Winter on the West Coast offers the best of all worlds for family adventures — from searching for worm-slurping snails in the ancient forests of the subtropical north, to exploring a wintry wonderland in the snowy alpine heights of the south.
There’s no such thing as bad weather if you have the right clothes (and attitude), but there’s also plenty of inside activities and cosy family stays for short winter days.
Frozen fan or not, there’s something absolutely magical about visiting the glaciers in winter. If your youngest is older than eight, treat the family to a once-in-a-lifetime experience of a heli-hike on Franz Josef or Fox glacier. The trip starts with a thrilling helicopter ride over the giant river of ice. The higher up you go, the more untouched the terrain becomes — layers of snow compacted over time create walls of clear blue ice and deep crevasses that rival even Elsa’s wildest creations. Once you land, you’ll get to safely explore this amazing icescape up close, a spectacular sight guaranteed to impress kids (and adults) of all ages.
For younger ones with a shorter attention span, a scenic flight with a quick snow landing will be just as impressive. The pristine powder on an untouched snowfield is ideal for throwing some snowballs or building a snowman while parents stand back and enjoy the breath-taking mountain views.
Whānau members who like to keep both feet firmly on the ground will enjoy the family-friendly walks in both Franz Josef and Fox. Spot stunning reflections of Franz Josef Glacier and snowy peaks in Peters Pool (1.1km walk), or take the steady 900-metre climb to Sentinel Rock and be rewarded with impressive views of Fox Glacier and the Waiho River.
Go where the wild ones once lived and delve into the post-Jurassic world of the Oparara Basin. Here you can discover subfossil bones belonging to nine types of moa and the giant hōkioi (Haast’s eagle), named after the sound of its cry. Another reminder of New Zealand’s unique evolutionary history, but still alive today, are the giant carnivorous snails that roam the Kahurangi National Park. As big as a fist, they slurp up earthworms like spaghetti. Look out for signs of them on the The Oparara Experience which can be booked through the Karamea Information Centre.
Fast forward a few million years, and you’re in the 19th century West Coast gold rush. For tiny hands impervious to cold water, gold panning is a good winter’s day pursuit. The rivers around the charming historic town of Ross once yielded the country’s biggest ever gold nugget and the town is full of quaint reminders of its pioneer history.
Pick up a pan from the Ross Goldfield Information & Heritage Centre and try your luck undercover there, or at the DOC fossicking area at Jones Creek. Shantytown Heritage Park offers ‘serious’ fun for kids, 10km south of Greymouth. There’s a faithfully recreated 1900s pioneer town, museum, steam train, and gold panning on the sluice line.
The West Coast was brought to life by gold but sustained by coal. Dig into Westport’s mining history with a trip to the all-ages, all-weather friendly Coaltown Museum. If you want to see the real (modern-day) thing, Out West Tours offers a fun off-road tour to New Zealand’s largest coal-producing mine for just $20 (book at the Westport iSITE).
Lesser known to humans but popular with rare native bird species, Ōkārito is a tiny seaside settlement perched beside New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland. Ōkārito Lagoon is surrounded by lush native rainforest that’s framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps. The mythical, elegant kōtuku (white heron) feeds here, alongside 75 other bird species that can be spotted on a kid-friendly kayak tour or eco-friendly boat cruise through the still waters.
As night falls, you might hear the noisy calls of rare Ōkārito kiwi in the surrounding forest — they can be hard to spot without a guide and while tours don’t run in winter, you can observe them up close at the West Coast Wildlife Centre in nearby Franz Josef. Take the special behind-the-scenes tour to see kiwi chicks in breeding season, as well as a close encounter with a tuatara (or seven!).
Keep your eyes peeled all along the rugged coastline, as you can spot all sorts of seals (fur, leopard and southern elephant), sea lions, two types of penguins and even rare little Hector’s dolphins playing in the waves.
More flora than fauna, the all-ages West Coast Treetop Walk near Hokitika is a fantastic feat of engineering suspended 20 metres above the ground in the rimu and kamahi canopy. You’ll definitely spot birds flitting through the trees but daredevil kids might be more interested in climbing the 40-metre Hokitika Tower or inching out onto the so-called Mahinapua Springboard.
Getting the kids out on the trails can be challenging at times, and sometimes even the bribe of regular lolly stops isn’t enough to convince them. Luckily, there’s plenty of short West Coast walks that dangle a metaphorical carrot to keep little legs moving.
Cape Foulwind Walkway is a treat in winter — see the westerly swells pounding the rugged coastline, and be rewarded after a couple of kms by the sight of New Zealand’s largest fur seal colony, and a lighthouse in the distance. Less likely, but Fiordland crested penguins and Hector's dolphins can be spotted on the easy coastal walk at Monro Beach and Ship Creek near Haast.
Mind-blowingly blue water greets you after a short walk through lush green forest at the Hokitika Gorge. There’s a Swingbridge too, and if you look closely at the undergrowth you might spot the rare, smurf-blue werewere-kōkako mushrooms, only found here and on our $50 banknote (too high a bribe but good for a show-and-tell at dinner?).
A stomp around the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks at high tide is always a crowd pleaser. It’s short, dramatic — the ocean heaves, hisses and thumps through narrow tunnels and blowholes in the pancaked rocks — and there’s a cafe serving real pancakes across the road.
Not a trail as such, but a walk and a play on one of the long West Coast beaches might turn up some special treasure. Examine the pebbles underfoot on Hokitika beach and you might find some pounamu (greenstone). If not, there’s plenty of driftwood to build dens.
Family accommodation doesn’t have to be basic. Retreat to these cosy, family-friendly places as the short winter’s day comes to an end.
Just 20 metres from the Tasman Sea, Ross Beach Top 10 Holiday Park has up-cycled old shipping containers transforming them into a series of funky ‘apartment pods’, where you can drift off at night to the sound of the ocean.
The 11 container pods are one-off designs with several sizes and accommodation options for couples and families. If your kids are old enough to bunk up on their own, there’s even a luxurious 2-person/parents’ pod that comes with a Nespresso machine, fluffy bathrobes and an outdoor bathtub for stargazing. For little ones, there’s a playground and pedal carts for them to burn around the park in, or there’s family bike riding on the West Coast Wilderness Trail that starts/finishes 200 metres away.
There’s plenty of accommodation around the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, but for a cosy winter stay, the 4-star Ocean View Retreat strikes the right balance between comfort and child-friendly. The large, well-appointed rooms offer either beachfront or ocean views and the restaurant offers kids’ favourites alongside finer dining options. Check the hotel website for winter specials as children sometimes eat and stay free in the low season.
What kid doesn't want to stay in a tree house? Rainforest Retreat in Franz Josef offers self-contained tree-hut style apartments built on stilts to maximise their rainforest setting. These aren’t the tree houses of your youth — more like luxury hideaways in the canopy, complete with comfy king beds, espresso machines and large outdoor decks with private hot tubs to make the most of the southern dark skies on a chilly winter’s night. There’s also budget-friendly motel rooms and cosy cottages nestled amongst the trees.