Scenic train journey between Picton and Christchurch
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The Coastal Pacific™ train trip, which travels through the Kaikōura ranges, is one of the great journeys of New Zealand, transporting you by rail between Picton and Christchurch.
The journey is just over 5 hours, but why not take your time and book a stop over for a couple of days to explore, Picton, Kaikōura and Christchurch.
Home to world famous Marlborough Sounds
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Linking the North and South Islands together, the Interislander and Bluebridge ferries are both excellent ways to get from Wellington to Picton.
The 3.5 hour sailing across the Cook Strait is as relaxing as it is scenic. As playful dolphins frolic alongside the ferry sit back and relax on the outside deck or lounge inside at the café or bar.
During the winter months humpback whales can be seen gracefully gliding their enormous bodies through the strait as they migrate to the south.
Glimpses of land appear as the ferry slowly drifts past secluded inlets of the Marlborough Sounds where you're greeted with the palm tree lined waterfront of Picton.
For local maps, expert advice and to book activities visit Picton isite Visitor Information Centre, which is a mere five minutes walk from the ferry terminal and most accommodation providers are close by.
Excellent Marlborough wineries and boutique shops
Towns in the Marlborough areaRead more
Considered the heart of the Marlborough Sounds and built around a sheltered harbour, the picturesque port town of Picton is home to great cafés, restaurants, galleries and specialty boutique stores. And with less than 5,000 locals you're bound to meet a few friendly faces.
Picton is home to many excellent tramping and cycling trails including the Queen Charlotte Track(opens in new window). Although the climate is mild and generally warm, the area also has a high average rainfall so you need to be prepared and check the weather before you begin.
Green-lipped mussels are grown and harvested in abundance in the area and the small village of Havelock, just 45 minutes drive from Picton, is the gateway to the Pelorus Sounds.
Marlborough Tour Company Mail Boat tour is a super relaxing full day tour onboard a catamaran, meandering slowly through the clear waters of the Pelorus Sounds to deliver mail and supplies to locals who live remotely in the sounds. Waiting on the jetty's you'll meet some interesting characters and hear how Kiwi ingenuity shapes the somewhat primitive life in the sounds. It's not just the locals who wait on the jetties - keep a look out for dogs, pigs, sheep and seals!
Vast open plains, mountain ranges and wildlife
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After a sleep-in and leisurely brunch, make your way to Picton Train Station (just behind Picton isite Visitor Information Centre) ready for an early afternoon departure on the Coastal Pacific™, one of New Zealand's great train journeys.
Leaving Picton behind, your Coastal Pacific™ train trip begins with views of New Zealand's premium wine growing region of Blenheim, home to world-renowned Marlborough sauvignon blanc. The patchwork landscape of deep oranges and burnt yellows are thanks to the long hot days and dry weather in this region.
The Coastal Pacific™ railway's many tunnels are a major feature of the journey. The cost and difficulty of building these 20 tunnels resulted in the railway taking more than 80 years to complete.
The tunnels are clustered in the cliffs that rise either side of Kaikōura's vast plains. The majority of these tunnels are between Ōkiwi Bay and Claverley.
Continuing on, you'll notice the landscape becomes lush as the train tracks cross into the northern Canterbury region.
Lake Grassmere is an interesting sight, the pastel pink and whites you'll see is the result of natural salt production. Seawater, fresh from the Pacific Ocean, is pumped into the lake and into crystallisation ponds until the salt is harvested. The pink to purple colour of the crystallisation ponds is caused by natural microscopic green algae that change to pink in the high salt concentration. The same phenomena that gives the Red Sea its name.
Continuing south, keep a look out for the Ohau Point Seal Colony. Often, hundreds of New Zealand fur seals can be spotted sunning themselves on the rocks or frolicking amongst the seaweed. The train travels close enough to the ocean to see the seals with the naked eye.
One of the most spectacular moments of the Coastal Pacific™ journey is at Mangamaunu Bay. Here the train rounds the southern end of the bay delivering exceptional close-up views of the Kaikōura mountain ranges. Mangamaunu Bay is also one of the best surf beaches in New Zealand and during peak surf conditions, the bay is so popular that surfers queue up to take turns.
In the late afternoon the Coastal Pacific™ arrives into Kaikōura Train Station (also known as the Whaleway Station) which is on the waterfront in the same building as Whalewatch Kaikōura.
Accommodation options are ten minute walk from the station in the town centre or a short drive away. For local maps and expert advice, call into Kaikōura isite Visitors Information Centre.
Crayfish BBQs and wildlife encounters
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Kaikōura is a base for wildlife experiences of all kinds – it’s also a great place to eat crayfish (in Māori language 'kai' means food, 'kōura' means crayfish).
Kaikōura's environment is truly spectacular, the village is sandwiched between the rugged seaward Kaikōura Range and the Pacific Ocean. In winter the mountains are covered with snow, adding to the drama of the landscape.
The special talents of the area are marine mammal encounters. Whales, fur seals and dolphins live permanently in the coastal waters. Whale watching trips leave the town several times a day and the local seal colony is always entertaining.
Kaikōura Canyon, where many wildlife encounters take place, is deep and open and the sea conditions can change quickly. When the seas are too rough, head to the clouds and whale watch from above with Wings over Whales.
There are also plenty of cafés, restaurants and shops to explore and of course you should try succulent Kaikōura crayfish fresh off the boat at Nins Bin crayfish caravan(opens in new window), at a waterfront restaurant or Kaikōura Seafood BBQ(opens in new window).
The Canterbury Plains are New Zealand's largest area of continuous flat land
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With most of the day free, it's then time to head back to the Whaleway Station in the afternoon to board the Coastal Pacific™ bound for Christchurch.
Heading south, the train travels over the Kahutara River Bridge which stretches 241 metres long. Enjoy stunning views of the Kahutara River below, the Pacific Ocean on the left and the Seaward Kaikōura Ranges on the right.
Okarahia Viaduct, at 21 metres high and 115 metres long, is an unexpected gem and a beautiful sight to behold. Views of the viaduct appear suddenly from behind trees near Claverley Road and you're treated to stunning views of the Pacific Ocean on the left and tree-lined Okarahia Valley on the right.
Travelling on to the north-eastern tip of the Canterbury Plains (which span a massive 200 kilometres from north to south) the Coastal Pacific™ is now sharing the land with the TranzAlpine™ whose main territory is the Southern Alps. The TranzAlpine™ follows the valleys of the Waimakariri River while the Coastal Pacific™ crosses over the river near Kaiapoi.
Historically, the train route of the Coastal Pacific™ began as two separate railways; one from Christchurch to Kaikōura and another from Picton to Blenheim. Connecting the two railways together was impossible with the Kaikōura Ranges in the way. The only option was to build the train route around the coast, creating a scenic train journey on the very edge of the world.
As the Coastal Pacific™ pulls into Christchurch Railway Station (sometimes known as Addington Station) your train journey comes to an end just after sunset.
Grab a taxi from the station and head into the central city where you'll find many options for acccomodation.
Christchurch is an interesting city so it's worth spending a few nights exploring.
If your next stop is the West Coast consider the scenic journey through the Southern Alps onboard the TranzAlpine™ which departs from Christchurch Station.