World famous in New Zealand: Taieri Gorge Railway, Dunedin
The Taieri Gorge Railway is a half-day train trip from Dunedin. It's impressive, remote, and enjoyable.
WHERE/WHAT IS IT?
This is a half-day trip on a vintage train from Dunedin's grand Edwardian Railway Station: out of the city, through farming and horse-racing country, and following the Taieri River along its impressive gorge, over viaducts and through tunnels, to either Pukerangi or Middlemarch, before returning the same way.
What could be better? Sit in a 100-year-old heritage carriage, all varnished wood, wrought iron and plush padded seats, be looked after by an enthusiastic hostess (if you're lucky, it will be Daphne), listen to Alan's droll commentary, and watch pretty scenery get unarguably spectacular.
The line was begun in 1879 to service the gold fields, but was finished too late for the miners: instead, it opened up the fruit and farming country inland at Cromwell and also carried a lot of woolly passengers before losing out to road transport.
Now it's been resurrected as a tourist operation, run by a team of passionate volunteers keen to share scenery that can't be accessed any other way. With 10 tunnels and a dozen viaducts, as well as the steep and narrow gorge channelling the tumbling river, there's always something to marvel at.
There are wild goats defying gravity, huge rock slides, a possible fault line, remote farmhouses, sheer cliffs of bare schist. Eager photographers stand outside at the ends of the carriages, getting windblown but also great pictures; comfort-lovers stay inside to sip tea or something stronger. Everyone enjoys the yummy packed lunch that's available. There's time to stretch your legs at the turnaround, and then it's back on board for the return journey, with everything looking different from the other side, in later light. It's not unusual to hear people muttering "Rocky Mountaineer" – high praise!
Make friends with the people across the aisle from you: then, at the carriage hostess' suggestion, they will be happy to swap seats with you on the return journey so you can enjoy the scenery on the other side of the train, since it doesn't actually turn around at Pukerangi, but reverses.
ON THE WAY/NEAR BY
Have a good look around the splendid Railway Station, inside and out: there's a reason the architect was nicknamed Gingerbread George. Spot the Royal Doulton frieze in the booking hall. Within walking distance is the Toitu Otago Settlers' Museum, which is a really well done presentation of the region's social history.
Prices start at $91 for the twice-daily (in summer) four hour Pukerangi round trip and $113 for six hours return to Middlemarch, operating Fridays and Sundays. One child per adult can travel free.
BEST TIME TO GO
The train runs year-round and is always worth doing, but best bets for spectacular scenery are sunshine and/or snow, or after heavy rain when the river is running fast through the narrow gorge. If there's a cruise ship in port, there might be locals selling crafts at Pukerangi.