The next day, the rain had disappeared. After a quick stop at a Swedish bakery in Nelson, we started heading towards Picton and the ferry. Though Nelson and Picton are less than 100 kilometers apart as the kea flies, the road between them winds through a mountainous area. We had plenty of time to reach the ferry and so were in no rush. The last bit of the road was so windy that we could go less than 20 kph on the curves, but this annoyance was more than balanced out by the exceptional views of the Marlborough Sounds.
For those unfamiliar with New Zealand geography, the part of the of the South Island closest to the North is “frayed,” forming a large collection of bays and islands known collectively as the Marlborough Sounds. The ferry passes through one such passage on its way in and out of Picton; of course, it had been dark on our trip to the South Island. Now, though, we could appreciate the sound and surrounding mountains on our way into Picton.
Once we reached Picton, we had just enough time to stop by the grocery store for some lunch supplies before joining the queue for the ferry. Traffic in town was chaotic as cars leaving the ferries interfered with cars heading towards the ferries, but we made it to the terminal without too much trouble. The ticketing person at the terminal gave us some chocolate for the wait, which was a nice touch. While parked, we packed up some of the clutter in the car and loaded everything we’d need for the ferry in a backpack, as you can’t access your car during the trip. Done with all that, we copied the rest of the people in line and reclined our seats all the way back!
Finally, we boarded the ferry and made our way up to the decks. This afternoon crossing was more crowded than our last, 9 p.m. trip, so we quickly grabbed a table. We finished our lunch and a coffee by the time the ferry set off, so we relinquished our seats to some people hovering around and set off to explore the ship. On our trip to the South Island, the outdoors sections had been closed so we naturally went to those areas first. Due to the ship moving and the narrow sounds, the wind was quite strong but we enjoyed being out in the sun. We spent our time looking for birds, which was challenging as the birds stuck close to the water and the ferry was surprisingly tall. Nevertheless, we managed to spot two penguins floating in the sound!
The first third of the ferry trip was a nice cruise through the Marlborough Sounds, but before long we headed out into the open waters of the Cook Strait. The small seabirds became harder to identify as they zipped around the waves, but we began to spot some (much) larger albatrosses as well. Sadly, we saw no dolphins or whales: our entire South Island trip lacked these sightings, which in my opinion is a good reason to go back!
Of course, out in the open ocean the wind picked up even more, so we made some forays inside to warm up. We found that every seat was taken and the entire place too crowded, so we went outside again for the rest of the trip, this time near the back of the ship where the wind was not quite as strong.
The last third of the voyage found us back in Wellington Harbour. We watched planes from the airport take off and come in for landings above us while continuing to scan the water for birds. The albatrosses were long gone but we did see some swarms of seagulls, presumably feeding on fish. Finally, we got the announcement to head back to our cars and prepare for debarking. We’d been one of the first to board so naturally we were one of the last cars to leave.
Once back on the North Island, we drove straight to our accommodation for the night, a cozy hotel with the world’s tightest parking lot. I managed to fit Godzilla in a spot, but it was so tight that M had to get out on the driver’s side. Luckily this place was within easy walking distance of downtown Wellington, so after a snack and a quick shower we started investigating our options: it was New Year’s Eve, after all!
Wellington prides itself on being the “coolest little capital in the world,” so our New Year’s choices were not unlimited. We decided to head to Cuba Street for a guidebook-recommended dinner of cheap Asian food before hunting for a bar. Most places in this area, which is Wellington’s nightlife area, were naturally packed so we walked to the waterfront where the city’s pre-fireworks festival was going on.
One of the waterfront bars had a nice, large outdoor seating area (remember, New Year’s is in the summer here!). We managed to find some seats and got some beers while we people-watched and waited for midnight. At about ten to midnight, we walked back over to the festival area and counted down with the rest of the crowd, which was large for New Zealand but fairly small by most other standards. Perhaps reflecting this fact, the fireworks were underwhelming, but I guess most New Year’s coverage of New Zealand focuses on Auckland.
As we started walking back to the hotel, we came across a more entertaining spectacle than the fireworks. Wellington’s waterfront has a tall diving board construction over a sheltered bit of the harbour, and a group of drunk guys were stripping to their underwear, climbing to the diving platform and jumping in, with the encouragement of the rest of the crowd. It must have been fun since some of them even got out for a second round.
We discovered, once back at the hotel, that there was a raucous bar down the street. Despite the noise, we managed to get to sleep at a reasonable (for New Year’s) time in preparation for the long drive on the next day.