Home to only 1% of the country’s population, this is a place of isolation and wide open spaces.
With more rainfall than any other region, the landscape here is lush; deep and primitive rainforest bordered by verdant green pasture. Towering above the coast, the mountains of the Southern Alps provide a most dramatic backdrop, while mammoth glaciers grinding their way towards the sea are reason alone to visit. Hokitika is well-known as the country’s wild food capital, hosting the iconic annual Wildfoods Festival in March every year, where you can try all sorts of weird and wonderful things including huhu grubs and lamb testicles! The inhabitants of this region, simply known as Coasters, are a special breed: tough, no-nonsense and warm-hearted in equal measures – they’re grab a pint, pull up a chair and settle in for a good yarn kind of people.
West Coast Kiwi
Karamea, at the northernmost point of the West Coast, could be one of the most remote settlements on the planet, where huge waves crash upon white sand beaches, bringing with them a forest of driftwood. Karamea is the starting point of the Heaphy Track, a Great Walk traversing the Kahurangi National Park to Golden Bay. The nearby Oparara Basin contains spectacular limestone caves and archways, blanketed by dense green rainforest. Get amongst giant trees and lush wildlife with the West Coast Treetop Walk, 15 minutes south from Hokitika. After completing the one hour walk, overlooking the forest canopy some 20 metres above the ground, relax in the peaceful atmosphere of Mahināpua café beside Johnnies Creek. In Hokitika, the pounamu (greenstone) capital of New Zealand, see raw nature transformed into carved art at Mountain Jade’s greenstone carving workshop tours. Craft a pounamu with the help of their master carvers to give someone special - traditionally pounamu must come to you as gift, and not be purchased for yourself. Take a day trip to Haast, a 2,500 square kilometre ‘lost world’ which has been designated a World Heritage Area. Day walks, fishing, and abundant wildlife draw nature lovers here from around the world. If you’d like to see what’s going on below the surface of the wild West Coast, head to Underworld Adventures in Charleston for caving and rafting in the enormous Nile River Cave System, which you reach by a magical train trip through rainforest.
Mountain Jade’s greenstone carving workshop
Heading south, the historical remnants of the Denniston Coal Mine and its famous ‘incline’ provide a window into the hardships faced by coal-miners and their families. These stories are brought to life at the Coaltown Museum in nearby Westport, a pleasant town and good base for exploring the area, including the seal colony at Cape Foulwind.
Pancake Rocks & Panning for Gold
From Westport venture inland to the dramatic Buller River Gorge before heading down State Highway 6 to Punakaiki, famous for its pancake rocks, and gateway to the Paparoa National Park. The limestone stacks and blowholes are particularly spectacular at dusk, when the sun slowly sets over the Tasman Sea, bathing the rock formations in a golden light.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
An hour south of Punakaiki, Greymouth is the largest centre on the West Coast, linked to Canterbury by the road through Arthur’s Pass, and the TranzAlpine railway, a Great Journeys of NZ experience that takes you across 223 kilometres of epic vistas. Traverse the Canterbury Plains and Southern Alps in style on this 5 hour journey. A tour of the Monteith’s Brewery is a popular attraction, especially as you get to try ten different brews of the good stuff. Shantytown, 8km south of Greymouth, recreates a 19th century gold mining town where visitors can pan for their own nugget of gold. The new West Coast Wilderness Trail links Greymouth to Hokitika, a 139 kilometre trip for keen cyclists. Rated Easy/Intermediate level, take the full four days to enjoy the many fascinating sights and former gold-mining towns along the way. Visit westcoastwildernesstrail.co.nz to plan your trip.
The lower part of the West Coast is glacier country. These immense rivers of ice begin their slow journey to the sea in the shadow of New Zealand’s highest peaks. Under no circumstances should visitors attempt to get onto the glaciers without a guide; sadly injuries and deaths have occurred when this advice has been ignored.
Franz Josef Glacier Guides
Franz Josef Glacier Guides take small groups on Heli-hiking trips, offering the choice of visiting two different areas of the glacier. It’s 12km long and features ice pinnacles as high as multi-story buildings, deep crevasses and stunning, pristine blue ice. Experienced guides offer the chance to learn the workings of the glacier and take you to see remarkable ice formations, crevices and ice caves. All tours conclude with the opportunity to soak in the thermal waters of the Glacier Hot Pools - a pleasantly warm contrast to the icy surroundings! Spas, massage, and private pools are available.
Glacier Hot Pools
Or for a unique perspective on the glaciers and mountains and a thrill that will get your heart pumping, go skydiving with Skydive Franz, based in Franz Josef Glacier village. Also in the Franz Josef village is the West Coast Wild Life Centre, home to New Zealand’s rarest breed of kiwi, the rowi. Only 500 remain in the wild, so the centre’s hatching program is an important part of their continued existence. The centre is open from 8am each day for tours to meet cute kiwi and also ancient ‘tiny dinosaurs’, the tuatara. Some 23kms further south, the NZ family owned Fox Glacier Guiding operate on the larger of the two West Coast Glaciers, offering popular small group Heli Hikes, tailor-made Ice Climbing, the stunning Chancellor Dome alpine trekking (with optional overnight stay if you want to experience the magic of the mountains at night) or for those not wanting to go on the ice, an informative terminal face walk. Their brand new experience, the Extreme Fox: Heli-Hike couples a scenic flight with forging your own unique trail through the dramatic terrain of Fox Glacier's steep upper icefall. It’s a full day adventure you won’t forget. Fox Glacier is also home to the gorgeous Lake Matheson (Fox Glacier’s kettle lake) which is world renowned for its reflections of NZ’s two highest peaks, Mt Cook (Aoraki) and Mt Tasman. The Helicopter Line operates from both Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier townships, with multiple flight options available from each location. Flight package options range from an affordable $175 for 20 minutes in the air, to $650 for a leisurely tour of the glaciers from above, so whatever your budget you’re able to experience the best view around.
Fox Glacier Guiding
And because you’re on the West Coast, after a hard day spent exploring glaciers, taking in spectacular coastal and mountain views or enjoying a rainforest walk, you’ll be able to settle in to one of the Coast’s many friendly pubs. Get yourself a pint – Monteith’s of course – and a hearty home cooked meal and meet some of the characters that call the Coast home. Their tales are as fascinating as the mightiest glacier, and just as long in the making.
Header image: Punakaiki Pancake Rocks