Unbelievable excursions, views, experiences on the trains, and personal connections.
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Like many good trilogies, including Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars, the second part is a transitional story—in this case, we move from the volcanic North Island to the coastal South Island across the magnificent Cook Strait.
What is the Coastal Highlights rail tour?
The Coastal Highlights Rail Tour departs from the southern tip of New Zealand's North Island, and travels south along the north-eastern coastline of the South Island.
The tour includes some of New Zealand's most beautiful and significant locations, starting with the capital city, Wellington, followed by the world-famous Marlborough wine region, the incredibly scenic town of Kaikoura, and the recently rebuilt Christchurch.
This 6-day Coastal Highlights Tour forms the middle section of the full 15-day Classic New Zealand Highlights Tour, the opening segment of the 11-day Southern Highlights Tour, and the final section of the 10-day Cities & Coastal Highlights Tour.
Part 2: Coastal Highlights Tour
Included in the New Zealand Highlights Tour and Cities & Coast Tour
The Story So Far...
The Coastal Highlights Tour begins on Day 5 of the full 15-day New Zealand Highlights Tour. The first five days were spent exploring the North Island and are covered in Part 1 of our Tales from the Tour Trilogy. Here's a quick catch up on the story so far:
Welcome to the Tour!
After a day of wandering around Wellington and taking in the amazing sights of the city, the evening refreshments can't come soon enough!
With toasts and speeches made by Mark, the evening is a memorable affair!
Day 2: Goodbye North Island, hello South Island
A journey through New Zealand wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the magnificent Cook Strait crossing aboard an iconic white Interislander ferry - and this is exactly what we are doing, first thing on Day 2 of the Coastal Highlights tour.
Described as 'one of the most beautiful ferry journeys in the world' by Wine Spectator, the three-and-a-half hour journey is a New Zealand must-do experience. On a nice day, sitting outside on one of the many viewing decks watching the mountains and hills drift by is certainly a profoundly beautiful experience. And today is one of those days.
Boarding as care-free foot passengers on the 8:45am sailing from Wellington to Picton, Mark leads our group into one of the many lounges to settle down for the journey. After a short briefing on what we'll find on board, including multiple cafés, a restaurant, a children's playground, two cinemas and a bar, Mark sends us off to explore whilst he looks after our seats.
With the ferry gently navigating the Wellington Harbour, we head outside and say goodbye to the North Island.
Cruising on the Interislander
After cruising around Wellington Harbour for forty minutes, we approach Pencarrow Head where two lighthouses stand silently watching over the entrance to the broad Cook Strait channel, that courses between New Zealand's two main islands. On the far side, Cloudy Bay and Blenheim are clearly visible, with the Kaikoura mountain ranges rising above.
Crossing the Cook Strait channel takes about an hour, which gives plenty of time to go inside and enjoy breakfast. The final third of the journey is spectacular, and we definitely want to be back outside on deck to enjoy it.
After entering the Tory Channel through an extraordinarily tight entrance, we find ourselves in the gentle waters of the Marlborough Sounds.
Often likened to the fjords of Scandinavia, the next hour is spent gently cruising amongst stunning hills. This is where you can spot seals basking in the sun, pods of dolphins leaping alongside the ship, salmon farms and abandoned whaling stations. You'll also get to wave to passers-by as they cruise beside the large vessel, heading in the opposite direction to Wellington.
Arriving into Picton
South Island. Its harbour is home to two ferry companies, several cruise ships and the Main North Line railway that carries freight to and from Christchurch, en route to the North Island. On paper, it sounds like a noisy transport hub, so it comes as a pleasant surprise when we arrive into a petite fishing town, with a sheltered harbour lined by swaying palm trees.
This quaint town is a curious little paradise, its high street is dotted with cafés, restaurants, and boutique shops, while its waterfront is a picturesque, sandy beach. But it is the wine that we have come to Picton for, not the sea and sand. And just beyond the town to the south, the world-class wineries of Marlborough await!
Marlborough Wine Tour
There's no denying, the thought of spending the afternoon touring around Marlborough's beautiful wineries, sipping on world-class wines and learning about the region's unique flavours, is itself enough reason to book this tour!
An afternoon in the vines is just what the doctor ordered to relax and unwind. As the expert Winery Guide and driver takes our group around a bespoke selection of wineries, the tasting notes tantalise the group.
Due to the combination of a cool climate, high sunshine hours, low rainfall and free-draining fertile soil, the Marlborough region produces a unique variety of vibrant wines. Most popular and in demand, Sauvignon Blanc is the wine to try, although the elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay come close in the running!
The afternoon concludes with a delicious charcuterie platter of local cheeses and meats at the Forrest Valley winery. Apparently it rained...but nobody noticed.
Day 3: Explore Blenheim
Easing into a relaxing morning, there is nothing pressing on the agenda to have to go do or see. That’s the beauty of the Classic Tour. With a range of optional activities, you can take it easy, or book one of the optional excursions to explore even further off the beaten track.
