The TranzAlpine is part of the TranzScenic line of railways that operates on both islands of New Zealand. While their primary purpose is scenic travel for tourists, many Kiwis use the trains to traverse the countryside on holiday and to visit family. Its popularity can be credited to the fantastic views passengers enjoy as they depart Christchurch and meander through the Southern Alps on their way to Greymouth. The Canterbury Plains stretch out towards rolling hills until finally giving way to the snow-capped mountains that make the South Island a skier’s paradise.
The conductor routinely plays tour guide by announcing fun facts such as, “We’ll be going through 16 tunnels.” For tunnel enthusiasts, this is surely a real treat. For those looking to steal a nap in between Kiwi adventure activities, it can get a bit tiresome. However, if you’re going to enjoy some of the most breathtaking landscapes that New Zealand has to offer, you might as well know where you are.
The full ride from Christchurch to Greymouth is more than 200km and takes about four-and-a-half hours. That’s more than enough time to take advantage of the snack car and linger in the open-air observation area where you can take pictures without worrying about the glare created by windows. It can get pretty brisk in that open car, however, so bundle up and hold on to your camera tightly. It will all be worth it when the mountains begin to reveal themselves on the horizon.
One-way fares will run you about $166NZ and return trips will be double that. There are deals to be had if you do the return in the same day, but you’d have to really love trains to spend nine hours in a railway car only to end up in the same place you started. Especially since the one negative I detected on the TranzAlpine is how truly uncomfortable the seats are.
But many people do make the same-day return trip. That only allows for an hour in Greymouth, which is a shame since it’s actually a pretty adorable little town. I bought my copy of the Greymouth Evening Star at the newspaper’s office, found a bench on the main drag and enjoyed the slow pace of the West Coast’s largest city (population: 9,970). Whitebait fisherman strolled by with their over-sized nets while locals waved hello and stopped to gossip with each other.
Most travelers who don’t head right back to Christchurch will use Greymouth as a jumping-off point to other South Island destinations. Car rentals are available right next to the train station, making self-drive holidays outside of Greymouth quite simple. But do yourself a favor and spend a couple of hours there first.
Planes will always be faster, but trains can still play a role in modern travel. Scenic railways like the TranzAlpine help travelers slow down, relax and enjoy hidden gems that exists between larger hubs. Digital clocks may have replaced pocket watches and you’ll have to carry your own luggage to the baggage car, but the TranzAlpine is more than just a mode of transportation. Its journey is a worthy destination.
Mike Barish traveled to New Zealand on a trip sponsored by Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand. No editorial content was guaranteed and Mike was free to report openly on his experiences. He never spit out the wine and managed not to cry during any of the death-defying activities that Kiwis love. At least not in public. Read more of Gadling’s In the Corner of the World series here.