The Coastal Pacific journey
With the Pacific Ocean lapping at its wheels on one side and the Kaikoura ranges rising majestically on the other, the Coastal Pacific is undoubtedly the most picturesque of our scenic journeys.
Sea, scenery and sea life!
In the crisp early morning, the Coastal Pacific leaves Christchurch, heading on its northbound coastal journey to the peaceful port of Picton and the magnificent Marlborough Sounds. By early afternoon, the Coastal is returning on its journey home to the historic city of Christchurch. Whether travelling from Wellington to Christchurch via the Interislander or stopping off at Blenheim and Kaikoura as part of a holiday break, or simply taking a day out with a difference from Christchurch, the Coastal Pacific train journey enables travellers to see the very best of New Zealand!
Where waves and mountains collide
Bookended by the rural New Zealand farmsteads that inspired the railway's construction, it is the central segment between Claverley and Clarence earns the Coastal Pacific its name and reputation as one of the world's great journeys. Here the Coastal Pacific voyages along New Zealand's wild coastlines, pressed against the sea by rugged cliffs that rise from the Pacific Ocean to form the Kaikoura mountain ranges. It is pure seaside magic, with New Zealand's best scenery, wildlife and engineering feats filling the windows as the Coastal Pacific winds around bend after bend after bend. And as the train skirts around secluded bays and across isolated beaches, have your camera ready because words cannot express the beauty that unfolds.
Spanning a colossal 200km from north to south and 70km from east to west, the Canterbury Plains are New Zealand's largest expanse of continuous flat land. Essential to successful large-scale agriculture, these vast plains were bought by the Canterbury Association in 1850 as the perfect region for building their new English colony.
Although the Coastal Pacific ventures only through the north-eastern tip of the Canterbury Plains, the immense flatness allows the imposing hills of the Torlesse Range to be seen 70km to the west. These are the hills through which the Coastal Pacific's sister train, the TranzAlpine, climbs on its way into the Southern Alps. The TranzAlpine's path frequently follows the valley forged by the "braided" Waimakariri River, which the Coastal Pacific crosses near Kaiapoi as it travels across the plains.
Bridging the Okarahia Stream between Claverley and Oaro, the Okarahia Viaduct is an unexpected treat. The southern approach is hidden by the trees lining Claverley Road, while the northern approach is hidden by the 975m Amuri Tunnel (Main North Line Tunnel 3). So whichever direction you arrive, the amazing vistas afforded by the viaduct appear suddenly.
Traversing the Okarahia Viaduct is a stunning spectacle. At 21 metres high and 115 metres long, it is by no means the longest or tallest viaduct on the network. However, the Coastal Pacific seems to fly magically over the beach far below, with tremendous views of the Pacific Ocean stretching away into the blue.
The view to the west is equally remarkable, with the broad tree-lined Okarahia valley winding away into the nearby hills. This view continues along the embankment between the viaduct and tunnel, so there is plenty of time to enjoy the view in both directions.
Tunnels, tunnels, tunnels
Although the antithesis of scenic, the Main North Line railway's many tunnels are a major feature of the journey. The expense and difficulty of building these tunnels resulted in railway taking more than 80 years to complete.
All but one of the Main North Line's 20 tunnels are clustered in the cliffs that rise either side of Kaikoura's vast plain. Tunnels 1-14 are located within a 19km stretch between Claverley and Okiwi Bay, while tunnels 15-20 are cut within a10km stretch between Managamaunu and Okiwi Bay. The majority of these tunnels were needed to meet the railway's speed requirement by keeping bends within the decreed 240m radius.
Other tunnels were built only to protect the railway from slips using cut and cover barrel vaulting methods. Of particular interest is the winding 899m ParatitahiTunnel. While each end uses conventional tunnelling to cut through Riley's Hill, the middle section is barrel vaulted with ventilation slits added to the walls. You will know when you are passing through, as the sea view will be blinking through slits giving the impression of sitting inside a life-size zoetrope!
Immediately adjacent to Riley's Road Tunnel 14 is the Kahautara River Bridge 101. Stretching 241 metres over the Kahautara River, the bridge provides spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Seaward Kaikouras to the west.
For those travelling northbound on the Coastal Pacific to Picton, this is the first of many stunning views of the Seaward Kaikoura mountains. The range rises from the south with the highest peak visible in the north, Manakau, at 2610 metres. During summer, this beautiful mountainous seaside region gets intensely hot, so you need to travel in spring or autumn to catch the mountains capped with snow.
Beaches of Kaikoura
Nothing says "summer" more than a hot sunny day on the beach - and between the peninsulas of Kaikoura and Hapuku, the Coastal Pacific roams along miles upon miles of beautiful beach.
However, it isn't just the sea providing the scenery here. The flat plains surrounding Kaikoura leading into the piedmont of the Kaikoura mountains also provides vast vistas of stunning natural beauty.
Meanwhile, to the north, the Kaikoura Ranges can be seen descending into the sea, while to the south the Kaikoura Peninsula sweeps out into the sea. It really is a magnificent panorama, with spectacular scenery in all directions!
One of the most spectacular moments comes at Mangamaunu Bay, just north of Hapuku. Here the train rounds the southern end of the bay delivering exceptional close-up views of the Kaikoura mountain ranges rising up out of the water to the north.
Mangamaunu Bay is also a highly rated surf beach with a right-hand point break. When the waves are on form, the bay is so popular that surfers queue up to take turns.
Ohau Point Seal Colony
The Coastal Pacific then crosses the border into Marlborough and the landscape quickly changes. The climate in Marlborough is renownedly hot and the grasses soon turn to parched shades of yellow and orange. You will also notice the landscape turn curiously pink as the Coastal Pacific travels through the heart of the salt plains at Lake Grassmere.
By lunchtime, the Coastal Pacific is amongst the sunny vineyards of Blenheim at the heart of Marlborough, New Zealand's premier wine region. The Coastal Pacific ends its epic voyage in the quaint port of Picton, in perfect time for the afternoon Interislander ferry to Wellington.
Explore beyond the tracks
The sleepy town of Kaikoura is one of New Zealand's most scenic destinations. The area is also renowned for whale spotting and swimming with dolphins.
A sunny afternoon spent visiting the vineyards and cellar doors of Blenheim is also an essential part of any New Zealand itinerary.
For detailed information on what you can see beyond the tracks, see our Coastal Pacific destinations section.
Connect with our scenic network
For detailed tips on connecting with the South Island, see our Coastal Pacific connections section.
Explore our trains
To find out more about the on-board experience, including the seating, panoramic windows, café and open air viewing carriage, please visit the On Board Our Trains page.