The best New Zealand rail Journey is waking up after being put to sleep by COVID-19.

As I stand in the dawn light at Auckland’s Strand Terminal, the city’s Sky Tower rising on the skyline, a sense of anticipation and possibility fills the air. I’m about to go on a fantastic New Zealand rail journey for a rail excursion through both the North and South Islands of New Zealand, using three such trains (each with its own stylish set of contemporary carriages) and a boat.

At a significant lag behind the train, I can see the top of the city’s old major train station, a glitzy 1930 Beaux-Arts structure that now houses serviced apartments, as a one-stop of my New Zealand rail journey. That, however, is history now that the train is slowly moving ahead. The many tunnels and viaducts constructed to transport the railroads across New Zealand’s rugged landscape have me looking forward to the journey. I must know what lies beyond!

It’s the Auckland-to-Wellington leg of the Northern Explorer.

The three long-distance trains all use identical, tourist-friendly car designs. In certain configurations, there are four individual seats that form a square around a table, with two seats on each side of the aisle. There is plenty of space to stretch out, and the roomy layout is complemented by huge windows that let in plenty of light and reveal pleasant scenery. Timber paneling lends an earthy vibe to the inside, while pull-down displays provide a route map of our 10-hour drive to Wellington.

Once we leave the Auckland suburbs behind, we get into the kind of rolling green countryside that makes me think of the old Footrot Flats comic strip, and the movie’s theme tune, Slice of Heaven, begins playing in my brain.

The agricultural theme is picked up at Te Kuiti, and the train’s superb recorded commentary, accessible through headphones, tells us of a renowned local rugby player who used to practice with a sheep under each arm. There’s also some background on the line’s development in the 19th century and how some railway surveyors were once held hostage by a Maori tribe that didn’t like their intrusion.

New Zealand rail Journey

The train has a café car and an observation vehicle with glass walls. It’s here that I join a group of other travelers waiting to see a waterfall that quickly passes by on their right, while I look the other way. Even still, it’s far preferable to not have to deal with window reflections whenever possible while taking photographs.

By way of the Raurimu Spiral, a remarkable bit of engineering from the Edwardian period that enables trains to gain 132 meters of elevation in a very short distance, we make our way to the Central Plateau of the North Island. The grass beside the railroad lines is yellow and the air seems dryer up here.

Mount Ruapehu, one of the region’s major volcanic peaks, is momentarily seen when the clouds part. The commentary references the 1953 accident when the Wellington-Auckland train fell over a bridge that had been destroyed by floods caused by the fall of the mountain’s crater wall, at the exact right moment.

After hearing that frightening story, I decide to eat in the cafe car. On this busy day (it being New Zealand school vacation time, so the train is crowded), the vegetarian selections are limited; the veggie lasagna has already run out. On the other hand, I opted for the tomato-capsicum soup and the potato au gratin. The cuisine is reheated, but it still tastes well and pairs nicely with a lager from New Zealand’s Monteith’s brewery.

When the café manager sees customers loitering in the neighboring sitting area, she shoos them away to remind them that this is a state-run railway that doesn’t tolerate foolishness. When I return to my seat, I take in the rolling countryside and the Tasman Sea as the train winds its way through the landscape from the hilltop to the seaside, arriving punctually at Wellington’s surprisingly impressive main station, built in 1937.


After a quick visit to Wellington’s Weta Workshop and Te Papa’s new art exhibition, it’s time to catch a boat to the next island.

The Interislander service connects the two islands by traveling across Cook Strait. The water is calm, the sun is shining, and I take pleasure in taking long strolls around the MV Kaitaki’s decks in between snack breaks in the ship’s plush Plus Lounge. After two hours, we entered the Marlborough Sounds and were greeted by beautiful landscapes: rolling green hills with modest rocky outcrops and the odd cottage hidden amid the slopes.

New Zealand rail Journey
vintage illustration of a steam train. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

I stop for coffee in Picton before making my way to the charming old wood railway station to board the Coastal Pacific and make the six-hour journey down the east coast to Christchurch. After being shut down for two years after the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake, it is encouraging to see the line back in operation.

Traveling southward, the Pacific Ocean becomes a more prominent part of the landscape, as could be expected from the name. Once we go beyond the Blenheim-centered vineyards of the Marlborough wine area, the ocean views to the left are quite breathtaking. It has azure seas and rolling waves, with a few tiny rocky islets visible beyond a shoreline of black sand.

More breathtaking vistas are ahead. The unveiling of the Seaward Kaikoura Range is heralded by the sight of Tapuae-o-Uenuku, a towering peak that rises an impressive 2,885 meters above sea level. So far, the scenery has been rather pleasant, with mountains on one side of the tracks and the ocean on the other.

After following the Hurunui River via Ethelton Gorge, we reach Christchurch’s gleaming new train station, built to replace the one that was destroyed in the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. On a beautiful day, we get into town just as the sun is setting.


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