The Cook Strait ferries provide the essential "floating bridge" between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Five passenger and car ferries (one also carrying rail wagons) from two operators ply the 92 km (57 mi), 3.5-hour route across Cook Strait between Wellington in the North Island and Picton in the South Island.
Apart from its function moving passengers, vehicles and freight, the ferries provide a spectacular and scenic trip through Wellington Harbour, Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds. However, the weather and seas in Cook Strait are frequently rough and unpredictable, so take the calm cruise-like promotional images with a grain of salt.
There is no bridge or tunnel across Cook Strait, so the ferries provide the sole road and rail link between New Zealand's two main islands. For those travelling between Greater Wellington and Marlborough, the ferries provide a cheaper but slower service than air travel.
Starting in 1895, the Union Steamship Company operated overnight passenger between Lyttelton and Wellington, known as the "Steamer Express". It also operated a weekly service between Picton and Wellington with the ship Tamahine until 1962. The Steamer Express converted to a roll-on-roll-off (RORO) service in 1965, with the refitted TEV Maori and new ferry TEV Wahine. The 1968 sinking of Wahine started the Steamer Express' demise; Running at only half capacity, the Union Company started making substantial losses. A replacement for Wahine, the TEV Rangatira, arrived in 1972 but the Union's decision to stick with steam turbo-electric power when everyone else was buying diesel turned out to be a costly mistake. The Government took control of the service in July 1974, before it was cancelled altogether in September 1976.
In response to the Union Company's withdrawal of Tamahine on the Picton to Wellington route, New Zealand Railways launched its own daily ferry service between Wellington to Picton in August 1962. The first ferry was GMV Aramoana, a RORO combined road and rail ferry. The service proved an instant hit, and within 12 years another three ferries had joined the route. With the surge of air travel during the 1970s and 1980s, New Zealand Railways focused more on a cruise-ferry model, re-branding its service the Interislander in 1990. Interislander today is owned by KiwiRail, New Zealand Railways' successor.
Several different companies tried to enter the Cook Strait market in the 1990s, mainly using fast catamaran ferries. These "vomit comets", as they were known, failed mainly due to unreliable ferries and frequent weather-related cancellations. Interislander's own summer-only fast catamaran service The Lynx had much greater success, but was cancelled after severe speed restrictions imposed to protect the Marlborough Sounds shoreline saw the time advantage over the larger conventional ferries disappear.
In 1992, Strait Shipping launched a conventional freight-only ferry service between Picton and Wellington with the 1972-built MV Straitsman (not to be confused with the current 2005-built Straitsman). In 2002, Strait Shipping expanded into the passenger market with the ferry Santa Regina, operating under the name Bluebridge. So far, it has been the only serious competitor to the Interislander since the cancellation of the Union Company ferries.
There are two ferry operators plying the route across the Cook Strait:
- Interislander, ☎ , toll-free: 0800 802 802. Contact centre M–F 08:00–20:00, Sa–Su 08:00–18:00. Operates three ships, all with Māori names:
- DEV Aratere ("quick path"; built 1998) – the only remaining ferry on the Cook Strait capable of carrying rail wagons.
- MS Kaiarahi ("leader"; built 1998 as Dawn Merchant)
- MV Kaitaki ("challenger"; built 1995 as Isle of Innisfree)
- Bluebridge (Strait Shipping), ☎ , toll-free: 0800 844 844. Contact centre 08:00-20:00 daily. Operates two ships:
- MV Straitsman (built 2005 as Dueodde)
- MS Strait Feronia (built 1997 as Mersey Viking)
It is advisable to book your crossing in advance, especially if you plan to take a vehicle or plan to travel during the summer peak season (November to April). The Christmas and New Year period especially can see sailings sold out by mid-October. During winter, there may be a reduction in sailings as ferries undergo heavy maintenance.
Carry-on baggage is limited to one small bag (maximum 7 kg (15 lb)) and one handbag or laptop bag per person. Make sure to pack all your essentials needed for the trip in your carry-on baggage, as you will not be able to access your checked baggage or vehicle once the ferry has left port.
Checked baggage for walk-on passengers is limited to two checked bags (each maximum 30 kg (66 lb) or 200 linear cm). Larger equipment such as bicycles, surfboards and kayaks can be checked in for an additional fee.
The following are essential items to pack in your carry-on baggage for the journey:
- Essential documents and medications – just in case your baggage gets lost or your vehicle goes overboard (it has happened)
- Cash or EFTPOS/credit card – there is no ATM on board, so withdraw the necessary cash beforehand. EFTPOS, Visa and MasterCard are also accepted on board. Due to patchy mobile phone coverage in places, the card terminals on board may go offline, so it is best to have some cash on hand just in case.
