The Top of the South is famous for sunshine, food and wine and a vibrant arts scene, but it’s also rich in history. When you step off the ferry and pick up your rental car in Picton, you’ll see evidence of the region’s earliest stories.
Originally a pa site, Picton was inhabited by Maori for 300 years before being purchased in 1844. Notable buildings include the railway station, built in 1913 and designed by Sir George Troup, and Sedden House. This stunning, two-storey villa was one of the town’s first colonial homesteads.
Head south on State Highway 1 and you’ll reach Tuamarina, site of the infamous Wairau Affray (also called the Wairau Massacre). Twenty two Europeans and at least four Maori died in a battle over land rights.
Blenheim’s Baroque-style clock tower in Seymour Square is a monument to Marlborough soldiers lost in World War 1. Alongside the locally-sourced stone is Australian sandstone, symbolising the cooperation between the two countries during the campaign.
St Mary’s Catholic Church on Maxwell St, constructed from timber in a Gothic style, is the oldest church still in use in the town.
Leaving Blenheim on SH6, you’ll pass Woodbourne. Here, in 1928, aviator Charles Kingsford Smith took off on the first ever flight from New Zealand to Sydney. He landed successfully nearly 23 hours later.
Turn onto SH63 at Renwick and head down the Wairau Valley towards the alpine village of St Arnaud. Five minutes out from the village is the TopHouse Historic Guesthouse. Once a drovers’ watering hole, it was the scene of a double murder-suicide in 1894.
Rejoining SH6 and heading north-east towards Nelson, you’ll pass the Belgrove Railway Windmill, a relic from the days of steam engines. When you reach Wakefield, visit St John’s Anglican Church on Edward St. This simple, wooden structure is New Zealand’s second-oldest surviving church.
At Brightwater, you’ll see the Rutherford Birthplace. It honours the illustrious Ernest Rutherford, first scientist to split the atom.
Nelson was the New Zealand Company’s fourth settlement and the city is very proud of its heritage. It claims seven residential heritage precincts including South Street, thought to be the country’s oldest entire street of homes still standing.
Other heritage stand-outs include the Theatre Royal (the oldest wooden theatre still in use in the Southern Hemisphere) and the Boulder Bank Lighthouse, the second permanent lighthouse to be built in New Zealand.
Heading back towards Picton, still on SH6, check out the Rai Valley Cottage on Opouri Rd. This small, four-roomed dwelling was built by the region’s first European settler in 1881.
Twenty minutes further along the highway is the village of Havelock, home to the Shark Nett Gallery. The gallery houses the world’s largest private collection of traditional and contemporary Maori carvings.
The Havelock Museum celebrates the village’s former role as a saw milling hub — a far cry from the Greenshell mussels that make it famous today!
Picton is 55 minutes from Havelock via Blenheim but if you’re up for more history, take the spectacular, winding Queen Charlotte Drive. Along this 40km road there’s evidence of early 20th century gun emplacements, jettisoned cannons dating back to James Cook’s exploration and pre-European pa sites.
The Linkwater area was once the centre of a brief gold rush. There’s no trace left now among the dairy farms and forestry and its colourful heyday lives on only in the history books.