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When researching must-stop places on your New Zealand road trip, you probably won’t come across Picton – we didn’t. However, most visitors still end up in this small, but picturesque port town because it is where the interisland ferry picks up and drops off passengers on the south island. It is also the heart of the scenic Marlborough Sounds – making it the perfect place to plan a day on the water. Luckily for weary travelers, the Beachcomber Picton Mail Boat Cruise offers a unique and relaxing way to see this area – by delivering mail to residents in the remote reaches of the sounds!

For us, our visit to Picton wasn’t due to any plan to hop between islands. Instead, we were on our way to Abel Tasman National Park from Christchurch and wanted to take the opportunity to explore this beautiful area of the Marlborough Sounds and give our bodies a break from two weeks of too much driving (mainly in the Northland). Getting to sit on a boat for half a day, take in the views, and have a glimpse into life in this area of the world sounded ideal.

About the Beachcomber Picton Mail Boat Cruise

Based in beautiful Picton, Beachcomber Cruises has multiple tours that showcase this area of New Zealand, but their mail boat cruise is definitely the most unique! For more than 150 years, the mail has been delivered by boat in the Queen Charlotte Sound area of the picton mail boat cruise. They are the “only official licensed New Zealand Post Rural Delivery Service by water.” In addition to post, they also deliver groceries to residents – so a very important job!

delivering mail in queen charlotte sound on the mail boat picton

In addition to the chance to see wildlife while you cruise along, you also get to take a quick wander around Ship Cove (in the summer months) about mid-way through the four-hour tour. This is where Captain Cook anchored to replenish supplies 250 years ago (as of Jan. 2020).

beachcomber mail boat cruise at the dock in ship cove

With the famed Queen Charlotte Track nearby, many hikers also use the boat as a way to shuttle between parts of this trail as well. So, you’ll meet all sorts of interesting people on your ride!

Depending on which day of the week you visit, the boat takes a different delivery route, showcasing another part of the sounds. So, just be sure to plan accordingly depending on what you’d like to see most.

inside the beachcomber picton mail boat cruise

Exploring Queen Charlotte Sound on the Saturday Picton Mail Boat Cruise

After reviewing the mail boat delivery routes and keeping our schedule in mind, we decided Saturday would be the best day to take our Picton Mail Boat Cruise. It just seemed to have the most variety. However, all of the routes look like they go into similar rural places. On weekdays, we were told you may even see kids waiting on their schoolwork! So cute!

After checking in at the office as instructed, we boarded the two-level boat and immediately noticed a big stack of mail bags next to the captain – things were getting official!

queen charlotte sound mail boat cruise in picton new zealand

Soon we were speeding off away from Picton and toward our first mail delivery spot. On the way, we spotted a few different types of local birds and even some more elusive Hector’s Dolphins (easy to distinguish due to their rounded dorsal fin).

birds on a rock in queen charlotte sound picton mail boat cruise with beachcomber

Becoming a Mail Delivery Pro

A fun surprise was that we were able to volunteer to hand over the mail to the local residents. Of course, I jumped at the chance for this unique experience. The captain instructed me to wait until we were really close and not to trip over the step at the door (wonder how many times that has happened? haha!). All the locals we met were so happy – maybe because it was mail day or maybe because they live in a remote paradise, but either way it made for a nice day.

passenger on the mail picton boat cruise in queen charlotte sound preparing to deliver mail to local

I think the best resident we met had to be the helpful pup waiting with its owner at one of the docks. The captain was ready with a treat to keep this keen doggo from offering his help on the boat. You can tell the people who deliver the mail to these far-off places are really an important part of the community – really the thread that connects these scattered neighbors.

dog on dock with treat from the beachcomber mail boat cruise and owner receiving her mail

A Stop at Ship Cove

Another highlight of the trip was our short stop at Ship Cove. With a mail delivery schedule to keep, we only had about 15 minutes, but that was plenty of time to walk over to the little beach, admire the monument listing the times Captain Cook was anchored there, and spot some more new bird species!

passengers walking down dock in ship cove from the picton mail boat cruise

It is a very jungle-esque area and some more adventurous souls actually got dropped off there to camp! While an intriguing option, we were happy to just get our quick look at this historic and beautiful place before hopping back on the boat for coffee and tea. Of course, we were the last ones on, because … pictures. There’s a good reason this was known as Cook’s favorite base while in New Zealand.

The weather turned a little warmer and less windy on the ride back to Picton, and we soaked up some rays in the peaceful outdoor area as many others sipped their hot drinks inside. Always happy to be on the water!

couple on mail boat cruise in picton new zealand

Tips for a Great Trip on the Beachcomber Picton Mail Boat Cruise

  • Make sure it is for you. If you are looking for an adrenaline rush or constant entertainment, the laid-back vibe of this cruise is probably not a good fit for you. But, if you are genuinely interested in this historic mail delivery method and want to see more of this scenic area of New Zealand’s south island – definitely go for it!
queen charlotte sound mail boat cruise top thing to do in picton new zealand
  • Pack everything. Even if it is sunny, you may get cold out on the water. So, bring a jacket as well as sunscreen and whatever you’d like to eat and drink since they don’t have anything available onboard aside from some coffee/tea offered mid-way through.
  • Check-in and line up early. In order to get everyone on the boat faster, you are supposed to check-in at the office about 30 minutes early and line up 15 minutes before departure. There are modern, clean, one-person toilets nearby and some cafes, but be sure to get in line early to get a good seat!
passenger on picton mail boat cruise looking out into queen charlotte sound from back of the boat
  • Grab a great seat. Initially, we thought that the best seat was at the top in the sunshine, but the weather quickly turned windy and cold once we were moving – so keep that in mind. At the very back, you are also likely to get splashed a little bit. I’d recommend grabbing an inside window seat – since you can hear the captain better and still see everything going on around you.
queen charlotte sound mail boat cruise top thing to do in picton new zealand

Special thanks to Beachcomber cruises for hosting us on the Picton Mail Boat Cruise. As always, opinions are our own.

Touring Queen Charlotte Sound on a Picton Mail Boat Cruise