Taking the Cook Strait ferry is one of New Zealand’s most enjoyable travel experiences. And whether you’re hitting the South Island for a weeks-long roadie, or just heading to Wellington to catch the arts festival or a show, it’s also an easy and convenient way to get around. It doesn’t matter which direction you’re going in, either, nor whether you have a vehicle, a bike, or just your own two feet to carry you! Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know when taking the Wellington to Picton ferry.
Which companies operate the Wellington to Picton ferry?
Wellington Ferry Terminals
The Bluebridge Wellington Ferry Terminal is right in the heart of Wellington, directly behind the Wellington Train Station near Parliament. The Interislander terminal is located about two kilometers north of the CBD along the Hutt Road motorway. For foot passengers, there’s a complimentary shuttle bus to the Interislander Terminal from Wellington Railway Station (platform 9), which departs 50 minutes before every scheduled ferry service.
Picton Ferry Terminals
The Interislander Ferry Terminal in Picton is located at 1-3 Auckland Street, a few minutes walk from the waterfront, Foreshore Reserve, Information Centre (i-Site), and the main drag in the town centre, High Street. Both the passenger terminal and vehicle terminals are located here, a short distance away from each other.
The Bluebridge Ferry Terminal in Picton is located a bit further away from the dock, at 1 Lagoon Road, just west of the town centre. There is a courtesy shuttle bus for Bluebridge passengers that can pick you up or drop you off from the Picton i-Site, Interislander Ferry Terminal, and other locations around town such as hotels and backpackers.
How long does the Wellington to Picton ferry take?
The Cook Strait ferry crossing takes approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes. Actual journey times depend on a number of factors including weather conditions, the number of passengers, and operational logistics. Weather and sea conditions, in particular, may delay travel time significantly. However, you might also arrive surprisingly early. In most cases, it’s safe to say that you’ll be there within 3 and a half hours of leaving either Picton or Wellington, on either the Bluebridge or Interislander services.
How often does the Cook Strait ferry go?
There are multiple ferry services every day between Picton and Wellington. Both Bluebridge and Interislander provide multiple services every day, in both directions. Bluebridge run four sailings per day from Wellington and three from Picton, although there are reduced services over the weekend. Interislander operate three sailings every day in each direction. Both companies have one morning departure, one afternoon departure, and one early-evening departure.
Can you take an overnight ferry across Cook Strait?
Yes, sort of. Bluebridge runs a 2:30 a.m. sailing from Wellington to Picton, which arrives at 6:00 a.m. This is a sleeper service, with cabins on board. If you book a cabin, you can board this service from 11:15 p.m., allowing you to nod off to sleep long before the boat actually leaves the dock. However, if you don’t book a cabin, then the reporting time to check in and get on board is 1:30 a.m. This means you won’t be the most refreshed traveller arriving in Picton at 6:00 a.m.
This sleeper service does not operate in the other direction, however, because the overnight (2:15 a.m. - 5:45 a.m.) service from Picton to Wellington is a freight-only service. Therefore, passengers are not allowed to travel on this journey.
The Interislander does not operate any overnight ferry services.
Services to expect onboard the Wellington to Picton ferry
All Cook Strait passenger ferries have an excellent range of services on board. Bluebridge and Interislander both have a number of vessels, of different sizes, that operate on this route. You can see the name of the vessel on which you’ll be travelling for that particular sailing on the website booking pages, as well as on your booking reference. You can then check the specific facilities for that vessel, but all of them have toilets, baby change facilities, cafes, restaurants, shops, private cabin options, observation decks, and plenty of seating space including tables, chairs, and lounge areas. Some vessels also have onboard business facilities and cinemas.
Can you drive onto the Cook Strait ferry?
Yes. All Bluebridge and Interislander services are vehicle ferries. You can simply drive onto the ferry through the vehicle terminals of each company in Wellington and Picton. Cars, motorbikes, motorhomes, campervans, and bicycles (to be secured) can all be taken on board. However, some rental car companies don’t allow you to take their vehicles on the ferry:
Both ferry companies allow motorbikes, bicycles, campervans and motorhomes on board. However, please be aware that several major rental car companies (including Hertz, Avis, Budget, and Thrifty) do NOT let you drive their vehicles on board the Bluebridge and Interislander ferry services. Instead, they have depots and offices in both Picton and Wellington. This means that you can drop off your car at one end, book a ticket on the ferry as a foot passenger, and then pick up another rental car on the other end.
Can you check luggage in on the Cook Strait ferry?
Yes. Interislander allows passengers to check in up to two bags per person, weighing up to 32kg per bag. Bluebridge also allow two bags per person, weighing up to 30kg each.
What’s the easiest way to get to and from the ferry terminal in Wellington?
Being New Zealand’s capital, it’s hardly surprising that Wellington is well connected and easy to reach, whether by road, rail, or flight.
