The Complete Guide To The West Coast
The ‘Coast’ as it’s known by the locals, is situated on the western side of New Zealand’s South Island. It is a rugged and beautiful region stretching from the Kahurangi National Park in the north right down to the tip of Mount Aspiring National Park in the south with the majestic Southern Alps on one side and the Tasman Sea on the other.
Due to the remote nature of the West Coast and distances between places of interest, your trip will require a bit of forward planning if you don’t want to miss all the best bits. You are going to want to work out what there is to do on the West Coast and where you are going to stay. This will mean taking into account travelling distances, accommodations options and activities. That’s why we’ve put together this complete guide to everything you need to know about travelling on the West Coast.
A little bit of information just to get you started – here are some interesting facts about the West Coast.
What Is The West Coast Famous For?
The West Coast area is famous for its remote beaches, lush rainforest, and colourful gold mining history. It is home to NZ’s most famous glaciers – the Franz Josef Glacier and the Fox Glacier and the popular coastal Punakaiki pancake rock formations and blowholes.
What Is The Population Of The West Coast Region?
The West Coast is sparsely populated (which is part of its charm) with a population of just over 32,000 people spread throughout its 23,246 square kilometres; its largest towns are Hokitika, Westport and Greymouth.
How Many National Parks Are Located On The West Coast?
New Zealand is well known for its stunning National Parks, a total of 13 across the country. An impressive 7 of these are located on or bordering the West Coast. These are; Kahurangi, Paparoa, Arthur’s Pass, Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki Mt Cook, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland. https://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/national-parks/
What Are The Roads Like?
Travel by road fairly straightforward on the West Coast; there is one main road, State Highway 6 (SH6), that runs almost the entire length of the Coast between Westport in the north and Haast in the south. Best of all, the highway hugs the coastline in many places, offering those substantial mountain to the sea views and fantastic photo opportunities along the way.
How To Get There
Travelling around the West Coast is all part of the experience. In fact, some of the best scenery can be found on your way there! There are three main ways to get to the West Coast by road, train, or air.
There are three common routes by road to gain access to the West Coast; these are from Nelson in the north, heading west from Christchurch across Arthurs Pass and coming up from Wanaka and Queenstown in the south. Mountain passes include the Lewis Pass, Arthur’s Pass and the Haast Pass.
You will find the roads to and around the West Coast are reasonably well maintained, but be aware closures across the main mountain passes are possible in the winter months due to snow. You will find the roads are often winding and steep at times, and there are quite a few one-lane bridges. Driving in the South Island can be quite different to other parts of NZ; check out the Drive Safe website for some great tips on driving safely. https://www.drivesafe.org.nz/home/on-arrival/
For road closure information and road/weather warnings, visit the New Zealand Transport Authority’s website for up to date information.
A relaxing alternative to driving all the way, and an excellent way to really take in the scenery, the Transalpine train trip is a destination activity in its own right. Travelling through parts of the Southern Alps unseen if travelling by car and the famously long Otira Tunnel mean this train trip is like no other, with interesting guided interpretation as you go.
There are regular flights operating in and out of Hokitika Airport from Christchurch so any connecting flight into Christchurch Airport will get you to the West Coast where you can then collect a rental car for ongoing travel. The plane is a small one flying directly over the famous Southern Alps so you get magnificent views.
However you choose to travel to the West Coast, you will find getting there is all part of the fun; need to work out how much time to allow? Check out our approximate travel times below.
Nelson to Greymouth
• By car 4 hours
• By bus 6 hours
• By air (to Hokitika via Christchurch) 2 hours 20 minutes (2 flights)
Christchurch to Greymouth
• By car 3.5 hours
• By bus 4.5 hours
• By train 4.5 hours
• By air (to Hokitika) 35 minutes
Queenstown To Greymouth
• By car 7 hours
• By bus 14 hours
• By air (to Hokitika via Christchurch) 3 hours 30 minutes,( two flights)
Where To Stay
Finding accommodation on the West Coast is easy and affordable if you do a little bit of research before you go. Booking ahead is always going to get you better prices and give you a wider range of options. Here are a few of our top picks when staying on the West Coast.
Luxury bed and breakfast accommodation located 30 minutes south of Hokitika. Choose from three well-appointed sunny guest bedrooms with mountain and sea views. The perfect option for those who want to step off the beaten track and enjoy a tranquil and relaxing stay. Free WiFi and a complimentary one-hour nature tour are included along with the usual cooked or continental breakfast options. Dinner is additional option with bookings necessary in advance. Prices range from $320 to $450 for two people. See the Paramata Lodge website for more information.
Hotel style accommodation located 2 minutes’ walk from the Punakaiki beach, just 300 meters from the magnificent Pancake Rocks and blowholes. Room service available as well as an onsite restaurant, choose from standard or sea view rooms. Room rates with delicious breakfast for two sit at around $350 per night.
