Many of New Zealand most stunning views remain inaccessible by road. This is where rail travel comes into scenic play. Clever engineering has resulted in a small (but comprehensive) railway network offering the opportunity to enjoy some of those views - and there are many incredible train journeys available.
Complete with food and drink, panoramic windows and reclining seats, these journeys allow you to sit back and enjoy the view as you traverse snowy alpine passes, remote national parks, volcanic fields and windswept coastlines.
The North Island has one key scenic railway, The Northern Explorer and two (notable) smaller ones - Driving Creek Railway and The Forgotten World adventures.
The Northern Explorer: Cutting through the heart of the North Island, the Northern Explorer travels between Auckland - New Zealand's largest metro area - and Wellington - New Zealand’s political and cultural capital. The 12 hour trip is truly remarkable, crossing lush farmland and the volcanic plateau. See Tongariro National Park - home to Mordor, the fictional stronghold of Sauron in Lord of the Rings - through wide panoramic windows and open air viewing decks.
The park’s three active volcanoes - Mount Ruapehu, Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe - can be spotted along with ancient lava flows, native beech forest and deep river gorges. You'll also go through the renowned Raurimu Spiral - an astounding feat of engineering.
Passengers can choose to sit around tables, or in recliners that can be rotated to face whichever direction the train is travelling. The carriage windows are non-tinted, non-reflective glass - optimal for taking pictures as you travel. Overhead HD screens keep track of your journey while an automated commentary is available via headphones at your seat.
We recommend: Travelling in a southbound direction, starting in Auckland.
Driving Creek Railway: This one hour narrow gorge railway trip is located in the Coromandel and provides a thrilling insight into the history of the area. Acclaimed potter Barry Brickell originally developed this railway as a means of transporting clay to his kiln. The innovatively designed train carriages journey through regenerating kauri forest and native bush before ending with soaring views over the Hauraki Gulf and surrounding islands. Unique pottery sculptures and outdoor art line the tracks while the neighbouring predator free wildlife sanctuary is a must see.
We recommend: Taking the time to see the Driving Creek Wildlife Sanctuary on any Coromandel Peninsula
The Forgotten World Railway Adventures: This railway adventure is like no other. Travelling through the heart of Taranaki, you’ll take specially adapted golf carts along decommissioned railway lines go over bridges and through tunnels to faded townships of the past. Venture into the Republic of Whangamomona, once a thriving pre-war community, now a ‘ghost town’ of 40 people.
Learn about the hardy pioneers who built this line - an essential link to the outside world. Livelihoods such as coal mining and farming were only viable because of this rail connection. Abandoned stations along the line are visible, but decay is evident - and this only adds to the experience. Choose from between one and four day tours.
We recommend: Spending at least two days to get the most out of this experience.
There are many more scenic rail journeys in the South due to the dramatic landscape. The most well known is the TranzAlpine Scenic Train but other notable journeys include The Oamaru Seasider, The Coastal Pacific and the Taieri Gorge Railway.
The TranzAlpine: The TranzAlpine tracks a route from Christchurch to Greymouth - from one coast of the South Island to another - and is considered one of the world's greatest scenic railway journeys. You'll cross the Canterbury Plains before weaving your way through the gorges and river valleys of the Waimakariri. Ascending the Southern Alps, you'll be awestruck by the sheer grandeur of these mountains, before descending into native beech rainforest to arrive in the seaside town of Greymouth.
With huge panoramic windows and an open air viewing car to better enable photography, passengers can choose to sit one way or around a table. As with the Northern Explorer, HD screens track the journey while at-seat audio commentary is available throughout.
We recommend: Taking your time and choosing to stay overnight along the way.
The Coastal Pacific: The Coastal Pacific follows the coast from port town Picton to Christchurch. You’ll pass through Marlborough wine country, the Kaikoura Ranges and the patchwork Canterbury Plains - traversing over 98 kilometres of rugged coastline. On this journey the sky seems endless - dissolving into the blue of the pacific ocean horizon. Watch the seabirds and seals from open air carriages or view the mountains from inside through huge panoramic windows and reclining seats.
We recommend: Starting your vacation with this train journey and then continuing on a self-drive tour.
The Oamaru Seasider: This train follows the Otago harbour before climbing the slopes to Port Chalmers. Traversing the clifftops, breathtaking views of the rugged Otago coastline can be seen including Blueskin Bay and the surrounding inlets, beaches and hills. The seasider also makes a stop in Moeraki, home to the unique Moeraki boulders, before continuing on through coastal farmland.
As you travel, fascinating commentary is given about the history of the area and its farming community. Considered a ‘must-do’ if you're a rail enthusiast, this trip is not to be missed.
We recommend: hopping off in Moeraki to visit the Moeraki boulders.
The Taieri Gorge Railway: The Taieri Gorge train travels through the spectacular Taieri River Gorge from the famous Dunedin train station. Once part of the old Otago Central Railway, this trip offers not only amazing views but an insight into the history of the pioneers who built this line.
You’ll go through the city’s south end before arriving at the junction of Wingatui where the train begins its lazy trip into the Taieri Gorge. Constructed during the years 1879 to 1921 - this route has a long and interesting history which is told in a commentary delivered by the on-board train manager.
Part of what makes this journey so unique is the opportunity to disembark at specific scenic locations for photos and to stretch your legs.
We recommend: Taking some time to explore the renowned Dunedin Railway station before beginning this train journey.