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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.
From craggy coastal cliffs and rocky outcrops to modern vineyards and rustic farmsteads, the Coastal Pacific journey 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.
The Coastal Pacific journey follows the South Island's Main North Line railway (MNL). Due to remarkable geographical, geological, economic and political challenges, the railway took more than 70 years to complete. Adversity struck again in 2016 when the Kaikoura earthquake dismantled large sections of the railway, taking more the two years to rebuild.
Today, along with stunning mountain and coastal views, the scars and stories of the earthquake are an integral part of the journey.
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 between Parnassus in the south and 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 train 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.
The humble origins of the Main North Line began in the 1870s with a railway reaching north out of Christchurch into the rural countryside to provide easy transport for the farms and rural industries located on the Canterbury Plains.
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 foundation for their new English colony.
Today, the Coastal Pacific journey north has barely changed, with the expansive Canterbury Plains remaining sparsely populated and dotted with farms and small communities. The immense flatness allows the distant hills of the Torlesse Range to be seen 70km to the west. These are the hills through which the TranzAlpine train climbs on its way into the Southern Alps, following the Waimakariri River gorge, 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 70 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 Mangamaunu 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!
Sea, scenery, and sea life
Between Oaro and Ward, the Coastal Pacific journey runs almost exclusively alongside the Pacific Ocean. Along this stretch, you will see an abundance of marine life including sea birds, seals, and dolphins.
At the southern end of this section, Oaro is particularly spectacular. With the Coastal Pacific train running along cliff edges high above the ocean at Spy Glass point and cruising along the sandy beaches of the Oaro peninsula, you will feel as though you are travelling along the edge of the world.
Kahautara River bridge
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, 2610-metre Manakau, visible in the north. 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 north 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 and 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 is a magnificent panorama, with spectacular scenery in all directions.
One of the most spectacular moments comes just north of Hapuku, at Mangamaunu Bay. Here the train sweeps around the huge moon-shaped bay, delivering exceptional close-up views of the Kaikoura mountain ranges rising from 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, you are likely to see a queue of well-mannered surfers waiting to take their turn.
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!
Scars of the Kaikoura earthquake
But it isn't all sea and scenery. As the Coastal Pacific train 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.
Following the quake, an intensive rebuild job was required between Oaro in the south and Ward in the north. Taking two years to complete, the railway had to be physically moved several metres and tunnels rebuilt. North of Kaikoura, the visible volume of raised seabed is immense, and the scar formed by the Papatea fault-line can be seen alongside the tracks at Waipapa Bay.
The climate in Marlborough is renownedly hot. This makes Lake Grassmere, on the Pacific coast south of Blenheim, the perfect semi-natural salt lake.
More than 60% of New Zealand's salt production comes from Lake Grassmere, where shallow pools are filled with salt water which then evaporates in the hot sun and dry winds. During the warmer months, the landscape turns curiously pink as algae absorb high concentrates of sulphur - it is the same effect that discolours the Red Sea.
The Coastal Pacific journey slices straight through the middle of these salt fields, giving you an excellent view of this curious alien world.
A taste of Marlborough wine
Between Lake Grassmere and Picton, you'll see row upon row of delicious grape vines basking in the Marlborough sun. There are two distinct valleys where the alluvial volcanic soils provide the perfect acidity for a Marlborough's uniquely zesty Sauvignon Blanc. The southern valley is the Awatere, where the Coastal Pacific eases through the station of Seddon and over the Awatere River. The northern valley is the Wairau, which flattens out to create the plains surrounding Blenheim - this valley is easily visible from Wellington's south coast on a clear day.
If you are a fan of New Zealand wine, then you'll see plenty of famous names along the Coastal Pacific journey: Cloudy Bay, Clifford Bay, Dashwood, Rapaura, Babich, and Wither Hills. And 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.
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 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!
Choose your Coastal Pacific experience
Choose from a day trip on the Coastal Pacific train, a short break to Kaikoura, or a full 17-day tour of New Zealand. All of the following experiences include the Coastal Pacific journey.