Great Journeys took care of the details for us.
- Jon, United States of America
Cascading southbound through beautiful Aotearoa New Zealand, Episode 3 of our touring trilogy follows the glorious passage from Christchurch to Queenstown—the Classic Alpine Highlights tour.
Captivating and exhilarating, this final episode includes the world-famous TranzAlpine train journey. Perhaps, as with most great stories, the best has been saved until last.
What is the Alpine Highlights rail tour?
Traversing the mountainous spine of the South Island, the Alpine Highlights tour includes a breathtaking journey through the Southern Alps aboard the world-famous TranzAlpine train. The spectacular scenery then continues, with the tour meandering south along the West Coast through incredible locations such as Hokitika and Franz Joseph before arriving into Queenstown—widely recognised as one of New Zealand's most beautiful towns.
The Story So Far...
The Alpine Highlights Tour begins on Day 9 of the full 15-day New Zealand Highlights Tour. The first nine days were spent exploring the heart of the North Island and along the South Island's Pacific coast. Here's a quick catch up on the story so far:
Meet, greet, and eat
As evening falls, it's time to meet the Tour Director (Mark) and the other tour members. With the Alpine Highlights tour being the third and last section of the full NZ Highlights Tour, this is an opportunity for new members to meet the existing members who are mid-tour.
After meeting at the hotel, Mark leads the group to nearby New Regent Street—a fascinating local hot spot in Christchurch central, built in the Spanish Mission architectural style. In the evening, this gorgeous little street comes alive, making it the perfect destination for an authentic, local-style, night of entertainment.
Day 2: Traversing the Southern Alps
Today is one of the highlights of any New Zealand travel itinerary—a stunning passage through the Southern Alps aboard the world-famous TranzAlpine train.
You don't have to do a tour to travel on this jewel of the New Zealand rail network, but travelling as a group sitting together, and feeling the communal excitement and energy certainly heightens this lofty experience. And having a Tour Director pointing out the landmarks and forewarning of upcoming scenic moments along the way means that everyone can sit back and enjoy having a chat knowing that we aren't going to miss a thing.
There is plenty to see on the Christchurch to Greymouth train journey, with an endless stream of scenery rolling by the window. From deep ravines to breathtaking viaducts, rocky gorges to lush hills, braided rivers to huge mountain vistas, you'll see a kaleidoscope of stunning New Zealand scenery on the way. And to add to the excitement, there is also an Open-air Viewing Carriage that enables you to stand outside and breathe in the fresh mountain air whilst rolling through the epic alpine landscapes.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
Stunning, wild, and one of a kind, the 40-minute journey from Greymouth to Punakaiki Pancake Rocks is a hugely memorable part of the West Coast experience.
The untamed natural wilderness of the coastline with its rugged beaches drifts by through the mini coach's panoramic windows, while the ancient rainforest draws ever closer.
Stepping out of the mini coach at Punakaiki, with the roaring waves crashing into the rugged cliffs, there's a sense of curiosity about how such disorderly natural forces can create such gracefully structured formations. Thankfully, Mark has all the answers as he leads the way around the Punakaiki walking trail with a detailed narrative of the limestone rock formations, birdlife, coastal forest, and marine mammals, such as Hector dolphins, which inhabit the area.
One of the main highlights of Punakaiki is watching the impressive blowholes blasting compressed water and air from the caverns below high into the air. This unique experience is certainly something to write home about, and there are plenty of opportunities to capture supporting photos of this extraordinary event.
Capturing videos of playful Weka frolicking through the bushes is also a fun memento to take away.
An evening in Greymouth
Our Alpine Highlights tour returns to Greymouth for the evening, staying at the heart of the town in easy walking distance of several pubs and restaurants. The evening has no scheduled dinner, leaving you to do as you please. However, the popular choice is to reunite as a group and dine together at the local Monteith's Brewery.
A short walk from the hotel, this family-owned brewing company has been serving the West Coast since 1868 and is a genuine national icon. Moving with the times, the old brewery building was developed into a microbrewery and gastropub serving a good range of delicious food and unique beers. If you are keen to learn more about the brewing process, then you can also take a brewery tour.
Wandering through the town after dinner is a great time to explore this historic port. Famous for its gold, timber, and coal industries over the past 150 years, you will find several plaques and information boards along the riverside walk telling the stories of the people and events that shaped the West Coast. Strolling along the banks as the sun slowly sinks, reading the town's history, and enjoying the tranquil river scene, is a great way to end the day.
Spontaneity is Mark’s middle name and, as mentioned before, your Tour Director is always on hand to personalise your Alpine Highlights tour. Interested in driftwood for your garden or curious rocks for your mantelpiece? Or perhaps you want to explore a few shipwrecks? Seemingly, Mark can make anything happen, and magical and interesting stops are all part of this great journey.
