New Zealand: World's Best Scenic Rail Journey
New Zealand is often on every traveler’s bucket list, with so many different sights to see across the two remarkable islands. This New Zealand itinerary brings you from Auckland down to the southern tip of the northern island, you will wind through small and forgotten towns, pass fields filled with cows, sheep, and deer.
Once you cross the ocean and make it down to the southern island and head even further south, you will cross through mountain ranges, climb up hills and winding roads, travel past large lakes and sights like no other.
Price Range: $$$$
Recommended Days: 3-4 Weeks
Riding Hours: Approx. 27 hrs
Distance: 472 km
Transportation: Train, Bus, Ferry
Auckland: The City Of Sails
Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand often confused as the capital of the country, is a bustling city and home to a variety of attractions. Often it’s the first port of call before exploring the rest of the country. But don’t skip town before visiting one or a couple of the surrounding islands which are great for hiking or for a delicious wine tour.
Within Auckland city center itself be sure to visit the famed Giapo for a surprise scoop of ice cream and make your way to Britomart for some shopping. Delve into the country’s history by making a trip to the Auckland War Memorial Museum or learn more about the country’s developments at the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).
Enjoy a little hike to the top of Mt. Eden, or try some local foods from the Matakana Farmers Market before heading off to the next destination.
Auckland Station (Northern Explorer) → Hamilton Station | Duration: 2:29 h | Transfers: 0
The Northern Explorer operates three times throughout the week: Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. So you will need to plan your departure accordingly. If for some reason the train connection does not work with your intended date of departure from Auckland, there are also two bus connections per day. However, we recommend the train.
Rangitoto Island is iconic to the city of Auckland due to the dormant volcanic cone that is just off of the city. You can go to the Auckland ferry terminal and there catch a ferry to where you can enjoy a relaxed hike or go on a guided tour up to the summit for some of the most spectacular views that you will ever see. With views over the city, including the sky tower, plus views over the island and the bright blue waters.
Now if you fancy a wine tour from some of the best vineyards in the region, take a ferry from the Auckland ferry terminal to Waiheke Island. After arriving on the island, they have a great local bus service that will make stops at some of the best vineyards with great views over the island and the vines. Where the vineyards on the island are isn’t incredibly large and can also be walked to, giving you astounding views over the ocean and lush green that covers the island. Make sure to check all of the ferry schedules to make sure you can get back to Auckland.
Hamilton: Hot Springs And Hobbits
The fourth-largest city in the country and is often overlooked by travelers, mainly used as a way to get to some of the more famous attractions like Hobbiton and Rotorua. The city is very unique with its rolling green hills, caves and the various surf beaches to be enjoyed.
Before heading out on day trips, don’t forget to visit the intriguing Hamilton Gardens. The gardens were created to embrace the different cultures and civilizations that created the history of the country. There are several attractions to visit in the garden, the Victorian Flower Garden, the Italian Renaissance Garden, and the Indian Char Bagh Garden to name but a few.
Hamilton Station → Otorohanga Station | Duration: 0:39 h | Transfers: 0
The Northern Explorer operates three times throughout the week: Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. So you will need to plan your departure from Hamilton accordingly.
New Zealand became famous to many fantasy lovers due to the Lord of the Rings being filmed there. Hobbiton is a huge attraction for visitors as you are able to visit Middle Earth, discover Bagend, enjoy a drink at the Green Dragon and even see the Party Tree. The best way to get to Hobbiton from Hamiliton is with a private tour, or there are also options to go on your own which are bit more pricy first by bus (0:34h) to Karapiro and then a private taxi (0:26h) to the Hobbiton movie set.
An easy bus ride (1:30-2:00h) from Hamilton is Rotorua, famous for its thermal springs and odd eggy smell that lingers in the air. The Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland is home to colorful hot springs, geysers, pools, and mud pits. Head to a spa where the thermal waters and mud will be the perfect New Zealand treatment. Don’t miss a visit to the Maori Cultural village for an insight into the Maori traditions, cuisine, and dances. You’ll be sure to learn the Haka after this!
Make your way to the Whakarewarewa’s Redwoods which are loved by locals and visitors alike for its hiking and cycling trails, but in addition, check out the famous Redwoods Treewalk. Here you can stroll along a raised walkway amongst the trees on suspension bridges and during the evening you will see the walkway lit up with a colorful light display and beautifully-designed lanterns.
To ensure yourself a great way to see some of the important sights of Rotorua and to visit the three lakes in the area, head out on a duck tour. You will ride through Rotorua on an amphibious WWII landing craft experiencing an exciting and hilarious tour before heading out onto the lakes. Return by bus to Hamilton or stay over night in Rotorua before heading back.
