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 ferries 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 Union Company added a roll-on-roll-off (RORO) steamer ferry service between Lyttelton and Wellington in 1966. The 1968 sinking of the Wahine was the start of the Steamer Express' demise; after making years of losses, the Union Company pulled out of the Cook Strait 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 a hit and within 12 years, another three ferries had joined Aramoana. With the surge of air travel during the 1970s and 1980s, New Zealand Railways focused more on a cruise-ferry model, rebranding its service the Interislander in 1990.
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 due to frequent weather-related cancellations and severe speed restrictions imposed through the Marlborough Sounds. In 1992, Strait Shipping launched a conventional freight-only ferry service between Picton and Wellington, and in 2002 expanded into the passenger market under the name Bluebridge. So far, it has been the only serious competitior to the Interislander since the cancellation of the Lyttelton 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:
- DEV Aratere ("quick path" in Māori) – the only remaining ferry on the Cook Strait capable of carrying rail wagons.
- MS Kaiarahi ("leader" in Māori)
- MV Kaitaki ("challenger" in Māori)
- Bluebridge, ☎ , toll-free: 0800 844 844. Contact centre 08:00-20:00 daily. Operates two ships:
- MV Straitsman
- MS Strait Feronia
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). Sailings for the Christmas and New Year period are often booked out by mid-October.
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:
- 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 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 with a motorcycle, it is highly recommended to bring your own lashings. Heavy vehicles (over 3,500 kg or 7,700 lb gross weight) that are not classed as campervans are classified as commercial vehicles and have extra requirements - you will need to contact Interislander or Bluebridge directly to discuss and book.
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.
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).
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. 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 a 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 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 can vary wildly due to a captive market – sandwiches typically costs $6 while a roast meal typically costs $16. If you don't want to take the risk, you may wish to buy 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 a mixture of single, twin and 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 ferry 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 100 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.
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.