When I did my solo trip around the South Island of New Zealand, I hadn’t planned to spend much time on the West Coast. It was mostly just a route I needed to travel north from Wanaka up to Abel Tasman National Park. The trip involved nearly 500 miles of driving (which can take a LONG time on New Zealand’s two-lane roads), so I had planned a couple of overnight stays along the way. But once I got my first glimpse at the stunning coastline, I knew it should have been a destination in itself. The West Coast remains one of my top three favorite parts of that month-long trip. Here are some of the highlights I highly recommend.
Mount Aspiring National Park
For many travelers not intimately familiar with New Zealand, this national park tends to be upstaged by its more southerly neighbor, Milford Sound. The route I was taking skirted me through the very northern section of Mount Aspiring National Park, which included driving over the scenic Haast Pass through the Southern Alps.
Anxious to stretch my legs a bit from all the driving, I noticed a turnoff sign that indicated Blue Pools Walk. The short one-mile hike not only led me through a lush native forest; it also included crossing a swing bridge dangling over the Makarora River. The trail ends at the blue-green glacial waters of the Blue Pools, which are the most crystal-clear waters I’ve ever seen. This is definitely a must-do stop. If you have more time, there are plenty of other walks and hikes in Mount Aspiring.
I stopped in the town of Hokitika mostly because I just wanted to find a café, grab a cup of coffee, and get back on the road. But I ended up spending the entire afternoon in this quaint little town of friendly people. As I sat on a bench outside the café sipping my “flat white,” a local woman asked me where I was from and then told me about the town’s history of traditional jade carving.
Native Māori people have been carving New Zealand jade, known as greenstone in Hokitika, since as far back as the 12th century. I didn’t waste any time hunting down one of the locally owned businesses, where I was able to watch while they made me a pendant with a spiral shape known as a koru. (This pendant has been my good-luck charm ever since, and I always wear it when traveling.)
With my new jade spiral around my neck, I took a stroll along Hokitika Beach to see the famous driftwood sculptures. I didn’t learn until later about Hokitika Gorge, which is a 40-minute drive from town and offers a short hike over a suspension bridge to a view of the dramatic Hokitika River and Gorge. Don’t miss out on that like I did! I left Hokitika wishing I had planned an overnight stay there.
Being a compulsive planner, I’m not usually one to just “wing it” when I travel; I typically have my lodging planned for every night. But I had decided that on this trip, I was going to lighten up a bit and see what it felt like to trust my instincts and occasionally play it by ear.
While in the Dunedin area the previous week, I had asked a guy sitting next to me in a coffee shop for directions to a place I was looking for. We ended up talking briefly, and it turned out he owned a backpacker’s retreat in a small town on the West Coast. Since I hadn’t yet booked any lodging in that area, he told me I should come check it out. That chance encounter led me to the small town of Punakaiki, which was one of the best “play it by ear” stops of my trip.
Situated on the edge of Paparoa National Park between Greymouth and Westport, the main draw in this area is the geologic wonder known as Pancake Rocks. Over millions of years, softer layers of mud eroded away, leaving pancake-like layers of harder limestone. A paved walkway leads to a promontory with great views of the rocks and the coastline in the distance. The walk takes about 30-60 minutes, unless you’re like me and spend lots of time taking photos. At high tide, you can see the blowholes in action—where the sea water shoots up through vertical holes in the rocks.
From Punakaiki, you can continue along the coastal road for about 75 miles to the remote hamlet of Karamea, the northernmost settlement on the West Coast. But because I had lodging booked near Abel Tasman National Park for the next night, I started heading inland shortly after leaving Punakaiki.
My route to Motueka was going to take me to another suspension bridge over the Buller River. Just west of the town of Murchison, New Zealand’s longest swing bridge crosses the river over the Buller Gorge. At 360 feet long and hanging 62 feet above the river, the bridge will give you a thrill. I’m always excited about crossing a swing bridge—until a bunch of other people get on and it actually starts swinging. Then I quickly scurry to the other side. The bridge walk is part of an adventure park, so there’s a small admission fee (about $7 US). If you’re up for a more intense adrenalin rush, you can also do a zipline or jet boat ride for additional cost. Dangling above the river was enough for me.
West Coast New Zealand Highway
One of my favorite parts of traveling up the West Coast Highway was the highway itself. I had to consciously remind myself to keep an eye on the road, because there were so many spectacular views. The most scenic section of highway is south of Punakaiki, where your jaw will be dropping as you round every corner. When they call it the “Wild West Coast,” they’re not kidding.
I could have easily spent a full week on the West Coast. So, rather than just treating it as a transportation corridor, make sure you plan enough time to see this rugged and beautiful section of the South Island.
Have you been to West Coast New Zealand? Tell us about other places you visited that I may have missed.
Images and text ©Laurie J. Schmidt, All Rights Reserved