SUNDAY STAR TIMES – “ESCAPE” by Pamela Wade.
This is the closest you’ll get to the Hogwarts Express without going to Scotland.
A classic coal-fired steam engine pulling heritage carriages, the Marlborough Flyer is a splendid sight as she puffs along the track between Blenheim and Picton, whistling at level crossings.
Traffic stops beside the road as people tumble out of their cars to take photos and wave – but even better is to be riding on board.
Because you just can’t beat the romantic thrill of chuffing through lovely scenery on a train that is literally out of history. The engine, built in Christchurch in 1915, is a steam locomotive named Passchendaele in memory of 447 NZ Railways staff who didn’t return from service in World War I.
Her own service amounts to 2.4 million kilometres between Christchurch and Dunedin, including carrying royalty, before retirement in 1967. After 20 years of meticulous restoration and now painted black and red with lovingly polished brass features, she’s not only a magnificent sight, but powerful too, able to handle the 1-in-37 gradient section of track out of Picton – the fourth-steepest stretch of rail in New Zealand.
The red-painted carriages are even older, with varnished wood interiors, wrought-iron luggage racks, sliding windows, brass lamps and red vinyl upholstery. Cheerful and knowledgeable volunteer staff look after you on the almost hour-long trip, answering questions and allowing you out onto the open viewing platforms at the ends of the carriages.
The route mostly follows the road, through hills and wetlands, across the wide Wairau River and past endless expanses of vineyards.
The company is planning to extend the Marlborough Flyer’s range to include outings to Kaikoura and has already made its first excursion to Seddon. Look out for the on-board brew of Marlborough Flyer Lager.
ON THE WAY/NEARBY
In Picton, the nearby Edwin Fox Maritime Museum is a well-done presentation of this old sailing ship and its lively history, which includes transporting convicts to Australia.
In Blenheim, you can keep the WWI theme going by taking a stroll around Seymour Square with its war memorials, admire the flowers in pretty Pollard Park, or sample a range of Marlborough wines in the Wine Station in the distinctive old railway station.
In the cruise ship season, a round trip Picton-Blenheim-Picton costs $120 per adult, $70 for children aged 4-14. There are other pricing options that include a wine-and-cheese tasting at the Wine Station. There are also occasional Super Sunday Specials, when there is no cruise ship in port, when one-way costs just $29 per adult, $19 for children 4-14, or $79 for a family.
BEST TIME TO GO
Whenever it’s running – it’s a seasonal operation, from October to April. A cool day means more steam if photos are your thing.
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