There are many traces of the past on the West Coast that are silent reminders of its gold rush days, including impressive ghost towns and long-forgotten miners’ roads through untouched wilderness, now traversed by modern-day adventurers. Not so quiet are the historic pubs — once watering holes for thirsty miners, these days a place for locals and visitors to share stories over a pint or two.
Start your West Coast pub crawl in Reefton, the Southern Hemisphere’s ‘town of light’, where lamps inspired by the nation’s first electric street lights illuminate a main street lined with heritage buildings.
There’s a Wild West feel about the place, with remnants of the town’s gold-mining past everywhere — including at Wilson’s Hotel, the oldest remaining in Reefton (circa 1873). Standing proudly at the top of Broadway, the two-storey hotel and pub has retained much of its old-world charm. With local brews on tap and a beer garden for sunny days, it’s a welcoming spot to chat to locals and visitors alike.
Established a year later in 1874, nearby Dawson’s Hotel is now a rustic restaurant/bar with a hearty pub menu, popular with locals. There’s a roaring fire in the bar on colder nights, a great place to cosy up with a pint.
Reefton Distilling Co. may not be a pub but it’s a pioneering distillery housed in one of Reefton’s original, carefully restored buildings. Pick up a bottle of their flagship Little Biddy gin, enjoy a tasting or take a tour to hear the story behind their local botanical gins, fruit liqueurs, vodka and whiskies.
For a heritage stay, spend the night at The Old Nurses Home, built in 1949 to accommodate the nurses who worked at Reefton Hospital, and a low-key guesthouse set in peaceful grounds today. There’s also plenty of upmarket holiday homes, motels and B&Bs for rent in town.
Explore more: Before you hit the pub, browse Broadway’s funky antique shops and art galleries. Stop by the replica mining hut for gold panning and tales of bygone years, told by two Bearded Miners. Explore the surrounding walking and mountain bike trails that weave through beech forest and historic goldfields.
You can’t go past New Zealand’s original home of craft beer, at Monteith’s Brewery. The iconic brand was founded on the West Coast in 1868 and although they no longer make beer here, you can still go behind the scenes on a guided tour of the former brew house.
There’s also a spacious gastropub which serves crowd pleasers such as beer-battered fries and ‘Coast-fried-chicken’ or CFC, as well as seasonal specials synonymous with the region — think whitebait fritters.
Home to another South Island classic, the Speight’s Ale House is situated in a historic building opposite the railway station in the heart of Greymouth. Known as the ‘Brick House’, the 1909-building once housed public servants and government departments, before becoming the stylish gastropub it is today — all exposed brick, award-winning ales and generous servings of wholesome food.
Explore more: Call in at the Left Bank Gallery, housed in the historic former Bank of New Zealand building, featuring contemporary New Zealand artwork with an emphasis on local content. Work off your excesses with a ride on the popular West Coast Wilderness Trail, which starts/ends in Greymouth.
There’s more to this feisty former mining town than meets the eye. The birthplace of the National Federation of Labour trade union and the Labour party, there’s stories and characters galore to be uncovered at Formerly the Blackball Hilton.
Known for its tussle with the famous hotel chain, the 100-plus-year-old pub’s walls are covered in news clippings and posters that chart the town’s transformation from a mining hub to a hippy haven, before being revitalised by New Zealand’s latest Great Walk. There’s also rooms for rent upstairs in case a visit turns into an overnight stay.
Explore more: Stop in at the Blackball Salami Co., a West Coast foodie institution and a protein boost if you’re planning to walk or bike the nearby Paparoa Track. Explore Mahi Tupuna/Museum of Working Class History, an outdoor, community-led collection that tells the story of the town’s 1908 strike which triggered the birth of unionism in Aotearoa.
Thirty kilometres south of Greymouth in the historic town of Kumara (pronounced ‘Ku-MA-ra’ by locals), you’ll find the Theatre Royal Hotel.
The West Coast`s only fully restored gold miners’ hotel, and once a ‘world-renowned’ theatre, where miners, ‘dancing girls’, politicians and poets gathered for entertainment of all sorts. Today, it’s perfectly positioned for weary West Coast Wilderness Trail riders and offers packed lunches, lockable bike sheds and drying facilities.
You can still step back in time and retire to one of the six Victorian-style rooms after an evening in the hotel’s welcoming restaurant and bar. The chef’s philosophy is fresh is best, and home-grown and local produce feature where possible.
After dark, there’s glow worms to be spotted just behind the Theatre Royal Hotel, ask your bartender for directions.
Explore more: If you’re not into cycling there’s plenty of short walks that will immerse you in the area’s colourful history. Follow Kumara’s Heritage Walking Trail to explore key historical spots around town, or get out on the gold fields on the Londonderry Rock Walk (named after a surprisingly huge boulder that miners couldn’t move or break).