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.

TranzAlpine train cutting through Arthur's Pass in New Zealand on a sunny day. There are green trees to the left of the train and snowy mountains in the far distance
New Zealand's incredible landscape is best viewed by rail © plumchutney / Getty Images

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.

The yellow, black and red Northern Explorer train at Hamilton station, New Zealand.
The Northern Explorer train at Hamilton © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

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).

Observation car in Northern Explorer train, New Zealand looking out on lush greenery. One passenger is standing near the railings.
The observation car on the Northern Explorer © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

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.

Interislander ferry crossing Cook Strait, New Zealand on a clear day. The photo shows the stern of the boat, churning a white trail through the blue sea.
This leg of the journey requires a ferry crossing before you can board your next train © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

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.

Ocean view from Coastal Pacific train, New Zealand.
Catch stunning ocean views on the Coastal Pacific train © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

One of its early stops is Blenheim, the hub of the Marlborough wine region. You can spot vineyards from the train, before it travels alongside the Pacific Ocean for a long stretch. Here nature takes centre stage – including a colony of fur seals lounging on craggy rocks just offshore. Near the town of Kaikoura there’s another impressive natural wonder: the Seaward Kaikoura Range, snow-topped inland mountains which run parallel to the tracks.

Finally, after returning to farming country, the train makes its way into Christchurch Station – a shiny new structure which replaced the station damaged in the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes which devastated the city.

Christchurch to Greymouth

Christchurch is a fascinating city, still in a process of change as it rebuilds from that geological double-punch. You can learn about that pivotal event at the excellent Quake City exhibition, or meet New Zealand’s unique wildlife at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve (which also hosts the Māori cultural show Ko Tane). Or maybe just graze on treats bought at the brand-new Riverside food market.

Rugged landscape seen from the TranzAlpine train, New Zealand
Rugged landscape seen from the TranzAlpine train © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

This final long-distance rail trip is different from the others – instead of mountains providing a backdrop, they’re the heart of the experience. The TranzAlpine train takes five hours to cross the Southern Alps as it heads 223 kilometres from Christchurch across the South Island to the western port of Greymouth.

The first stretch of the journey cuts through the Canterbury Plains… then suddenly you’re within the mountains. For a while the TranzAlpine follows the Waimakariri River, a distinctive ‘braided’ watercourse which is fed by melting ice. High steel viaducts help the train through this craggy environment.

At 740 metres above sea level and surrounded by beech forest, Arthur’s Pass is a popular destination for hikers in summer and snow sports enthusiasts in winter. After this high point, the train eases out of the mountains to the lakeside town of Moana before terminating at Greymouth.

The TranzAlpine heads back to Christchurch an hour later, but it’s worth staying over in Greymouth to sample some of its sights: the quirky museum village of Shantytown; the impressive coastal rock formations at Punakaiki; and the good food and beer served at the brewhouse of popular local-born brewer, Monteith’s. From North Island to South Island, a rail journey of that epic length deserves a toast.

Make it happen

Bookings for the above train and ferry services can be made via the Great Journeys of New Zealand website.

Tim Richards travelled with the assistance of Tourism New Zealand. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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This article was first published December 2019 and updated December 2019

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