Brilliant morning sunshine. I am eating a pumpkin and blue cheese panini and drinking an excellent café latte outside a café in Picton's main street. If I look down toward the Queen Charlotte Sound, past the Gate of Remembrance, I can see the gentle passage of white and blue ferries in and out of the harbour and the blue haze of hills beyond. Cycle tourists of every nationality meander past. They mostly sport blue, black, red or sometimes bright yellow Ortlieb panniers. I personally love Ortliebs. They are strong, waterproof and easy to clip on and clip off your carrier. Although expensive, they are generally the hallmark of an experienced and serious cycle tourist.
Picton is a small pretty town where most cyclists start their tour of the South Island. It has several campgrounds and hostels, a good supermarket and a variety of internet facilities. In addition there are several restaurants, cafés and bars including a small, decent Irish bar that knows how to serve a Guinness. At present, there is no bike shop. The nearest is in Blenheim (two) some thirty kilometres to the south, or Nelson (several), a good one to two days cycle to the west.
If you decide to stay in Picton for a day or so, my personal recommendation is the Blue Anchor campground about a kilometre out of town. The campground designates a specific area for cyclists and it is often a regular United Nations of every nationality you might encounter cycle touring. I always enjoy the variety of tents and cycles and various trailers and tandems, not to mention the variety of accents and backgrounds. Everyone has a story for cycling in New Zealand and everyone has their own traveller's tale. You can do worse than spend an evening drinking wine into the late mild evening at the Blue Anchor campground swapping yarns with Germans, Canadians, Swiss and English etc. and learning the pitfalls and joys of global cycle-touring.
In general, you have three possibilities:
- Nelson (109 kilometres via Highway 6 to the west, and probably down the west coast heading south).
- Blenheim (28 kilometres via Highway 1 due south toward Christchurch and then, inland to Lake Tekapo, Otago and up the west coast to Nelson).
- Blenheim via the Port Underwood Road (a rugged day to day and a half ride on a largely metal undulating road used by logging trucks. Beautiful, no shops, two DOC campgrounds, recommended only for the stubbornly adventurous).
If you head toward Nelson, you have about 109 kilometres of mostly uphill riding through beautiful bush clad valleys with impressive views over the Marlborough Sounds. Most cut this trip into two days. Head to Havelock first, about thirty five kilometres from Picton. This is a winding, scenic road that undulates in and out of various bays with safe swimming and the occasional camp store that sells ice-creams. It is pretty enough with good views over the Sounds but the road is narrow and you should keep an eye out for traffic particularly on the bends. Havelock has a number of Backpackers and a good camping ground. The best value is the hostel with a campground attached situated on the right just as you enter the township. This is the old Havelock school and the one that taught the young Ernest Rutherford to split the atom, or at least set him off on the right track. The hostel used to belong to the YHA and although the facilities in part can be a bit creaky (the building is after all over a hundred years old) it is nonetheless cozy and good value with a well equipped kitchen and a friendly host.
As far as Havelock goes, the mussels at the local restaurant are worth a look, or you can just meander around the township. There is a small supermarket, email facilities, coffee bars and two decent pubs and even a second hand bookshop. Many people use Havelock as a base to begin the Queen Charlotte Track, a walkway/mountain bike path. A very worthwhile diversion. A French couple I encountered in Havelock once told me of their adventures cycling up the various isolated roads toward French Pass and assured me it was a memorable and beautiful trip. I cannot comment personally on this except to add that it is a rugged road you have to come out the same way you go in.
From Havelock you can head through the mostly flat Highway 6 to the Rai Valley, your last shops before Nelson. The next seventy four kilometres are a climb over two saddles. The first, the Rai Valley Saddle (250 metres) is easy enough, but the second, the Whangamoa Saddle (400 metres) is a lot harder. On a hot day take plenty of water. Nelson is one of the South Island's larger towns and has just about everything you need. Check out the information centre. Use your BBH guide and you will find several hostels with camping facilities.