With everything from majestic mountain peaks to powerful surf beaches, lush native forest and gushing waterfalls, a journey along this remote part of the South Island is well worth the time.
Whether you’re travelling north from Queenstown or south from Nelson, a trip along the West Coast takes in amazing sights and fascinating history.
Crossing the Southern Alps
Once you’ve travelled through the Haast Pass inside Mt Aspiring National Park, you’re officially on the West Coast. Gone are the grassy plains and tranquil lakes of the Queenstown and Otago region. Now you’re in a splendidly isolated world of dense native bush. The road follows the Haast River down to the sea and skirts the rocky coastline before returning inland.
This part of the West Coast is glacier country, home to two of the most accessible glaciers in the world: Fox Glacier and, further north, Franz Josef. Both offer the chance to hike on the glacier, with tours starting from the terminal face or heli-hiking options. Alternatively, choose a scenic glacier flight and soar above the Southern Alps for an awe-inspiring perspective of these ancient frozen rivers.
Not far from Franz Josef is the turn-off to Okarito, where nature lovers will find a lagoon with rare native birds. Take an Okarito nature tour and you might spot the Kotuku or white heron or even the rowi, the rarest of all New Zealand’s kiwi species.
The Gold Rush
From here the road returns to the coast and enters gold rush territory. The township of Hokitika was first settled by Europeans in 1864 and is full of interesting historic spots. Today it’s best known for its annual wild food festival.
Similarly, Greymouth was a gold mining town. It’s also a great place to pick up a pounamu (jade or greenstone) carving. Māori tradition holds that it’s bad luck to purchase pounamu yourself, so buy one as a gift or make sure someone else can get yours for you. Greymouth is also one end of the famous TranzAlpine scenic railway, which passes through the Southern Alps in a series of tunnels and high bridges, descending down through the tussocky Canterbury Plains to Christchurch on the other side.
Lonely Planet has named the Great Coast Road between Greymouth and Westport has been named one of the Top 10 Coastal Drives in the world. It passes through Barrytown (known for knife-making specialists) and one of New Zealand’s most famous sights – the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki.
Just south of the village of Punakaiki, the Pancake Rocks are a group of amazing limestone formations that the sea has eroded. The ‘pancakes’ are formed by different layers of sediment. Blowholes boom and burst through the rocks and the overall effect is wild and wondrous. The area has stairways and wheelchair-accessible paths so you can explore to your heart’s content.
Towards the top of the West Coast, visit the town of Westport, at the mouth of the Buller River. While in Westport, try your hand at surfing the wild West Coast waves, visit the Denniston coal mine for a historic experience, or visit nearby Cape Foulwind, where a short walkway leads to a large fur seal colony at Tauranga Bay.
The end of the road
Further north, the Karamea Bight leads up to the top of the South Island, but State Highway 6 curves inland from Westport, bidding farewell to this unique part of New Zealand. From here, you’ll travel through the Buller Gorge, with Kahurangi National Park on one side and Nelson Lakes National Park on the other, emerging in sunny Nelson.
InterCity operates daily buses along the West Coast in comfortable air-conditioned vehicles with free Wi-Fi. Along the way your driver guide will provide full commentary about the local history, geography and wildlife. Visit intercity.co.nz to book online.