A breathtaking trip on the Coastal Pacific train, NZ

The wild Pacific coast seen from the Coastal Pacific train
Speeding along the coastline – as the weather closes in

a relaxing way to see some of the sights of marlborough and canterbury

New Zealand’s scenic railways are back in action after an extended hiatus during the Covid period, which is welcome news for us slow travellers. Revamped and rebranded as Great Journeys of New Zealand, these state-run railways offer a very civilised alternative to road and air travel.

The Coastal Pacific train

Formerly known as the Tranz Coastal, the Coastal Pacific train operates from late September until the end of April. It runs once a day on Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. We travelled in early April, when autumn foliage along the line was at its most colourful and beautiful.

You can travel on the Coastal Pacific train in either direction, but be warned that if you choose to start from Christchurch, it’s an early departure at 7 a.m. We chose the more leisurely option leaving from Picton at 1.40 p.m.

If you wish, you can break the 5-hour journey with a stopover. We decided to do this and chose to disembark at the seaside town of Kaikoura, approximately half way between Picton and Christchurch, which did not add any cost to our overall fare. Stopovers need to be arranged at the time of booking.

We checked in at Picton station about 2 hours before departure, giving us time to walk around the town and find a good coffee before boarding. Meanwhile, our suitcases were stored in the luggage van.

The Coastal Pacific train at Picton
The Coastal Pacific train at Picton

Once back at the station, excitement mounted as the doors were unlocked and we were allowed to board! Most of our fellow passengers in Coach A were members of a tour group, wearing name tags and speaking with a variety of accents. It turned out that they, too, were stopping over in Kaikoura.

Luckily for us, we had been allocated seats on the left-hand side, which is the one facing the sea. (There’s a top tip for you!) Our friendly, knowledgeable train guard, Matt, introduced himself to everyone and made sure we were all comfortable.

The Coastal Pacific train offers a commentary service, accessed through headphones, which tells you about the landmarks and noteworthy historical events along the journey. This really does help make the most of the trip – it’s nice to know what you’re looking at. High-level screens flash messages when a commentary is about to start. They also show the train’s progress on a map.

Picton to Blenheim

The journey begins in the region of Marlborough, which is mainly known for 2 things: the beautiful Sounds, and – of course – wine. The Sounds are ancient, sunken river valleys flooded with the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The pretty harbour of Picton is located on Queen Charlotte Sound, which is the main entry point for ferries from Wellington. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Bush-covered hills and verdant valleys in Marlborough, New Zealand

On departure, we left the beautiful Sounds behind and travelled through stunning inland scenery: steep, bush-covered hills, shimmering streams and verdant valleys flecked with the reds and golds of autumn.

Some 25 minutes later, after crossing the great Wairau river, we rolled into Blenheim – heart of the Marlborough wine industry. You could choose to start your Coastal Pacific train journey here, after spending a very pleasurable time visiting wineries or the Omaka aviation heritage centre. A number of events take place throughout the year, such as the Marlborough Wine and Food Festival. Blenheim airport is well-connected to other regional and international airports in New Zealand.

Vineyards in Marlborough, New Zealand, seen from the Coastal Pacific train

After checking the tickets of passengers who had boarded at Blenheim, Matt informed us all that, this being Easter weekend, we could enjoy hot cross buns from the buffet car. This bemused one of the North American passengers from the tour group, who – much to everyone’s amazement – had never heard of hot cross buns. “Don’t worry, I never heard of them either”, reassured one of her fellow group members soothingly. A long discussion followed on how best to define a hot cross bun.

Blenheim to KAIKOURA

The next stage of our journey saw a change in the landscape from bushy, tree-clad hills to bare, dry ones as we passed deeper into wine country. One neighbour described the hills as being ‘like sand dunes’, which was quite apt.

We also saw tantalising glimpses of the southern tip of New Zealand’s north island, across Cloudy Bay and the Cook Strait.

