Everyone knows New Zealand is a spectacular country to visit, with its rugged snow-capped mountains, dramatic coastline, and rolling green countryside.
But there’s one sure way to see it at its best: by rail. The Great Journeys of New Zealand is a series of three marvellous trains – and a ferry – which take you in comfort through the nation’s unforgettable scenery. Here is our guide to the three signature railway journeys:
1. Northern Explorer (Auckland – Wellington)
2. Coastal Pacific (Picton – Christchurch)
3. TranzAlpine (Christchurch – Greymouth)
There’s nothing quite like standing on the platform at Auckland’s Strand Station, waiting to board the Northern Explorer train for the 10-hour journey to Wellington (or vice versa, waiting in Wellington for the journey north to Auckland).
It’s an early morning departure, so the air is crisp, the sun just risen, and the buildings of the city’s CBD loom beyond the station.
Then the train slides smoothly away, on its long southward trek past hilly farming land, attractive small towns, and towering volcanic peaks.
The Northern Explorer is the perfect environment from which to take in the scenery, with friendly staff and comfortable seating.
Seats are mostly in pairs facing forwards, with the occasional set of four facing a table. Large scenic windows enable maximum visibility, and the roof and walls of each carriage have timber panelling to add a touch of warmth.
Supplied headsets give access to an excellent running commentary, which points out features along the way.
One carriage is the licensed café , which provides hot meals prepared by quality Wellington-based caterer Wishbone, along with lighter snacks. There are also local drinks such as beers from South Island brewer Monteith’s. Another special car is the open-air viewing carriage, which allows you to take photos without window reflections.
It is a whole new experience where you can feel the brisk winter air freshen your cheeks or the warm summer breeze ruffle your hair. Though it can be a chilly place to stand, the pay-off is the immersion in nature, seeing it from the unique angle provided by the rails.
Halfway through the journey, the train reaches an engineering triumph – the 1898 Raurimu Spiral, which allows trains to gradually rise up to the Volcanic Plateau. There are views of such mighty volcanic peaks as Mt Ruapehu from now on, and the train stops at National Park Station, serving Tongariro National Park.
A stopover option here is The Great Journeys of New Zealand’s Chateau Tongariro Experience package, which includes the return train ride from Auckland to the heart of the national park, a night in the memorable 1929 Chateau Tongariro Hotel, and a range of activities including the Sky Waka Gondola Ride and meals at the hotel.
Otherwise, on the onward journey you can enjoy a series of spectacular viaducts, followed by the glinting waters of the Kāpiti Coast as the train eases into Wellington’s suitably grand 1937 railway station.
New Zealand’s capital city has plenty to keep you occupied, from its excellent food scene to the impressive Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; but when it’s time to move on from Wellington to the South Island, Interislander continues the theme of magnificent sights viewed in comfort.
Crossing the Cook Strait between North and South Islands, the ferry takes in the beautiful scenery of the Marlborough Sounds before reaching the pretty port town of Picton. Here you join the Coastal Pacific train. This is another highly scenic journey, but this time the highlights include ocean as well as mountains, as the rails run along the Pacific Coast south to Christchurch.
First, however, the Coastal Pacific traverses the Marlborough wine region, with views of grapevines on the way. Within the station at Blenheim, in the heart of wine country, is a major wine-tasting venue with over eighty local drops to sample.
The passing countryside then becomes dramatic, with the train running alongside the Pacific, a wide expanse of blue stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s a serene, empty environment here, with waves lapping the black, sandy shore.
Then the scenery steps up one more notch, with the Seaward Kaikōura Range of mountains looming on one side as a contrast to the ocean on the other. This is another great time to head for the open-air viewing carriage and take great photos of scenes that will live in the memory.
The area is also the focus of the Whale Watch Kaikōura package. Catching the train to the seaside town of Kaikōura, guests on the package are taken on two boat excursions: one focusing on the albatross, the other on spotting whales.
You can debate which of The Great Journeys of New Zealand trains are the most impressive, as they all have their strong points, but many argue that the TranzAlpine journey reigns supreme. Let’s just say its international reputation supports the hypothesis.
While the other two rail journeys have mountains as backdrops, this train takes you right through the heart of them, as it travels from Christchurch across the South Island to its rugged west coast at Greymouth.
The train departs from Addington Station in Christchurch. After leaving urban environs, it heads across the broad Canterbury Plains and lush farmland. Up ahead are the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps, which follow the line where continental plates collide and push up the Earth’s crust.
As the train approaches the snow-capped peaks it seems to be aiming itself at them, but instead slots into a gap between their slopes, a railway route that was incredibly challenging to build in the early 20th century. The train then follows the course of the Waimakariri River for some time, a so-called ‘braided river’ that spreads itself out over ever-changing channels.
At one point, the river flows way below as the train crosses the highest viaduct on the line, rising 72 metres above Staircase Gully.
Slopes loom above as the TranzAlpine makes its way to Arthur’s Pass, the highest point on the line. This is another good point at which to make some vibrant travel memories via a visit to the open-air viewing carriage. As the train heads slowly down from the heights it stops at the lakeside town of Moana on Lake Brunner, then finally pulls in at the old-fashioned timber station at Greymouth.
Some people have lunch here then return to Christchurch on the afternoon service; but a better alternative is to experience A Taste of the West Coast package, with an overnight stay. From Greymouth, excursions are taken to the Punakaiki Blow Holes and Pancake Rocks, geological features carved by wind and sea; and to the blue waters of Hokitika Gorge.
Then it’s back to Christchurch on the TranzAlpine. Its stunning scenery is just as good when seen in reverse.