Unlike our national bird, we Kiwis are renowned for flying far and wide in search of the perfect holiday destination. With international travel all but impossible, many of us will be visiting parts of Aotearoa for the first time. Not just a form of transport, this Coastal Pacific train trip has me reconsidering how we explore our country.
The Great Journeys of New Zealand brings together the Coastal Pacific, Northern Explorer and TranzAlpine trains with the Interislander Cook Strait ferry into a seamless connection between the North and South islands. For my journey, I rode on the Coastal Pacific train from Christchurch to Picton in the new Scenic Plus class.
We arrived at the Christchurch Railway station at 6:30am, checking in was a breeze and our large bags were placed in the luggage carriage. Stepping on to the train, I was impressed by the quality of the cabins. The large panoramic windows extend to the top of the carriage and the seats are very comfortable. Many of the staff on this train are former flight attendants made redundant due to Covid-19. Their level of service is world-class and an asset to the company. The hosts' knowledge and lively personalities made the trip both entertaining and informative.
This trip takes 5.5 hours from Christchurch and we arrived in Picton around 12:40pm. Headphones are provided with accompanying GPS-controlled audio commentary from Newstalk ZB's Raylene Ramsay. This provides an interesting insight into the history of small-town New Zealand with some fun facts to take home. For example, there's the tale of Nonoti in the Waiau Valley. Legend has it that the local MP was asked to name the area but he responded "No, not I".
The Coastal Pacific passes rugged mountains, remote beaches, idyllic countryside and vineyards. The landscape is varied as was the weather on our excursion. I walked down to the open-air carriage as we passed through Lake Grassmere and the sunny vineyards of Blenheim. While the light breeze is calming, I'd highly recommend bringing antihistamines to avoid allergy symptoms.
The brief showers added to the dramatic nature of the environment, particularly as we approached the stunning Kaikōura coastline. We spotted seals on the rocks and we're told that dolphins and whales are often seen. As a result of the 2016 earthquake, a massive fault line and uplifted seabed is visible along the coastline. The rocks are covered with sunbleached algae that had lived metres underwater. This eerie reminder of nature's power is something I won't forget.
Our journey ends in Picton, at the bottom of Queen Charlotte Sound. While some continued on to Wellington via the Interislander ferry, we spent the following day enjoying this quaint seaside town. Picton is home to a collection of art galleries, hiking trails and Oxley's Gastro Pub. Being a small town, the train station, town centre and port are all within walking distance.
Like all food and drink on this service, the regionally-inspired menu is delivered to your seat, as you relax and enjoy the spectacular views. The light breakfast included a chia and coconut pudding topped with a berry compote and toasted hazelnuts. This was followed by scones for morning tea and later a Whitestone cheese board. My favourite dish was the coastal canapes accompanied with the local wine selection.
On our return to Christchurch, there's the choice of Marlborough salmon or Pure South lamb served on a gourmet potato salad. A trip to the cafe carriage was unnecessary after devouring Wigram macarons before departing. A selection of teas, coffee, beer and juice are on offer. Vegetarian options are available and you can be sure that you won't be going hungry.
The Scenic Plus experience on the Coastal Pacific is a unique way to see New Zealand without the trouble of driving or finding places to eat. This journey gave me a better appreciation of New Zealand's diverse landscapes and some insight into our nation's history. For those who want a more affordable option, there's the standard scenic class for those who prefer to bring their own food or eat from the on-board cafe. That said, the increased price is worth it in exchange for the enhanced carriage, abundant delicious food and table space.
Although you don't have the freedom to stop as you please, rail travel takes the hassle out of planning and it's suitable for all ages. The soothing sound of the train, tasty food and amazing scenery makes this one for the wish list. All aboard!
The Coastal Pacific runs until April. For more information visit https://www.greatjourneysofnz.co.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com