Glimpses of the Cook Strait from the Coastal Pacific train

Eventually we crossed another great river – the Awatere – before stopping briefly at the small, rural settlement of Seddon. Opposite our halt was one of those little stores that seem to sell everything you could ever need: beer, wine, fish and chips, pies, hot chicken, cakes, sandwiches, burgers and ice-cream. What more could anyone want? The people of Seddon are well provided-for.

Not long after leaving Seddon, we passed Lake Grassmere, which is the centre of the Marlborough saltworks. Warm north-west winds evaporate the shallow waters of the lagoon and create the salt. Some of the ponds are turned pink by the algae growing in them. The lagoon creates a beautiful, shimmering and unusual opaline landscape.

At this point, some of our fellow passengers decided to check out the observation car, which was located near the front of the train. This has an outdoor deck which is good for taking photos, though Matt warned us of the perils of leaning too far out and getting decapitated by a tunnel wall. Or, worse still, dropping one’s phone overboard (“there is no going back.”). The verdict? “Cold and windy.” We decided to give it a miss.

Lake Grassmere, Marlborough, New Zealand
Lake Grassmere

Soon after lake Grassmere, we rolled over the regional border into north Canterbury and headed for the coast. This part of the journey lends its name to the train – and is the most scenic of all. To the left is the wild Pacific ocean, and to the right, the steep, brooding Kaikoura mountain ranges. The scenery reminded me very much of Scotland. Especially when the heavy rain clouds rolled in and enveloped the peaks in mist.

A mystery amid The Pines

At this point, Matt announced that there would be a brief stop. A Christchurch-based driver would be taking us onward from here, while our Picton-based driver would be leaving the train. Strangely, this exchange took place not at a station or halt, but apparently in the middle of a pine forest. We were all mystified. Where did our new driver come from, and where would the old one go? Matt wasn’t telling.

The mystery remained unsolved, but after a 10-15 minute delay we were on our way to Kaikoura, passing over 2 more stunning rivers – the Clarence and the Hapuku.

Reminders of an earthquake

Kaikoura experienced a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in 2016, which lifted this shoreline by 1-2 metres and caused extensive damage. The effects can clearly be seen as you pass along the coast.

The shoreline near Kaikoura uplifted by the 2016 earthquake
The shoreline was uplifted by up to 2 metres

As we neared the town, we soon spotted groups of the fur seals that are a familiar sight in this area. Meanwhile, the mist atop the mountains grew thicker, and the rain began to pour. Luckily the shower had abated by the time we disembarked.

Kaikoura to CHRISTCHURCH

After spending 2 very pleasant days in Kaikoura – which I highly recommend – we boarded the train once again for our Easter Saturday afternoon journey to Christchurch.

The Coastal Pacific train at Kaikoura
The Coastal Pacific train arriving at Kaikoura

For a while, we continued along the wild, rocky coast, passing through small settlements and holiday camps where friendly locals waved to us excitedly. Eventually, we left the coast behind and headed inland alongside the Conway River. The landscape changed to gentle rolling green hills and valleys. This was sheep farming country. If the Kaikoura coast had felt like Scotland, this part of Canterbury was reminiscent of England.

Around 123 km south of Kaikoura, more vineyards began to appear. This was the Waipara Valley, one of the newer wine regions of New Zealand. Known particularly for its Pinot Noir and varietals, this region is well worth a visit if you enjoy wine. Pegasus Bay and Terrace Edge are among the best known labels.

A view of the Wairau River from the Coastal Pacific train in New Zealand
The Wairau River, one of several great rivers crossed by the Coastal Pacific train

The buffet car

As the buffet – handily located in the next carriage – was due to close at 6 pm, we decided to have dinner at this point. We studied the menu, which was surprisingly varied with a good range of options from snacks and sweet treats to main course meals. A good choice of beverages, alcoholic and otherwise, was also available.

