From walking on glaciers in alpine splendour to mirror lakes, gold panning to glow worm caves and nights in a Victorian hotel, the West Coast has as much diversity in its scenery as it has in the many activities you can find.
Imagine boarding a helicopter after breakfast, then standing on the West Coast’s longest glacier, wearing crampons and surrounded by rugged mountain peaks, just minutes later. Exploring such a remote and pristine area of the glacier is usually set aside for the most experienced climbers and explorers – unless you take a guided tour with Fox Glacier Guiding.
The four-hour Flying Fox Heli Hike will take you to impressive ice formations, safely reached with your guide, crampons strapped to your shoes.
If you want to turn up the adventure a notch, try ice climbing or mountaineering. No experience or gear is required – just you and your enthusiasm. Or admire the glacier from a secret track in the rainforest, with the guided Fox Glacier Valley E-Bike and Hike.
Glacier country is a great way to begin your West Coast road adventure from the south – but don’t skip Haast as you enter South Westland from beautiful Haast Pass. Enjoy the best whitebait pattie you may ever savour, try jetboating, deep sea fishing, scenic helicopter flights and more.
To the south is Jackson Bay, on the edge of Mt Aspiring National Park, and the last frontier of the coast – for the highway at least. Scan the sheltered bay for dolphins and watch fishing boats come and go.
Back towards glacier country, stop at stunning, windswept Mahitahi/Bruce Bay where tall forest towers over the beach. Then, just 5km before Fox Glacier township, strap on your walking shoes for the short track to Lake Matheson. With its mirrored views of Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, it’s unsurprisingly the most photographed lake in New Zealand.
Once you’ve made the most of the glaciers at Fox and Franz Josef (don’t miss the glow worm caves at Fox), divert to the wetland and bird haven at Ōkārito. Hire a kayak or do a boat tour, or simply sit and watch the rich birdlife and the mirror views of the snow-capped Southern Alps, on a clear day.
Continuing north to Hokitika, stop and stroll along a steel platform 20 metres high among forest giants at the West Coast Treetop Walk. Climb the 47-metre high tower, looking out over the mountains, Tasman Sea and Lake Mahinapua. Back on terra firma the Hokitika Gorge, famous for its vibrant blue-green water, is accessed by an easy 2km walk.
In Hokitika itself, take time to explore shops and galleries in the self-proclaimed pounamu capital, or fossick for your own pounamu with a guided tour.
If you’re looking for a truly West Coast place to stay, look no further than Kumara, where the Theatre Royal Hotel rooms transport you right
back to gold rush days. In only fully restored gold miners’ hotel on the coast, and once a world-renowned theatre, guests can choose from six themed ensuite rooms, from Victorian-style with antique furnishings to a suite in the old Bank of New Zealand, or a replica miners’ cottage, all blended perfectly with modern comforts. The hotel is a great way to literally immerse yourself in Kumara’s rich and colourful past.
For the cyclists, Kumara is also a great base for the West Coast Wilderness Cycle Trail. The hotel has lockable sheds and will make you a packed lunch, while you’re shuttled to a different part of the track each day by a local provider.
Continue your gold rush with a visit to Shantytown Heritage Park near Greymouth to immerse yourself in the fascinating and often harsh life as a gold and timber pioneer. Ride the steam train to the sawmill, discover Chinatown, pan for gold, stroll the village streets and duck inside the shops, school, hospital or even the jail, before choosing a treat from the old-fashioned general store.
Back on the road – via a stop at the Monteiths Brewery for a tour, a taste if you’re not driving, and a delicious lunch or snack – either continue north or head inland to Moana/Lake Brunner. This classic Kiwi holiday spot is great for playing in the water or kayaking, trout fishing and a lakeside cycling circuit.
Back on the coast, another short drive inland north of Greymouth leads to the fascinating, quintessential West Coast town of Blackball. See the outdoor Mahi Tupuna Museum of Working Class History – now sadly including a memorial wheel for the lost Pike River 29 – to learn about the birthplace of unionism and of course mining. It’s right beside the characterful 1910 ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’, an historic hotel kept in near-original condition, where you can enjoy a drink or delicious a-la-carte meal of West Coast ingredients, with the locals.
While you’re there, pop up the road and visit the famous Blackball Salami factory and shop. From Blackball, you may choose to drive to Reefton, the West Coast’s only inland town, dubbed the town of light for having the first public electricity supply. With beautifully restored buildings from the 1870s lining its frontier-like main street and beyond, the i-SITE has its own mine tunnel, and the famous Bearded Miners are usually in residence at their miners hut, awaiting visitors for gold panning, iron forging or a cup of billy tea.
Back on the coast, head north to the other end of the Paparoa Track, Punakaiki, for a visit to the world-famous pancake rocks. Explore the
Pororari River by kayak or paddleboard, marvelling at towering limestone cliffs dotted with nīkau palms and lush forest. Then, stop in Charleston to ride the rainforest train alongside the beautiful limestone features of the Nile River, and drift through cavernous glow worm caves on a tube with Underworld Adventures.
Then Westport, the Buller region’s largest town, is just 15 minutes from the Denniston Plateau, a former 1800s mining town, where coal wagons remain perched near its infamous and deadly incline, battered by the exposed conditions, view exceptional views on clear days.
To the north, the Mokihinui River leads to Seddonville and the entrance of the Old Ghost Road tramping and biking trail. Shorter local walking tracks pass through mining tunnels, tramways and old mining machinery.
Finally, the northern end of the highway and Karamea, a relaxed place from where to explore the natural arches, caves and trails of the Oparara Valley. The spectacular rainforests and rivers continue at the end of the Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park, where the
only way to keep exploring is on foot or by bike.