Otorohanga: Glowing Caves
Next, on our New Zealand itinerary is Otorohanga. Often just used as a gateway for visiting the famous Waitomo caves, you will have the chance to see glowworms, street murals, and displays of the country’s significant icons, such as the kiwi bird. Grab a map and see if you can find as many of the ‘Kiwiana’ displays throughout the town, with displays for the All Blacks team, Aunt Daisy, and even farm dogs.
Probably the most famous attraction for this region is the Waitomo caves that are home to mystic glowworms. You can enjoy several different tour options available, but take the time to tour three different caves within the area. The Aranui Cave has a hidden entrance within a forest and is home to impressive formations of limestone with large stalactites. The Ruakuri Cave walks you through the breeding ground of the famous glow worms, and have the chance to see some more impressive formations, then lastly enjoy the Waitomo Glowworm Caves where you will be taken on a boat deep into the cave and be surrounded by the magnificent glow worms as they light up around you.
If you fancy a bit more of a thrill, head underground in raft tubes through the rapids, down waterfalls, and float below the glow worms whilst black water rafting. You can either head down the Black Labyrinth route or the Black Abyss route; either way, you will be in for a thrilling time.
Otorohanga Station → National Park | Duration: 2:19 h | Transfers: 0
The Northern Explorer operates three times throughout the week: Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. So you will need to plan your departure accordingly.
National Park: One Of The Best Day Hikes In The World
The perfect place to give you access to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the little town known as National Park, and also is the perfect spot for many other outdoor activities.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a world heritage site and also has views of the famous Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. Besides these notable points, the crossing allows you to see some of the most spectacular sights in all of the country. There are several routes that you can take along the track, be it for a one-day trek or head out on several-day treks.
If you want just a day trek, you can walk along the 19 km route via a boardwalk, steps, dirt paths, and clearly laid out route where you will be able to climb the side of the dormant volcano. You will see colorful volcanic pools, and soak up views over the national park. It’s truly stunning and well worth the 19 km worth of exertion.
National Park → Wellington Station | Duration: 5:10 h | Transfers: 0
The Northern Explorer operates three times throughout the week: Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. So you will need to plan your departure accordingly.
Wellington: Windy Welly
The capital of the country, set at the southern tip of the northern island, Wellington is an artsy and eclectic city with a variety of attractions and delicious food to be enjoyed. Explore the interactive museums and tour the parliament buildings where decisions for the country are made.
Considered to be an unusual attraction is the famous Te Papa Museum, which is home to the colossal squid. You will find a variety of different collections to see and learn about the culture and history of the country in an intriguing, interactive way. An integral part of the country is the Maori culture and tattoos are part of the traditions. To learn more about the Maori and Pacific tattoo traditions, head to the National Tattoo Museum, especially for the techniques and styles that are often depicted. Known well in the creative industry, visit the Weta Workshop to be amazed whilst up close to world-class movie costumes, props, and weapons, chances are you’ve seen their work before.
Wellington is known to be a foodie town, and especially for its seafood but also with plenty of other styles of food to be enjoyed. From Mexican food to a new take on the Kiwi classic fish and chips to no-frills Malaysian meals, stroll around Cuba Street and the alleyways off of it and you’ll be sure to find some great food!
Wellington Port → Picton Ferry Port | Duration: 3:10h | Transfers: 0
There is one service everyday at 4pm from Wellington to Picton. Catch the ferry to the south island from the Wellington Ferry terminal and then upon arriving you can stay in Picton or head 20 minutes south to Blenheim. If you want to take the ferry and go to Blenheim on the same day, you will have to take a bus to Blenheim from Picton city center, as the ferry arrives too late to be able to catch the train. However if you stay one day in Picton, you can easily catch the afternoon train (0:26h) (only Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) to Blenheim with the Coastal Pacific train.
Picton: At The Gates Of Marlborough
Often just a stopgap for venturing into the joys of the south island, Picton is a great seaside town along this New Zealand itinerary to relax before continuing with your adventure. From Picton, you can enjoy activities like relaxing by the beach, enjoying the Edwin Fox Museum, or even trekking part of the Queen Charlotte Track. You can then head down to Blenheim in the Marlborough region and enjoy wine tours and trails, and learn about the winemaking process.
The Edwin Fox Museum shows some of New Zealand’s maritime history is the oldest surviving merchant ship and the last surviving ‘convict ship’ to take prisoners to Australia. You will step aboard into the hull of the ship and learn about the many voyages that this ship had. Hike part of the coastal Queen Charlotte track where you will have the chance to see a glimpse of the beauty that the south island has to offer.
Blenheim is in the heart of the wine country in New Zealand and is the perfect spot for wine tours, cycling from vineyard to vineyard, and maybe even learning about winemaking. New Zealand is known for Sauvignon Blanc so pick up the Marlborough Wine Trail map and head to the many cellar doors that offer free tastings and maybe enjoy a spot of lunch with cheese and charcuterie boards that match with the wines.