The Bay House
Remote beachfront accommodation 16 kms south of Westport with your choice of garden facing or beach facing rooms. Pricing ranges from $360 to $400; breakfast is included.
Hokitika Fire Station
Boutique apartment style accommodation with 5 different self-contained rooms sleeping between 2 and 6 people. This historic building is situated in the heart of Hokitika near its beautiful beaches and the West Coast cycle trail. Room rates range from $250 to $350 per night.
Greymouth Top 10 Holiday Park
Offering a wide range of accommodation to suit all budgets and travelling styles. The Greymouth Top 10 Holiday Park has everything you would expect from a regular NZ campground – playground, communal kitchen and bathroom facilities, and a range of Motel and Self-Contained units.
Scenic Hotel Franz Josef Glacier
Located just 4 km from the face of the Franz Joseph Glacier, the Scenic Hotel offers the convenience of hotel-style accommodation within the Franz Josef township. Free WiFi is available along with restaurant facilities and complimentary activity booking services. Room rates range from $250 through to $350.
Things To Do On The West Coast
Now that you have your travel plans sorted, it’s time to figure out all the best things to do once you get there! Here are our top 7 things to do on the West Coast.
1. Shantytown Heritage Park
A must-do for all visitors to the West Coast, the Shantytown Heritage Park allows you to step back in time as it showcases the regions rich gold mining history. Ride a steam train, pan for gold and learn a little about the sawmilling industry as you wander amongst the forest surrounds. Entry prices are $35.50 for adults and $18.50 for children; discounted family and seniors tickets are available. Shantytown is open from 10 am to 3 pm daily.
2. Franz Josef Glacier And Fox Glacier
Both the Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier are fantastic sights to see. The Fox Glacier is roughly two hours’ drive from Hokitika, and the Franz Josef Glacier is a bit closer at just over an hour and a half. Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are two of only three places in the world where a glacier up to recent times, descends into temperate rainforest. The best way to experience the glaciers now is by flights or Guided Heli-Hike Tour. Paramata Lodge 45minutes drive from the nearest heli centre.
3. White Heron Sanctuary Tours
In summer a tour to the only Kotuku White Heron sanctuary is well worth a visit. There’s only one way in and the interpretive tour is interesting and fun while the birds in breeding season are in their spectacular plumage. Have your camera ready, this is the only nesting site in New Zealand. You’ll also see Royal Spoonbills in this secluded part of an old growth forest. Trips depart from Whataroa 45 minutes drive south from Paramata Lodge. For a tour visit: www.whiteherontours.co.nz Alternatively visit Okarito and take a boat tour of the extensive lagoon to see a variety of wading birds including Kotuku and Godwits. To book go to: www.okaritoboattours.co.nz
4. Punakaiki And The Pancake Rocks
Just 40 minutes north of Greymouth, you will find the famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. These fascinating ancient limestone rock formations were carved out by the erosive effects of the ocean over millions of years, leaving behind what looks like stacks of pancakes. There are also impressive ‘blowholes’ within the rocks that shoot water high up into the air; these are most impressive when the sea is rough and it’s high tide.
5. West Coast Treetop Walk
Explore the West Coast from a different perspective at the West Coast Treetop Walk, located at Lake Mahinapua near Hokitika. At 20 metres above the ground, you get to experience what it feels like up in the treetops. The walkway is wheelchair and pushchair friendly, and the walkways are completely enclosed for safety. Climb to the top of the 40 metre high lookout for 360-degree views of the surrounding forest. Entry prices are $28.80 for adults and $14.40 for children (book online and save 10%).
6. Explore Hokitika or Greymouth
Hokitika is more spacious, relaxed and prepared for tourists while Greymouth is the biggest commercial centre on the West Coast. Both are at river mouths with beaches. At Greymouth a drive onto the wharf will take you to see the power of the Tasman Sea. At Hokitika walk the beach to Sunset Point for a view to New Zealand’s highest mountain. Both are perfect to stock up on supplies, check out the Information Centres and the activities and sights to keep you occupied. Don’t miss checking out the pounamu (New Zealand jade) galleries, there’s a range of carving styles to suit all tastes.
7. The National Kiwi Centre
The perfect family friendly indoor activity in Hokitika is the National Kiwi Centre a great place to learn more about New Zealand’s national icon and support local conservation efforts. As well as kiwis, you will be able to see Longfin Eels, Tuatara, Freshwater Crayfish and Whitebait. Entry prices are $27.50 per adult and $15 per child.
To get the most out of the West Coast, we recommend you allow at least 4 days to visit a selection of the main sights and get a taste of the place or for a holiday in itself you’ll need a week or more! Always check road conditions and local weather before setting out on your day’s activities – and most of all, we hope you enjoy your holiday on the Coast!