The Cook Strait ferry crossing between Wellington and Picton is known as one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world and is rated as a New Zealand must-do experience. Quite simply, you haven't seen the best of New Zealand until you've crossed the Cook Strait!
Travelling between New Zealand's North and South Islands
A tour of New Zealand means crossing the Cook Strait between the North Island and South Island. In today's hurried world, the default option is squeeze on to one of the many cheap flights across the Cook Strait - which are more expensive than our cheap Cook Strait ferry fares. However, whilst those flying overhead are skimming through advertorials in their free in-flight magazine, our ferry passengers are enjoying one of the most scenic journeys in New Zealand, the Cook Strait crossing.
Sailing between islands on the Cook Strait ferry
The Interislander Cook Strait ferry takes around three-and-a-half hours to travel between New Zealand's North and South Island. From Wellington, the Interislander journey begins with a tour around Wellington Harbour before crossing the narrow channel between New Zealand's north and south islands, which is named the Cook Strait after Captain Cook, the English explorer who first mapped it.
Having crossed the Cook Strait, the final stretch of the Wellington Picton ferry journey is through the magnificent Marlborough Sounds. This sheltered stretch of water is spectacularly scenic and has inspired many journalists to name the Interislander as "one of the most scenic ferry rides in the world". It is this hour long cruise through the Marlborough Sounds that makes the Cook Strait ferry a must-do experience for anyone visiting or living in New Zealand. This is also why the Interislander Cook Strait ferry is one of the top things to do in Wellington on Tripadvisor!
Catching the Picton ferry
Whether you are catching the ferry from Wellington to Picton or vice-versa, the route across the Cook Strait and through the Marlborough Sounds is exactly the same. However, the northbound ferry to Wellington begins in the charming harbourside town of Picton. Sitting on the foreshore with a picnic or having lunch outside one of the harbourside cafes on London Quay guarantees a relaxing start to the spectacular voyage through the Marlborough Sounds. It is also just a brief stroll back around the water's edge to the ferry terminal, so you can time your arrival perfectly.
Cruising the Queen Charlotte Sound
The second advantage the Picton ferry has over the Wellington ferry is that the views start before the ship has left dock. Even from the port at Picton, the view up the Queen Charlotte Sound is incredible. Finding yourself a position on one of the outdoor viewing decks as soon as you board the ship is highly recommended. Alternatively, grab a cold beer or wine from the bar and then go outside immediately!
The first ten minutes of the Picton ferry journey takes you to the entrance of the Grove Arm, at the end of which you'll see Anakiwa in the distance. Here the Cook Strait ferry swings right and enters the Queen Charlotte Sound. With the hills of Marlborough surrounding you and the sheltered waters calm and placid, sailing through the Marlborough Sounds feels more like cruising along a large river.
After passing Allports Island and a number of huge bays on the left, the Interislander's route through the Marlborough Sounds takes a sharp right turn around Dieffenbach Point and begins its journey through the Tory Channel.
The initial turn in to the Tory Channel is a broad 90° swing from northeast to southeast. Shortly after, the ship will swing 90° back to an east heading. The Cook Strait ferries like to pass in this section, so look out for one going the other way.
You'll also pass some King Salmon farms midway along the Tory Channel. These will appear as large square platforms, which the fish are bred inside. Shortly after these, the Picton to Wellington ferry will turn and head north towards the end of the Tory Channel.
Sailing out of the Tory Channel is an event you should definitely be outside for. If you are on Kaitaki or Kaiarahi, then take a starboard spot (on the right-hand side of the ship). If you are on Aratere then you can stand on the bow and watch it all unfold.
The exit to the Cook Strait is invisible as the ship travels along the Tory Channel and it seems as though the ship is sailing into a dead-end. The Cook Strait exit becomes visible quite late on and is very narrow. The exit requires yet another 90° turn, which makes the ship's course all the more dramatic. However, there is no need to be alarmed, Interislander ferries sail through this little gap more than 3,500 times a year!
East Head and West Head
If you are travelling on the Wellington to Picton ferry, the entrance to the Tory Channel is equally exciting. As you approach, the jagged outcrops of the West Head and the crumpled hills of the East Head appear to be one continuous tract of land. The entrance again becomes visible quite late and the Cook Strait ferry has to swing quickly around to get into the Tory Channel. It is definitely worth getting a jacket on and going to one of the ferry's outdoor viewing decks to watch this unfold.
The Cook Strait Crossing
When the Cook Strait weather is good, catching the inter-island ferry is a beautiful experience. The best time to cross the Cook Strait is in the late afternoon or early evening when you can watch the sun sink slowly behind the hills of Marlborough.
There is also a good chance that you will see dolphins following the ship at some point during the Cook Strait crossing. Other animals you might spot include seals, penguins and albatross. Over twenty species of whales have also been spotted in Cook Strait waters and around 300 humpbacks migrate through the Cook Strait during winter. On a reasonably calm sailing you can see also see a visible line where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet.
Cook Strait weather is quite predictable and you can use www.swellmap.co.nz to get an accurate reading of the sea conditions several days before sailing. When the Cook Strait ferry does have a rough crossing, it is the stretch immediately outside the Wellington harbour that gets the worst of it.
If anything, a bit of rough weather adds to drama of this untamed inter-island passage. There are no roads or homes within kilometres of the northern coastline and the hills are as wild and rugged as they were when Captain Cook first sailed through - and the Polynesians long before him.
Two lighthouses at Pencarrow Head mark the entrance to Wellington Harbour. The upper lighthouse was constructed in 1859 and was New Zealand's first permanent lighthouse. Although it was a great achievement, the early European settlers hadn't appreciated how the low sea mists and fogs would render it useless. It was eventually replaced in 1906 by the lower lighthouse, which is still in use.
As you travel into the harbour, the Eastbourne hills rise on the eastern side with the Rimutaka ranges rising behind them. Twinkling in the distance on the north side of the harbour is Petone, where New Zealand's first European settlers landed their ships. In the middle of the harbour is Matiu, or Somes Island, which is thought to be the legendary landing place of the first Polynesian settler, Kupe.
Wellington harbour, which used to be called Port Nicholson, is so big that the Wellington Picton ferry takes almost an hour to sail from the narrow entrance from the Cook Strait around to the Wellington ferry terminal on Aotea Quay. On a beautiful summer's day, there are few capital cities that can compete with the beauty of Wellington and arriving by ship is a truly magical experience.