While half of the group decide to discover the Omaka Aviation Museum, the others decide to stroll around to the local café and blend into the local hubbub before joining the Coastal Pacific train in the early afternoon.
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
Award-winning Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is highly recommended and ranks amongst the best museums in New Zealand.
This success is largely thanks to Lord of the Rings director, Sir Peter Jackson, whose incredible Knights of the Sky exhibition is made entirely from his personal collection. To bring the story of WWI to life, Sir Peter called in colleagues from Wingnut Films and award-winning special effect company Weta Workshops to create a series of authentic scenes from the battlefield.
You can book your ticket in advance through the Travel Centre when you book your tour.
An afternoon on the Coastal Pacific train to Kaikoura
Meeting at the freshly renovated Blenheim railway station that dates back to 1906, the afternoon entails nothing more than a leisurely scenic rail journey along the Pacific coastline to Kaikoura.
As the train ventures into the Blenheim countryside, we are treated to some sensational views. Acre upon acre of vines belonging to world-famous wineries fill the panoramic windows on both sides of the carriage—which seems like a good cue to go to the fully licensed Scenic café!
Sitting together enjoying the views with a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc, a remarkable and unexpected view of Cloudy Bay, Cook Strait, and the North Island floats by the window—which is just one of many scenic surprises this tour has in store!
About a half-hour after leaving Blenheim, the Coastal Pacific passes through the curiously multicoloured salt fields of Lake Grassmere (Kāpara Te Hau).
Glistening a pink hue, these seawater fed lakes, protected by sand dunes, started producing salt for New Zealand in 1952. By 2005, Lake Grassmere provided about half of New Zealand's domestic salt requirements.
Luckily, our tour has a front row seat aboard the Coastal Pacific, passing straight through the middle of this impressive lagoon. Standing outside on the open-viewing carriage will give unparalleled views to this impressive natural wonder.
Between mountains and sea
Before long, the railway joins the Pacific coast and the journey transforms into a picture-postcard coastal cruise.
With ocean waves rolling into the wild beaches of Kekerengu, the mountains of the Kaikoura ranges steadily rise on the horizon. Along this stretch of coast, wildlife is abundant. From ocean birds to dolphins, whales and fur-seals, eyes gaze through the panoramic windows at the changing natural scenery around every bend.
Soon we are shadowed by soaring mountains and the railway is squeezed onto the rocky shores, breathtakingly close to the sea. Slowly winding around the coast, we duck in and out of several tunnels, whilst out of the window we spy the risen seabed that was shaken to the surface during the 2016 earthquake.
Arriving into Kaikōura
By mid-afternoon, the train is eases into stunning Kaikōura. Surrounded by mountains and sea, there is possibly no more beautiful setting for a town anywhere in the world.
With Mark, the Tour Director, leading the way, we collect our bags and catch a shuttle bus to the amazing Sudima Hotel – just ten minutes from the railway station.
A stunning stay
Located on the shoreline, Sudima Kaikōura is a brand new 4.5-star hotel with stunning views of mountains and sea. Just a short walk from the township’s retail centre, this is the perfect place to get your ocean fill or simply relax at the luxurious accommodation.
Taking a step into the hotel room after swiping your key card on the door panel, you’ll walk into jazz playing softly on the Alexa speaker. A range of tantalising pillows is displayed by the bedside table – choose from lavender, different firmness and more. Connect to the smart TV to play your favourite music and shows or explore the bathroom to discover the locally sourced moisturisers and shower balms. The level of detail is obvious as you relax into the cloud-like bed - gazing out the floor to ceiling window.
Day 4: Explore Kaikōura
Breakfast is a spectacular affair! With build-your-own buddha bowls, prosciutto, soft cheeses, fresh baked goods, and full English breakfasts, the Sudima Hotel sure knows how to put on a spread.
After a superb breakfast experience, Mark explains that the morning and early afternoon is open and free to spend as we please.
While some of the group explore the boutique shops and go for nature walks to the seal colonies, the rest of the group head off to experience the world-famous Whale Watch Kaikoura.
Kaikoura railway station, also known as the Whaleway Station, is headquarters for Whale Watch Kaikoura and the place to meet for a morning of whale watching. From here, it's a quick journey aboard an air-conditioned bus to the marina, where Whale Watch's purpose-built catamarans await.
Whale Watch Kaikoura
Whale Watch Kaikoura's catamarans are the perfect vessel for exploring Kaikoura's fascinating marine wildlife. With large custom-built viewing decks, clean windows, comfortable interior, and televisions, every need has been well considered.
While sailing out to prime whale territory, we learn all about the whale's behaviour, movements, and how the team locate whales using curious listening devices. And with a 90% success rate all year-round, it doesn't take long to find a resting Sperm Whale.
With excited gasps and fingers pointing, plumes of water spout into the air. The enormity of these marine leviathans is incredible. Then, with one slow swoosh of its mighty tale, it returns to the depths. What a thrilling experience – and what a photo to share!
