Featuring towering mountains, wild rivers, glaciers, calm lakes and five national parks, the West Coast is packed with adrenalin-inducing activities, natural attractions (including the impressive Fox and Franz Josef glaciers), wildlife and a rich mining history. “The coast” (as the locals call it) has got the works to impress even the most seasoned travellers, including Lonely Planet who recently listed it as one of the top 10 places in the world to visit. One of the best reasons to visit though is the locals, “coasters”, who say it like it is and are feisty about the origins of their beer, but generally a friendly lot with great stories.
KEY TOWNS AND REGIONS
Top of the West Coast – Buller, Westport and Karamea
Westport is the coast’s oldest town with the first settlers arriving in 1961 as gold miners but the area became famous for coal mining. The Denniston Plateau, just north of Westport, is home to the infamous Denniston Incline, which was used to bring coal down to the wharves at Westport. The Denniston Plateau was known for its dangerous working conditions and bleak lifestyle, often shrouded by cloud for weeks at a time.
Northeast from Wesport sits Karamea, the northernmost settlement on the West Coast. The road between Westport and Karamea crosses the Radiant Range, offering magnificent views over native forests out to sea. Kahurangi National Park in this region is home to the Heaphy Track, the longest of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
Great Coast Road
The dramatic Great Coast Road is recommended as one of the top ten coastal drives in the world, linking Charleston, Fox River, Punakaiki, Barrytown, Rapahoe and Runanga. On the way you’ll find Paparoa National Park, featuring coastal forests, limestone canyons and caves, including the world famous Pancake Rocks (Punakaiki). Quiet Charleston is known for its extensive limestone caves and the Nile River, but once boasted a gold mining population of 5000, with more pubs than permanent houses.
The largest town on the West Coast, Greymouth is the turnaround station for the TranzAlpine train. One of the world’s great scenic train journeys, the TranzAlpine links the South Island’s west and east coasts via the Southern Alps. The floodwall is a major feature of Greymouth’s central business district, and marks the beginning of the West Coast Wilderness Trail. From Greymouth, you can choose to travel north along the Great Coast Road or south to Glacier Country.
Jade Country, encompassing Kumara, Hokitika, Pukekura and Hari Hari, is considered the birthplace of pounamu, New Zealand jade or greenstone. Pounamu is very significant in Maori culture and is considered a taonga, a treasure. Hokitika is the greenstone capital of New Zealand; founded in 1864, it was one of New Zealand’s most populous centres during the height of the gold rush. Halfway between Hokitika and Greymouth lies the historic gold mining town of Kumara, the site of New Zealand’s last great gold rush.
Lakes District and Arthur’s Pass
The West Coast Lakes District covers Lake Brunner, the West Coast’s largest lake, and the townships of Moana and Jacksons, and leads onto Otira and Arthur’s Pass. Arthur’s Pass climbs more than 900m through Arthur’s Pass National Park and was named for surveyor Arthur Dobson, who was tasked with finding a pass from Canterbury to the West Coast in 1864. Early Maori used the pass to bring pounamu across the Southern Alps.
Glacier Country – Franz Josef and Fox Glacier
The glacier region boomed with the discovery of gold in the area in 1864, and by the 1900s, men in bowties and women in their long dresses could be seen exploring the glaciers. These days, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, as well as Lake Matheson, New Zealand’s most photographed lake due to its stunning reflections of the snow-capped Southern Alps, are some of the most popular tourist stops on the West Coast.
Gates of Haast and Westland
A world heritage area, Haast is situated alongside Mount Aspiring National Park. The rugged Haast Pass was an important trade route for Maori, who named the pass Tioripatea, meaning “the way is clear”. Today, the breathtaking Haast Pass Highway, opened in the early 1960s, is a vital link between the West Coast and Central Otago.
Getting here and around:
The scenic and top-rated TranzAlpine rail journey connects Greymouth and Christchurch.
Air New Zealand operates regular daily services between Hokitika and Christchurch, and Westport and Wellington.
Regular bus and coach services connect towns within the West Coast, and to other parts of South Island. Shuttle services are also available.
Spring (Sep-Nov) – dry spells lengthen and rain decreases, 8-15°C; Summer (Dec-Feb) – mild with long dry spells, 17-26°C; Autumn (Mar-May) – dry spells shorten and rain increases, 9-17°C; Winter (Jun-Aug) – mild with rain, 4-14°C.