Travel Comment

Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

Getting back on the rails

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The Eastern and Oriental Express deserves its reputation for great views. Photo / Supplied
The Eastern and Oriental Express deserves its reputation for great views. Photo / Supplied

I've long been a fan of rail travel and I've done some amazing train journeys over the years.

The longest was from Beijing to Helsinki via the Gobi Desert, Mongolia, Siberia, Moscow and St Petersburg.

The most scenic - until now - was taking the famous Rocky Mountaineer and the lesser-known Skeena through the Canadian Rockies from Vancouver to Prince Rupert.

The most luxurious was the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore along the length of the Malay Peninsula to Bangkok.

The fastest was probably Japan's Shinkansen - or Bullet Train - from Tokyo to Kyoto.

The most nerve-racking, because of all the disruption caused by wildcat strikes by French railway workers, was from Venice to Paris, via Avignon.

And the most awful was in 1962 when I travelled from Whangarei to Dunedin by bus, train and ferry with the old New Zealand Railways.

But a few months ago, while having a chat with a man from KiwiRail, I realised that I haven't actually experienced our modern era of long-distance passenger rail, with daylight journeys in modernised carriages.

So one fine Friday morning my wife and I set off to see the country by rail - or at least as much of it as you can see by rail these days - filling in the gaps with public transport and having a few nice stop-offs along the way.

There was a bit of a stutter at the start when it turned out the bus in our part of Devonport didn't operate early enough for us to catch the ferry we needed. But a friendly neighbour dropped us at the wharf, the ferry did its usual cruise across the harbour, and we trundled our bags across Quay St to Britomart, from whence the Overlander was scheduled to depart at 7.25am.

We went from Auckland to Wellington on the Overlander; across Cook Strait on the interisland ferry Kaitaki; from Picton to Christchurch on the TranzCoastal; from Christchurch to Greymouth on the TranzAlpine; took a tour up the coast to Westport from where we flew back to Auckland on Air New Zealand; and, just to continue the public transport theme, caught the Airport Express into the city, took the ferry back to Devonport and trundled our bags down the seafront to home.

I wanted to avoid taxis if possible and we were easily able to walk from the stations to Holiday Inn Wellington and the Kingsgate Hotel in Greymouth. Christchurch Station is in the middle of nowhere but TranzScenic provides a free link with Canterbury Shuttles who whisked us off to the Hotel Grand Chancellor.

We also opted to stop along the way in Ohakune, Kaikoura and Cass.

But we could have chosen any of the 39 stations the three trains stop at, places like National Park, Waipara, Arthur's Pass or Lake Brunner.

At each of the three towns, we were able to stay at one of the fantastic lodges which have sprung up around the country in recent years - Ahuru Lodge at Ohakune, Hapuku Lodge at Kaikoura and Grasmere Lodge at Cass - and they all had courtesy cars at the station.

It was a great trip and a timely reminder that rail is arguably the best way to tour the country because you can enjoy the marvellous views without worrying about the driving, as well as eat and drink, read and type, go to the toilet and freshen up while still on the move.

Pity the passenger trains no longer go up north to Okaihau, or down south to Bluff, but we still managed to see much of the best New Zealand has to offer.

The first stage of the trip is described here and the rest will run in successive weeks.

- NZ Herald

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