Must see sights from the Coastal Pacific train
The Coastal Pacific train glides from the mountains to the ocean. This is the journey for those who want to see everything, scaling mountains, sweeping vineyard valleys and a coastline like no other. So sit back and bask in the beauty of the landscape beyond the panoramic windows.
The Coastal Pacific scenic train runs from Christchurch to Picton return on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and covers some of New Zealand’s most beautiful, unique and now geographically amazing landscapes.
The uniqueness of this iconic journey is the new New Zealand that has been unearthed by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that rattled, uplifted and destroyed the train line in 2016. While the charm and beauty of the journey remain the same, the route is now a stark reminder of the work and effort gone into rebuilding the line and the towns that surround it. But it’s not just earthquake damage to look out for; you’ll get some of the best views New Zealand has to offer.
Here is our guide to the top sights along the journey, and the best part? You don’t have to leave the comfort of the train. So before you hop on-board read on, so you don’t miss out.
Leaving the Canterbury Plains, the largest continuous area of flat in New Zealand, the journey will take you north. Crossing the Waiau River, you will travel on the 3rd longest rail bridge in New Zealand at 700m long. The view from the train leads upriver to the eastern reaches of the Spencer Mountains. Keep an eye out for fisherman, kayakers and occasional jet boats enjoying the river below.
If it's coastal views you're after, this is the part of the journey you have been waiting for! The train meets the Pacific Ocean at Claverley, the vast ocean to the east is a sight to behold. In fact, the nearest landmass to you at this point is Chile in South America - 9,000kms away! The train will follow the coastline tightly for the next 100kms. Keep looking out to sea during the journey; seals, pods of dolphins and whales can be seen close to shore. Kaikōura is, after all, New Zealand's aquatic wonderland.
Just south of Kaikōura you will begin to see the impact the earthquake had on the seaside village of Kaikōura. The first glimpse of the rebuild is the NCTIR village, specially constructed to house the 300 people who helped rebuild road and rail. Originally a paddock, this area was transformed into a communal living space with bedroom units, kitchen and recreation areas. Due to the amount of work still to be completed workers are still being housed there today.
A quick stop at Kaikōura station, time permitting, means you are able to depart the train - just remember to get back onboard when the whistle blows. You will have a short amount of time at Kaikōura station so it's the perfect opportunity to see a sculpture commissioned by KiwiRail to recognise the impact of the earthquake on the rail line. The sculpture by internationally acclaimed artist Ben Foster sits to the right of the Kaikōura Whale Watch entrance.
“The sculpture incorporates key place names of the railway line along this part of the coast, which has an extensive history, taking decades of effort to be constructed. More importantly, this sculpture reminds us that change is very much a constant, the twisted rail communicating the raw power of Mother Nature, and may stand as a constant reminder of how resilient we all are as it reaches upward.” - Ben Foster
Departing Kaikōura on a clear day gives views of the rugged Seaward Kaikōura Mountains towering above the coastline before plunging into the Pacific Ocean.
The next stretch of the journey really gives some insight into the amount of work that has been done to get road and railing back up and running. Bright orange cones, NCTIR workers, diggers and containers still line the road and rail tracks. 5 of the most significant slips happened here. Take a look up as you pass the area and see the aftermath of the dramatic slips that once covered road and rail.
Ohau Point was also the largest slip on the line, the remains of the slip can be seen clearly from the train, the sheer size of the debris was over 500,000m3. Ohau point was a major area of concern when the earthquake happened due to its resident seal colony. Thankfully, the coastline is still home to hundreds of seals, the colony is flourishing with many pups being born from November to January. If you look out to sea, you will be able to spot the seals camouflaged on the rocks basking in the South Island sun.
Papatea fault line
The fault line is best viewed from the train, the line runs parallel to a new 2m rock wall where there once was the ocean. The earthquake forced rock up at a rate of 3km per second, the abrupt uplift is evident from the water lines on the rocks which were once under the high tide mark.
On a clear day, the peaks of the Inland Kaikōura ranges are a dramatic feature of the landscape. The mountain range is home to the highest peak outside the Southern Alps, Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku, at 2285m high. Sir Edmund Hilary used this as his training ground before conquering Everest. Throughout his life, Sir Edmund Hilary remembered the first mountain he climbed in 1944, "Tappy" as he called it.
Journey through valleys covered in lush green rows of vines. These are the vineyards of the Awatere Valley, the grapes here are harvested to make the famous Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs. The Wither Hills in the north separate Awatere from the Wairau Valley which you will journey through before arriving in Blenheim.
Some would claim New Zealand's wine industry began in Marlborough in the 1970s, in the Brancott vineyard in the southern Wairau Valley. This was where the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in 1973. Wairau Valley has a slightly warmer, more sheltered climate than its neighbour, the Awatere Valley. As a result, the Sauvignon Blanc made here tends to taste a little more tropical, with hints of passionfruit and grapefruit rounding out the gooseberry and green pepper that typify Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Want a taste? Head to the licenced Cafe onboard and order your Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc while enjoying the best views of the Marlborough landscapes from any seat on the train.
Over half the salt used in New Zealand is harvested at Lake Grassmere. Saltwater from the Pacific Ocean comes into the lake, gets pumped into shallow pools, and through a process called solar evaporation, the water slowly disappears leaving behind salt. A phenomenal 70,000 tonnes of salt is extracted each year! You can see the pile of harvested salt from the train, this is used for food, stock, fertiliser etc. As the train cuts through the lake you may be lucky enough to see the water glisten with a pink tinge, this happens when there is high salinity in the ponds and can be quite a spectacle on a sunny day.
Discover more of New Zealand
If you want incredible views from the window of a train, there is so much to see on the Coastal Pacific train without leaving the comfort of your very seat. However, if you want to explore more of the incredible scenery The Coastal Pacific stops at Kaikōura and Blenheim before reaching its destination of Picton. A flexi or flexi-plus pass may give you the freedom you are after to make a stop along the way. There is plenty to experience off the tracks in these locations. From Whale watching and dolphin swimming in Kaikōura to vineyards and museums in Blenheim.
There’s something remarkable about witnessing the breathtaking New Zealand landscape floating past the window of your train, so what are you waiting for? The Coastal Pacific operates a limited season from October to April, and runs on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. So don’t miss out book now and experience it all by train.