New Zealand is made up of two major islands – the North Island and the South Island. The former has Auckland and Wellington while the latter has Christchurch and Queenstown. To get from one to the other, you either fly or take the interisland ferry across the Cook Strait. This is what we did.
Touted as one of the most beautiful ferry crossings in the world, it is also one of the most dangerous because of the unpredictable strong tidal flow. And because both shores, separated by about 22 kilometers of water at the narrowest point, are bounded by mountains, the strait acts like a wind tunnel. Now when this wind meets the rough sea, you will have a helluva ride. Well, that’s what I read so it was with a bit of trepidation that I booked our ferry tickets online.
There are two ferry companies – the one run by Kiwi Rail is called Interislander and the other one is Bluebridge. They both run several trips a day to and fro between Wellington and Picton. I chose the former because of their time schedule which dovetailed pretty well with our arrival from Auckland plus the fact that their ferries were bigger. Uh, well, the bigger the better to handle the rough seas, right? The one way trip cost NZ65.00 and would take approximately 3 hours.
And so we arrived just on time for the 2:45PM sailing at the terminal in Wellington port and immediately checked in our luggage which was a breeze and were given our boarding passes. We waited for about half an hour in the lounge while watching through the glass façade wall the railroad cars being shunted into the bowels of the ferry named Aratere (Maori for “quick path”) before they announced that all passengers were being invited to board. Those with cars drove directly up the ramps straight to the two decks where all vehicles of different sizes from small sedans to lumbering 14-wheeler trucks were parked. Basically, the ferry was a Ro-Ro vessel that took on both vehicles and passengers.
We embarked on Deck 4 and I was surprised by the spaciousness of the place. There were several seating options you could choose from ranging from comfortable lounge chairs to panoramic seating at the front. There was also an adequate dining area with wooden slat benches around tables and this is where we stayed at first since we were famished and ordered food and drinks in the restaurant then dined as the ferry slowly pulled away for the 92 km.-long journey. Other facilities onboard were a bar, kid’s play area, a quiet family lounge and a cinema. There was also free wifi though it was limited to 100MB per person and the connection was a bit dicey perhaps due to the weather and sea conditions.
Later, as the wife took a nap, I explored the ship from bow to stern as well as topside where many passengers (the ferry could take in 600 persons) stayed to sunbathe. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the sailing conditions were perfect. Wellington and the North Island shoreline slowly receded from view and we were now in unprotected, open water but there was none of the rough sea I expected – it was all smooth sailing although there was a heavy wind that blew across the crystal clear turquoise-blue waters. I could imagine British explorer Captain James Cook standing on the bow of his ship in 1770 as it plowed on from one end to the other, the first European to sail through it.
Before long, we reached the Marlborough Sounds of the South Islands which was a winding waterway hemmed in by several beautifully-undulating green islands that had soaring mountains and deep valleys silhouetted against the clear, blue sky. Some of them used to be whaling stations in days gone past but now they are a playground for outdoor adventurers as well as wine-enthusiasts since there are vineyards on these islands. Around the waters, there is an abundance of marine life that included seals, penguins, whales, and dolphins. Unfortunately, I didn’t spot any during our crossing.
The ferry slowly zigzagged through this series of waterways before finally reaching the town of Picton, which was the end of our journey. They were right in saying that it is one of the great ferry rides in the world so if you have time, don’t take the plane but instead embark on a ferry. For you haven’t seen the best of New Zealand until you’ve crossed the Cook Strait!