With time in hand, today's unplanned excursion takes us to a seemingly unremarkable stony beach. Following a conversation at breakfast, we are here to forage, or fossick, for geological gems. It turns out that this beach is the perfect spot for finding the perfect West Coast keepsake—pounamu. Also known as jade or greenstone, this rare green rock has been attracting visitors to the region for hundreds of years and can only be found on the West Coast.
After collecting a handful of gemstones and listening to a fascinating lesson from Mark on rock formations and Māori culture, we leave the beach slightly richer and much wiser. With the buzz of excited conversation filling the coach, it's time to head on to the morning's main attraction, the West Coast Treetop Walk.
West Coast Treetop Walk
Ancient trees and native wildlife—this experience is like stepping into another world. Wander up a slight gradient and be immersed in a canopy of mature Rimu trees 25 metres (82 feet) above the ground.
Native birds including kererū (wood pigeon) and fantail dance and swoop around you as you follow the walkway and read the stories included in the self-guided brochure. Informative panels and interactive displays also provide an astonishing array of facts about the history, culture, wildlife, and forest habitat which Māori tribes still use for medicinal purposes.
Wandering amidst the native canopy is curiously inspiring and energising. And when it comes to exhilarating, climbing the 104 steps to the top of the tower for an impeccable view of Lake Mahinapua and the Southern Alps is breathtaking—on multiple levels.
Nuggets along the way
Continuing south, the coach tour passes through the historic town of Ross. Although this isn't a place the tour officially visits, Mark provides an engaging history lesson as we pass slowly through what could easily be the set of an American Western film.
Ross was at the heart of the gold rush that gripped the West Coast during the 1860s—and not much has changed since those heady days. In fact, the area is still a popular destination for gold hunters, and you can stop here to pan for gold in the local creeks and rivers.
Entering Glacier Country
The final treat for the day is a glorious 20-minute walk along a well-maintained nature trail to the Franz Josef viewing platform. With Mark providing a running narrative of the wildlife we encounter along the way, the walk is thoroughly rewarding. It is a genuine joy to be outside enjoying such inspiring scenery, and the views from the viewing platform are genuinely breathtaking.
Franz Josef Helicopter Tour
One of the unmissable options whilst in Franz Josef is taking a helicopter tour of Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, Mount Cook, and the surrounding Southern Alps.
On a truly spectacular 40-minute aerial tour, you'll get intimate views of Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, Aoraki Mount Cook, Mount Tasman, and the Tasman Glacier. Perhaps most memorable of all, you'll land on untouched snow 3000 metres above sea level to explore an isolated world with views of unimaginable beauty.
The tour is optional, so just ask your Tour Director to organise on the day or ask the Travel Centre to add it to your tour when you book.
Relaxing in Franz Josef
This afternoon and evening are free with no scheduled activities. And if you don't fancy taking flight on a helicopter tour, then there are plenty of other ways to fill your afternoon. Taking one of the many scenic walks into the surrounding rainforest is both easy and rewarding. Even easier, is simply strolling around the quaint and divinely scenic little town, enjoying the shops and local hospitality.
Ever the entertainer, Mark suggests meeting at the pub across the road from the hotel for happy hour drinks. It proves to be a popular choice, with everyone from the tour joining the party. Now more friends than strangers, everyone feels at ease and well-humoured. “Great people, great places, great journeys” becomes the slogan as another great evening ensues.
Day 4: Haast Pass to Queenstown
It's a nice early start on Day 4, with breakfast finished and bags packed for departure at 8:00am. Today will be one of the most spectacular days on our New Zealand tour, as we continue south through the stunning Haast Pass.
Mountains, beaches, glaciers, alpine faults, rivers, native bush, lakes, wine valleys; the list of things to see on today's itinerary sounds exhausting. However, when all you have to do is sit back and admire the views while Mark tells you everything worth knowing (and much more), this is set to be another energising day of dazzling sightseeing at its best.
Haast Visitor Centre
Midway through a perfect morning drive amidst stunning West Coast scenery, the Haast Visitor Centre makes the perfect stop to invigorate both mind and body.
Located on the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park, the centre is packed with information about the unique ecosystems, wildlife, geological formations, and the history of the region.
The centre also has a lovely little café, so you can grab a coffee and learn all about the local stories, legends, history, and life of the local people.
Outside, the scenery is perfect, turning a quick stretch of the legs into an inspiring interlude.
Lakes, cafes, and fruit
Next on day four's itinerary is lunch. Today's stop is a typical roadside Kiwi café—which maybe an oxymoron because a typical Kiwi café is uniquely bizarre.
