It has been an absolute joy being on the tour with you. I have felt like I was travelling with friends rather than a tour group.
On a fine summer's day in January, a small group gathered aboard the world-famous Northern Explorer train from Auckland and set off on the first ever New Zealand rail tour led by Great Journeys New Zealand.
Over the next 15 days, the group will travel the length of New Zealand, from north to south, finishing in Queenstown with a wealth of wonderful memories and host of new friends.
This is the inside story of our brand new New Zealand rail tours.
From the start...
This is not one of those tours where you're bused around every tourist hotspot on the map in a sightseeing spree. The whole ethos here is a bit different; the timeframes are more casual, and travelling by train travel is both comfortable and social. The entire experience is relaxed and natural.
Leading the way on the inaugural tour is Mark, who's more of a funny friend than a guide. He has mountains of experience and more stories to tell than can be squeezed into 15 days—although he will try.
Mark takes care of everything. He has also memorised the entire internet and can answer any question thrown his way. And there are a lot of questions thrown his way while travelling the length of New Zealand, visiting every notable destination en route.
With Mark's astonishing local knowledge and charismatic nature, every moment is a treasure to be kept forever.
What is a rail tour?
Great Journeys New Zealand rail tours are built upon the company's three world-famous scenic trains: Northern Explorer, Coastal Pacific, and TranzAlpine, which provide a clear point of difference from standard bus tours.
Gentle, relaxing, and spacious, you can sit back and enjoy New Zealand's stunning scenery aboard these luxurious trains as you travel between destinations. From soaring mountains to rolling seas, from rural farmsteads to suburban backyards. You'll see it all.
The Classic tours focus on travel and destination, allowing you to personalise your tour by choosing activities. The Travel Centre can book your activities upfront, or you can ask your guide to organise them whilst on tour.
Part 1: Northern Highlights Tour
Included in the New Zealand Highlights Tour and Cities & Coastal Highlights Tour
Day 1: Auckland
The first day is a casual free day to explore Auckland, and there is no timetable to stick to other than meeting the tour group for welcome drinks in the early evening. The itinerary includes several recommended activities which can be booked in advance - along with additional nights' accommodation if you want to spend a couple of days exploring Auckland.
After walking around shops and waterside bars, climbing the Sky Tower, and walking up and down city streets shaped by long-extinct volcanoes, ogling yachts and getting a taste of New Zealand's city lifestyle, the welcome drinks are very welcome.
And with Mark leading the welcome party, it is (of course) a hugely entertaining introduction to both the tour and the other members of the group.
Day 2: All aboard
Easing out of Auckland aboard the Northern Explorer train, there is a genuine tingle of excitement.
This is no ordinary train. Custom-built for Great Journeys New Zealand and powered by parent company KiwiRail, this train looks chic and refined on the inside and robust and powerful on the outside. It is certainly built for New Zealand's diverse terrain.
This is a scenic train that runs three times weekly from Auckland to Wellington and three times back. The full journey is more than 11 hours, but everyone aboard seems to be relishing the idea of travelling all day, gazing out of the huge panoramic windows as the scenery drifts by.
The New Zealand Up Close tour stops at Hamilton, but today's tour is going through to Ohakune.
The views start immediately after leaving Auckland Strand Station, with the train briefly following the Hauraki shoreline before floating through the middle of Hobson Bay on a narrow track of railway.
But it is after leaving the Auckland suburbs behind that the views really begin to open up. Within an hour, the expansive Waikato Plains begin to roll away for miles in every direction. After a quick stop to pick up passengers in Hamilton, the winding climb into King Country begins. Meandering through picturesque river valleys past remote farmsteads, the train's vast panoramic windows showcase intimate views of real New Zealand.
Tongariro National Park
After climbing onto Central Plateau, the scenery changes dramatically from narrow tree-lined river gorges into open plains of mountain grasses.
The formal name for this enormous elevated region is the North Island Volcanic Plateau. Stretching north all the way to the Bay of Plenty, the Volcanic Plateau is an elevated flat expanse punctured with volcanoes. Some are dormant, and most are extinct. Two exploded dramatically, with one appearing in written history when it darkened the skies over China in 232AD.
Upon leaving National Park Railway Station, the view is magnificent, with two mighty volcanoes standing proudly on the horizon - Mount Tongariro and Mount Ruapehu. But it is the volcanic cone of Tongariro's secondary vent, Mount Ngauruhoe, that stands out. This perfect cone became globally famous when it appeared as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Arriving in Ohakune
After a delicious light lunch on the train, the Northern Explorer eases into Ohakune Station at 1.45pm. Accommodation is at the Powderhorn Chateau - a character-filled Alpine ski lodge at the foot of Mount Ruapehu.