Picton Station → Kaikoura Station | Duration: 2:55 h | Transfers: 0
The Coastal Pacific operates four times throughout the week: Monday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. So you will need to plan your departure accordingly.
Kaikoura: Marine Wildlife Spotting
Another seaside town that has a variety of attractions to enjoy, especially for those who want to get up close with marine wildlife, Kaikoura offers activities such as whale watching, dolphin watching, and a search for albatross flying above and floating in the ocean.
You will have the chance to spot the massive sperm whales on the shores around Kaikoura. Your tour guide will take you to the many known spots for seeing these impressive creatures, but they will also use sonar systems to pinpoint exactly where they are. During the whale-watching trip, you may even have the chance to see dolphins and albatross out in the ocean. To learn more about the whales, visitors can make their way to Fyffe House, whose display comprises of the past of whaling. For some more history, visit the Kaikoura Museum which exhibits the natural history of New Zealand, Maori history, and maritime history of the area.
Just away from the town, an easy walk away you can head to the Point Kean seal colony. The car park is not far from the local fur seals and their pups’ home and then if you continue along the track you may even see penguins living amongst the seals.
Kaikoura Station → Christchurch Station | Duration: 3:10 h | Transfers: 0
The Coastal Pacific operates four times a week: Mondays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Plan your journey accordingly to Christchurch.
Christchurch: Shaky Grounds
The largest city on the south island, Christchurch has suffered several major earthquakes but has continued to show its beauty. The city takes its influences from English and American culture, especially in the design of its residential and park areas. There are a lot of places to visit, from botanical gardens and delicious places to eat, all just a few steps away.
Christchurch Botanic Gardens is in the center of the city and is home to flowering gardens, plant conservatories, and plenty of native trees. It was built and designed after the marriage of Prince Albert and Princess Alexandra of Denmark.
In dedication for the soldiers of World War, the Bridge of Remembrance was erected and connects the Oxford and Cambridge Terraces over Cashel Street, a sight that stands out in the metropolitan city. Looking for a different point of interest? Check out the Cardboard Cathedral.
Christchurch Bus Station → Tekapo Bus Station | Duration: 3:30 h | Transfers: 0
The Intercity buses leave Christchurch in the morning four to six times a week. This depends on the high or low season. Make sure to check the bus schedules online beforehand and purchase your tickets from Intercity.
Lake Tekapo: Starry Nights
Lake Tekapo is often seen in the many photos of New Zealand, with a vibrant lake set within the view of mountains. Although more of a place to visit just to enjoy the lake, there are few things that can be enjoyed in the area such as soaking in heated pools, skating on the ice rink, and spending time at natural spas built near the lake.
Due to there being no light pollution in Tekapo, it is an amazing spot for stargazing. You will have the chance to see the stars like never before and with incredible clarity.
Tekapo’s surrounding areas also bloom with purple and pink lupin flowers throughout the summer season. Where these flowers bloom is a great place to enjoy a relaxed and calming walk with the lake and mountains surrounding you.
Tekapo Bus Station → Queenstown Bus Station | Duration: 3:50 h | Transfers: 0
The Intercity buses leave Tekapo in the afternoon five to six times a week. This depends on the high or low season. Make sure to check the bus schedules online beforehand and purchase your tickets from Intercity.
Queenstown: Adventure Capital
Queenstown is the city for thrillseekers and has plenty of activities show for it. The adrenaline junkie haven offers mountain biking, jet boating, skydiving, paragliding, canyoning, ATVing, and bungy jumping. And in the winter, snow-based activities such as skiing and snowboarding are also popular in the many resorts near Queenstown during peak and off-peak seasons. There is so much to see and do within the city, and plenty of wine to drink and food to eat.
Fergburger is the most famous burger place in all of New Zealand, images online not only show the wide range of burgers to enjoy but also the large queues of people that flock to it. If you are looking for a bit of thrilling adventure, there are many different operators that allow you to enjoy paragliding over the city or head out to Nevis Valley which is home to the world’s biggest rope swing and the third-highest bungy platform in the world.
Venture to a bit out of Queenstown for a visit to Arrowtown, the picturesque mining town, or to Wanaka for the iconic Roy’s Peak Track and the largest waterfall via Ferrata in the world with Wildwire Wanaka.
We hope you enjoyed your big trip through New Zealand! Are you not quite ready to be done yet? Take the Intercity bus to Milford Sound to experience the amazing fjords or head up the west coast by bus to Franz Josef Glacier. Maybe you’re itching to visit Australia too? You might as well when you’re on this side of the world! Fly to Sydney and take one of the many trains north or south or maybe it’s time to head back home. Book your flights online with Skyscanner.
*Disclaimer: Due to the fluidity of transportation schedules, the information seen on RailwayHero may not be up to date at the time of readíng. Always double-check with the operator for the latest information.