More optional activities in Kaikōura
There are plenty of alternative options for exploring Kaikōura if Whale Watching doesn't float your boat. Some can be booked in advance and added to your itinerary when you book your tour, or you can just enjoy the stunning environment and walk down to the peninsula.
Journey to Christchurch by train
At 4:45pm the train rolls into the Kaikōura platform. With towering mountains behind, the train departs with a hoot and is bound for Christchurch.
Aboard the train, the atmosphere is spirited. While some of the group eases back with a lovely glass of local wine, others head to the great outdoors, taking in the views and the ocean breeze from the Open-air viewing carriage. The scenery is outstanding, with the train travelling along wild beaches, metres from the sea.
Pine forests, rugged beaches, rolling green pastures, sheep, cows, vineyards, and locations only accessible by train - could the evening get any better? Yes, indeed it can! Around 6:00pm, the train crew arrive with a silver platter and begin to serve a delicious gourmet meal. What a treat! One of the group members exclaims, ‘they are definitely wining and dining us!’ as the succulent roast beef cheek melts under his fork.
Arriving into Christchurch Railway Station is a cheery affair, as we get ready to head to our accommodation in the city centre.
Day 5: Explore Christchurch
Today is free to explore Christchurch, the South Island's largest and oldest city.
The day begins leisurely as Mark welcomes the group to join him on a short walk into the city at 9am, to catch the Vintage Tram City Tour. After indulging in a delicious breakfast of baked goods, eggs, a meat selection and more, a leisurely stroll is just what is needed.
Walking through the streets, it is incredible to see the ultra-modern architecture of this recently rebuilt city standing aside some of New Zealand's oldest buildings.
Included in the rail tour is a day pass on the iconic Christchurch Tram. In the 1800s, Christchurch’s tramway system ran extensively in the city. By 1954, the tram line was officially replaced by modern buses. Today, the vintage tram is a cherished way for visitors to explore this evolving, multicultural city, with the knowledgeable driver serenading you with riveting live commentary.
Gliding through town, the tram has 18 stops and runs at intervals of 15 to 25 minutes. Passing popular attractions, it's incredibly easy to hop on and off to explore places such as the Art Gallery, Cathedral Junction, Avon River, the Arts Centre, Riverside Market and more.
A City Stroll
Following the tram tour, armed with an intimate knowledge of Christchurch and its layout, spending the rest of the afternoon exploring the city is very easy. Several recommended activities can be booked by Mark or in advance by the Travel Centre. However, with the sun shining on a beautiful summer's day, wandering around the city, exploring its art laden walkways and charming shops, feels like the perfect choice.
Known for its English heritage, Christchurch boasts an array of interesting attractions, with the Botanical Gardens, Quake City the 2011 earthquake museum and historic neo-gothic stone buildings around every bend. Enjoyable, with a flat terrain, Christchurch city is an easy place to explore.
When it's time to rest the legs, there are options aplenty. Across the road from the Christchurch Cathedral is Tūranga, the largest public library in the South Island. Each level of this fascinating modern library is a world of its own, with interactive displays, game zones, and quiet nooks for squirrelling away for some downtime with a magazine or book. When it comes to refreshments, just a stone's throw away is the wonderful O.G.B - a speakeasy-style bar housed in a beautiful heritage building behind Cathedral Square with a lovely outdoor courtyard.
For those looking to relax with a bit of retail therapy, following the tram route to Cashel Street presents everything from boutique stores, dessert parlours, souvenir shops and more. Of particular note is Ballantynes, New Zealand’s oldest department store, where shoppers are transported into yesteryear with a high-end shopping experience that is hard to match!
Optional Christchurch activities
Fill your afternoon in Christchurch with these character-filled activities, some of which can be booked in advance through the Travel Centre.
Hello & Goodbye!
But it isn't all sadness and goodbyes because tonight is the first night for new members joining the Alpine Highlights tour. So, after a welcome drink in the hotel bar, it's off to Regent Street for a colourful and lively evening, Christchurch style.
With scrumptious food and fantastic company, it is a memorable ending for those departing, and a sensational welcome for those arriving. For those on the full NZ tour, it's the ninth incredible evening out and there are still five more to go!
Day 6: The end, or just the beginning?
For the Coastal Highlights Tour, this is the final day. A leisurely start at one of Christchurch's many excellent cafés is highly recommended. Then it's a chance to do more exploring around the city and its surroundings, either at your own pace or by booking one of the optional activities.
For those on the New Zealand Highlights Tour, the Southern Highlights Tour and the Alpine Highlights tour, this is day one of a brand-new adventure to be continued in part three of our touring trilogy.
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Continue the journey in Part 3: Christchurch to Queenstown
Ascend the Southern Alps and weave along the West Coast to Queenstown in part 3 of our touring trilogy, where we discover the spectacular natural beauty of the South Island.