Island hopping

By: Jacqui Gibson, Photography by: Jacqui Gibson

Strait Feronia in the Sounds The Feronia in the Sounds Strait Feronia in the Sounds
150919 HEDLEY BLUEBRIDGE 20A7247 Delicious food onboard 150919 HEDLEY BLUEBRIDGE 20A7247
Destinations Picton Harbour Kaitaki in Dock Kaitaki in dock at Picton Destinations Picton Harbour Kaitaki in Dock
Interislander Aratere Man taking photo of Hills of East Head as ship leaves Tory Channel RH1500 A passenger takes photosas the Aratere sails Interislander Aratere Man taking photo of Hills of East Head as ship leaves Tory Channel RH1500

Travelling between the North and South Islands by ferry has never been more fun. Jacqui Gibson jumps aboard Bluebridge to find out what’s new.

When I was a kid, I often ferried between the North and South Islands over summer. Back then, the family station wagon was packed to the gunnels, and the destination was Punga Cove - a resort in the Marlborough Sounds built and run by my grandparents.

Mostly, the goal was to cross the Cook Strait as quickly as possible, gobble a punnet of hot, soggy chips and face down a couple of hours of boredom before finally rushing ashore to a welcome cuddle from Nana.

These days, I travel the Strait for different reasons (think: Marlborough wine, to visit rellies in Blenheim and to get cracking on a highly anticipated South Island road trip). Decades on, that same ferry journey is almost unrecognisable.

For starters, there are two ferry companies to choose from - the Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry or the Interislander (the ‘quick cats’ or passenger catamarans have long since gone). And the three-and-a-half-hour journey can include anything from a marathon of free internet and a blockbuster movie to a snooze in a private cabin and a hot shower, to café treats and excellent coffee.

Best of all, if you’re sailing on the Bluebridge as I did recently, you can order a glass of Marlborough Ara Single Estate Pinot Gris before you’ve even caught sight of the stunning wine region. One thing that’s remained the same, however, is the half-hour you must spend on deck scanning the Strait for marine life and enjoying views of Tory Channel, the spectacular entrance to the Marlborough Sounds.

Whale watching

The Aratere arriving at Picton

I didn’t see any dolphins or whales on my trip to Picton, despite joining second mate Steve Brown ("they call me, Brownie") on the bridge for the best views on the ship during a choppy morning sail.

I boarded the Bluebridge’s Strait Feronia for the 8am Wellington-to-Picton sailing. And I had my fingers crossed to see a breaching humpback in the Cook Strait. Aim high, I thought. Brownie assured me he’d seen whales and dolphins many times, offering me a pair of high-powered binoculars.

I wandered up to the bridge (with permission, of course) to chat with Brownie after a hearty breakfast of mince on toast topped with a fried egg. It was as good as I’d hoped. See, even the food has changed. I could’ve ordered a barista-made flat white, made from Caffe L’affare’s top-notch espresso beans, but I opted for a peppermint tea, reluctantly passing up the freshly baked muffins and pastries. Mental note: come back for those later. 

On the bridge, I learned that Brownie, a Yorkshire man, had been at sea since leaving school aged 15. His work had taken him all over the world, including Canada, the United States and the Caribbean. Twenty years ago it brought him to New Zealand.

"I love my job. Every day is an adventure. And this is a great part of the world to work. The Marlborough Sounds look spectacular from every angle. In contrast, there’s nothing like cruising past the rugged rocks and steep hills above Wellington Heads. On a clear day, you can see the outline of the South Island as you leave Wellington. It’s wonderful."

Chilling in a private cabin

A family cabin on the Straitsman

An hour or so into my journey, there was still no sign of a cetacean friend, so I decided to call it quits and put my feet up in a private cabin. Snuggled down under a feather duvet, I jumped online, chewed through a bit of free wi-fi and watched the watery world go by through a salt-smeared porthole.

Bluebridge staff had assured me they now offered the best Wi-Fi on the water thanks to recently upgrading to VSAT technology, eliminating the so-called ‘black spots’ of the Cook Strait. I can’t confirm, not having compared it with what’s offered elsewhere. But I can attest to experiencing very little trouble sending an email, posting a story to Instagram and generally surfing the net to my heart’s content.

