Unmissable sights on the Cook Strait

Described by many as one of the world’s most scenic ferry journeys, cruising across the Cook Strait on the Interislander is an exhilarating experience that’s so much more than a way of getting from A to B.

Lady photographing Pencarrow Lighthouses Wellington

The journey from Wellington to Picton features spectacular panoramic views of Wellington Harbour – at the southern end of the North Island, the stunning natural waterways of the Marlborough Sounds and the picturesque port of Picton at the top of the South Island. And in between lies the Cook Strait – where the Tasman Sea meets the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Cruise between the North and South Islands in a leisurely 3 – 3.5 hours

The Interislander timetable has five daily sailings scheduled to cross the 92-kilometre (58 miles) stretch of water, with an average journey time of just over three hours. Of course, Mother Nature sometimes has her say, so it’s worth factoring in a little flexibility if you plan to keep travelling once you reach Wellington or Picton.

The crossing from Wellington to Picton

Wellington Harbour

As you glide out of Wellington harbour (formerly named Port Nicholson up until 1984), away from the downtown area, you’ll leave behind the bustling bars, cafes and high-rise buildings and venture out into one of New Zealand’s most geographically-perfect natural harbours. Cruising out onto the sparkling blue water surrounded by rolling hills, you’ll pass Somes (Matiu in Maori) Island - the largest of three islands in the Wellington Harbour.

Somes/Matiu Island

Somes Island, along with much of the surrounding Wellington harbour region, was an area settled by Maori – and it’s easy to see why. With excellent vantage points and abundant fishing opportunities, the geography and natural resources were ideal. A historic and conservation reserve, Somes Island is owned by Te Atiawa iwi and managed by the Department of Conservation. The island is now a carefully managed pest-free sanctuary and home to many endangered species of bird and wildlife, including the tuatara, giant weta, skink, gecko, kakariki, North Island robin and the little blue penguin.

Somes Island has played a number of important roles throughout New Zealand’s history. In the 1820’s the island was used as a quarantine station to confine both immigrants suspected of having infectious diseases and animals aboard incoming ships. Plus in World War II the island was used as an internment camp, to imprison alien immigrants who were considered a threat to security. In fact, the island still has World War II gun emplacements visible on the island, which together with its number of easy walking tracks, make it a great family day out.

Cruising on out past Oriental Bay and Evans Bay you’ll see some of Wellington’s coastal suburbs and the surrounding hillsides dotted with residential houses. Sailing on past Mount Victoria and the Miramar Peninsular to the south-east, the city fades into the background.

Soems Island
Looking out from Somes Island
Somes Island
Somes Island lookout

Pencarrow Lighthouse

Once you pass the Eastern Harbour National Park, you’ll see a rugged coastline and the historic Pencarrow Lighthouse sitting proud atop Pencarrow Head. New Zealand’s first permanent lighthouse was assembled from cast iron shipped from England in 1859. The lighthouse was run by New Zealand’s first and only female lighthouse keeper Mary Jane Bennett, who ran the lighthouse from 1859 until 1865. Her service began seven years earlier, when she and her husband George operated a light from their cottage on Pencarrow Head. George was killed in a boating accident in 1855, but Mary continued to run the lighthouse whilst also raising her six children. Fog regularly obscured the lighthouse on Pencarrow Head, so a fog signal was added in 1898. To further prevent shipwrecks at the entrance to Wellington Harbour, another lighthouse was installed on the beach below in 1906.

Walks to the Pencarrow Lighthouse from Eastbourne are a popular day trip, which is easily accessed via the Parangararahu Lakes area of the East Harbour Regional Park. There are also mountain bike trails out to Pencarrow Lakes which are situated behind, to the east, of Pencarrow Head.

As your journey continues into the Cook Strait, the views and seascape open up and the wind and sea conditions are much more exposed. It can be an exhilarating experience standing out on one of the observation decks, taking in the expansive views and fresh air. 

Pemcarrow lighthouses in mist
Pencarrow lighthouses
Pencarrow lighthouses and Aratere
Aratere sailing past Pencarrow lighthouses

Wildlife

On a clear day, there’s the chance to see a variety of different wildlife from the ferry. There are five species of dolphin to look out for: the common, bottlenose, dusky, and extremely rare hector dolphin and the Orca, as well as an abundance of birdlife such as the Australasian gannets, shearwaters, shags and even blue penguins and albatross. Sometimes they put on a show and sometimes you have to keep your eyes peeled – it’s all part of the fun. 

Marlborough Sounds

Entering the Marlborough Sounds is a beautiful transition into an extensive labyrinth of waterways, featuring breathtaking panoramic views of the sunken mountains which form the intricate landscape. The lush greenery of the forest-clad hills that soar into the sky contrast with the brilliant blue hues of the Pacific Ocean and the azure colours in the more sheltered coves and bays.

Taking up one fifth of the New Zealand coastline, the Marlborough Sounds provide a pristine natural playground for sailing, water sports, fishing, walking, mountain biking and relaxing. The Interislander ferry route enters the Marlborough Sounds through a narrow Cook Strait gateway, between the East and West Head. The scenic cruise continues between dramatic, fiord-like, ‘drowned valleys’ through beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound, passing islands and secluded coves and bays before entering Waikawa Bay to the port of Picton. 

Exploring the Marlborough Sounds

A great way to explore more of the Marlborough Sounds is to take a leisurely cruise through the secluded bays of the Pelorus Sound, famous for its mussels. Or you could take the Pelorus mail boat cruise - one of only a couple in New Zealand - which delivers mail and supplies to residents who live nestled in the sounds.

The ferry crossing provides just a taste of the beauty you can expect to experience while in the Marlborough Sounds region. One of New Zealand’s most popular multi-day walks, the Queen Charlotte Track, is a 70 kilometre track that winds its way through native bush, forests, coves and bays. The hilly track delivers incredible views of the sounds and is accessible to walkers and mountain bikers.

Picton

On arriving in the picturesque port of Picton, one adventure stops while another soon begins. Picton is natural harbour with plenty of cafes, restaurants, shops, galleries and sunshine, so put a couple of hours aside to stroll around the attractive seaside town. The Marlborough Sounds are the ultimate boating paradise, with Picton’s marina being home to many of the local’s yachts and boats. Picton is well-located as a base from which to explore the Marlborough Sounds region.

A New Zealand experience like no other

Some of the most panoramic views of New Zealand can only be seen from out on the water. And there’s not many better ways to experience it than the Interislander journey on the Cook Strait. So pick a weekend (or push the boat out and take a week), book your tickets and find out what all the fuss is about for yourself.

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