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The town of Westport is indeed in the west, and was established as a port back in the 1860s gold rush.
As was often the case, the rush ground to a halt, and it’s coal that has driven the town for much of its life.
Today coal is transported by rail, but in days of old it was barged offshore at the Buller River mouth, from the ‘tip heads’ you can still visit today.
Extending 300 metres into the ocean, these manmade, rocky breakwaters are not only a spectacle in themselves but a grand vantage point from which survey a stretch of classic West Coast.
At one end, a memorial remembers the many lives lost at sea. Boats may be seen negotiating the swirling waters of the bar, while North Beach appears as a crazy pile of driftwood, beaten up by foamy breakers. Hardy surfers take their chances in their midst.
Between the coalfields and cement works, they’re a tough breed round here. Strangers, however, are warmly welcomed, which is just as well as there’s plenty of reasons to visit.
A pleasant town in itself, Westport also lies in the thick of some wonderful West Coast attractions.
Just 15 minutes drive from town, The Cape Foulwind Walkway is justifiably popular. It’s an easy ten-minute walk to the viewing platform over the Tauranga Bay seal colony.
There is plenty of barking going on here all year round, although December onwards is the best time to see the pups.
The well-maintained track continues with grand ocean vistas, and at the Cape end of the walkway (about 1.5 hours) there’s a side track to the lighthouse.
About an hour and 20 minutes north of Westport is the rustic outpost of Karamea, and if you keep driving further you’ll reach Kohaihai, at the southern end of the Heaphy Track.
This is a great place for a picnic, a swim and a walk in stunning nikau forest. And while you’re up this way don’t miss the Oparara limestone arch, which at 43 metres high and 219 metres long must surely rate as one of New Zealand’s most remarkable and easily accessible geological forms.
Mining history, too, is a major draw for the area. Besides Westport’s Coal Museum, with its walk-through coal mine, photos and rusty relics, there’s the Denniston Incline.
This historic tramline was used to transport coal all the way down from the Mt Rochfort Plateau – a drop of over 500 metres along a distance of 1700 metres.
Coined by locals as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, you can now visit it yourself to see what all the fuss was about, embark on rail journey through the Waimangaroa Gorge and venture underground on an interactive tour that’ll give you a taste of what it was like to work in the mine.
If you want to see how things work in the present day, Outwest Tours will take you off-road and into the hills on an enlightening trip to the open-cast Stockton mine.
Where there’s hardworking people there’s honest food, and Westport’s hospitality it is proof of this.
A good home-baked pie will be easy to find, along with plenty of other options for most tastes and budget. The newly spruced up Cosmopolitan pub is especially notable for its square meals, local brews, a beer garden and free pool on a treasured old table.
Nearby is the striking Municipal Chambers building, a brown stone art deco gem flanked by tall phoenix palms.
The high street also boasts the new Solid Energy sports centre and NBS Theatre, between them adding modern sparkle to a delightfully low-rise old-town, blooming with high-street hanging baskets
Several blocks away, the quiet Westport Holiday Park and Motels is home to some of the town’s only original native trees.
Ninetheeth century felling left very little virgin forest on the West Coast’s flats, but here at the holiday park a 12-acre remnant can be enjoyed by people in tents and campervans, and those looking for simple accommodation in a park-like environment.
You’ll know you’ve found the place when you see the minigolf course, which sits at the entrance themed in the mining-pioneer style.
Located in a quiet backstreet, there are dedicated bays for drive on campers; a choice of tenting areas; and a bed for every budget from standard cabins to motel units.
The facilities are clean and no-frills, unless you count the piped music which we happen to enjoy – it makes doing the dishes so much more enjoyable! Margaret, Roger and their crew will help you with bookings and recommendations, too.
With plenty to do around the area, decent grub and an affordable place to stay, Westport makes a fine base for exploring the Coast’s ‘winterless north’
31–37 Domett Street, Westport