Meander along the gorgeous Pacific Coast by rail
With the Pacific Ocean lapping at its wheels and the Kaikoura ranges rising majestically above, the Coastal Pacific is undoubtedly one of the world's most picturesque train journeys
Sea, scenery and sea life!
Whether you are travelling on the Coastal Pacific train from Christchurch to Picton in the crisp early morning or from Picton to Christchurch in the afternoon sun, the Coastal Pacific's journey along the South Island's north-east coast is one to savour.
From craggy coastal cliffs and rocky outcrops to modern vineyards and rustic farmsteads, the Coastal Pacific cruises through the full spectrum of New Zealand culture and character. Throw in a healthy dose of seals, seagulls, dolphins and the occasional whale, and the Coastal Pacific train easily ranks as one of best days out in New Zealand.
Where waves and mountains collide
The Main North Line railway, on which the Coastal Pacific runs, began its journey as two separate railways - one heading north from Christchurch to Kaikoura and one heading south from Picton to Blenheim. When it came to connecting them together, from Parnassus in the south to Mirza in the north, the impenetrable Kaikoura mountain ranges forced the railway to the very edge of the world.
Today, this sensational stretch along the Pacific Coast is the highlight of the Coastal Pacific journey. Here the Coastal Pacific voyages along New Zealand's wild coastlines, pressed against the sea by rugged cliffs that arise from the Pacific Ocean and continue climbing onward and upward to form the peaks of the Kaikoura mountains. It is pure 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 do justice to the beauty that unfolds.
But it isn't all sea and scenery. As the Coastal Pacific ventures along this historic railway, the fundamental challenges and rewards of life in New Zealand are framed within its huge panoramic windows. The Kaikoura earthquake of 2016 is the latest chapter of an incredible story.
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 the 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 on 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 a 10km 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 provide 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
Ohau Point is home to hundreds of New Zealand Fur Seals, and seeing them from the Coastal Pacific is almost guaranteed as the train glides around the rocky shoreline.
But although the seals are thriving here again, there were concerns that the colony had been wiped out during the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. The seals' favourite breeding ground was just the other side of the railway, on the inland side, where a waterfall cascaded into a pool and fed beneath the railway into the sea. The waterfall collapsed during the earthquake, and the breeding hotspot was destroyed - along with many young pups and their mothers.
Happily, the scene is once again a vibrant playground for playful young seals. If anything, numbers have increased thanks to the uplifted sea bed providing more rocky space for the seals to lollop around on. So to be sure to have your camera ready!
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.
Marlborough is famous around the world for its distinctive Sauvignon Blanc. The rich alluvial soils of the Awatere Valley are particularly well-suited to producing the unique zesty flavours, and you'll find yourself surrounded by vineyards as you pass through the valley on your way to Blenheim.
If you are a wine-lover, then you should certainly stop off at Blenheim or Picton and enjoy a few days visiting the many cellar doors and winery restaurants around the region.
Ahoy sunny Picton!
The Coastal Pacific ends its epic voyage in the quaint port of Picton, where it connects with the Interislander Wellington ferry and one of the most beautiful ferry journeys in the world.
But if you have time, then there is far more to sunny Picton than the ferry terminal. Stretching north, the Marlborough Sounds are an idyllic paradise of secluded bays, holiday homes, and resorts. Set amidst the fjord-like waters, there are hundreds of secluded and secretive spots to enjoy a well-earned break from the rigours of modern life. So we recommend spending a day or two disconnecting in this gorgeous location!
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.