A trip down the West Coast of New Zealand

I recently finished reading The Luminaries, a gold-rush era novel set on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.

I’m glad I read it after I traveled through the area to have a bit of a reference for the story, and the book itself made me appreciate places like Hokitika even more, and the West Coast as a whole.

Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert on the West Coast, when I traveled down it, we only had one day to get all the way from Westport to Wanaka, making little stops along the way.

That’s over a 7 hour drive without stops, and we made many. It was a mission of a day.

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Although it was rushed and surface orientated, I’m actually glad in a way that I was able to see the whole coast in a day, to take it down in one big gulp, to see how varied it was, and how different every little town is from one another.

The one aspect that did stick for the most part was the gloomy weather and sporadic rain down the coast, a classic staple on the West Coast of the South Island.

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We started in the quirky blue-collar town of Westport, where we had unsuccessfully tried to sleep in our car the night before, and made our way down through the Punakaiki Rocks, industrial Greymouth, Hokitika, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, through the treacherous Haast Pass, and eventually found ourselves cruising along beautiful Lake Wanaka by early evening.

If you’re thinking of road tripping around the South Island, or just need some travel inspiration, here’s a look at how our massive day on the road went.

Westport

The town may have started with the gold rush back in the day, but it has been kept alive by the coal mining that is still prevalent in the area, making up a town of just under 4,000 residents.

We weren’t able to explore much of the town as it was just a stopover for a night between Nelson and our road trip down the coast, but there are quite a few things on offer for a seemingly small town.

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It’s known for its outdoor adventures, so activities such as jet boating, rafting, and kayaking are commonplace for locals and tourists alike. There is also a seal colony at Cape Foulwind, so depending on the season you may be able to get a nice glimpse of some very cute New Zealand fur seals.

We were up and out of town by 6am, and on our way towards the famous Punakaiki – or Pancake -Rocks, 45 minutes down the highway.

Punakaiki

Even if you’re not as into prehistoric fossils as Ross on Friends, the Punakaiki Rocks are well worth a stopover.

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Since we left so early from Westport, we were literally the only ones there at a place that’s usually swarming with tourists, so I’d say the earlier you get there the better.

What makes a bunch of old rocks so special, you may ask. Well, for starters they are 30 million years old, and even cooler, their age has turned them into something resembling a big stack of hotcakes!

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If you substitute presidents for pancakes, you could even call it the natural Mt. Rushmore of New Zealand.

To give you the more scientific reason for the look of the rocks, it’s basically the aftermath of thousands of years of alternating layers of sea creatures and sand (hard limestone vs. soft sandstone) compressed to the bottom of the ocean over and over again.

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Earthquake activity is what lifted those layers up and out of the ocean to create what we see today, the Pancake Rocks.

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The place reminded me a lot of the Twelve Apostles scenery on The Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia, with a rugged coastline and jagged rocks that create really amazing formations. Except Punakaiki wasn’t anywhere near so windy as the Twelve Apostles lookout, thank god.

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There’s a small walkway that takes you as close as safety allows to the rocks, and tells you a bit of history about the formations and the surrounding area.

We only spent about 30 minutes there as it was also starting to rain at this point, but it was a gorgeous testament to the weirdly beautiful natural attractions to be found in this world.

Greymouth

Another 40 minutes down the coast and we reached the industrial city of Greymouth. Again we didn’t really explore much of the city because we still had a long day ahead of us and we were ravenous for a big breakfast.

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We found our way to the Gap Cafe right off the highway, and we were pleasantly surprised with the healthy options and gluten free recommendations at our finger tips. Just what we needed after a restless sleep!

Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast, with a population of just under 10,000, and its history stems back to the days of jade hunting and gold mining.

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I do have to mention that there is a popular local brewery here as well, by the name Monteith’s. I’m not particularly fond of their beer as a whole; however, if I had more time I would’ve at least gone for a tour because it’s a local favorite of New Zealand.

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One of the cool eccentric parts of Greymouth is the Shantytown, which recreates an 1860s gold-mining town in the present. Now, that’s something I would’ve loved to see as you find it often on the West Coast of the USA as well.

