The difficult part about road tripping across New Zealand is that no matter how you plan your route, you have to cross the Cook Straight one way or another in order to get from one island to the other. One option is to rent a car and return it on the same island, then catch a short flight, only to rent another car. We went with the other option, the Interislander Ferry.
The Interislander Ferry runs between Picton on the south island and Wellington on the north island. Before boarding the ship with our trusty Subaru and embarking on the passage, we spent a few days in Picton for Mike’s 27th birthday. We splurged on our accommodation and rented a self-contained cabin at the holiday park, which provided us with our very own kitchen and bathroom. After months of eating out in Asia, we have really been enjoying cooking our own meals lately, and for the birthday dinner we prepared some grilled New Zealand lamb chops and baby carrots in butter sauce. Yummy!
Picton’s claim to fame (besides the ferry port) is the labyrinth of waterways, peninsulas and islands that make up the Marlborough Sound. On a map of New Zealand, the region appears to take up a very small portion of the south island; when in fact, it has so many bays and fingers of land that it makes up 15,000km of shore, totaling more than 10% of the country’s total coast line. We spent one day driving the Queen Charlotte Drive and exploring the area. While we did get a few good views, the best way to experience the Marlborough Sound is on the water.
The cost of getting a car across the 22km stretch of ocean separating New Zealand’s two islands can be a bit steep, but it has its advantages too. Not only will many rental car companies offer great “relocation” specials for moving their vehicle between the two islands, but the cruise between Picton & Wellington is a memorable experience in and of itself. The ferry takes you through miles of narrow channels as it makes its way out of the Marlborough Sound; then, you cross the open water of the Cook Straight which allows you the rare opportunity to behold both islands at the same time, and finally you enter the grand Nicholson Bay and the harbor of Wellington. Total cruising time is about 3.5 hours, which means that there is also enough time to sip on a glass or two of champagne during the voyage and still be able to safely and legally drive your car off the ship.
With our time in New Zealand coming to an end, we knew that we could really only afford to spend one day checking out Wellington, so once back on dry land, we headed straight to our holiday park to cook-up some grub and rest for a full day of sightseeing. We hit the road early the next morning and headed straight for Mt. Victoria. We took our time hiking through the forest covered park and eventually made our way to the scenic viewpoint at the top, which overlooks the city and bay. If you look closely at the pictures below, you will notice that whole city is encircled by parks and green spaces. These public lands are known as the “Town Belt” and were intentionally put into Wellington’s city plan to promote a healthier population and prevent sprawling development. While at the viewpoint, we noticed the expansive botanic gardens on the hill across town and decided to make that our afternoon destination.
Before venturing up to the gardens, we decided to stop in the city center for lunch and to walk along the harbor. Along the way, we encountered one of the funniest and most peculiar activities we have come across while traveling. We noticed over a hundred teenaged girls in their school uniforms accumulating around the harbor. We heard one of them say to another, “The water is going to be so cold.” Next thing we knew, all of the girls were shrieking loudly and running to form a line on the water’s edge. “One. Two. Three!” and they went jumping off the edge; wave upon wave of them plunging into the water. It was hilarious. We later found out that they attend an all-girls school that requires uniforms through grade 12, but in year 13 a uniform no longer needs to be worn. So a tradition has formed of jumping into the harbor donning the uniform on the very last day that it has to be worn.
After some good laughs, we headed back to the car and made our way to the botanic gardens for more time in the Town Belt. A sign posted on the greenhouse sparked our interest so we asked one of the gardeners about it. Turns out there was supposed to be a huge fireworks display the previous weekend, but it got postponed due to bad weather and was rescheduled for that night instead. More great luck for us! Our holiday park was located in Lower Hutt, a suburb just across the harbor from Wellington, making it the perfect place to watch the show. There were bonfires everywhere on the beach; almost a more incredible sight than the main firework display. After talking with some Kiwis we learned that the reason for the fireworks was a dude named Guy Fawkes. Guy was arrested on November 5th, 1605 while guarding explosives intended to assassinate King James I. From then forward, the people of Great Britain have been celebrating Guy’s failed attempt on the King’s life with bonfires and fireworks. As a British Commonwealth, New Zealand continues to celebrate this day, and we’re glad they do because it was a lot of fun.
Our visits to the port cities of Picton and Wellington, as well as the ferry ride itself, made us glad to have made the decision to drive rather than fly between the islands. We definitely recommend taking the Interislander Ferry if you have the time, and be sure to enjoy some bubbly along the way.