From its beautiful coastline to its spectacular mountains, New Zealand is a place you visit for its scenery – and there’s no better way to gorge on its good looks than by train. Travelling at surface level, you can take in every detail of Aotearoa, stopping off along the way to see more. Here’s how.
Auckland to Wellington
The lengthiest of three long-distance rail journeys in New Zealand, this route takes in diverse landscapes on its ten-hour, 680 kilometre course across the North Island.
Before hitting the rails, make time to learn a little about the culture and attractions of Auckland. A good introduction to the nation’s first people, the Māori, is the Home Fires of Tāmaki Ōrākei tour, led by a tribe which has lived in the area for centuries. Or take a ferry to enjoy the city’s waterside setting and local produce on the Wine on Waiheke tour.
Then it’s time to catch the Northern Explorer train from the unassuming Strand Station.
The train, however, is impressive, with a comfortable 2+2 seating layout which has plenty of leg room. Carriages are the same on all three long-distance rail routes, incorporating a good onboard café, as well as an open-sided observation car. The recorded commentary, delivered via headphones, is excellent (though it does include occasional colourful descriptions of historic rail accidents).
Given the length of this journey, it can be a good idea to break it up along the way. Hamilton is the first stop outside Auckland and from here it’s easy to visit the popular Hobbiton Movie Set near Matamata. On the outskirts of Hamilton are two other genteel attractions: the lovely Hamilton Gardens, with multiple gardens from different civilisations; and Zealong, New Zealand’s only tea farm, which offers high tea, a tour and a tea ceremony.
Back on the rails, hilly green farming country eventually gives way to the more dramatic terrain of the Central Plateau, which the train reaches by squealing its way up the curving Raurimu Spiral, an 1898 engineering marvel. Another potential break on the journey is National Park Station, where travellers can access Tongariro National Park and its mighty volcanic peaks.
The Northern Explorer ends its long journey by easing along the Kapiti Coast to Wellington, arriving at the most impressive railway station of the trip: a grand 1937 edifice from the golden age of rail travel.
Wellington to Christchurch
The capital has plenty to offer. In addition to an excellent dining scene – typified by Ortega Fish Shack on the edge of the lively Te Aro district – there are many cultural drawcards. Admire the new art gallery within the absorbing Te Papa national museum, or feed your Hobbit fixation by taking a tour of Weta Workshop, the design company heavily involved with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie trilogies.
Before you can catch your next train, there’s water to cross via the Interislander. This 3.5 hour ferry service navigates the Cook Strait from the North to South Island, finishing with a leisurely sail through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds to Picton. The ferries are sizeable vessels with food and entertainment on board.
From the ferry landing, it’s a short walk to Picton Station and the Coastal Pacific. This train has only recently returned to service after its rails were damaged by the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake. Running from September to April, it’s arguably the most scenic of the three rail routes, passing between mountains and ocean as it snakes southward for six hours and 348 kilometres to Christchurch.