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You've a choice of five ships, and various different crossing times.

All ships offer similar levels of comfort/convenience and journey time, so the main factor to consider is when it is most convenient for you to travel.

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Taking the Ferry between NZ's Islands

Part 2 :  Vessels, Journey Information and Booking Ahead

The Kaitaki is the largest and one of the most modern of the five vessels providing passenger and car ferry service between NZ's North and South Islands.

Part of a three part series on New Zealand's Interisland ferries - see also :
1.  History and Route Information
2.  Vessels, Journeys, Bookings
3.  Fares, Weather, Misc

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links on the right hand side for more articles.



The journey between Wellington and Picton lasts about 3 hours, including beautiful scenery through the Marlborough Sounds, and a fascinating journey through Wellington's harbor, considered one of the finest natural harbors in the world.

All five ships are fairly similar in most respects, and the two companies charge reasonably comparable fares (although sometimes you might find that one company has sold out of discounted tickets while the other still has some.

So concentrate mainly on which crossing offers the most convenient journey times for your schedule, and make sure that it is cost competitive.


There are five vessels in service on the route these days, three operated by the Interislander (the modern day successor to the traditional NZ Railways 'rail ferries' of yore) and two by the relatively new company, Bluebridge.

Interislander - three vessels

The Arahura dates back to 1984 and carries up to 550 passengers and 124 cars.  The Aratere can carry up to 360 passengers and 130 cars, and came into service in 1999.  Both these ships were custom built for the NZ ferry operator.

The third ship is the Kaitaki, built in 1994 and introduced to NZ in 2005 after service in Northern Europe for the first ten years of her life.

The Kaitaki is the largest of the three ships, carrying up to 1650 passengers and 736 cars, but with no provision to carry rail wagons.  It was formerly known variously as Isle of Innisfree, Pride of Cherbourg, and Stena Challenger before transferring to New Zealand and becoming Kaitaki.

Apparently the old seamen's superstition about it being bad luck to change a ship's name no longer applies!

Bluebridge - two vessels

The Santa Regina arrived in late 2002 and started service in 2003, having formerly operated between Corsica and Marseilles in the Mediterranean.  She was joined by the slightly smaller Monte Stello in 2006, which had formerly served between Las Palmas and Tenerife.

Unlike the Interislander, Bluebridge have honored the tradition of not renaming their ships.

The 'Lynx' fast catamaran ferries

There have been repeated attempts to operate a faster service across Cook Strait, using large high speed (40 knot compared to 18 knot) 'wave piercing' catamarans.  These were generally operated only over the busier summer seasons, from 1994 - 2005.  Four different vessels were used (one at a time) and all were named Lynx (and numbered consecutively 1, 2, 3 & 4).  All were built by Incat in Hobart (Tasmania), Australia.  They were all quite large, holding up to 200 cars and 800 passengers.

Unfortunately, all vessels are speed limited while traveling through the Marlborough Sounds, so it is not possible for these vessels to halve the travel time, as would at first seem indicated.  Instead, they have generally reduced the travel time from about 3 hrs 10 minutes to about 2 hours 15 minutes - definitely a help, but hardly a transformational reduction in travel time (particularly when you add the 'check in an hour in advance' requirement and the time to get off the ferry at the other end, etc - in other words the total journey time drops from about 4 hours to 3 hours.

The second challenge has been environmental groups have always complained about the fast ferries in the Marlborough Sounds.

The third challenge is that the cost of the fast ferry journey is necessarily much higher than the cost of the slower more fuel efficient ferry, but in return for the extra cost charged (about 20% more), passengers only got to trim about an hour off their total travel time.

So the vessels were never an outstanding success and at this stage it seems unlikely we'll see a return of fast catamaran service any time soon.

Do You Need to Book Your Journey?

This varies of course during the year, but if you are traveling with a car, the answer is 'ideally yes' pretty much year round.  If you are traveling without a car, booking becomes less essential.

Typically the ferries will fill up with cars before they fill up with foot passengers, although the Kaitaki can be an exception to that - it has a much greater car to passenger capacity ratio than the other two ferries.  The Arahura might be your best bet for being able to walk on.

Busy times of year are New Zealand's summer in general, and school holidays in particular (Easter, May and August as well as the summer holidays from early December to early February), rising to a peak from mid-December through to mid January.  During this peak period, you should book even as foot passengers, and as far in advance as possible.  By way of example, at the time of writing this in mid August, a few of the most popular sailings around the Christmas/New Year period had already sold out completely.

You can book a short time or a long time in advance (up to six months), and as soon as you have certain plans you should do so.

On the other hand, if you're planning on 'just winging it' and don't want to have a fixed itinerary, then you will probably be okay, particularly in the off-season (ie primarily winter), and the other part of no fixed itinerary is that if you miss a sailing or two, then it isn't the end of the world, because there is nowhere you have to be on the other side.

But if you have an important connection you must make - for example, you are traveling from Wellington to Picton to then connect with the train on to Christchurch - you shouldn't take a risk and should book your travel.

Standby Car Travel

If you are feeling adventurous, you can get in line and hope for the best.

Two of the three Interislander ferries (Arahura and Aratere) share their space with both regular vehicles and also rail wagons, and when accepting car bookings, they make a generous assumption as to how much rail freight will be taken on the sailing.  Many times not as much rail freight eventuates as has been allowed for, and that frees up extra space for cars, trucks, buses, etc.

In addition there are always some 'no shows' for regular vehicle bookings, so even if you were told that the sailing is full, you might be fortunate and squeeze on.

Needless to say, if traveling standby, the earlier you arrive, the better your place in line.  You should consider arriving several hours ahead of the sailing time.

While waiting, you can leave your vehicle and go into town (Picton) or the city (Wellington) for a while, but should be sure to be back at your car for when the ferry arrives into the terminal.

Journey Description

Your journey starts before you board - you generally are requested to arrive the better part of an hour before the ship sails, and boarding will probably commence about 20 - 30 minutes before the ship sails.

A typical journey has you spending about 40 minutes in Wellington harbor, about 30 minutes sailing around the coast of the bottom of the North Island, then about an hour crossing Cook Strait followed by another hour going through the Marlborough Sounds.

Your time in the Marlborough Sounds is always wonderfully beautiful and calm, your time in the open water can be anywhere from outstandingly calm to outrageously rough, and things in Wellington harbor are usually reasonably calm (see our discussion on weather in part 3).

Food and drinks are sold onboard, and there are various lounges where you can enjoy the journey or even watch a movie, as well as going out on the open decks.  You can't access the vehicle decks while at sea, and you can't stay in your car for the journey.

There is a shop with souvenirs and other items for sale.

The Aratere and Kaitaki also have semi-private lounges you can access for an extra fee (sort of a bit like business class on a plane).


Typically you place your bags in luggage trolleys at one end prior to boarding the ferry, and then collect them off the trolleys at the other end once you have disembarked.  You can check two pieces of luggage for free, each weighing up to 32kg (70lbs).

This is a simple and easy process.

Day Excursions

Some people enjoy doing a roundtrip sailing, usually from Wellington and back to Wellington, all in the same day.  If you take an early ferry over from Wellington to Picton you can then stay a few hours in Picton before taking a later ferry back to Wellington again.

This makes for a full but very pleasant day, and is fun in the summer, but of course not quite so pleasant in the winter.  The Interislander sometimes has discounted fares for day trippers.

Part of a three part series on New Zealand's Interisland ferries - see also :
1.  History and Route Information
2.  Vessels, Journeys, Bookings
3.  Fares, Weather, Misc

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Originally published 20 Aug 2010, last update 30 May 2021

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