Travelling from Auckland to Wellington by train has been on the to-do list for some time.
KiwiRail's TV ads whet the appetite and the dreamy accompaniment from Sol3 Mio's tenors is the cream.

So, when the opportunity arose to tick two wishes in one, it was too good to miss.
Visiting Wellington for the annual World of Wearable Art was a major buzz. The show's fantasia aside, this city certainly glams up to celebrate.

KiwiRail is a partner of WOW — and it's easy to see why. The Northern Explorer was packed to the gunnels — several tour groups taking control of carriages as passengers fuelled their enthusiasm for what lay ahead.

The Northern Explorer is New Zealand's longest-running passenger service — and also the longest at 680 kilometres — taking a full day between downtown Auckland and Wellington.

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It's an epic journey through the heart of the North Island, with short stops at Hamilton, National Park, Ohakune and Palmerston North.

Tongariro National Park — home to Ruapehu, Nguarahoe and Tongariro — is arguably the most scenic.

On a clear day, these volcanic mountains are spectacular — particularly when draped in snow. Obviously the best time is between late autumn and early spring when the snow line is lowest.

Viewing these giants from the train highlights the multi-layered complexities of the Central Plateau's terrain.

In winter, fields are often blanketed in white. In spring, lush pasture cuts a stark contrast as the snow retreats. Dense beech forests add further depth to this tapestry.

To reach the elevation of some 800 metres however, the train must first navigate the tight corners of the historic Raurimu Spiral. It's a triumph in engineering and massive effort in construction.

Raurimu Spiral's tight curves, loops and tunnels make it one of the Northern Explorer's biggest attractions.Photo / Jo Ferris
Raurimu Spiral's tight curves, loops and tunnels make it one of the Northern Explorer's biggest attractions.Photo / Jo Ferris

This is rugged country — even more so when the track was first contemplated in the late 1880s. Given the same situation today, health and safety demands would probably have scotched the idea entirely.

It has even been said the Raurimu Spiral would never have been built if planes had existed when reconnaissance surveys were made. Today it lures train fanatics from around the world.

To conquer the 139-metre hill with an ordinary engine, a grade of 1 in 50 was required, creating a path that curves in a horseshoe, loops, spirals and through two tunnels over almost seven kilometres.

This spiral attracts the most attention. The observation carriage was packed — people either taking photos as the train navigated the tight curves; or simply marvelling at how such a feat was achieved back then.

A headphone commentary on board runs periodically to highlight points of interest. Enjoying the journey with friends however, it's hardly conducive to conversation.

Which means a little attention is required if you want to see all the viaducts from the observation carriage; at the front of the train by the way — several carriages away from our group at the rear. One at the back would be helpful, please KiwiRail?

The series of viaducts bridging deep ravines in the Central Plateau are magnificent.

Makatote is the largest at 79 metres tall and spanning 262 metres, followed by Manganui-o-te-Ao then Hapuawhenua. At 414 metres long, its magnificent curve is a photographer's dream from the observation carriage.

On through the Rangitikei district, the journey traverses another series of towering viaducts; views gazing down to winding gorges below. From here the train rumbles on to the final stretch along the rugged Kapiti coast before chugging into Wellington and back to reality.

Is this great rail journey worth it? Definitely. As part of a package tour to see WOW next year — consider it seriously and tick two highlights off in one.