Stretching almost 600 kms from Karamea in the north to Jackson Bay in the south, New Zealand's West Coast is like nowhere else in New Zealand. Tucked in between the mighty Tasman Sea and the towering snow-capped Southern Alps are intensely green, sheep-dotted pastures, miles upon miles of dense rain forest, rocky beaches battered by the surf and glaciers stretching down to almost sea level.
The West Coast is a truly special area of New Zealand and one which deserves more than a couple days of your time. It's an incredibly large, and surprisingly remote area of New Zealand - taking up about 10% of New Zealand's land area and only being home to 1% or so of the country's population. The result is a very close-knit community of "Coasters" who aren't often too concerned with the rest of New Zealand. They are a friendly bunch and will undoubtedly add to your experience while traveling the West Coast.
You can look forward to glacier hikes, fascinating rock formations, rugged and wind-swept beaches and one of the world's best drives. We'd suggest no less than two nights traveling up or down the coast, and suspect you could easily fill a week in this surprisingly temperate area of New Zealand's South Island.
Don't forget to get your accommodation booked before your trip. Check out Wotif for the best deals on West Coast accommodation.
Destination West Coast: Getting There
Odds favor you coming to the West Coast overland - be that by your own transportation or on a bus.
As the coast stretches so far (over 600 kms), it's difficult to very accurately provide an overview of getting there. Near the southern bit of the West Coast, you're likely to be coming from Queenstown or Wanaka over the Haast Past - this drive is fantastic, slowly changing from arid Otago countryside to the densely green West Coast landscape - from Wanaka, it's about a two hour drive to Haast.
Further north, you're likely to arrive from Nelson or Picton where it's about a three hour drive to the West Coast town of Westport.
Destination West Coast: Orientation
These are the main towns of the West Coast moving from north to south.
- Karamea :: This chilled out town is literally the end of the road. It's the launching point for the Heaphy Track and is interestingly further north than the North Island city of Wellington.
- Westport :: Westport is a West Coast service town with a history in coal mining. It isn't an overly interesting place, and odds favor you passing right through and heading to Karamea. While you're here, be sure to check out the Tauranga Bay Seal Colony 16 kms from town, especially if you're passing through in November - January when seal pups are known to be around.
- Greymouth :: Another service town further south, Greymouth is in fact named after the Grey River the flows through town - yet grey quite adequately describes Greymouth itself. This is a good place to stock up on petrol and food as it only gets more expensive the further south you travel along the coast. Lots of lovely accommodation here, too. Check out Wotif for the best deals.
- The Glaciers :: The West Coast is well known for the two glaciers which come down to almost sea level - the twin towns of Fox and Franz have formed to handle the tourists visiting the glaciers by the same name. They're both quaint little villages, assuming you can look past the crowds in the summer months.
- Haast :: Haast will either be your first introduction to the West Coast, or your farewell town, but either way be sure you continue on to the roads end in Jackson Bay.
Destination West Coast: Hot Spots
Chill Out in Karamea
The funky, chilled out town of Karamea will likely keep you around for longer than you anticipate. This small little settlement is at the end of the road, and is the launching point for the Heaphy Track and heaps of other excellent shorter walks. The whole of the West Coast is surprisingly mild year-round, and this is especially true in Karamea.
North of Karamea on the way to the Heaphy Track start, you'll find the Oparara Basin - home to some spectacular limestone arches which are surrounded by native rainforest. A quick 20 minute walk through the forest will take you to the outstanding Oparara Arch - stretching 200 metres across the Opara River and standing almost 40 metres tall. Photographers, prep your cameras as some great photo ops await.
While you're in the area, be sure to tune into 107.5FM, the local Karamea radio station which plays from the Rongo Backpackers where you can volunteer to cover an hour or so on the air.
Experience One of the World's Best Drives
Traveling south from Westport to Greymouth, the SH6 skirts the rugged and wind-swept West Coast and along the way passes some of the greatest scenery in New Zealand. If coastal drives are your thing, then you definitely won’t be disappointed after driving from Westport to Greymouth.