Getting to Wellington by bus, road and rail
State Highway 2 (through the Hutt Valley and Masterton) and State Highway 1 (through Porirua and Levin) connect Wellington with the rest of the North Island. Intercity run regular direct bus services to Wellington from Auckland, Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo, Hamilton, Napier, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, and other major North Island cities.
Another option is to take the brilliant Northern Explorer train, which runs all the way from Auckland to Wellington. This passes through picturesque farmlands and the volcanic plateau of the central North Island over a memorable 11-hour journey, which runs three times per week in each direction.
COVID-19 UPDATE: due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Northern Explorer train is currently suspended until further notice. However, KiwiRail have guaranteed that services will be operational in time for the 2020-2021 summer season.
Flights to and from Wellington
Wellington International Airport – only 5 kilometers and barely 15 minutes from the city centre in Rongotai – is arguably New Zealand’s most convenient major city airport. Jetstar and Air New Zealand offer frequent daily flights to Wellington from Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown, Tauranga, Dunedin, and other major New Zealand cities, as well as international routes from Australia, Singapore, and the Pacific Islands. Sounds Air, Golden Bay Air, Air Kaikoura, and other smaller airlines also operate regular flights to smaller towns and regions.
What’s the easiest way to get to and from the ferry terminal in Picton?
Picton arguably has better road and rail connections than any other small town in New Zealand, given its importance as a hub between North Island and South Island passenger and freight traffic.
Getting to Picton by bus, road and rail
State Highway 1 connects Picton all the way to Kaikoura, Christchurch, Dunedin, and beyond. It’s a half-hour drive to Picton from Blenheim, and roughly 2 hours from Nelson, 2 hours from Kaikoura, and 6 hours from Christchurch. Intercity operate a daily bus between Christchurch and Picton, stopping at several places along the way including Kaikoura and Blenheim.
There’s also a scenic rail option to the ferry in the South Island, too: the Coastal Pacific. Also operated by KiwiRail (through their Great Journeys of New Zealand group, of which the Interislander is also a part), this 6-hour trip runs a few times per week between Christchurch Railway Station and Picton. It takes in sweeping views of the Kaikoura Coastline and Ranges along the way, as well as a close-up view onto the salt plains of Lake Grassmere. Like the Northern Explorer, the train has special oversized viewing windows and a dedicated outdoor observation car.
COVID-19 UPDATE: due to the coronavirus pandemic, Coastal Pacific trains are currently suspended. However, KiwiRail have indicated that services may be operational by late September or early October.
Flying to Picton
Sounds Air is the only airline operating regular scheduled passenger services to and from Picton. However, Air New Zealand and others run plenty of services to and from Bleheim Airport, a 30-minute drive away.
Wellington has hundreds of accommodation options – there are big chain hotels, boutique B&Bs in heritage homes, and a range of budget backpacker choices. Picton also has numerous budget and high-end accommodation options, so you have plenty of choices if wanting to stay near the ferry terminal. Alternatively, you can stay at the fabulous Bluemoon Lodge in nearby Havelock, camp out at the brilliant Pelorus Bridge campground, or stay in one of Blenheim’s many B&Bs, hotels, or campsites.
What are the best activities to do around Picton?
- Kayak the Pelorus river – drift down the stunning stretch of river used by Sir Peter Jackson to film the famous barrel-escape scene in The Hobbit with experienced guides.
- Explore the Marlborough Sounds – enjoy the tranquility of secluded coves and bays between sunken ancient river valleys, or take the famous Pelorus Mail Boat Cruise
- Havelock/strong> – visit the museums honouring Havelock’s two Nobel Prize-winning scientists and feast on delicious mussels in the “Greenshell mussel capital of the world”!
- Visit Marlborough wine country – book a private cellar door tasting, cycle from vineyard to vineyard along Blenheim’s winery road, or simply enjoy the stunning golden-hued views with a glass of world-class vino in hand.
What are the best activities to do around Wellington?
- Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie tours – see the best of “Wellywood” with visits to recognisable filming locations, tours of award-winning Weta Workshops special effects studio, and the iconic Embassy Theatre, which hosted world and New Zealand premieres of Sir Peter Jackson’s famous trilogies.
- Enjoy New Zealand’s capital of culture – come for the New Zealand Festival of the Arts to see some of the best comedy, music, theatre, and dance acts from around the world, or hunt out one of the city’s famous underground music and comedy venues, which have served as breeding grounds for some legendary New Zealand acts.
- Eat well and drink coffee, “Wellies-style” – nothing says Wellington like good coffee and quality food, and you don’t have to look too hard to find it. Stroll the stretch of cafes-cum-institutions (while getting splashed by the famous fountain) along pedestrianised Cuba Street, or head to Newtown to take stock of the city’s latest cutting-edge, slightly off-beat food and drink buzz.