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It has been far too many years since I took the time to cross Cook Strait on the InterIslander ferry, so recently I did it - twice!
These ferry crossings between the Picton in the South Island and Wellington in the North Island provide the essential link for travellers to traverse either northbound or southbound between the islands. The crossing takes approx 3-3.5 hours and there are several departures each day for passengers and vehicles... and pets and freight and trucks and railway wagons. As well as being a critical component of New Zealand's highway system, for visitors to New Zealand it is the perfect opportunity to relax for a few hours and enjoy the extraordinary scenery that unfolds at every turn.
The beautiful Marlborough Sounds, with its brilliant blue water and lush native bush, hides idyllic coves and bays with remote dwellings nestled on the waterfront. The Sounds also offer the ideal enviornment for five different dolphin species, dusky, bottlenose, common, orca and the very rare hectors dolphin. It's not uncommon for there to be sightings from the ferry, pointed out by the skipper over the PA system so travellers have the opportunity for some unique photos. On the Wellington to Picton ferry crossing I did recently we were treated to a pod of about 25 dolphins, including mothers and calves, for about 20 minutes of the cruise. Very exciting!
Birdlife also abounds. Near the coastline, gannets, spotted shags, white-fronted terns and little blue penguins can often be seen. Out in Cook Strait keep an eye out for cape petrels, diving petrels, northern giant petrels and black-brown albatross soaring above. There are helpful information points on the ferries to help you identify the various species.
In contrast to the tranquility of the Marlborough Sounds, Cook Strait itself offers wide panoramic seascapes during the short time the crossing is out in open seas. Further contrast is glittering Wellington Harbour with swathes of residential houses covering its hillsides and the majestic highrise of the Capital City's downtown area on the waterfront, which is where the InterIslander ferry terminal is located. If you happen to be on an early evening sailing, the city lights reflecting on the harbour are particularly pretty.
In between wildlife spotting, the ferries offer comfortable lounge areas, movie theatre, cafes, travel information and viewing decks. Each vessel also has a Premium Plus lounge with free newspapers and the latest magazines, tea and coffee, cookies, beer, wine and snacks. These exclusive lounges are available for a small upgrade fee and are for adults only. They are definitely worth the little bit extra for the additional service and peace and quiet. On my morning Wellington to Picton trip on the Kaitaki, a delicious cooked breakfast buffet was available, including eggs and bacon as well as healthy yoghurt and cereal options.
For those who want to take some time to keep up with emails and on-line research, the InterIslander vessels have excellent and free wifi on board. I encountered a couple of reception black spots for very short times, otherwise the coverage was excellent.
I enjoyed both of the ferry crossings very much. Northbound from Picton to Wellington I was on the Awatere, one of the older vessels, and my southbound crossing was on the newly refitted Kaitaki - very impressive. So, if you have the time in your New Zealand to include at least one ferry crossing, then take the time. It's absolutely worth it.