And while the rugged coastline is better known for bracing beach walks than relaxing with your toes in the sand, you might just be surprised.
In the subtropical north, picturesque palm trees creep up to golden sands, while further south, sheltered bays create gentle surf breaks for all abilities. Not to mention the many spots where rare wildlife nest and rest.
As inviting as the West Coast waves might look in summer — don’t be fooled. The Tasman Sea’s swirling currents are unforgiving, so choose your swimming spot carefully. Carters Beach makes the grade. North-facing and nicely sheltered, the sandy beach offers safe swimming and wave-jumping, with a kids’ playground and family-friendly food options across the road.
There’s a Top Ten Holiday Park and plenty of beachside accommodation if you fancy waking up to the West Coast waves. It’s also the first stop on the new Kawatiri Coastal Trail, which connects to Tauranga Bay, a sheltered surfing beach and home to West Coast Surf, run by ex-pro Mark Perana.
Not strictly saltwater, but if you’re visiting the pancake rocks, stop at the Pororari Lagoon. Within a stone’s throw of the sea, these still, clear waters offer easy swimming or peaceful paddling, surrounded by nīkau-palm-studded banks and towering limestone bluffs.
Travel tip: The safest swimming is in the West Coast’s many beautiful lakes — the warm (ish) waters of Kaniere and Brunner are local favourites.
Most West Coast beaches lend themselves to bonfire building. Carters Beach deserves a second mention here — the wide sandy stretch offers great driftwood gathering and at sunset on a calm day, you’ll see the fiery skies reflected in the flames of the many fires dotted along the 9-km-long beach.
Hokitika is another bonfire-favourite, with so much driftwood it even has a summer festival named after it, where budding artists work alongside professionals to turn driftwood into spectacular sculptures. One competition entry from 2015 has become the town’s most photographed spot — the giant Hokitika sign just 100 m from the town’s main street. Grab a parcel of fish and chips from Dulcie’s (voted people’s favourite in 2022) and wander over the road to set your own masterpiece alight. Spend the night just metres from the West Coast waves at Beachfront Hotel Hokitika.
An hour’s walk into the Heaphy Track, you’ll find Scott’s Beach — a deserted cove backed by steep cliffs covered in subtropical rainforest. Have a Cast Away moment on the golden sand, then unpack your picnic at the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite, where there’s a grassy area and picnic tables. Just don’t be tempted to swim here, there are dangerous currents at play.
Camp the night, or head back to the small settlement of Karamea — a friendly outdoor outpost nestled at the very top of the West Coast region and gateway to adventures in the Kahurangi National Park, including the Heaphy Track and Ōpārara Arches.
For a shorter stroll to another spectacular beach, try the Truman Track. Just minutes from the surreal geological spectacle of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes, this 600-metre trail takes you through dappled light of dense rainforest, before emerging at a viewing platform with impressive coastal vistas. Wooden stairs provide access to the beach, where a waterfall plummets straight onto the rock-strewn sand.
There’s nothing like waking up to the sounds of the sea. DOC runs several beachside campsites on the West Coast, including Kōhaihai Campsite at the end of the Heaphy Track, where campers get the added bonus of kayaking and swimming in the still waters of the Kōhaihai River.
In contrast to the subtropical north, Gillespies Beach Campsite is framed by jagged (and sometimes snowy) peaks, not far from the Fox and Franz glaciers. There’s an old gold mining settlement to explore as well as the seal colony at Galway Beach.
If you’re looking for a less rustic experience, there’s plenty of beachside spots offering more of a glamping vibe. Family-run Gentle Annie is nestled between the Tasman Sea and the mighty Mokihinui River, where holiday houses and cabins co-exist with camp sites. Soak in a hot tub with ocean views, enjoy a wood-fired pizza, explore the nearby Kahurangi National Park.
Ross Beach Top 10 Holiday Park offers camping with a luxury twist. Alongside classic motorhome and tent sites, there are funky upcycled shipping containers with comfy beds, outdoor baths and proper coffee machines. And coming this summer — brand new luxury geodesic domes, self-contained and complete with stylish furnishings, climate control, luxury bedding and a private deck to relax on.
The South Island, and specifically the West Coast, is home to a very special taonga (treasure) — pounamu, aka greenstone or New Zealand jade. Of great spiritual significance to Māori, there are plenty of pounamu galleries and carvers dotted along the Coast, with the highest concentration in the cool little town of Hokitika.
Pick up a special piece here, but keep an eye out when wandering along the long sandy beach, as you might be lucky enough to find a pebble that has rolled down the Hokitika River. Look out for stones with a grey, milky-coloured outer skin and a 'soapy' feel, or the occasional green piece that's been smoothed by natural processes.
Due to its pebbly nature, Barrytown Beach (on the Great Coast Road) is said to be the best beach to find pounamu in New Zealand. Just note that, while fossicking is permitted on the beach, pounamu found elsewhere must be left in situ.
Travel tip: Take a carving workshop at Bonz N Stonz in Hokitika to create your own take-home taonga (pounamu provided).
No guarantees of course, but keep your eyes peeled along the West Coast’s wild coastline and you might spot some special creatures. Bring binoculars and stand well back so you don’t bother the wildlife.
Relatively static, seals offer wildlife spotting for beginners. Cape Foulwind is home to the country’s largest fur seal colony, and easily accessed via the coastal walkway of the same name. Keep your eyes peeled for baby seals splashing in the nursery rock pools as you make your way to the lookout. A hidden gem for seal spotting is Galway Beach, accessed via a 3.5-hour-return walk through rimu forest to a remote, stunning beach.
Much rarer are tawaki, or Fiordland crested penguins. The largest known population comes ashore to breed in the coastal rainforest near Lake Moeraki, and Munro Beach is a popular landing spot. A short 30-minute forest walk takes you to the bouldery beach, where if you’re lucky, you might see the tawaki belly-flopping out the surf. The best way to see the penguins is on a tour with Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki.
Hector’s dolphins, the world’s smallest, can be spotted all along the West Coast, but end-of-the-road Jackson Bay is one of only two known nursery areas. It’s worth the 30-minute drive from Haast for the chance to see mothers and their calves gliding through the bay — if not, there’s always lunch at one of New Zealand’s most scenic fish and chip shops.