The Great Coast Road lives up to its name and more. Named one of the world’s most beautiful coastal drives by Lonely Planet, it hugs 100 km of constantly changing coastline, overlooked by mighty mountains covered in dense forest.
It can be easily driven in one go, but that would mean missing out on the seaswept lookouts, natural wonders and cosy hideaways dotted along the way. Bring your own wheels, or arrive by plane or train and pick up a rental car and go coastal on your West Coast adventure.
Cape Foulwind — a windswept promontory south of Westport — is home to New Zealand’s largest colony of kekeno NZ fur seals.
Just a few kilometres from Westport, veer off to Cape Foulwind, where you can take a short but bracing walk along the cliffs to New Zealand’s largest fur seal colony (keep your eyes peeled for baby seals splashing in the nursery rock pools as you make your way to the lookout).
Surfing might not be synonymous with New Zealand’s West Coast, but just south of Cape Foulwind, the waves offer something for everyone at sheltered Tauranga Bay. Professional surfer Mark Perana offers lessons for all abilities at West Coast Surf.
Glowworm galaxies light up a cavern deep underground in the Te Ananui cave system on the Nile River, near Charleston.
Rejoining the Great Coast Road, you’ll soon reach historic Charleston — pronounced Char-les-ton by the locals — a small settlement founded post-gold rush in 1867, now hiding treasures of a different kind in the nearby hills. On a subterranean exploration with Underworld Adventures you can explore a vast network of caves featuring surreal stalagmites and stalactites, before floating out to the river under a galaxy of glow-worms.
If you want to stay dry, a short walk at nearby Mitchells Gully Gold Mine will give you a personal perspective of how the area’s first miners discovered and recovered the sparkling seams deep in the hillside.
Follow an easy loop walkway around rocky Dolomite Point to watch the action at the famous Pancake Rocks & Blowholes.
Sculpted by the wind, rain and waves over thousands of years, Punakaiki’s pancake rocks and blowholes are one of nature’s most curious geological displays. Layered limestone pushed up from the seafloor by seismic shifts has left behind giant rocky stacks riddled with holes and tunnels.
To see why it’s the West Coast’s most visited attraction, explore the easy walkway around the rocks at high tide, when the ocean creates huge walls of spray as it bursts through the blowholes.
Just a few minutes’ drive from the pancake rocks are the still, deep waters of the Pororari River, which runs through a spectacular limestone gorge flanked with dense bush including swathes of sub-tropical nikau palms. It’s the entry/exit to New Zealand’s newest Great Walk, Paparoa Track, but even just a 15-minute stroll will take you to a lookout with views of the river gorge and the overhanging limestone cliffs. For an on-water adventure, rent a paddle board from the Paparoa Paddle Co.
Woodpecker Hut is an off-grid luxury glamping site in a secluded spot beside the ocean and close to Punakaiki.
Punakaiki is a perfect spot to slow the drive right down and spend the night.
Just 300 metres from the pancake rocks, you’ll find the recently refreshed beachfront Scenic Hotel Punakaiki, an environmentally friendly 4-star-hotel offering ocean or rainforest view rooms. Catch a magnificent West Coast sunset at the in-house restaurant, or swap four wheels for two and explore the surrounding trails by e-bike (available for hire).
Campers will be comfy at Punakaiki Beach Camp, where the sounds of the sea will lull you to sleep, whether you’re in a tent, motorhome or cabin. More of a glamper than a camper? There’s several special hideaways near Punakaiki, including cliff-top Woodpecker Hut and Balinese-style Indo-Kiwi, both offering a taste of nature with added creature comforts, hot tubs included. Architecturally designed to incorporate its natural surroundings, luxurious BIV Punakaiki is a stunning spot to escape everyday life.
Between the Paparoa Range and the Tasman Sea, Breakers is a boutique bed and breakfast with private access to the beach via beautiful gardens, four en suite seaview rooms and homemade pizza on the menu.
Learn how to carve your own pounamu treasure in the Bonz & Stonz workshop, Hokitika.
South of Punakaiki, the road straightens out a little as you make your way towards Greymouth.
Stop off at Barrytown, a tiny settlement wedged between the sea and the mountains known for its many artists and craftspeople. Some studios welcome visitors, there’s even a knife-making workshop where you get to forge your own blade from hot steel (just make sure you’ve booked a bag if you’re flying home).
Comb Barrytown’s beach, known for its abundance of naturally polished pounamu pebbles. Sacred and semi-precious pounamu — New Zealand greenstone or jade — washes down from the mountains in the waters of just a few West Coast rivers. Bonz N Stonz in Hokitika can help you carve your keepsake into something special.
Only accessible at low tide, but a hit with photographers and geology lovers, Motukiekie beach offers otherworldly offshore sea stacks, cliffs, and rock shelves covered in bright orange starfish.
Go to the origins at Monteith’s Brewery where craft brewing started on the West Coast.
At Greymouth, you’ve officially reached the end of the Great Coast Road. Stop for lunch at styley Sevenpenny or reward yourself with a tour, tasting and CFC (Coast-fried-chicken) at New Zealand’s original craft beer brewery, Monteith's.
Take a stroll along the town’s floodwall for some local history (look out for the interpretation panels), stop in at the Left Bank Art Gallery to admire the contemporary New Zealand arts, photography and crafts, as well as the historic building they are housed in.
Continue south on State Highway 6 to the West Coast’s coolest little town of Hokitika, hands-on gold-mining history in Ross, and the main attraction for many West Coast visitors — the gigantic Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.
- The Great Coast Road is the 100 km stretch of State Highway 6 (SH6) between Westport and Greymouth.
- If you're flying into Christchurch, consider taking the TranzAlpine train to Greymouth, before picking up a rental car and driving north.
One of the best ways to explore the beauty of the West Coast is on a self-drive adventure. AVIS and Budget New Zealand both offer a range of vehicle rental packages, allowing you to discover the diverse natural wonders of the West Coast at your own pace.
With offices located at the heart of the West Coast in Greymouth and Hokitika (as well as the popular South Island arrival points of Christchurch, Nelson and Blenheim), AVIS and Budget both have a range of vehicles available to suit any travel requirement – from solo explorers to large family groups, and everyone in between.
Flying into the West Coast? Earn Air New Zealand Airpoints on your car rental if you book it at the same time as your Air New Zealand flight.