Anyone who has ever done a road trip of New Zealand will have indelible memories of their Cook Strait crossing.
The Strait is a wild piece of water. The great, oceanic currents sweeping up the West Coast of the South Island funnel through the channel between Cape Terawhiti at the south-west tip of the North Island and Arapawa Island at the entrance to the South Island’s Marlborough Sounds. The sea floor here, what’s more, rises toward what was once a land bridge linking the islands, and the weather systems that march in from the west find themselves blocked by land to the north and south, and with nowhere to go but straight through the Strait.
For that reason, it’s not at all uncommon to have a bumpy ride going across the Strait. The ferries crossing here are all big, powerful ships. Yet they still feel the muscles of the Strait when it chooses to flex them. Bumping through the swell, watching the land dimmed by squalls, is as close as most people get in this day and age to experiencing the rigours of the sea passage that brought many of our ancestors to these shores. It’s exhilarating.
If you strike the Strait on a day when it all gets a little too exhilarating for your tastes, spare a thought for the passengers of the forerunner of the present Wellington–Picton service in the days before the South Island Main Trunk railway line connected Picton to Christchurch. The ferry between islands in those days was an overnight proposition between Wellington and Lyttelton, which a southerly buster could turn into a terrifying epic.
Even on a rough day, it’s easy to see as you cruise the perpetually serene waterway of the sheltered Queen Charlotte Sound, why it is that the 92-km, three-hour cruise has been described as one of the most beautiful in the world.
And you are, in any case, more than likely to find the Strait in one of its benign moods, when the sights of the Sounds and the rugged Wellington coast are rolled out before you for your viewing pleasure.
The facilities aboard all the vessels crossing the Strait are first rate, with a range of highly palatable food and beer, wines and spirits available at the bar. There are entertainment amenities for young and old – especially the young – so more often than not it seems as though it’s all over just a little too soon.