Along the way you’ll have the mighty Tasman Sea pounding the coast on your right and the snow-capped Southern Alps on your left. Aim for a sunny day, yet realize that this is the one of the wettest areas of New Zealand. If you’re keen to wait for the sun (and you should), break up the journey and spend the day in Punakaiki where you can check out the fascinating Pancake Rocks which (as the name suggests) appear to be layered pancakes.
When you get to Greymouth, you can continue on the SH6 down to the Franz Josef Glacier or hop on the Trans Scenic Railway which crosses the Southern Alps on the way to Christchurch. This drive is repeatedly ranked by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 in the world - we can't speak to that level, but can say it's undoubtedly one of the top 3 best drives in New Zealand.
Whet Your Appetite at the Wild Foods Festival
In March of each year, thousands of people travel to the West Coast town of Hokitika. They come to sample local delicies such has huhu grubs, lambs' tails, sheeps' brains and mountain oysters (also known as lambs' testicles). Less adventurous can sample wild pork and locally caught seafood. Regardless of what you decide to taste, this is a festival that shouldn't be missed if you're traveling through Hokitika during March.
West Coast Glaciers
A visit to New Zealand’s West Coast isn’t complete without a trip to one of the two glaciers found here – Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. Located only about 300 meters above sea level, nowhere else in the world do glaciers come so close to the sea at this latitude. They're found in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, and the Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier are the products of years and years of endless rain. The West Coast receives over 78 inches of rain each year and high in the mountains in the glacier’s accumulation zone, this precipitation falls as snow, which eventually forms ice, which in turn create the Franz and Fox Glaciers.
Big Franz (as it's locally known) is one of the world’s fastest moving glaciers – traveling towards the sea at an astonishing average of one meter per day. About 18,000 years ago, Franz stretched all the way to the Tasman Sea. Since then, it has advanced and retreated and is currently found about 5kms outside of Franz Josef Village.There are a number of options to see Franz – one to suit every budget. If you’re short on cash, you can catch a lift to the car park outside of town. A 45-minute walk will take you within view of Franz’s face. An equally impressive view is found by taking a quick ten-minute hike from the car park to the top of Sentinel Rock. From here you’re granted terrific views of the glacier stretching up the mountainside.
To get the most out of your experience, Planit NZ recommends going for a guided hike on the Franz Josef Glacier.
Capture Mount Cook on Lake Matheson
Just outside of Fox Glacier Village, you'll find Lake Matheson. This ancient glacial lake provides picture-perfect mirrored reflections of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the lake is perfectly calm. It's about a 1.5 hour hike around the lake with picture opportunities as you go. When you're finished, there is a lovely little cafe and art gallery where you can reward yourself with a well deserved coffee and cake.
Sample West Coast Whitebait
Sampling a whitebait fritter is an absolute must while traveling the West Coast. Whitebait are little immature fish that swim up rivers from the sea. They can only be fished for at certain times of the year and are worth their weight in gold (almost). You'll find them for sale in scattered parts around NZ, however the South Island - and specifically the West Coast - is renowned for its whitebait. Typically you'll see them on menus as 'whitebait fritters' -- little patties of whitebait cooked with a bit of egg white and salt and pepper.
When you're driving south towards Haast, you'll pass an excellent little spot about 10kms before of Haast - the Curly Tree Whitebait company. The local Coaster will cook you a fritter on the spot from this little shed outside of his garage -- right on the Tasman Sea.
Destination West Coast: Final Thoughts & Recommendations
During the summer months, the West Coast can almost seem too popular with a steady stream of rental cars and campervans cruising up and down the SH6 with tourists checking off the required West Coast spots - Punakaiki, the glaciers and so on. The thing is, swarms of people come to the Coast as it truly is a spectacular place.
Speaking of swarms, beware of the infamous sandfly - especially when stopping to take photos of the windswept beaches we've mentioned so many times above.
To complete the West Coast experience, try to see the each extreme end - funky, chilled out Karamea and the picturesque no-nonsense fishing village of Jackson Bay. While there, grab some fish and chips from the campervan on the beach - we don't reckon you could get fresher fish and chips anywhere else in New Zealand.