The jetty at Eastbourne, Wellington (Photo: David Jensen)

The best commutes in New Zealand

For most of us, the commute to and from work is an unavoidably tedious part of our daily routine. But for a lucky few, it’s an opportunity to experience some of Aotearoa’s most stunning landscapes.

There are few things in life more polarising than the daily commute. From gridlocked nudges along motorways listening to talk back radio, to brisk sailings across tranquil harbours, our commutes are so varied and influential that we easily let them define and dictate our working lives. A seamless, traffic-free drive into work can lay the foundations for a successful day; a train cancellation can spoil everything.

And yet, although the commute is a regular source of frustration and complaint for many, for others it can be a sacred time: a brief – or sometimes long – liminal space between home and work that allows us to greet and farewell the day with the sites and rituals we’ve become accustomed too. But what truly intertwines the daily commute into so many lives is the frequency: day after day, year after year, and, for some people, decade after decade.

Which is why in this new era of remote working, we’ve put together a list of some of the most unique and interesting commutes in New Zealand, with an explainer from the authors for whom the journeys are most special. While there are many wonderful commutes out there that we undoubtedly missed – especially bike rides – we couldn’t feature them all, and our selection represents a balance between rural and urban, public and private, land and sea.

While my initial plan was to rank these commutes, I quickly realised they were all far too special for that. Each is unique, a window into a certain period and place, the sights, sounds and people that make a commute more than just a standard trip to work. It was in this spirit that the following list was put together.

-Michael Andrew

Diamond Harbour to Christchurch by ferry

The first thing to know about Te Waipapa/Diamond Harbour is that the harbour and surrounding settlement is named in English for the way the sun sparkles on the placid, blue-green water surrounding the jetty. It’s a sublime spot. The second thing to know is that it’s where I spent every summer holiday as a child, in a bach next to the one my grandparents had owned since the 1930s. Back then, throughout the summer break, my grandfather would set out early each morning to catch the ferry across the water to Lyttelton, and take the same trip in reverse at the end of the day. It’s the sort of journey that I imagine made having to work while your family were on holiday almost bearable: a quick jaunt across the harbour (the current ferry, the Black Diamond, can do it in around 10 minutes), and then a train ride through the tunnel to central Christchurch. 

The passenger rail link is long gone, of course, but the Diamond Harbour to Christchurch route still ranks among Canterbury’s most delightful commutes. It’s even better if you have time to stop in Lyttelton for a flat white (I recommend the Lyttelton Coffee Company) before you head into the big smoke. 

– Catherine McGregor

Diamond harbour wharf (Photo: Michal Klajban)

Punakaiki to Westport, via State Highway 6

The Buller section of the Coast Road has been my commute route for the past three and a half years. I drive up to the Westport News, where I work as a journalist, from Punakaiki every weekday morning, sometimes before the sun. Every evening I travel down again, hurling out newspapers as I go. Some people are aghast when they hear I drive a 111km round trip each day for work. But I’m quick to point out there’s so many upsides – no traffic and it’s stunning, no matter whether it’s rain or shine or even after a cyclone.

As you leave Punakaiki, you head across the small bridge over Bullock Creek where the road starts to wind upwards. On past Coughlan’s Lookout where freedom campers sometimes kip, then it’s Te Irimahuwhero lookout, which means place of hanging red hair – a reference to the rata flowers which festoon the hillsides in summer. Looking north there’s bays and bush as far as the eye can see, with a ribbon of road winding through. Look back south and on a clear day the snow-covered Southern Alps are visible across Te Miko point. Soon the Paparoa Range comes into view, an amazing backdrop before you head down through a hairpin bend which has caused a few tourists to go awry. Through Charleston and across the Nile River. Sometimes the mountains are reflected in the placid water as you drive across the bridge.

After that it’s Sheep Bend; no commute is quite the same without seeing the six plump sheep with their goat mate munching their way around the field. Along and through the Pakihi flats, past the turn off to the seal colony and Cape Foulwind and once passed the crossroads that’s the Coast Road done. But the drive wouldn’t be the same without admiring the mighty Buller en route to its end point of the Tasman Sea.

– Teresa Wyndham-Smith

The coast road looking north (Photo: Getty Images)

West Harbour to Auckland CBD by ferry

Growing up in West Harbour, on the north west edge of Auckland, I never felt like I lived in a city. We always could see the Sky Tower far away across the water, but as kids, in our little suburb on the fringe of farmland at the dead end of the beleaguered North Western motorway, it always seemed detached and isolated, certainly too far out to take public transport anywhere.

So when the West Harbour ferry began in the early 2010s, allowing me to travel to work in the CBD by boat for 30 minutes, rather than along the choked motorway, my commutes suddenly became experiences I treasured. In the early morning I’d walk down to the West Harbour marina and step onto the small cosy vessel. As the sun rose in the east, we’d slowly glide past the moored yachts and out into the calm Waitematā harbour. I would sit on the back of the boat, loving the salt air, fascinated by the unique perspective of Auckland’s hidden places: the cliffs of Beach Haven and Chatswood, the ramshackle shapes of the Chelsea Sugar Works, the rusty underside of the Harbour Bridge, before the boat gradually turned toward the viaduct.

On one or two occasions, as the small boat drifted idle in the channel, waiting for its turn to berth, the calm water would be breached by a black and white shape, and I would be treated to a fleeting glimpse of an orca, heading on its own morning commute toward the Hauraki Gulf.

– Michael Andrew

West Harbour Ferry (Photo: Belaire Ferries)

Port Chalmers to Dunedin by road

The spot where I used to hitch rides from in Port Chalmers is now a construction site for the cycleway into Dunedin, so I take the bus. I can power through a lot of emails, and drip feed Stinky Jim’s radio show over the week.

