Shore excursion: New Zealand's TranzAlpine Express

Natasha Dragun swaps a ship for a train through some of New Zealand's most spectacular alpine countryside.

WHAT

Catching the TranzAlpine Express train across New Zealand.

WHERE

From Rolleston to Arthur's Pass in New Zealand's South Island.

THE SHIP

Celebrity Solstice, sailing from Sydney on a 12-night New Zealand cruise. See celebritycruises.com.

THE EXPERIENCE

I really should be stretching my legs - after spending three days at sea eating, drinking and eating some more, a shore excursion involving exercise would be a good idea. But instead I've signed on to do some more sitting, today aboard the TranzAlpine from Rolleston, just south of Christchurch, to Greymouth on the West Coast via the Otira Tunnel under Arthur's Pass. Billed as "the trip of a lifetime", the train rolls some 240 kilometres over the Southern Alps.

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We're doing an abbreviated version to allow time for lunch and get us back to the ship to move on to Wellington come sunset, but it gives us an exhilarating taste of New Zealand's wild mountains.

Edging out of Rolleston station, brick-like scone and coffee in hand, we slide past fields lined with native kowhai trees, in bloom with electric-yellow flowers, and begin the crossing of the Canterbury Plains, a patchwork of green in the foothills of the alps.

The scenery shifts dramatically when we reach the mountain range, running 450 kilometres from north to south and splitting the island in two. Some 16 peaks in the range soar above 3000 metres, making for dramatic deep gorges ribboned with teal-coloured ice-fed rivers and thick stands of lacy beech forest.

A chilling wind whips through the open-air observation carriage, where fellow passengers madly photograph the passing landscape.

Two hours after setting off we pull in to Arthur's Pass train station. I'm hoping for a stroll but instead count just 20 steps from the carriage - where I spot a kea, the world's only mountain parrot - to the coaches, waiting to ferry us to lunch at Homebush Station.

As beautiful as this part of the world is, it has a sad history - a devastating 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the region in September 2010, rocking many of the historic homesteads and farmhouses, Homebush Station included.

Built in 1851, the grand property had been in the Deans family for six generations, but was destroyed by the quake. All that remains of the original structure is a wool shed, beside which the family has almost finished building their new home.

We tour the estate's sprawling gardens of giant spruce, Himalayan lilies and ancient rhododendrons before sitting down to lunch - Otago cheeses and wines, locally caught trout - in a field, where groundskeeper Colin later shows us how to shear a sheep.

It's a two-hour drive back to Akaroa, on a peninsula south east of Christchurch, where Solstice is docked. And as tempted as I am to let the sauvignon blanc lull me to sleep, the windy roads and rolling hills of sheep and deer keep me glued to the window.

VALUE FOR MONEY

The tour is not cheap ($387.50 for adults, $324.50 for children), and is almost double the normal rate of the full train trip from Christchurch to Greymouth ($198 for adults). But it does include coach transfers from Akaroa to Rolleston as well as lunch at Homebush Station.

And if you're not planning to be back in this part of the world for a while, it would be a shame to miss out on the experience (the entire train is chartered for the cruise ship on the day of travel).

The writer travelled courtesy of Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Solstice.

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