- Sea-sickness remedies – you can purchase sea sickness tablets on board if you don't have any.
- Sunhat, sunscreen and sunglasses – the New Zealand sun is intense and the sea acts as a mirror, making you burn in half the time you expect.
- Jacket/jumper – just in case the weather turns cold, rainy and windy (the latter being almost a given).
- Something to occupy your time – book, playing cards, music player (with headphones), etc. – in case the weather is too bad for sightseeing.
- Camera and/or smartphone – to capture the sights (or lack of them) along the way.
Baggage for vehicle passengers is only restricted to what you can legally fit in your vehicle. Large items such as boats, kayaks, surfboards and bicycles may be carried on your vehicle and trailer for free as long as they do not overhang the vehicle or trailer; if they do, you may be charged for the extra length or width consumed.
If travelling on a motorcycle, it is highly recommended to bring your own lashings to tie your motorcycle down to the ferry. Campervans will be required to shut off all gas supplies at the cylinder before boarding the ferry.
Many rental car companies do not allow their vehicles on the Cook Strait ferries, or only allow them on if you promise to return them to the correct island. Rental car traffic in New Zealand is typically one-way (north to south), and by not allowing them on the ferries avoids the expense of relocating vehicles across Cook Strait. If you do return a rental car on the wrong island, expect to be charged upwards of $500 to repatriate the vehicle. Many rental companies, however, allow you to drop a vehicle at one end, travel as a walk-on passenger and pick up another vehicle at the other end for no extra cost.
Heavy vehicles (over 3,500 kg or 7,700 lb gross weight) that are not campervans are classified as commercial vehicles and have extra requirements - you will need to contact Interislander or Bluebridge directly to discuss and book.
The marine forecast will tell you the weather and sea conditions expected in Cook Strait. For those prone to motion sickness, the sea state will tell you the ride you expect: smooth, slight, moderate, rough, very rough, high, very high, or phenomenal.
Check-in closes 45 minutes before each sailing for foot passengers and 60 minutes before each sailing for vehicles. If you are taking the 8AM Bluebridge sailing or 9AM Interislander sailing from Wellington, make sure you allow extra time getting to the terminal as you will be travelling in rush-hour traffic.
The 1 Interislander terminal is located under the Aotea Quay motorway interchange. Approaching Wellington from the north along State Highways 1 or 2, follow the signs for "Picton Ferry" and then for "Interislander". You will exit at the Ngauranga Interchange and follow Hutt Road and Aotea Quay. Turn right onto the Aotea Quay ramp and keep right on the loop-around to enter the check-in area (if you keep left, you will get on the motorway northbound and will have to travel to Newlands or Petone to turn around).
Interislander offers a free shuttle bus to its terminal from the Railway Station (Platform 9, also used by InterCity buses). It departs 50 minute before each scheduled daytime sailings.
The 2 Bluebridge terminal is located on Waterloo Quay, opposite the railway station. Approaching Wellington from the north along State Highways 1 or 2, follow the signs for "Picton Ferry" and then for "Bluebridge". You will exit at the Ngauranga Interchange and follow Hutt Road, Aotea Quay and Waterloo Quay past Westpac Stadium. Alternatively, you can continue on State Highway 1 towards Wellington and take the Aotea Quay exit, therefore bypassing Hutt Road. Turn left at Bunny Street (third set of lights south of Westpac Stadium) to enter the check-in area.
The 3 Bluebridge terminal is on Lagoon Road, just north of the roundabout with Dublin Street and Queen Charlotte Drive. Approaching Picton from the south along State Highway 1, follow the signs for "Wellington Ferry" and then for "Bluebridge". Upon entering Picton you will turn left onto and follow Kent Street, bypassing the town centre. After crossing the roundabout onto Lagoon Road, turn left to enter the check-in area.
A shuttle bus links the ferry with the terminal, and can also drop passengers off at their destination within Picton.
The 4 Interislander terminal is located at the top of Auckland Street, near the railway station. Approaching Picton from the south along State Highway 1, follow the signs for "Wellington Ferry" and then for "Interislander". You will follow Wairau Road and Auckland Street through central Picton. At the roundabout at the top of Auckland street, continue straight to passenger check-in or turn left for vehicle check-in
Sights along the route include:
- 1 Barrett Reef. The reef partially blocks the entrance to Wellington Harbour, and the tops of it are still visible at high tide. Many ships have run aground or been wrecked on the reef, the most notable being the ferry TEV Wahine on 10 April 1968, which was blown into the reef during an extra-tropical cyclone packing winds over 200 km/h (120 mph) (retroactively known as the "Wahine storm").