From Cape Reinga to Invercargill, the highways are dotted with quirky cafés filled with curiosities. Today's café has a kind of American prairie feel to it, with a big open fire, picnic dining tables, mid-century armchairs, and an astonishing collection of American number plates. As is expected, the food is immensely satisfying.
Refreshed and recharged, it is time to continue exploring small-town New Zealand, and the next stop is another stalwart of Kiwi culture—a roadside fruit market.
Family-owned Mrs Jones fruit stall offers an excellent variety of locally grown produce, from cherries to peaches, kiwi fruit, nuts, and all manner of honey products.
There’s something fruity for everyone, but the most popular choice is the indulgent real fruit ice-cream. This is another classic kiwi tradition that is simply made by whisking together fresh fruit and vanilla ice-cream on request. You can savour this experience while walking through the rose and lavender gardens surrounding the fruit stall.
A few miles north of Queenstown, the final stop for the day is Arrowtown. Like Ross, Arrowtown was founded in the 1860s when the gold rush gripped the region. Many of the town's original buildings still stand, giving the town a boutique charm and making it a great place to visit for a spot of shopping.
However, those interested in learning first-hand about New Zealand's gold rush history should head to the north end of town and explore the Historic Arrowtown Chinese Settlement. Amidst the renovated buildings, you'll find the hastily erected single-room homes and shacks that housed gold prospectors and miners in the town's heyday. Not that Arrowtown really had a heyday—the gold rush flopped, leaving the town's population impoverished and stranded. It's a poignant story that is well worth exploring.
Nestled in the foothills of the Southern Alps on the banks of an immaculate lake, Queenstown is a spectacular town. And our hotel for the three nights in Queenstown captures that beauty superbly.
At the heart of this luxurious stay is the hotel's restaurant, with its glass atrium perfectly positioned to frame The Remarkables mountain range that surrounds Queenstown. The views from the bedrooms are equally impressive, and the hotel also features a pool, hot tubs, high class dining, pub dining and a superb walkway into the centre of this little town.
Although the evening is free to explore, the group follows Mark's recommendation and dines together in the hotel to enjoy the luxurious surroundings.
A morning stroll
A twenty-minute morning stroll from the hotel along Sunshine Bay Track brings you to the centre of Queenstown. Here you'll find everything from high-end fashion to souvenir shops, cafés to fine dining.
With the sun shining down, warming your face, this leisurely perambulation amidst the stunning Queenstown scenery will be a highlight of your stay. Breathe in the brisk morning air, surrounded by birdsong, while walking along the water to the beach. Why not grab a coffee from The Bathhouse Café before heading into Queenstown Gardens?
Before you know it, you've discovered the entirety of this grand garden. With a morning of exploring behind you, wander through the shops before indulging in the famous, and irresistible, Fergburger.
New Zealand's resort town
Known as the “Adventure Capital of the World”, Queenstown is famed for its breathtaking natural beauty and a wide range of thrilling outdoor activities.
With two days to explore this striking town, it is hard to know where to start. But Mark's skills as Tour Director once again come to the fore. Having acquainted himself with what style of activity makes each tour member tick, he now instantly provides bespoke Queenstown itineraries for everyone using his immense local knowledge. It's an impressive skill that is greatly appreciated by all.
Getting the heart pumping
There appears to be an adventure around every corner in Queenstown. Wonderfully crafted for every thrill type, this town has thought of it all.
For the light thrill seeker, there is no better adventure than Gibbston Valley. Discover this mouth-watering destination aboard an e-bike, peddling through to a gourmet cheesery, numerous breweries, and endless wineries.
For the mid-thrill seeker, the skyline is beckoning. Jump aboard Skyline Queenstown, the Southern Hemisphere's steepest cable car, to reach Bob's Peak. The best way back down the peak is the luge, so channel your inner race car driver and fly down the mountain on this gravity-fuelled activity.
For the high-thrill seeker, take to the skies for paragliding, skydiving, or free fall for a full 8.5 seconds on the Nevis bungee jump! If you like the wind through your hair, mountain biking, jet boating on the Shotover Jet, and white-water rafting may be to your liking.
Day 7: Haere rā, haere haumaru
Day 7 begins with one last breakfast and a final opportunity to exchange emails and phone numbers. As always, Mark is on hand to make final arrangements and close the tour with a "Haere rā, haere haumaru"—farewell, and safe travels!
With flights departing Queenstown throughout the day, most of the group are flying away, experiencing the astonishing Queenstown scenery one last time from the plane window as they leave.
But this doesn't need to be the end, and a few of the new travel companions have decided to continue their journey onwards by road, extending their great journey together.
Rewind to Part 2: Wellington to Christchurch
Sail back to Part 2 of our touring blog to join the journey across Cook Strait and along the Pacific coast as we travel from Wellington to Christchurch.