Given the option of traveling on one of a variety of boats for the sole purpose of boat travel – especially one involving a trip between the scenic South & North Islands of New Zealand – a ferry, I will admit, sounds the least sexy. A yacht with a fireplace, mulled wine and alpaca fur blankets in winter? Oh yes I may. A catamaran with Fat Freddy’s Drop and net hammocks over the water in summertime? If I must, my friend.
But alas I am not in a Mariah Carey music video, or yet discovered how to grow New Zealand currency, so the ferry I shall take. And so should you.
The Journey from South to North New Zealand
After spending 7 months in Queenstown, we decided it was time to start road tripping around in our newly purchased converted campervan to see more of the South Island, and eventually move to the North Island to end our 1 year working holiday visa on the other side.
Plus, as a bonus, the North Island typically has much warmer ocean temperatures, more tropical-looking locations, volcanic hot springs, surfing spots, hobbit towns, and generally just more human beings than the South Island. When you only have one year to explore a whole country – which I realize sounds like a long time, but goes much quicker than you think – and finally get an actual liveable van with which to explore it in, it’s a no brainer.
The Basics: Traveling New Zealand with a Vehicle
First off, if you decide to move or travel between the North & South Islands and plan on taking your car or campervan with you, a 3 1/2 hour ferry ride through the 58-mile Cook Strait is your only available option, and the Interislander Ferry is the longest running operation in the country.
I will also tell you this tip, but it does require a bit more planning and flexibility on your end: If you plan on buying a car while living in New Zealand and want to live on both islands, you could also a) buy and sell a car on both islands, as they’re easy to find and not yet painfully overpriced, or b) travel by Intercity bus Flexipass and/or friends around the first island, sign up for a car relocation service between the two islands (which often includes the cost of the ferry trip), and buy a car on the second island. Do what you will with that information.
Taking Off in Picton, New Zealand
When traveling from the South to North Island, the port for the Interislander Ferry is located in the gorgeous little town of Picton, best reached by the winding Queen Charlotte Drive along the coast from Havelock, another gem of a place with the best mussels ever.
After walking around Picton and treating ourselves to a couple of cold beers with a bangin’ view, we spent the night at the riverside Alexanders Holiday Park (the very few self contained spots just out of town fill up early) in preparation for our 9:45am boarding time on the Aratere, one of 3 Interislander ferries that make the regular crossing between Picton and Wellington.
Perks of the Interislander Ferry
After an easy check-in and boarding process through the vehicle terminal – be aware you cannot go back and grab anything from your car once you walk away from it, so you may want to pack a book, headphones and your wallet – we went upstairs to snag a spot in the Aratere Bar for departure.
Not that the rest of it is remotely hideous, but the first hour of the ferry ride going out of Picton is friggin’ incredible. Crossing through Queen Charlotte Sound and the Tory Channel, the view of the coastline and dots of green-covered islands look almost unreal. I definitely recommend grabbing a seat on the rooftop deck or standing along the railing outside for a bit to soak in your last sights of the South Island.
Otherwise, the ferry is thoughtfully and wisely equipped with such ferry-good-time necessities as:
- Bar with local wine and beers
- Free wifi with a 100MB limit per person, though you can count on losing signal in spotty parts of the Strait
- Food Court with an assortment of reasonably priced sandwiches, sushi and fish & chips
- Family Lounge for, well… families, and those who require adequate space for manspreading
- Nursery & Children’s Play Area, if you are nursing or a child who likes to play in areas
- Quiet Lounge if all that beauty’s enough to make you sleepy
- Outdoor Smoking Area if your lungs need some fresh air
- Hector’s Store & Cafe with coffee, magazines, and other standard store things
- Cinema (for an extra ticket price, but rad!) with popcorn and a family-friendly movie showing
- Video games if you can’t stop living that boat-nerd life
Interislander even hosts an onboard coloring contest, and not long before your arrival in Wellington, comes through to pass out hot scones. It may not be music-video-yacht status, but damnit if it doesn’t feel fancy.
While the cost of the ferry ride depends on the size and type of your vehicle (or whether or not you’re traveling with a vehicle), our campervan plus the two of us would have cost approximately $235 NZD for the non-refundable Web Saver ticket, $275 NZD for the 50% refundable Saver Change option, and $335 NZD for the 100% fully refundable Easy Change option. Like all things in New Zealand, beauty and convenience have their price.
Also, if you know your likelihood of seasickness is high, be sure to check the weather conditions ahead of time, as the Cook Strait is known to get bumpy. You can change your reservation to another trip of equal price for no charge, or simply pay the difference if you find you need to take a more expensive trip than the original.
Big thanks to the ‘sweet as’ folks at Interislander for making our first Kiwi ferry experience a total beaut, and while we don’t plan on moving back down to the South Island, it’s always a comfort to know we can.