As two people who have experienced this incredible train journey through the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, we are excited to share our insights and tips with you. In this article, we will guide you through everything you need to know about riding the Northern Explorer train, including how to book your tickets, what to expect on board, and the best ways to make the most of each stop along the way. Even if you are a first-time train rider, this guide will provide you with all the information you need to plan a memorable journey on the Northern Explorer.
You might have high expectations for New Zealand, the tiny country on the edge of the earth famous for rugby, Lord of the Rings, sheep, and Maori culture. The Land of the Long White Cloud will probably exceed all your expectations as you travel by train with hearts full of appreciation for the stunning landscapes, warm Kiwi hospitality, and fantastic cuisine. This was one of our all time favorite trains in the world, so be sure to add it to your travel plans in New Zealand
All Aboard: From Auckland to Wellington (or vice versa!)
Kiwi Rail’s Northern Explorer takes travelers from Auckland to the capital of Wellington. The scenery is wildly diverse for a small country, with green farmland, rustic forests, sandy beaches, and volcanic areas along the way.
The Northern Explorer operates three days a week, Monday, Thursday, and Saturday traveling south and going Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday in the northern direction. Be sure to plan carefully if you hop off at a stop for a couple of days, as the train only passes every two or three days.
We purchased tickets here.
If you choose to take the train the entire distance at one time, be prepared for an eleven-hour journey. The scenery is fabulous but plan on being off the grid as far as wifi and cell service are concerned. This might pose a challenge for some, but we had no problem passing the time!
The meals served aboard the Northern Explorer add to the luxury travel experience. Sip on New Zealand wine and sample local cheese and produce as you admire another jaw-dropping stretch of rugged coastline or green pastures. You might see a farmer looking after his cattle as you stare out of the large panoramic windows listening to the high-tech GPS-triggered audio commentary. The open-air carriage is where you can breathe fresh air and snap some photos of life in NZ.
There are nine stations along this route. The various stops are an inspiring break from chugging along on one of the world’s most gorgeous train trip. You can anticipate a unique experience at every destination. Below is an explanation of each stop after Auckland. Enjoy!
Papakura is the first stop on the outskirts of downtown Auckland. Therefore, you can expect a quick stop where additional passengers will board. We boarded at this stop, which was convenient to the airport and had affordable accommodations.
This is a vibrant university city with the pretty Waikato River flowing through the middle. Often frosty or foggy in the morning but quickly warming up by mid-morning, this city nicknamed The Tron has plenty to see and do. There are riverside walks, gardens, hip cafes, artisan and international shopping, and pumping nightlife, largely thanks to the student population.
If you have time for a day trip, the ultra-trendy beach town of Raglan is an excellent place to hang out and watch surfers ride massive waves. Near Raglan, you can discover the gorgeous cascading Bridal Veils Falls after a short walk through the native forest to the viewing platforms. Then it’s onto Waitomo Caves, where you can take a boat ride to see limestone caves adorned with bright lights of tiny glow worms and then go on an adventurous black water rafting tour along an underground river.
This is a charming town that offers a range of activities for visitors to enjoy. One of the top things to do is to visit the Waitomo Caves, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area. The caves are known for the presence of glowworms, and you can take guided tours to explore the caves and learn more about these fascinating creatures.
You can also visit the Kiwi House and Native Bird Park, where you can see kiwi birds up close, along with other native bird species such as the kea and kaka. The park offers a range of interactive exhibits and experiences.
If you enjoy the great outdoors, Otorohanga has many hiking trails. The town is surrounded by beautiful countryside, including a section of the Te Araroa Trail.
You can also explore the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and Marokopa Falls, two nearby sights to see.
Taumarunui is a small town. It is situated at the confluence of the Ongarue and Whanganui Rivers .
One of the main attractions is the Whanganui National Park. Here you can enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking, and rafting. The park is home to the Whanganui River, a very scenic location teaming with wildlife.
In addition to its natural attractions, it is also known for its railway history, and you can take a ride on the Forgotten World Highway rail car.
Beautiful natural landscapes, including Tongariro National Park and the rugged terrain of the central North Island, surround the station. It is a gateway to the park, known for its stunning scenery and outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, and mountain biking.
The National Park station is a small but well-maintained facility. The station is staffed during the day, and taxi service is usually available to transport visitors to hotels and the surrounding locations.
It is proudly known as the carrot capital of New Zealand. It is popular for skiing during winter but also beautiful all year round. Near the active volcano of Mt Ruapehu, this rural town has geothermal springs, horse trekking, fishing, canoeing, and a massive carrot statue.
With Forgotten World Adventures, you can ride in an old rail cart that carries passengers along unused railway lines. They go through old tunnels and over bridges and stop at farms where you can chat with locals about rural life. Your guide will tell heritage stories of what life was like as your cart rattles along the track. They also offer jet boat and helicopter rides if you fancy a more exhilarating mode of transport.
Palmerston North has several museums including the Te Manawa Museum and the New Zealand Rugby Museum. Both museums are interesting and informative. There are also has several parks and gardens like the Victoria Espanade. It has walking paths, a bird aviary, and a miniature railway. Be sure to visit the Palmerston North Rose Garden which has over 5,000 rose bushes.
One of the main attractions in Paraparaumu is its sandy beach. It’s a great place for a stroll along the water’s edge or a surf lesson if you so dare. There is a lovely bird sanctuary, called Kapiti Island Nature Reserve. Here you can see rare and endangered species, such as the little spotted kiwi and the North Island Saddleback.
Paraparaumu has a great foodie scene with its numerous cafes and restaurants. You might also visit the Saturday Market, where you can purchase fresh produce, crafts, and other local treats. Afterward, check out the Southward Car Museum, which features vintage and classic cars.
When you reach Wellington, you are at the country’s biggest railway station. It is right by the Beehive and New Zealand parliament buildings, downtown, and waterfront areas.
Spend a few days in Windy Wellington sipping coffee in trendy cafes or riding the cable car. It is also great for roaming the beautiful botanical gardens, and feeding the feisty seagulls on the waterfront. Te Papa Museum is home to an impressive collection of Maori arts and crafts and artifacts. This was one of our favorite museums and we we wished we had more time to spend here. We think you could spend two full days learning about New Zealand and their history. On top of that, it’s free!
For a more detailed guide of Wellington, click here to read more!
Whether you continue your journey to the South Island via the ferry or spend more time on the North, we are confident your rail journey through the heart of the North Island will leave lasting memories. It was one of our favorite experiences.