- 2 Pencarrow Head Lighthouse. The upper light, New Zealand's first permanent lighthouse, was constructed in 1859 and was decommissioned in 1935. The lower light was commissioned in 1906 to solve an issue of ships not being able to see the upper light during foggy conditions, and still operates.
- 3 West Wind wind farm. Taking advantage of Wellington's and the Cook Strait's infamous wind is this 62-turbine farm (not all turbines can be seen from the ferry) completed in 2009. Combined, the turbines produce enough electricity every year to power 62,000 average homes.
- 4 Oteranga Bay. The white building is the North Island cable terminal for the Inter-Island HVDC power link, which links the power grids of the North and South Islands together and allows large amounts of electricity to be transmitted from the hydro-rich South Island to the power-hungry North Island. There is a strict and regularly patrolled protection zone 3.5 km either side of the cables, so nobody accidentally gives themselves a half-million-volt electric shock and disrupts the link.
- 5 Tory Channel eastern entrance. The transition from the open Cook Strait to the Marlborough Sounds is via this narrow channel, which has a sharp right-angle turn and tidal streams of up to 10 km/h. The two pyramidal leading lights, built in 1881, line up one above the other when the ferry is on profile to enter the channel.
All ferries feature a children's play area.
Each ferry features one or two cinemas showing recent release films. On Interislander ferries you will need to purchase tickets from the on-board shop; on Bluebridge ferries the films are free but seating is on a first-come-first-served basis.
On the Interislander ferries, the Ocean View eatery on the Kaitaki and the Kaiarahi, and the Food Court on Aratere offer hot and cold breakfasts (morning sailings only), hot food, sandwiches, snacks, desserts, filter coffee, cold drinks and ice creams. On the Kaitaki, Hector's café provides café fare as well as espresso coffee.
Each of the Bluebridge ferries has a food court offering hot and cold breakfasts (morning sailings only), hot meals and snacks along with filter coffee and cold drinks.
All ferries offer vegetarian and gluten-free meal options.
The food prices on the ferries are quite expensive due to a captive market. You may wish to save money by buying your own snacks in Wellington or Picton before-hand.
All ferries have a bar serving beer, cider, wine, RTDs and espresso coffee.
Due to liquor licensing rules, BYO alcohol is not permitted on the ferries; all alcohol purchased elsewhere must be checked in or left in your vehicle.
Both Bluebridge ferries offer private cabins for rent, space permitting. All have private ensuite bathrooms with showers.
- Strait Feronia has a mixture of single, twin, double, four-berth and five-berth cabins for rent from $30-75 per sailing.
- Stratisman has 20 single-berth, 36 twin-birth and 4 four-berth cabins for rent from $30-60 per sailing.
Interislander's Kaitaki ferry has four twin-berth cabins for rent from $40 per sailing. There are no publicly available cabins on the Aratere and Kaiarahi.
Bluebridge offers a Wellington to Picton sleeper service ferry 5-6 nights per week aboard the Straitsman ferry. Check-in for this service closes at 11PM, with ferries departing Wellington at 2:30AM and arriving in Picton at 6AM. Apart from the ticket price and renting a private cabin, there is no extra cost for this service.
All ferries offer free WiFi aboard their ferries, with a cap of 500 MB per person on the Interislander ferries. Since the ferries rely on 3G and 4G mobile broadband for internet access, there may be the occasional spots in the Cook Strait where the WiFi isn't working.
Cook Strait is frequently rough and unpredictable. There have been numerous shipwrecks, including of two ferries: the SS Penguin in 1909 and the TEV Wahine in 1968. More often than not, it's the ferries coming to the rescue of others – in 1986, ferry Arahura helped rescued passengers from the sinking Soviet cruise liner Mikhail Lermontov.
If you are taking a vehicle, check your insurance policy to ensure you are covered in case your vehicle is damaged while on-board. There have been several cases of vehicles being damaged during rough crossings, and at least two cases of vehicles being lost overboard (Aratika lost two cars in 1995; Straitsman lost a B-train truck in 2016). If you are uninsured and your vehicle or belongings are damanged, by law the maximum the ferry operator is liable for is $2,000.
The outdoor decks are exposed and can be slippery. Watch your footing and be careful opening external doors in strong winds.
When returning to your vehicle at the end of the journey, keep your engine turned off until you are instructed to move by the deck crew. This is to prevent noise and carbon monoxide build-up in the hold.