One of the most scenic ferry journeys in the world
The Cook Strait ferry crossing is 93 kilometers (58 miles) and takes three-and-a-half hours. Two-thirds of that journey is a scenic spectacle, with the ferry looping around Wellington Harbour and drifting through the fjord-like channels and inlets of the Marlborough Sounds. The remaining third of the journey is spent navigating Cook Strait between New Zealand's main islands - a seafaring adventure through a dramatic and rugged channel where two seas meet.
The curiously circuitous route between Wellington and Picton was the result of New Zealand Railways (NZR) completing construction of the Main North Line from Christchurch to Picton (the route on which the Coastal Pacific train runs today). Until then, inter-island ferries predominately travelled directly from Wellington to Christchurch. But with the demise of the Union Steam Shipping company in the early 1960s, New Zealand Railways (KiwiRail) took the initiative and the Interislander ferry was born in 1962.
Today, Interislander ferries are a national icon, and experiencing the Cook Strait crossing is a must-do experience.
Few cities in the world can claim to be scenic, but thanks to its amazing natural harbour, Wellington certainly can.
Wellington is completely surrounded by gorgeous hills and sparkling waters. This protected harbour has attracted many explorers over the centuries, from the legendary Kupe to the first settler ships that moored upon the beaches of Petone, each has found sanctuary in the calm waters of Wellington Harbour.
Sitting on top of the hill at Pencarrow Head is New Zealand's first lighthouse. Erected in 1858, Pencarrow Lighthouse was constructed in England and shipped to New Zealand in 480 segments. But the real story of Pencarrow is about the lighthouse keeper.
Pencarrow's first lighthouse keeper was George Bennet who, with his wife Mary, had five children. Weather at the harbour mouth can get a little wild at times, yet the living quarters at Pencarrow were neither wind or rainproof. These tough conditions led to the premature death of their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Eliza. Things further deteriorated when George died after being thrown out of the pilot's boat and washed out to sea. Mary remained at Pencarrow, managing the lighthouse and her five children in this remote and rough location.
The Lower Pencarrow Lighthouse was built on the beach below in 1906 to be used during the frequent foggy conditions that rendered the hilltop lighthouse useless.
Named after Captain Cook who navigated through it on his first voyage to New Zealand, Cook Strait is the rugged channel between New Zealand's North Island and South Island. Described as one of the most violent and unpredictable stretches of water in the world, it is a remarkable and beautiful journey - and wonderfully calm, most of the time.
Curiously, the Cook Strait crossing from North Island to South Island takes a northerly passage from Wellington Harbour to Tory Channel - this can be a little confusing when watching the sunset.
During the winter months, whales can be seen migrating through the channel - which is why whaling was such big business until outlawed in the 1960s.
Gateway to the South Island
The gateway between Cook Strait and Tory Channel is a narrow entrance between two heads - East Head and West Head. This craggy entrance is northward from Cook Strait, and so the small bird-covered island on your right-hand side is the East Head.
The Cooks Strait ferry turns a sharp 90 degrees to go through the entrance and, on approach from either direction, it looks like the ferry is on a collision course with the huge rolling Marlborough hills. It is definitely worth heading to the outdoor viewing decks to take a look!
Tory Channel is, without doubt, the most stunning section of the Cook Strait crossing.
Meandering through this narrow protected channel is rightly compared with the fjords of Scandinavia. With glorious hills of Marlborough rising on either side, and just a few isolated holiday retreats dotting the shores, this is one of the most remote and beautiful regions in New Zealand - and only visitable by boat. So if you want to witness this spectacular landscape, then catching the Interislander Cook Strait ferry is by far the best option.
Dolphins, albatross, seals and whales
There are few ferry journeys around the world that you will board expecting to see dolphins, albatross, seals, whales, and penguins. And while you should temper your expectations, as there are no guarantees, sightings of dolphins in the Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sounds are very regular.
The ship's captain is normally happy to announce to passengers on board if there is a large pod of dolphins following along. But you'll also find squeals from fellow passengers and pointing fingers are an equally good indication that one of these rare and beautiful creatures is in view!
Queen Charlotte Sound
The broad and beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound leads from Picton to the Tasman Sea. This idyllic and calm stretch of water was Captain Cook's favoured sanctuary on his three voyages to New Zealand. Little has changed and apart from the occasional holiday home and nature retreat you'll see very little sign of civilisation along this route.
On the western banks, the Queen Charlotte Track is one of New Zealand's great hiking and biking trails. Setting off from Picton by water taxi, you can choose how far and how many days you wish to walk or bike, with the northern end at Anchorage - Captain Cook's favourite bay.
At the southern end of the Cook Strait crossing is Picton, a sleepy fishing town at the end of the Queen Charlotte Sound. Although inter-island ferries come and go throughout the day, the town remains quiet and is a surprisingly idyllic place to stay or enjoy a few hours of calm.
Picton is also the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds, with water taxis departing regularly for the holiday spots dotted amongst the silent bays and inlets lining the Queen Charlotte Sound. If you are looking for a natural escape away from modern life, then Marlborough Sounds should be high on your list.