The West Coast- South Island- NZ
The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is a rugged, remote region where the high southern Alps descend into glaciers, temperate rainforest, and the wild Tasman Sea. The area is known for stunning coastline, glaciers, wet climate, and a rough and tumble mining history.
Starting in the North at Karamea, the main (and only) road travels southward, squeezed between the Alps and the Coast, through Westport, Punakaiki, Greymouth, Hokitika, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, Haast, and finally Jackson Bay.
Come here if you want an experience off the beaten path, a gorgeous self-drive adventure, and to see glaciers descending through rainforest. The West Coast is an iconic part of New Zealand, and yet essentially different from the rest of the country.
The Drive down the West Coast
You can travel either North to South or vice versa. The whole drive is about 420 kms (260 mi) and takes roughly 6 hours, but we recommend breaking it up into two or three driving days so that you can enjoy the scenery. You’ll also want to travel slowly because the road is winding and narrow, with several one-lane bridges, though the whole route is very safe and well maintained.
Starting in the North, most tourists start around Westport, which you can reach either by car from Nelson, Blenheim and Christchurch, or by train from Christchurch to Greymouth and then driving a bit North. If you take the train from Christchurch, then you may wonder why we recommend driving north to Westport before back-tracking south, but that’s because the scenery is so stunning on the drive between Greymouth and Westport.
Picture wild, wind-swept beaches and dramatic cliffs down to the sea, all cloaked in fog and misty rain, and you’ll have an idea of what the northern part of the West Coast is like. Around Westport, we love rock-hopping around Cape Foulwind at low tide, driving along the dramatic Buller Gorge, and the Charleston glowworm caves which are lots of fun for the whole family.
South of Westport, you’ll find Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park. This is where the famous “pancake rocks” are located, and it’s definitely worth spending at least half an hour here. Pancake rocks are eroded spires sticking up from the coastline and they look like stacks of pancakes. If possible, try to get here as close as possible to high tide, and the blowholes put on an impressive display as the waves crash against the shore and get squeezed between the rocks before shooting up like geysers to the sky.
Continuing south from Punakaiki, make sure to pay attention to the coast on your right as you drive. As is true all along the West Coast, we highly recommend making as many scenic stops as you can to absorb the scenery! Next, travel through Greymouth, the West Coast’s largest town and the end point for the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch.
Next after Greymouth, you’ll enter Hokitika. This small town is the jade jewelry capital of New Zealand and the home of the annual Wildfoods Festival in March. You’ll find the town full of jewelry shops carrying prized New Zealand greenstone, or pounamu, as well as carved bone and abalone shell jewelry as well as places where you can carve your own. With price points to match all budgets, this is the best spot in New Zealand to find that perfect Maori design to adorn yourself or a loved one. If you’re lucky enough to be here during the Wildfoods Festival, then you’ll find an explosion of all things edible. Not only local whitefish, crayfish and lamb, the highlights of this festival are the weird and wacky delicacies like muttonbird, fish eyes, baby octopus, locust, and seagull eggs!
Heading South from Hokitika, the highway curves inland for several miles as it goes past Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. For most, these are the highlight of the West Coast and the sole reason they come here.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are the most accessible glaciers in New Zealand, and among the most convenient in the world. They slide down through temperate rainforest, almost all the way to sea level. That makes the temperatures quite comfortable for hiking — in summer, you may want shorts and a tank top even as you hike right on the ice! Do an easy walk to the foot of the glacier, or take a helicopter to the top of the glacier for a hike directly on the ice with an expert guide.
These glaciers flow about ten times faster than most glaciers (about 1 meter per day!) so they are constantly changing shape and shifting along the valley floor. If you stay quiet enough, you might even hear the ice cracking underneath you as it gradually slides downward. Another place we like around here is Okarito Lagoon and its bird sanctuary, just north of Franz Josef Glacier.
Continuing your drive south from the glaciers, you find that towns are fewer and farther between. Make sure to fill up with gas in Fox Glacier, because it’s the last one until you reach Haast. Just south of Fox Glacier is Lake Matheson, where at dawn, when the water is still and glassy, you can see Mt. Cook reflected in its surface.