It’s not the most direct route, divorcing itself from the water’s edge to collect people on the hills, but the elevation offers up stunning views of the bays below and the Peninsula across the pond.

Hereweka (Harbour Cone) stands sentinel, bidding you farewell and welcoming you home again. The harbour itself evolves as the sun rises in the morning, reflecting back the fiery skies above.

Eventually the natural charms give way to industry and institutions as we meander through the campus to the city centre proper.

It is all very dramatic, and we share in it together.

I will miss it greatly.

– Aaron Hawkins

Port Chalmers (Photo: Port Chalmers Facebook)

Te Anau to Milford Sound, via State Highway 94

I own the Trips and Tramps tour company in Te Anau, and most days we take guests out to Milford Sound for day tours or to the great walks along State Highway 94. We also have the mail and paper contract to take mail and freight out to the staff and businesses at Milford Sound, and a few drops at some farms along the way.

On a Milford day tour, we load our guests and pick up the mail at about 7am and head off to Milford Sound at about 8:15am. The first 50km is through rolling farmland, with the mountains off to your left across the lake, but then it changes to open beech forest when you get into the Eglinton Valley and Fiordland National Park. The closer to Milford you get, the bigger the mountains, the bigger the valleys, the bigger the cliff faces. Because of the weather, you never know what you’re going to get. On a dry day you won’t see any water falls, on a wet day you’ll see hundreds, if not thousands.

These days, both the road and Milford Sound are very, very quiet compared to other years. Normally there would have been about 400 staff living out there; this summer there’s probably around 130, and only about 600 customers per day, compared with 3,500 last year. But New Zealanders like walking and the great walks are still popular; we’re quite fortunate that we also do guided walks along the Routeburn, Milford and Kepler – it’s keeping us busy.

I’ve been travelling to Milford Sound for work for 30 years, and it’s never a boring drive. It’s always a pleasure to go to work – they don’t call it one of the world’s most scenic highways for nothing.

-Steve Norris

Te Anau to Milford Sound along SH94 (Photo: Getty Images)

Panmure to Auckland CBD by train

Typically, an inner city train journey wouldn’t provide much to look at. This one may be the exception.

The train leaves Panmure Station, slowly gliding past the bulk of Mt Wellington, through the backyards of the warehouses and factories of Glen Innes and into long a tunnel. When it finally emerges into the light of Meadowbank, it almost seems like the train has been transported away from Auckland and into the quiet countryside; suddenly you’re surrounded by dense clusters of native bush and swathes of grassy paddock and wetlands. Rounding the bend and passing the back of the Purewa Cemetery, the landscape opens up to the Purewa Creek estuary and Ōrākei Basin. After this point, as the train streams over the middle of Hobson Bay and past the verdant cliffs of Parnell, the ride begins to feel less like a commute and more like a scenic sight-seeing journey – you totally forget you’re heading into work. Green water glistens on all sides of the train, and views open up to the right over the Hauraki Gulf to Devonport.

When the train does finally does slow down by Auckland’s port and bump to a stop at Britomart, you emerge into the noisy CBD, knowing that a beautiful return journey is waiting for you in the evening.

– Michael Andrew

The eastern line over Hobson Bay (Photo: Auckland Transport)

Days Bay to Wellington CBD by ferry

My commute feels like a life hack. Instead of a 25km drive to work that could take up to an hour of gridlock each way, I bob across Wellington harbour in a ferry. The trip on the Eastbourne ferry takes about 20 minutes and on most days, it’s a calming ride where you prepare for the day ahead. This being Wellington, the ferry is cancelled about a half dozen times a year by truly awful weather. Heading to work every morning starts with a quick walk down the wharf. Waves lap against the wood and sea birds hover nearby as a crowd of regulars boards the ferry. Most days it’s the same people, acknowledged by a nod. As the boat chugs away you settle in for a quick ride, either reading inside or enjoying the sun up top. There’s a coffee machine onboard, but I’ve never seen anyone so much as look at it.

Maybe a council bylaw requires it for lifesaving caffeine? There is however a bar and it does brisk business in afternoons, especially later in the week. On the way home on a Friday after work, the ferry leaves from near parliament. Coworkers, friends, people who only know each other from the boat, buy beers, stand at the bar and chat. The crossing is the perfect amount of time to polish off a tall boy.

–  Justin Giovannetti

Eastbourne ferry heading to Wellington (Photo: East by West Ferries)

Waikanae to Wellington by train

Of all the things my father loved about living on the Kāpiti Coast, the train was probably his favourite. “It’s one of the great rail journeys of New Zealand!” he’d say proudly, as if living on the coast made him part-owner of the views. To be fair, the views are incredible. The showstopper comes just south of Paekākāriki where the railway line veers west, the train clinging to the coast high above SH1 as it barrels towards Pukerua Bay. If you’re a Kāpiti Line expert like Dad, you sit on the right side of the carriage for the full floating-over-ocean experience. 

There are more delights on the way into Wellington: the historic wooden train station at Paekākāriki, built 1886; Mana Island, visited around the 9th century by Kupe, who named it “Te Mana o Kupe ki Aotearoa”; the brief view of the Pāuatahanui Inlet from the bridge as the train arrives at Paremata, and finally, the glorious view of Wellington Harbour when the train blasts out of the tunnel and skirts the shore to towards the station. 

After Dad began to lose his memory, for a long time he could still enjoy the journey from Waikanae to Wellington and back again, a packed lunch and SuperGold card in hand. Now he’s gone, I think of him every time I get on the train, and always choose a west-facing seat. 

– Catherine McGregor 

The Kapiti Line heading south (Photo: Greater Wellington Regional Council)

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