but it does seem to be what happens if you can manage to swing a bit of time away from your regular life, and actually relax. While it may be hard to organise with all the complications of the day-to-day grind, if you look for options that are relatively close to home, and think about the journey there being part of the holiday, you'd be surprised at what you can manage in a weekend.
Thinking differently about Picton — a place I'd always just passed through on the way to somewhere else — resulted in a mini escape that ticked all the boxes.
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Blenheim.
Want more holiday inspiration? Sign up to our new Travel Insider newsletter here.