The Signature Tours come with included activities, whereas the Classic Highlights Tours allow you to pick your own path. The itinerary includes plenty of options for you to book through the Travel Centre when organising your tour. However, if you decided against prearranging activities, then your Tour Director will help provide some inspiration and organise activities on arrival. And with Mark being the local internet, he has plenty of ideas for this inaugural tour.
Ohakune lies in the foothills of Mount Ruapehu, and there are plenty of things to do. Suggested activities include a Tongariro Sunset Guided Walk, Forgotten World Adventures, Splash 'n' Dash canoeing, Guided Fly Fishing, Clay Bird Target Shooting. Walking around the charming town - including a photo in front of an enormous metal carrot - is also a good half-day activity.
With plenty of time left in the day and a couple of aspiring volcanologists in the group, Mark organises a shuttle to investigate the geology of Ruapehu.
Ohakune is predominately a skiing town that bustles with energetic skiers during the winter months. The local skifield, Turoa, lies just above the town and is a short easy drive - perfect for quick afternoon explore.
With no snow around during the summer months, the skifield is an effortless place to witness the barren terrain of a volcano. While the volcanologists delight in the various rock formations, the rest of the party enjoys the incredible views and marvels at the martian landscape.
A stunning night out
After an invigorating day in the saddle exploring the Old Coach Road, there is no better tonic than a Gin & Tonic—although the local Ruapehu beers are also ice-cold and deeply refreshing.
Once again, Mark came up with a spectacular idea—drinks and dinner at nearby Kings Ohakune. With a delicious menu on offer, it was a perfect choice on a gorgeous summer evening. The views of Ruapehu from the upstairs balcony made it simply unforgettable!
And this highlights another of the great benefits of being on tour with Mark—he's a local who's always there to keep you company and take you to the best spots in town!
Day 4: Exploring the mountains
The morning of Day 4 was filled with a guided tour of Ruapehu led by the ever-energetic Mark.
Driving around Mount Ruapehu to its other famous skifield, Whakapapa, takes about forty minutes. There, the shuttle pulls up in the middle of nowhere. It's actually not far from the grounds of the famous Chateau Tongariro. But in the wild expanse of Tongariro National Park, in a small and unassuming parking lot, it feels like nowhere. And that is the beauty of New Zealand - little treasures lie everywhere, and you'll often be the only one there.
The little treasure on this occasion is Tawhai Falls. It's a surprisingly short and easy walk from the road that takes you into a secret world - a fantasy land - familiarly known as Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings. The waterfall's stage name is Gollum's Pool. You'd be forgiven for not immediately recognising it, thanks to Peter Jackson's incredible CGI team transforming it into a cave. But the feeling when standing by the pool is certainly fantastical.
Riding high on the Sky Waka
It sounds like something from Star Wars, but waka means canoe in te reo Māori, making this a ship that carries you into the sky.
Setting sail from the skifield's base camp, the Sky Waka is Whakapapa's super-fast ski lift. Travelling a distance of 1.8km with an elevation of 390m in 12 minutes, the lift is certainly speedy. There's not even enough time for Mark to explain why it's called a gondola instead of a cable car - a conversation that will be reignited in Wellington.
At the top of the gondola, you exit a spritely 2020 metres above sea level. On a good day, the views are phenomenal, with Mount Taranaki visible in the distance, some 120km away. During the summer, the temperature remains surprisingly cool and pockets of snow can be found year-round. The air up here is always the quintessential 'mountain fresh' type.
When there is no snow, the bare landscape is distinctly volcanic. The Knoll Ridge cafe, where the Sky Waka takes you, is still more than a couple of kilometres from the crater of this behemoth volcano. There are designated paths for three walks. The best is the "Sky Line", which takes you even further up the mountain for absolutely breathtaking views. But, if you are feeling adventurous, you should check the timings with your guide - you probably don't want to miss the train and the rest of the tour.
The more relaxing option is to enjoy lunch and do a bit of light exploring closer to the cafe. You don't need to be a volcanologist to appreciate the unique environment found here, with its hardy plants and grasses growing amidst the volcanic rock, pumice, and scoria. But for those that are interested, this is really interesting.
And to answer that all-important question: yes, Ruapehu is active, but is very docile. The last eruption in 2007 did little more than ruin the snow. There is a high-tech detection centre that monitors the area constantly, and early warning systems are in place. There is always a risk, but this one is extremely low.
Relaxing night in Wellington
After a relaxing day, there is nothing better than a relaxing evening. And there is no shortage of relaxing options in the stunning capital. From the bohemian atmosphere of Cuba Street to the quaint waterside bars and restaurants around Queen's Wharf, there is something for every mood.
Tonight is a 'free night' to explore, but everyone is keen to continue into the night together. Following Mark's local knowledge of restaurants and bars, a sumptuous dinner and a few nightcaps ensue.