Our dinner choices – lamb shank with veggies for me, steak pie for my better half – were very good. We also took advantage of the end-of-day sale of half-price sandwiches and brownies. We took them with us to our Christchurch hotel, where they provided our lunch and afternoon tea treats for the next couple of days!

The light was beginning to fade as we headed closer to the town of Rangiora, which marked the start of a flatter, more urban landscape. South of Rangiora, lights were beginning to turn on and we crossed what is probably the most famous Canterbury river – the immense Waimakariri, 151 km long.

UPDATE

From 14 December 2023, the operators are re-introducing Scenic plus, a fine dining experience aboard the train. I’d love to do this! You’ll be in a special carriage with dedicated hosts, who will offer you a delicious menu of food and drinks depending on the time of day. Fresh food ‘from paddock to plate’ is promised, with quality local ingredients. And you get priority check-in. Love it.

CHRISTCHURCH

We rolled into Christchurch railway station just after 7 pm, nearly half an hour early. The staff swiftly unloaded our bags while the locomotive was detached and shifted to the front of the train, ready for its early departure next morning.

The station is located in the suburb of Addington, south west of the city centre. Taxis began to roll up as we all collected our bags. The journey into town is around 4 km and takes 12-15 minutes, depending on your destination.

New Zealand’s second largest city offers plenty of choice when it comes to accommodation, dining options and activities. See my separate post for details on our stay in Christchurch.

Christchurch shopping area with a tram passing along the street
Christchurch shopping centre

Overall impressions

We thoroughly enjoyed the trip and would highly recommend it to anyone. Our highlights were:

  • the stunning and varying landscapes: from mountains, rivers and valleys to the vineyards and wild rocky coastline;
  • the train itself – comfortable and spacious;
  • the friendly and very capable staff;
  • the buffet food – surprisingly good quality and with a wide range of options;
  • the timeliness and efficiency of the whole journey.

We felt that Kaikoura was the perfect place to break our journey, offering plenty attractions of its own. Read about our stay in my separate post, 5 reasons to visit extraordinary Kaikoura.

Looking across to the Kaikoura range across the bay
The misty Kaikoura ranges

pRACTICALITIES: GETTING TO Picton

We travelled to Picton from Wellington on the Interislander ferry, which is operated by the same parent company as the Coastal Pacific train. Under normal conditions, it’s perfectly possible to take the early 8.45 a.m. sailing from Wellington and transfer to the train for the afternoon journey to Christchurch. However, at the time of our travels, the ferries were experiencing severe disruptions due to a number of factors. So we decided to play safe and spend the night in Picton after our sailing.

Luckily we had booked our accommodation several weeks earlier. Ferry disruption can result in the limited visitor beds in this small town being booked out by stranded passengers. So if you do decide to stay, make sure you book in plenty of time.

Picton does have its own tiny airport located at Koromiko, 5 km from Picton township. One local company, Sounds Air, flies from Wellington and return up to 8 times a day. They operate a shuttle service to and from Picton if needed, at extra cost. Their planes are tiny and sometimes divert to Blenheim when certain weather conditions prevent the use of Picton airport. In this case the shuttle will take you to or from Blenheim at no extra cost.

Sennen House historic bed and breakfast, Picton

We stayed at the delightful Sennen House Historic Bed and Breakfast. Located in a quiet haven behind the main centre of Picton, this gorgeous old villa is beautifully furnished to a high standard. The friendly owners picked us up from the ferry and dropped us off at the train station next day. For more information on Sennen House, see our TripAdvisor review.

Picton is the gateway to the Marlborough Sounds and some of the wonderful resorts tucked away in serene bays and coves. Many of these are only accessible by water taxi, offering the chance to truly get away from it all. You can read about our experience at the Bay of Many Coves Resort if this interests you.

Tickets, tours and other bookings

We booked our ferry and train tickets directly from Great Journeys of New Zealand, and chose our own accommodation separately. Great Journeys also offers packages departing from Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my other south island content, some of which is already linked to above. Also, A winter weekend in Dunedin.

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