Milkless tea and a day-long train adventure: The Northern Explorer in New Zealand

During Golden Week, I went to New Zealand for the first time with my parents. With no experience in the southern hemisphere, we scrambled to find out what to add to our Must Do List.

When I suggested the Northern Explorer train, my mother’s eyes lit up, and my father shook his head in resignation. He already knew that this was happening. My mother and I have talked about doing long train rides for ages, from the Trans-Mongolian Railway to The Canadian (Toronto – Vancouver), so this was an inevitability.

The Northern Explorer is a train that runs from Auckland all the way down to Wellington (or vice versa), and slowly winds through all sorts of beautiful landscapes along the way. Today, I’ll share what a day on this train felt like.

…. Hashtag not sponsored.

Northern Explorer 001 Dawn
Early morning at Auckland Station.

First of all, we had to wake up and be at the train station early. It was just barely dawn when we checked in, and not many other people were on the train when we boarded. We were assigned a booth where four people could comfortably sit, with an overhead compartment, headphones for each person, and two power outlets under the table where we could charge our devices. Above our heads was a television screen where we could see a map of our journey.

Northern Explorer 002 Interior
The main carriage we spent our day in.

The bathrooms were about what you’d expect on a train, but they were plenty big and clean, which is more than I can say for most airplane toilets! There was also a cafe car where you could chill (as they had a few seats). Unfortunately, the observation cars weren’t open when we were on board, but we still saw things just fine from our windows.

After purchasing tea (and distressing the staff by requesting the tea NOT have milk in it, I know, my family is a group of tea heathens), we settled in. The first hour of the trip was mostly looking out at the city of Auckland, watching the neighborhoods become more and more spaced out. Then, it was like we crested a hill, and suddenly, we were surrounded by hills! And sheep! Oh, so many sheep.

Norhtern Explorer 003 Cafe
Cafe. Not pictured: the staff at work at the counter behind me.

The ride was smooth, and every now and again there would be a soft ding that would sound from the televisions. This was a notice to let us know we could plug our headphones into the jacks by our seats to listen to an audio guide about whatever we were passing. The guide was very thorough and are worth a listen if you want to learn more about the country you’re going through.

Food is provided on the train in the cafe, but their options are limited so it’s best you either bring your own snacks and food or you buy whatever you want from them early. Any of the “hot” meals you see on the menu are essentially ready-meals, but they’re not bad in terms of quality. I stuck to buying mostly snacky things like fruit and a sandwich wrap… oh, and loads of tea, of course.

The staff were friendly, but firm. One lady came into our car to ask another passenger to turn off their radio (or at least use earbuds) so as not to disturb other guests. The folks in the cafe were good about checking your dietary needs–important, as I tend to avoid dairy more and more these days.

Imagine having over ten hours to sit, stroll through the train cars, look out over slowly changing scenery, read books, and nap. I read the majority of a book in one sitting, and that was even with pressing my nose to the glass of our window every five minutes. I snapped pictures like no tomorrow, especially of the national park. You can get some good shots without too much window-glare, which I was happy to learn.Northern Explorer 004 National Park

One thing to note is that the booths you sit at don’t have the best leg room, so you should be getting up and moving around. However, when getting assignments, the train was quite good about making sure couples or families had their own booths, so at least going in May we didn’t have to share our area with anyone. So we piled the extra seat with our extra luggage, which helped, but we also had to make sure we didn’t accidentally knock anything out of the outlets underneath when someone wanted to charge a phone.

Overall, this is a trip worth trying at least once if you’re a train fan… but do be prepared to be exhausted upon reaching the other end.Northern Explorer 007 scenery

We were delayed going into Wellington by about an hour or so, and when we landed it was the tail end of rush hour. Loads of people were about, along with taxis and shuttles who called out to us as we passed. If possible, arrange for transportation to your accommodation in advance, lest you feel pressured to take the first taxi you see. There’s a supermarket right there in the station, so you can grab some dinner if you’re not coming in too late.

The folks had arranged for us to stay that night in an older, European-style hotel not too far from the station, where a very friendly gentleman wanted to chat away the hours at the front desk. I share this because imagine me and my parents–tired from the day, ready for a shower and sleep, and that’s when this gentleman hands over our key… and then a small carton of milk.

Gentleman: Here you are, your key for your room and some milk!

Me: …Uh, what’s the milk for?

Gentleman: *Leans forward conspiratorially* Oh, you know. Just in case.

Me: ?!?!?!

Northern Explorer 006 Milk
You thought I was joking?

Turns out that he was offering milk because we had some complimentary tea/coffee in the room. Not sure if this is a regular thing in New Zealand, but he eventually explained that in this hotel, at least, they provided a new carton of milk every day to each room. And sure enough, when we went out adventuring the next morning, we saw the newest delivery of fresh milk sitting by the front door.

Have you been on a long train ride? If so, do you recommend the trip? How do you take your tea? Are we crazy for not putting milk in ours? Let me know!

Next week, I’ll be back with our adventures in Hobbiton, so hope to see you then!

Northern Explorer 005 Evening approaches

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