If you plan to come to New Zealand, you already know it’s mile after mile of stunning scenery. As a smaller island nation — there are just over five million people living in the entire country — transportation is not as industrialized as you’ll find in some larger countries. There are only three main train lines. You can travel between Auckland and Wellington on the north island. On the south island, you can travel north and south between Picton (where you catch the ferry to or from the north island) and Christchurch, and east to west between Christchurch and Greymouth.
One of the highlights of my time here was my ride on the TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth. If you can fit this into your itinerary, I highly recommend it as a must-do activity.
If you’re traveling into New Zealand from an international destination, it will be easier for you to fly into Christchurch and board the train there. The airport in Greymouth is domestic, so you can’t fly directly there, making it easier to travel east to west. Here are some of the reasons I recommend this train journey if you come to New Zealand. It’s an experience you won’t forget or regret.
A Perfect Introduction To New Zealand Landscape
So much of New Zealand is nature in every direction; from mountain ranges to bodies of water, and various plants and trees that combine to create majestic beauty. This train ride is the perfect way to immerse yourself in all the natural wonders of New Zealand in one trip. If you’re short on time, it’s the perfect overview of why everyone says this country is so beautiful.
I’ve been awed at how such a small country has so much diversity between its east and west coasts. This train takes you through valleys, mountains, and the middle of nowhere. You’ll journey from a modern city into the depths of natural wonders without a hint of humans living anywhere nearby. You’ll see some of the most stunning views you can imagine. Trust me, your jaw will hang open most of the ride. You’ll want to keep your camera out the whole time.
Combining Beauty With Knowledge
Every seat inside the train has its own headset. If you choose to plug it in and listen, you’ll be treated to an audio tour with a wealth of information along the way. You’ll learn that some of the plants and trees you see are unique to one side of the south island. It’s as much a lesson in fauna and flora as it is about New Zealand facts.
I’ve taken this and the Picton line three times now, and make sure to use my headset for at least part of the journey. When you listen to the audio guide, it makes the experience three-dimensional. Historical anecdotes bring you through time while you’re traveling through space and seeing everything with curious eyes.
Focus On Views That Will Leave You Spellbound
This is perhaps the main reason to take this trip. If you drive, you have to focus on the road. One irony in New Zealand is drivers are not patient! Don’t plan on being able to drive slowly and take in all the landscape and jump out for photos. Instead, take the train. You can stare out the window the entire time. What awaits you are mountains, gorges, rivers, and spectacular trees and land.
The entire ride you’ll repeatedly lose your breath gasping at the views. It seems impossible that there can be so much beauty in a relatively short train ride. Prepare yourself — if you fall asleep you’ll miss some of the best views in New Zealand. Seriously, try not to fall asleep because even a cat nap means missing out on something you might never see again.
Outdoor Open-Air Views
Each train car has such high glass windows, you won’t miss a thing if you stay in your seat the whole time. If that’s not enough encouragement, there’s one more bonus and it’s worth the ride just for this — there’s an open-air car on every train. If you want the best photos, this is where to be.
Frankly, there’s no place more stunning to stand, even with other people around, than in the open-air car. It’s magical to see the scenery passing by with the wind wrapping itself around you, creating a sensory experience that truly brings the scene to life. Before New Zealand, I’d never experienced train travel like this, and it’s the 51st country I’ve visited in my life.
Pro tip: If the weather is beautiful, the open-air car can get crowded. Everyone will take up all the best spaces by the windows on one side to get the best photos as the train chugs along a crevice or valley you’ll want to gaze at all afternoon. If you can’t find a good photo op behind the crowd, remember to turn around, and look out the other side, the one that nobody is on. A lot of the time, there’s another great view, or, one coming, and you’ll set yourself up with the perfect spot when it does!
Choose A Luxury Experience
Even the “normal” class seats are comfortable and spacious. It’s easy to recline, or sit up and eat at your assigned seat. However, if you prefer luxury, upgrade your ticket to Scenic Class. It’s being updated for 2022 and looks like it will include all new food service. Sign me up!
If you take the train all the way from Christchurch to Greymouth, the ride is roughly 5 hours long. You’ll definitely want some food at some point. You can either bring your own, or, visit the cafe car which offers a good selection of breakfast and lunch snacks, meals, and sandwiches, as well as coffee and tea. You won’t go hungry! If you’re worried about falling asleep, this is where to get your coffee to help you avoid that travesty.
Gateway To The West Coast
When you get off the train in Greymouth, you’re at the perfect spot to explore the west coast of New Zealand’s south island. Greymouth has a history as a gold-mining town. Nearby, you can explore the Shantytown recreated to give you context about the history of the area. You can even pan for your own gold searching while you’re there.
Two of my favorite New Zealand towns are close to Greymouth — Hokitika and Punakaiki. Hokitika is known for its Pounamu stone, and a great place to buy some if that’s in your plans. They also have a much lesser known, and rarer stone, called Aotea (not to be confused with Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand). It’s a blend of three minerals found in only one place in the world, the Makaawhio River, south of Hokitika. It’s known as a healing stone, and changes color, depending on the person who wears it. You’ll have to buy one to experience its magic.
Punakaiki is known for its pancake rocks, as well as being a wonderfully relaxing place to spend a day or two. There’s one cafe and one bar, and nothing else but water and hiking. It’s truly the perfect spot to chill out and forget anything that may be stressful in your life. From Punakaiki, you can head up to Nelson and get to Abel Tasman and beyond, all via the Great Coast Road rated one of the top 10 coastal drives in the world.
Arrive early for your TranzAlpine journey. You’ll want time to check in and bring your luggage to the storage car prior to boarding the train. This train trip is a popular tourist activity, and it allows you the option to get off, and spend time at Arthur’s Pass and Moana, and stay overnight. Lodging is expensive, and there’s not much of it. Book as early as possible, especially for the accommodation, or you’ll be out of luck.
From Greymouth, you can rent a car or take the Intercity south to Hokitika, or north to Punakaiki. Make sure to research bus schedules in advance since they’re not frequent. Day trips aren’t cheap, especially if you’re traveling with kids. You should research whether it’s less expensive to rent a car or to use the Intercity bus network and tour companies in Greymouth and Hokitika.
Pro Tips: The train operates all year. Remember, if you’re coming from the U.S., seasons in New Zealand are reversed — summer is from December–February, and winter is June–August.
Other intriguing things to discover about New Zealand: