The West Coast of the South Island, or to Kiwis, simply the West Coast, is an adventurist’s dream. Very sparsely populated, with just over 30,000 inhabitants in a roughly 600km stretch of New Zealand coast, when visiting you feel like not much has changed from when the gold miners came to the area in the 1860’s chasing their own fortune. There are some world class hikes in the area and at one point there were world class glaciers, but when I visited Franz Josef Glacier early this year I was shocked to see the regression from the last time I had been there, 10 years earlier. A visit to New Zealand isn’t complete without a visit to the West Coast, but don’t expect warm weather – my girlfriend and her family visited Raglan on the west coast in the North Island and the West Coast in the South Island and it was raining the whole time we were there! They much preferred the Coromandel Peninsula where the weather was a much more friendly 25 degrees or more.
Greymouth and Hokitika
Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast, with around 14,000 inhabitants. Greymouth has been inhabited by Maori for centuries due to its access to a wide river mouth (also its Maori name, Mawheru, means wide river mouth). Greymouth as a European settlement began in the late 1840’s when coal was discovered in the Grey valley. Greymouth has an excellent museum (History House Museum) chronicling its gold and pounamu (Greenstone or Jade) hunting past. Just to the south of the town there is also the Shantytown Heritage park, a re-created gold town perfect for the whole family.
Hokitika is a small town (3,000 people), founded in 1864 during the gold rush, and a large part of its tourism appeal is this gold and pounamu past. Hokitika also has many outdoor pursuits such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing and kayaking available nearby. For an interesting historical fiction read, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Luminaries is set in Hokitika. A highlight of Hokitika’s event calendar is the Hokitika Wild Food festival. The festival is a very popular party for Otago Uni students – a few cans of Speights beer and the Sheep’s testicles or Magpie Pie suddenly seem a lot more appetising!
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers were, for many years, a must-see visitor attraction to New Zealand. Particularly for Franz Josef Glacier, having a 20 minute walk to a great viewpoint of a world class glacier was pretty special. Unfortunately, climate change has come and impacted these glaciers very seriously – between my visit ten years ago and earlier in 2017, there has been a significant change in the size of the glaciers. I would still recommend going for the walk to the Franz Josef valley, particularly if there has been rain recently, as there are many “pop-up” waterfalls that are still impressive to see.
Other walks – Lake Matheson, Routeburn Track, Pancake Rocks and others
Lake Matheson offers unsurpassed mirror photo opportunities of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. The walk is relatively short from the road (either a 40 minute return walk to the Jetty viewpoint or a 1h 30 minute return walk around the lake). When we went there, we only walked to Franz Josef Glacier as it was raining pretty heavily – if we had walked to the Lake we probably wouldn’t have been able to see the Mountains anyways! Below is a copyright free photo of what Lake Matheson looks like when the weather is good!
The Routeburn track is one of NZ’s 9 ‘Great Walks’ and needs to be booked to walk it (more information here). This walk is 32km one way and will take 2-4 days – you will be rewarded with amazing mountain and lake views – another thing on my list of things to do in my own country!
Punakaiki also offers many outdoor adventures, and is a popular tourist destination due to the Pancake Rocks. The Pancake rocks are accurately described – they look like a huge stack of pancakes! They have been formed over millions of years and with a short 20 minute walk from the road this is a great family friendly distraction from being on the windy road.
There are also many other walks to impressive lakes and mountain views – go here for a list of some of the more popular ones!
As mentioned in my other New Zealand posts, AirBNB is becoming very popular amongst NZ hosts. There are also other local options like www.bookabach.co.nz that offer great opportunities to stay in some really interesting and unique homes.
Getting to the West Coast
As I discussed in my Auckland post, flights from London to New Zealand range massively depending on time – £600-£1500 return. The best tip is go in late March/early April – this is considered shoulder season but the weather remains very settled and the water is warm. There is considerable competition from airlines all over the world – making it the perfect time to visit New Zealand. Airlines from America, China and the Middle East are all significantly increasing capacity.
To get to the West Coast, you could fly either to Queenstown or Nelson from other main cities in New Zealand. It is possible to hire a car from Nelson and leave it in Queenstown (or vice versa) if you only want to go one way.