There are many ways to get around New Zealand: by car, by bus, by plane, by ferry—even by bike or by foot! But if you want the best views of this mountainous country, the best option is to travel New Zealand by train.
From the moment I arrived in the country, I knew I wanted to travel New Zealand by train. I’ve had a fascination with train travel for a while, but before New Zealand, I had never actually done it. I made my away around the North Island by bus, but once I hit the South Island, I was determined to start riding the rails. However, I ran into a few road blocks at first.
New Zealand by Train
KiwiRail’s TranzApline train, which takes passengers from Christchurch to Greymouth via the Southern Alps, is often lauded as one of the world’s great train journeys. It’s a popular train route with tourists and often books up quickly—with good reason! The train travels through the stunning Canterbury region, up to Arthur’s Pass, and turns around on the West Coast.
The Coastal Pacific train runs from Picton (the southern ferry terminus) to Christchurch, taking passengers through the Marlborough wine region and the beautiful seaside town of Kaikoura. I planned to take the Coastal Pacific after getting off the ferry, and then catching the TranzAlpine in Christchurch—two trains, one stone.
Unfortunately, the Coastal Pacific only runs in the summer months, so my first attempt at this train didn’t work. Even more unfortunately, a massive earthquake struck the South Island of New Zealand in November 2016, causing a lot of damage near Kaikoura.
The main highway between Picton, Kaikoura, and Christchurch was ruined, as were the train tracks. While road construction is underway, people must take a long detour to get between Christchurch and Picton for the time being.
As of April 2017, the Coastal Pacific is still shut down, but is scheduled to reopen in September 2017.
The Scenic Train from Auckland to Wellington
With hopes of riding the TranzAlpine or Coastal Pacific gone, I had another chance to see New Zealand by train. The scenic train from Auckland to Wellington, called the Northern Explorer, is an 11-hour journey. It takes you from New Zealand’s most populous city, through the North Island’s National Park and mountain region, along the Kapiti Coast, and into New Zealand’s capital city.
After finishing up my job contract in the Coromandel, some friends and I decided to take the train from Auckland to Wellington. I had traveled around the North Island quite a bit, mostly by bus, and I didn’t want to do it again. I figured a train ride would be infinitely more interesting than a long bus ride. And I was right!
Since I had never traveled by train, I wasn’t sure what to expect before hopping on board. I was so happy the minute I stepped onto the train and saw how nice it was.
Our train car was simple, clean, and bright. It felt modern and welcoming. There were large windows, plus another set of windows above the overhead bins, leaving uninterrupted viewing opportunities. I really appreciated this feature when we made our way through the National Park.
The seats were similar to airplane seats, plush and very comfortable. Most of them were facing one way, but there were also a couple of tables available on each end of the train car. My friends and I reserved a table ahead of time so we would have plenty of room to spread out.
In addition to the passenger cars, there was also a dining car. I’ve always been terrible at walking on moving things (planes, trains, ferries), so it was quite the laugh trying to carry my coffee from the café to my seat. Luckily, the service was phenomenal, and the attendants brought my meal straight to my table after I ordered. That balancing act would not have ended well.
The most exciting part of the train is the open-air viewing car. It’s an empty train car (no seating) with open windows where passengers can get an even better view of the breathtaking scenery. This is the perfect place to take those glare-free photos of the mountains, the rivers, and all the beautiful landscapes you’re gonna see on this train ride.
It happened to be quite rainy and very windy the day of my train journey. One of the great things about traveling New Zealand by train is that the weather won’t really affect you. What better time to be sitting on a train than when it’s raining (except maybe when it’s sunny)?
However, it was tough to spend too much time out in the viewing car because of the strong wind. I had to hold on to the rail for dear life sometimes, and boy was that wind cold. I braved the weather for some pictures, but I spent most of the train ride safely in my seat.
Eleven hours on a train probably doesn’t sound too enticing to most people. If you want to get from Auckland to Wellington, why not just fly? It’s much faster and usually cheaper. Well if time and money are the most important factors, then maybe flying is your best option. But of all the possible ways to travel the country, I guarantee you’re going to get the best views of New Zealand by train. I’m alllll about the views.
Beginning in Auckland, you’re not going to get the most exciting scenery for the first hour or so. Traveling from the city center, out to the suburbs, and on to a few more outlying towns, this part is not exactly scenic. Grab a coffee, settle in, read a book, and have some patience. After about an hour or so, you start to see less buildings and more green.
About mid-way down the North Island you’ll want to jump up and make your way to the viewing platform. As you near the National Park and then make your way through it, you’ll see rolling hills, native forest, winding rivers, and majestic mountains. If you listen to the audio commentary, you’ll hear all the cool facts and histories of the places you’re seeing.
As you make your way down the Kapiti Coast, you’ll get a great view of the sea, the rugged coastline, and the beautiful beaches. Finally, you’ll arrive in Wellington, my favorite New Zealand city.
While I wish I had taken all three train journeys in New Zealand, I’m glad I at least got to take the scenic train from Auckland to Wellington. The Northern Explorer was a chance to see the North Island in a way I hadn’t before. New Zealand by train is definitely the way to go! I highly recommend anyone visiting New Zealand to hop on one of KiwiRail’s scenic train journeys.
Operator: KiwiRail Scenic Journeys
The Northern Explorer travels from Auckland to Wellington and back, with multiple stops in between.
Schedule: The train travels from Auckland to Wellington on Monday, Thursday, & Saturday. It travels from Wellington to Auckland on Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday.
Price: Fares vary based on season & ticket type. Expect to pay anywhere from $119-$219 NZD one way.
Have you ever traveled by train? What’s the most scenic train journey you’ve ever taken?
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