Picton and Wellington - Across the divide

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February 6th 2016
Published: March 22nd 2016
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Our last day on the NZ South Island saw us out of bed at 4 am with a busy day ahead of us. We had booked the ferry across to North Island from Picton, which is where we had arranged to return our lovely South Island car. It is possible to take vehicles across the water on the ferry but, of course, the costs increase if you choose to do that and it was cheaper for us to hire another car once we got to North Island. We had only a rough idea how long the journey and paperwork would take us (we had The Scratch to sort out, remember?) so we left Kaikoura at 6 am to ensure we had plenty of time. It turned out we'd got it just about right, arriving in Picton about 8.30 am after a pleasant, unhurried journey along the coastline. In fact, we were a little early as the hire car office wasn't yet open but it was literally just next door to the ferry building so we were able to check our luggage in while we waited. We had rehearsed our words to explain The Scratch on the car and had every bit of insurance documentation ready. In fact, the lady behind the counter could not have been less interested! She just took the keys and waved us goodbye. Okaaayy. I was really sorry to see the car go as it had been just brilliant, covering 2850 kms for us with no trouble at all. We hoped the next one would be as good.

Picton was a pretty place and the harbour was interesting with a historic boat on display and lots of working and pleasure craft moored in the waters. We ate breakfast overlooking the harbour and Steve lost the rest of his tooth filling to a bacon butty. That's a job for us to do when we get to North Island then .... We were travelling on the Interislander Aratere ship, a huge thing capable of taking lorries, cars and people and probably lots more that I didn't realise. The journey was scheduled to take about 3 hours to cover the 92 km journey and has been described as one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world, so I hoped it was, given my disappointment about Milford Sound. In fact, the Interislander company promote the journey as a cruise, rather than a bog-standard ferry crossing, and I was interested to see what the experience would be like. Boarding the boat was straightforward, the ship seemed to have very few passengers and we were able to get seats right at the front so we had a wonderful view.

The Cook Strait is notorious for having dangerous waters and the rough seas and heavy swells often disrupt the ferry timetable or even lead to cancellation. It's something to do with the meeting of the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific and the proximity of the Roaring Forties, which can make for turbulent waters. The Cook Straight itself is only about 22 kms wide at its narrowest point but the ferry journey includes a lot of time in the sounds, which adds to the journey length. Thankfully, the water for our crossing was like a millpond and we left on time at 10.45 am. And what a treat! Sailing out of Picton in the lovely sunny weather provided us with the most stunning scenery, especially around Queen Charlotte Sound, but really all the way to Wellington on the other side. I was able to get around the ship without too much bother and even felt brave enough to walk down the middle of the decks without having to cling to the sides or lurch from one hanging-on point to the next. No more drunken sailor impressions from me, oh no, I was more Popeye the Sailor Man on this occasion. This time it was Steve who was 'parked' in a seat for a nap while I was the explorer! I even went outside onto the viewing decks and the bow of the ship, though it was a little windy there. The sun shone, the sea was smooth, the views were amazing and I really enjoyed it. It more than made up for missing the trip on the Milford Sound. At one point the captain alerted us to a nearby whale and, later on, an albatross. I was almost sorry when we approached Wellington, having travelled from Picton through Queen Charlotte Sound, Tory Channel, Perano Head, Cook Strait, Karori Rip, Sinclair Head, Barrett Reef and Pencarrow Head, arriving in Wellington at almost 2 pm. And all for only $55 dollars each (about £27).

Given that the check-in process to board the ship had been almost like that of a plane journey I half expected to have to go through Customs when we got to the other side. Instead we were straight out into the taxi rank where we were particularly smitten by a somewhat out-of-the-ordinary 'taxi' owned by Dean (we like the unusual) which we chose ahead of the more mundane versions. He had his Aller-Retours vehicle all rigged out inside with a disco ball and flashing lights and he gave us a running commentary about Wellington all the way to the hotel. He was married to a girl from Birmingham, UK, and had worked for a while at the Railway Museum in York. Small world. As he dropped us at the Trinity Hotel I was humming Jive Talking and was ready to strut my stuff a la Travolta. Such fun. The hotel was modern and our room (611) was very small with no view and no a/c but was reasonably priced for a Wellington hotel. It also had a rooftop garden and bar which I really liked but Steve thought was somewhat pretentious. It was well used by the hip and trendy young things of Wellington and me, when I needed nicotine.