Day 5: Explore Wellington
With so much to do in Wellington, the day starts early with breakfast at the hotel at 7am. Breakfast in New Zealand is a celebrated affair - deliciously rich and filling. It is often hard to refrain from celebrating a little too much and needing to have another lie-down. But with an easy sightseeing shuttle planned for the morning, this is a good day to treat yourself.
Congregating in the lobby at 8am, a few of the group have clearly enjoyed a satisfying breakfast and are ready to sit down!
Wellington Cable Car
With the tour returning to the city centre, one of the best optional activities for the afternoon is a ride on the brilliant red funicular that runs from the heart of the CBD to the botanic gardens that overlook the city.
The Wellington Cable Car (which, debatably, isn't a cable car) is a Wellington treasure. Built in 1902 to enable the city's suburbs to stretch onward and upward through Kelburn and Karori, the cable tramway has been well-used by commuters ever since.
From a sightseeing perspective, it is both an important part of Wellington history and an opportunity to enjoy spectacular views over the city and Wellington Harbour.
Wellington Botanic Garden
Among the themes you'll find en route are the Alpine Rock Garden, Australian Garden, Camellia Collection, Glenmore Meadow, Fern Collection, Harakeke Collection, Grass Collection, Threatened Species and Kauri Rock Garden. There is also an extremely pleasant bush walk with trickling waterfalls ringing with native birdsong.
The history of the gardens is as colourful as the flowers themselves. Prior to European arrival, the site was used by the people of Te Ātiawa from Pipitea Pā for cultivating plants for food, construction, textiles, and medicines. In 1844 the New Zealand Company set aside a parcel of land on the site to start a botanic reserve. The current 25-hectare site was established in 1868 and officially became the Wellington Botanic Garden in 1869.
The Picnic Cafe set in the Rose Garden at the bottom is a perfect spot for refreshments at the end of the walk.
A city stroll
With the minibus tour complete, the rest of the day is free - to be filled at leisure. Several recommended activities can be booked by Mark or in advance by the Travel Centre. However, it's a fine day and the group decides to wander around the city, exploring its charming lanes and waterside walkways.
As previously mentioned, the city is very quaint. There is no chance of losing your way - even without Google Maps. If you find yourself confronted by a steep hill, then turn around. If you are confronted by sea, then turn around. The entire city sits on a flat section of land between the hills and the harbour. Within these natural boundaries and you'll find plenty to see and do, and you'll never be more than 100m from a bar, restaurant, or café when you fancy a rest.
In all likelihood, you will want to wander around the harbour. On the south side you will find the huge Te Papa museum, Oriental Parade beach, and iconic Cuba Street. Around the middle, you'll find the sheds of Queen's Wharf with the Wellington Museum, Portrait Gallery, and plenty of bars and restaurants to recharge in. Around the north side, you'll find a ferry terminal - in which case, turnaround, there is nothing beyond here but a motorway.
The main shopping district is along Lambton Quay on the east of the city - at the foot of the steep hills. Alternative and bohemian shopping is up Cuba Street on the south side of the city - it's a gentle hill, which tells you it's heading out of the city centre.
Optional Wellington activities
Great journeys New Zealand can organise additional activities for you in Wellington if you would like to make the most of your stay. The following are currently available, but more are expected to follow:
Hello and Goodbye!
Tonight is the last night for the Northern Highlights tour and a celebratory goodbye dinner is organised for the group to say their farewells.
But it isn't all sadness and goodbyes because tonight is the first night for new members joining the Coastal Highlights and Southern Highlights tours, so the evening doubles-up welcome dinner.
With everyone meeting at the hotel bar for a few drinks to get acquainted, Mark introduces the new members into the fold. And with the rest group already feeling like an extended family, it really is a warm welcome.
Dinner tonight is included in the tour and is in a delightful harbourside restaurant close to the hotel. With lovely views of the water, scrumptious food and fantastic company, it is a memorable ending for those departing, a sensational welcome for those arriving, and another unforgettable night out for those mid-tour.
Day 6: The end, or just the beginning?
Today is the last day of the Northern Highlights tour. A free day to explore the rest of Wellington and prepare for heading home.
Enjoy breakfast at one of Wellington's many fine cafes - perhaps try the local favourite, Eggs Benedict with Bacon on Focaccia - and then go back to bed for a lie-down. Try one of the local's favourite coffees - a long black - to keep you on your toes. Have another walk around the sparkling city - that'll help ease the stomach and caffeine buzz.
Breathe in the fresh air from the ocean breeze.
You can also complete any of the optional activities before you depart.
Continue the journey in Part 2: Wellington to Christchurch
Continue the journey south across Cook Strait to New Zealand's spectacular South Island as we follow the Coastal Highlights tour in Part 2.
Along the way, we'll be raising a glass to Marlborough's wondrous wine industry, travelling sparkling coastlines aboard the Coastal Pacific, enjoying intimate moments with magnificent Sperm whales, and exploring the rejuvenated city of Christchurch.
It really is a sensational journey.