Continuing south, the road heads back along the shore and you’ll reach Bruce Bay, where travelers have written their names on stark white stones along the shore. Next are some great views at Knights Point Lookout and Ship Creek where, if you’re lucky, you could even spot dolphins out in the Tasman Sea.
Almost at the southern end of the West Coast highway now, you’ll reach civilization again at tiny Haast town. Here, the main highway bends inland and takes you across the Southern Alps to Wanaka and eventually Queenstown. However, if you want to do the whole West Coast, you could continue past Haast along the coast for over an hour to Jackson Bay. This is a tiny outpost with an even tinier fish and chip shop. So, most folks head inland at Haast towards the Alps and exciting points east. Sometimes the road is closed over the Alps at Haast Pass due to mudslides, so ensure to check road conditions before heading out.
This road, across Haast Pass to Wanaka and Queenstown, is the only road that links the West Coast to Queenstown. It wasn’t completed until 1965, requiring massive feats of engineering over and through the mountains. This is one of the main reasons the West Coast remains less developed than other parts of New Zealand — it’s difficult to reach, with connections to other towns only at its northern and southern ends, thanks to the mountains that make the creation of more roads difficult.
Accommodations on New Zealand’s West Coast
Since it’s less populated, accommodations are a little harder to find along the West Coast. That makes it even more important to ask the advice of a professional travel planner who will know where to find a special, off-the-beaten-path gem. You need to always have something pre-booked or you may find yourselves sleeping in your car!
While there aren’t any true 5-star luxury lodges here, there are plenty of charming and authentic local options. Supremely comfortable bed and breakfasts, lodges and inns can be found near Westport, Hokitika, the glaciers, Bruce Bay, and Haast. We especially love a private cottage with stunning views and personalized service near Westport, as well as a lodge that’s all about local history, flora and fauna near Haast. Between July and early December, you can find the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin near Haast on-site at this lodge.
There are also a small handful of quality hotels and rentals along the West Coast at more affordable price points, especially around the glaciers.
When to Go to the West Coast
If you’re headed to see the rare penguins, then make sure to travel between July and early December. Otherwise, anytime of year is suitable on the temperate West Coast.
The warmest temperatures are around January and February, but these also coincide with popular tourist season. The holidays in December are the most expensive time to travel, and availability is also tight. So to avoid crowds, but still get warmish weather, we recommend March or November as the best time to go. If you’re willing to travel in winter, between May and September, then the crowds have really disappeared and you can have the rugged scenery all to yourself — which honestly is worth the colder temperatures. The West Coast is all about rural scenery, after all.
Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind as far as climate goes is that the West Coast is wet. Wet weather systems travel across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand and then stop and hover over the West Coast, thanks to the massive alpine mountain range running parallel to shore.
However, the coast wouldn’t be so beautiful if it weren’t for the rain. For example, you can’t have temperate rainforest without high rainfall. Also, there’s nothing quite like standing on a cliff over the ocean, looking out to the horizon through the mist, with the waves crashing below. So to us, the moisture makes the West Coast feel truly atmospheric, wild, and alive.
How Long to Stay on the West Coast
If you’re doing the whole drive, then depending on where you’re staying beforehand, we typically recommend one night around Westport and two nights around the glaciers. Giving yourself two nights in glacier country allows for a full day to fit in a glacier hike. This is important because helicopter rides are very weather-dependent, and having a full day allows you flexibility to go when the weather is best.
Another option is to spend two nights at the glaciers and two or three nights near Haast for immersion in flora, fauna and history.
If you’re tight on time and a confident driver, then you could go all the way from Christchurch to the glaciers in one long day (about six hours driving, or four hours by train and two and a half hours driving). Spend two nights at the glaciers, and then do another six hours from the glaciers to Queenstown, or five hours to Wanaka. You won’t have time to go north of Greymouth to Punakaiki and Westport, so you’ll be missing the most scenic part of the coast, but you’ll have more time for other parts of your trip.
For those wanting a leisurely drive that really allows the traveler to feel the destination, spend two or three nights near Westport, two nights at the glaciers, and then two or three nights near Haast. You may also enjoy a night or two at one of the comfortable lodges in tiny towns en route.
Do you want to know more about what there is to see and do on the West Coast of New Zealand? Go WalkAbout Travel are your go-to experts. Contact us and start planning today.