We spent our first full day in Wellington trying to get a dentist sorted for Steve's missing filling. Thankfully, he wasn't in pain as a result and we had the time to reject the first astronomical quote in favour of a much more reasonable price from the second practice, though they couldn't do it until the next day (our insurance would only pay out up to a limit for dental treatment). We strolled around the harbour and watched lots of youngsters seemingly trying to outdo each other for the biggest and loudest belly flop into the harbour. The water looked deep, they were completely unsupervised, there wasn't a lifeguard to be seen and they were having the time of their lives! Wouldn't have been allowed at home, on H&S grounds - shame. The harbour was an interesting area with lots of civic buildings, some really interesting art features and some rather upscale restaurants in the old harbour sheds. Not quite our thing (or our pockets!) so we opted for a pub lunch on Cuba Street listening to the street buskers and watching the entertainers there. We visited the Te Papa museum, NZ's national museum I think, which was fascinating but we couldn't do it justice in the limited time we had. I did opt for the Earthquake House though, which was quite frightening and gave a good idea of what it was like to experience that event. On this occasion I wasn't the only one clinging on to complete strangers! We booked a city bus tour for the next day after the dental appointment, knowing that we wouldn't have time to revisit any areas of interest the bus tour highlighted but that's the price we had to pay for a lost filling - well, as well as the dentist's bill!

We were up early the next day to make the dental appointment at 9.30. It was all done a short while later by an Egyptian who had been practising in NZ for years. We both had our hair cut on the way back to the hotel by a very pleasant young lady who was quite hopeless. We were still finding bits she'd missed days later. (Chantalle, you've got quite a job on when we get back!) We called in to the Old Bank Building where the remains of The Inconstant, a ship once owned by founding father Mr Plimmer, still lie in the basement. It was discovered during renovations but was too expensive to remove from the footings of the huge building now standing above it so they have preserved the wood and covered it with a glass roof so that we can still see and appreciate this wonderful wooden boat and its history.

In the afternoon we went to catch our city bus tour. Our driver and guide was an actor whose claim to fame was working for Peter Jackson on a number of his films, albeit in small parts. Jackson has really put Wellington on the map. There is now a thriving film industry there and Jackson is apparently buying up huge tracts of land with a view to turning the city into an antipodean Hollywood. Indeed, it is referred to as Wellywood and has a Hollywood-style sign set into its landscape (though the last few letters are blowing away, symbolically, in recognition of the winds that whistle down the streets - it is also known as the windy city). The tour was really interesting, with just us two initially until joined by two Americans at a pick-up point towards the end. We went up Victoria Mount, into the Miramar area where we called in to one of the film-related outlets, visited the Old St Paul's cathedral, saw the Beehive government building and Peter Jackson's house - but only from a distance! We saw some of the old trolley buses still being used in the city but about to be phased out, and we went to the top of the still-running funicular - Wellington is quite a hilly city with lots of steep steps up to the higher parts so the little train(?) still does roaring trade. The airport could be seen from one of our viewpoints and the guide told us that its short runway prevents the bigger planes from landing there which limits its accessibility for tourists. It can currently only land planes from Australia and has applied to extend its runway (into the sea!) so that tourists from China and Japan could also land there, thus boosting its tourist trade on which it is heavily dependent. Auckland, which currently lands all the bigger planes is, quite naturally, not happy with the proposal! Tourist numbers have increased in Wellington since a huge amount of sand was imported to create a beach on a rocky part of the coastline.

We'd had a lovely time in Wellington. The weather was kind to us and the sunshine did put a positive complexion on things. We finished off our time there with a happy hour at The George pub and wandered home on our last evening feeling mellow and relaxed and, even though our pockets were several hundred pounds lighter, Steve was fully fixed. I, on the other hand, could now definitely do with seeing a doctor ....

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23rd March 2016

Sea legs
Glad to see you get some sea legs at last. You've spent so much time on boats just lately, you'll need to consider a CRUISE next time! x
23rd March 2016

Stranger things have happened ..... ! Jx

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