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Similar to Westport (and most of the West Coast), the town started with the gold rush in the 1800s, but the town now mainly makes its income from local coal mining in the area.

Hokitika

My favorite place of the day, simply due to its compact nature and inherent charm, was Hokitika. I found it to be a place that truly has something for everyone.

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Located right along the infamously treacherous Hokitika Beach, and the sandbar where many a shipwreck has occurred, Hokitika was also one of those major gold mining town on the West Coast in the 19th century.

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It’s also a great place to find pounamu, the New Zealand greenstone that is so important to Maori culture, as Hokitika is considered to be the birthplace of it.

Although a lot of tourists buy pounamu while in New Zealand, it’s important to know some of the Maori beliefs behind it as well.

You’re only supposed to buy pounamu as a gift, not for yourself, or else it brings you bad luck. You’re also meant to have it blessed by a Maori friend who knows the blessing before putting it on. If the stone keeps falling off, it’s because it hasn’t been blessed properly or it wasn’t meant for you in the first place.

Lastly, each pounamu has a different symbol and meaning behind the shape, although in general if you give pounamu to someone, it generally means that you care very deeply for that person.

My boyfriend gave me a pounamu necklace for Christmas in the shape of a toki blade, signifying strength. The longer you keep your pounamu on and refrain from taking it off, the more mana it possesses, which when translated, basically means strength, spiritual power, respect, and honor.

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There were pounamu and greenstone shops all along the town, and it would be a perfect place to pick one up as a gift to someone you care about. I find it a great gift because it’s such a vibrant and special part of New Zealand culture.

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Other important and interesting attractions around the city include the Hokitika Gorge, the town’s historic walk – the old town clock is my favorite centerpiece – and the beach that has so much driftwood washed up on its shores that there’s a semipermanent driftwood sculpture of the town name.

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Franz Josef & Fox Glacier

Reluctant to leave Hokitika behind, we made our way towards the famous glaciers of the South Island: Franz Josef and Fox. Immediately as we made our way into town, it felt like we had stumbled into another country.

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Coming from beachside Hokitika, all at once we were in a mountainous region with high elevation and glaciers. It almost felt like we had walked into a ski resort of sorts.

This area, as well as  the Haast Pass, is one of those regions where you say to yourself, “New Zealand, you have to be kidding me!”, it’s that drop dead beautiful. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to another country where there is such a wide variety of grand, dramatic, and breathtaking landscapes, but New Zealand takes the cake regardless.

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There are a ton of tourist activities to choose from concerning the glaciers, including glacier hikes and helicopter rides, but since we were just passing through, we were satisfied with just seeing the glory of the Fox Glacier from far away at the car lookout.

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Franz Josef unfortunately was covered the day we were there with low clouds on the horizon.

Haast Pass

I had been warned previously that Haast Pass is one of the more treacherous roads in New Zealand, and of course it was my turn to drive at this point.

So I took the wheel on still very little sleep, and surprised myself by actually really enjoying the steep ups and downs of the mountain pass. It was hard not to with how stunning the scenery was in front of us.

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It’s also one of those roads that gives you heaps of a New Zealand classic: One lane bridges.

Wanaka

When we eventually made it out of the mountains we were rewarded with the most beautiful lake I’ve seen in my life, Lake Hawea.

It was that perfect time of the day as well, where the sun was just hitting the lake right to bring out all of the colors, and it felt like that whole long day in the car was well worth it just for that moment.

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Lake Wanaka was also ridiculously stunning in its own way, but I’ll always remember the first time I laid eyes on Lake Hawea and just how taken aback I was with it.

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By the time we made it into Wanaka it was early evening, and we were pooped from the day. Kelsey and I decided to treat ourselves to a movie. Lucky for us Wanaka has the coolest movie theater called Cinema Paradiso, with a full bar, delicious pizza, popcorn and cookies, and plushy red seats.

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It’s one of those movie theaters that only has one theater, so only plays one of each movie for the day. Serendipitously, the new Hobbit movie lined up perfectly for the evening showing we were in time for.

We bought two tickets, pizza, and beer and enjoyed seeing more of the lustrous landscapes of New Zealand…just with hobbits thrown in this time.

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Have you ever been to the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island? 

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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