Penny Lewis lets the train take the strain as she journeys through the Central North Island.
The oft-quoted American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the wordsmith who coined the saying "Life is a journey, not a destination". The cynic in me considers this to be a bit of a modern-day cliche. In recent years, every possible thing that doesn't occur immediately has become a "journey", be it a sports tournament, relationship or reality TV talent show.
I think Emerson's pithy wisdom is perfectly suited to one of the most old-school and relaxing ways to travel - by rail. Sure, a train isn't the fastest transportation, but there's something relaxing and hypnotic about travelling by train. You're not dashing from A to B. Enjoying the trip is part of the experience.
I discovered this early last month when my husband Michael and daughters Nina, 9, and Eva, 7 headed to Britomart on a Saturday morning, in plenty of time for our 7.50am departure on the KiwiRail Northern Explorer, bound for National Park.
Michael had already caught the Northern Explorer to a business meeting at National Park a few weeks beforehand, so he knew what to expect. I had no idea.
We checked our suitcase into the luggage carriage, then made our way to where we were sitting. Our party of four was allocated seats facing each other and had a table between us. I particularly liked the carriage's enormous windows and beautifully detailed timber ceilings. The fit-out of the Northern Explorer's new AK passenger carriages is award-winning: it secured a silver award in the Best Product Design Category in the 2013 New Zealand Design Awards, run by the Designers Institute of New Zealand.
The train took the route through Orakei and past Sylvia Park to head south. Points of interest and historical background were explained along the way through headphone commentary in English and Mandarin. Although I am a local, a lot of the facts were new to me, plus, of course, the views from the train are different from those you see from the motorway.
The first stop was at Papakura at 8.28am, by which stage I had already made my way to the cafe carriage to buy two coffees, four cookies and a packet of Pringles for $28. I don't normally condone eating food like this so early in the morning but it felt like ages since breakfast and we did eat the Pringles a little later.
The train didn't stop at every station along the way, speeding up the journey somewhat, but certainly if you're in a mad rush and don't want the fun of the train, you're probably better to drive. We reached Hamilton at 10am, Otorohanga at 10.50am and Taumarunui at 12.25pm. By this stage, we had already consumed lunch - a selection of Wishbone pre-packed salads and sandwiches from the cafe carriage.
Our girls loved the novelty of the train - getting up several times to go to the cafe and the amazing open-sided carriage at the end of the train, where you really feel alive as you're blasted by fresh air. Children under-12 are not permitted to wander freely so Michael accompanied them - he's good like that.
For passengers better at sitting still, the staff on board also came through the carriages and took food and beverage orders. Hot meals and booze are available, too.
After Taumarunui was one of the highlights: the Raurimu Spiral. This feat of engineering, built in 1898, allows trains to cover the 132m height difference between the Whanganui River Valley and the Volcanic Plateau. As Our New Zealand, a free magazine you can take from the train, reveals, the Raurimu Spiral means the train curves around for 6.8km, which, if it was to head in a straight line, would cover a distance of 2km.
We arrived at National Park station at 1.15pm, where a couple of staff members from the famous Chateau Tongariro Hotel met us and other passengers, including a young couple, with shuttle transport. Also there was a bus to transport a large party of older folk on an arranged tour. As it turned out, all of us - the family, the couple and the oldies - had come to the Chateau on the train for the night and were returning to Auckland by train the following day.
As the Chateau's rooms division manager Frazer King explained to me later, the hotel offers the shuttle service free of charge. Guests arrive by train from the north and south - from Auckland and Wellington and points along the way. It takes around 15 minutes to drive from the National Park train station to the hotel.
I had wanted to stay at the Chateau since I was a young girl. The first time I saw it as a 9-year-old, I was in awe of its elegance and the drama of Mt Ruapehu behind it. Eventually coming to stay as the mother of 9 and 7-year-olds was pretty special, despite the fact the weather wasn't great and we couldn't see the mountain. It didn't matter. The Chateau opened in 1929 and a new five-storey wing was added in 2005. We stay in this new wing and were comfortably set up with inter-connecting rooms.
After high tea in the Ruapehu Lounge, complete with glittering chandeliers and roaring fire, we went for a swim in the basement plunge pool. The girls also enjoyed dancing around in the otherwise empty cinema as it screened children's movies.
Dinner was in the slightly faded grandeur of the Ruapehu Restaurant, complete with a linen tablecloth and napkins. The girls chose from a kids' menu and pronounced their burgers to be "great" and Michael and I enjoyed venison and snapper. I was so content with the food and surroundings that it didn't matter the young wait staff got a little confused about the wine.
After dinner we relaxed in the Ruapehu Lounge, a space I really love. Tinkling the ivories in the centre of the room was house pianist Ian Robertson, featured recently in the excellent TV series, Our Town. You'll find Robertson here Wednesdays to Saturdays, playing his favourite songs from Phantom of the Opera, Walt Disney classics and the Beatles. But don't wait too long to come and hear him play because he's retiring in March.
In the morning, following a buffet breakfast in the Ruapehu Restaurant, we visited the nearby National Park visitor centre, and the girls tried to sneak up on the rabbits that seem to roam everywhere here.
Because we were catching the train, we had a late checkout, so there was time for another quick swim before King drove us to the train station. As he explained, people are happy when they come to stay at The Chateau because they have chosen to visit.
It's a destination in itself and it's not at all like a city hotel where people are only there because they have to be for business.
The train arrived at the station at 1.15pm and we arrived back at Britomart at 6.50pm, after we'd enjoyed more snack purchases from the cafe and trips to the open-sided carriage.
Although we had been away for only one night, it felt like we'd enjoyed an amazing holiday. This weekend escape certainly felt more relaxing thanks to the train trip - a welcome change from sitting in traffic in the car.
IF YOU GO
Hitting the tracks: The Northern Explorer operates a six-day timetable, departing Auckland on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, and Wellington on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. For information on fares and availability, see the website.
Where to stay: Chateau Tongariro Hotel.
Penny Lewis and family travelled courtesy of KiwiRail and the Chateau Tongariro Hotel.