Queues? What queues? Lorna Subritzky goes by rail to enjoy Tongariro National Park and salutes traffic jams as she passes through.
I love road trips — who doesn't? A chance to leave the familiar behind, embrace new surroundings, and bask in New Zealand's renowned scenery along the way . . . as long as you're not the one driving, that is. Our roads are as notorious as our landscapes are acclaimed, so when it was suggested we ditch the road in favour of rail on board KiwiRail Scenic's Northern Explorer, we knew we were — ahem — on track for a fabulous weekend.
We checked in as instructed early Saturday morning and were warmly greeted by Fiona, part of the small but perfectly formed service team that would look after us on our rail experience. The last time I'd travelled a train any great distance in New Zealand was when we emigrated in the mid-70s, catching the Silver Fern from Auckland to Wellington. The Northern Explorer runs the same route, but that's about where the similarities end.
The fleet of trains was rolled out five years ago and features panoramic side and roof windows that make taking photos a cinch, particularly as the glass is untinted and non-reflective. Within moments of leaving the Parnell station, we're snapping pics and uploading to social media. For even better sights, we head out to the open-air viewing deck — ideal for feeling the wind in our hair (and for me, squealing just a little when we enter tunnels).
There's a celebratory mood among our fellow passengers which we can't ignore, so although it's early we have bubbles with breakfast. Staff members Justin and Simone do a fine job in the cafe, even warning us to buy our lunch early if we want the best choice — advice I appreciated a couple of hours later while enjoying my Thai chicken curry. Another wine with lunch? Why not - after all, no-one has to drive on this trip.
The train carries on to Wellington, but we hop off at National Park. In the five hours it takes us to get there, and despite less than perfect weather, we've enjoyed spectacular scenery and notable feats of engineering like the Raurimu Spiral. Our rather poor knowledge of some of the countryside we've passed through is rectified by a GPS-triggered audio commentary on headsets — although the fact that it's the dulcet tones of my boss at Coast FM, Raylene Ramsay, is somewhat distracting at first. The perils of working in broadcasting.
We're met by a bus transfer at National Park Station, and within 10 minutes we're pulling up at the awe-inspiring Chateau Tongariro. Opened in 1929 with a newer wing, the hotel boasts a timeless elegance and superior service. Although I once had a sneaky look around as a teenager, I've never stayed here before and am pretty chuffed to be ticking this one off my bucket list. Our room is beautiful, and with Chateau fudge and chilled bubbly waiting for us we are feeing utterly spoiled within minutes.
Despite the drizzly day robbing me of a planned photo opportunity by masking the tremendous backdrop of Mt Ruapehu, we head outdoors for a refreshing afternoon walk. Although there are clearly a lot of locals staying, we also hear French, German and American accents. It's easy to imagine we'resomewhere much farther afield than the middle of the North Island.
I'd planned to sample the Chateau's famous high tea, but sadly it turns out I have neither the time nor the appetite. We do, however, make time for a pre-dinner drink, finding a table in beside a picture window in the library for a wonderful view of Ngauruhoe and the feeling that we've stepped back in time. We meet some of our fellow travellers for dinner in the hotel's Ruapehu Room, and get to know each other over a spectacular three-course meal. My crayfish tortellini, stuffed chicken breast and cheese platter will be remembered fondly for some time.
Breakfast the next morning is a similarly lavish affair. I take a post-breakfast walk and check out the hotel's pool and sauna (memo to self: next time, remember to bring the togs), before we make our midday checkout.
We're back on the return train at 1pm. The trip is every bit as enjoyable heading back with more landmarks and around Ngaruawahia we get a stark reminder of why taking the train makes for a fun road trip: we sail at 100km/h past queues traffic, our final drinks held aloft as we cheer our great decision to leave the car at home.
Which means one final decision — a return trip over summer or a winter escape with snow and roaring fires? Both are sounding pretty good.
Details: KiwiRail's Northern Explorer runs Southbound on Monday, Thursday and Saturday and returns Northbound on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. The train departs Auckland at 7.45am. For prices and package details, go to kiwirailscenic.co.nz.