Taking in the scenery

Soak in the views

Heading to the upper deck in blustery conditions, I decided it was time to get outdoors and indulge in the scenic thrill I always get cruising into the Sounds. Maybe it’s a feeling prompted by memories of my late grandparents and our time together here - first at Punga Cove in Endeavour Inlet and later during their retirement in Sunshine Bay.

Maybe it’s because of the Sounds’ incredible human history. It’s a region featuring place names such as Te Whekenui Bay, associated with the great Polynesian navigator Kupe, and Ship Cove (or Meretoto), reputedly James Cook’s favourite New Zealand base during his three voyages of exploration.

The area’s geology is remarkable too. From searching Wikipedia in my cabin, I learned the Marlborough Sounds are an extensive network of flooded valleys created through land subsidence and rising sea levels. According to Māori mythology, these land formations are the prows of the sunken waka of Aoraki.

On deck, I found hugging the ship’s exterior walls was the most effective way to take in the views and avoid my dress flying up around my ears. I wasn’t the only one seeking cover. Outside were school kids, backpackers, fellow travellers and a few members of the American tour group I’d seen at check-in earlier that morning.

Each of us was tucked into a sheltered nook, hunkered down, gawping at the views.
Passing Karaka Point, then Sunshine Bay, Picton finally came into view. My morning journey had nearly ended. More to the point, time was running out to make a final run on the chef’s fresh pastries. The author travelled courtesy of Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries.

Travelling on the Bluebridge

  • If you’re an NZMCA member, expect up to 50 per cent off your Flexi Sail fare and a new family discount on top of your NZMCA fare if your booking includes at least one adult or senior, one infant or child and a vehicle.
  • If you’re travelling in a group with 12 or more people, or five or more vehicles, you can get a special group rate on your tickets.
  • Use the promo code MOVANNERS to book a Flexi Sail fare.
  • Bluebridge offers a short peak season from 15 December to 15 January — outside of that period, you’ll pay a lower, off-peak fare,
  • You can change your booking time for free as many times as you like within six months of your original travel date.
  • You can earn Airpoints Dollars with Bluebridge — so include your Airpoints account number when you book your ticket and make sure your booking name is the same as listed on your Airpoints account.
  • Bluebridge offers free wi-fi and movies. Private cabins, with en suite and linen, are from $30.
  • During the week, Bluebridge has a Wellington to Picton sleeper service, which boards at about midnight (though the ferry departs at 2.30am) and arrives at 6.30am.

Travelling on the Interislander

  • If you’re an NZMCA member, you’re likely to be eligible for exclusive benefits and member discounts, including extra flexible fares to change your plans to suit the weather. Don’t forget to add your member number to your booking.
  • Join the Interislander Nautical Miles programme for benefits such as priority disembarking and to earn programme dollars towards your next journey.
  • Kaitaki and Kaiarahi cross Cook Strait with both bow and stern doors, so you don’t have to turn around. They also have a flatter drawbridge, which means long vehicles don’t bottom out.
  • Each ship also has an Interislander Plus lounge for comfortable seating, complimentary food and drink and other services.
  • Interislander has three ships and 12 crossings a day during peak periods.

Before you sail

  • If you are an NZMCA member, you will need your membership card and wings visible for staff at check-in on either service.
  • Take travel-sickness medication if you think you might get seasick. Homoeopathic treatments and ginger tea are available on Bluebridge vessels.
  • Pets can be taken onboard, left in your vehicle or put in either the Interislander or Bluebridge kennels for a fee. Discuss travelling with
  • pets at check-in to let staff know to direct you to a suitable spot on the ship.
  • Both ferries have lifts and staff will support passengers in wheelchairs, walkers and prams. If you need special assistance, please ask at check-in.
  • Ensure your LPG bottle is turned off and secure.
  • Once parked on the vehicle bay, take everything you need and make sure your vehicle is off and parked correctly.  
  • Take note of where you parked so you can find it again.

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