Choice! We’ve rounded up 10 of the West Coast’s best family-friendly activities, with options to keep the whole whānau happy. Many are free or low cost, with a couple of once-in-a-lifetime activities well worth splashing out for.
So pack the kids into the car (or train) and go on a West Coast roadie that will excite, entertain and – most importantly – make family memories for years to come.
The West Coast’s pioneering history comes to life at Shantytown Heritage Park – get the whole family to roll up their sleeves for a fun gold-panning session on the sluice line. Unlike the olden days, everyone comes away with a little vial of the glittering stuff.
The Bearded Miners of Reefton are happy to regale curious kids with stories of how prospectors lived in the 19th century, and there’s gold panning to be done at the 1860s-style miners’ hut too.
Combing on Hokitika beach may not reveal gold, but examine the pebbles underfoot and you might chance upon another very special find: pounamu (greenstone). Treasure your piece or transform it into a special souvenir with a local carver.
Shantytown — one of New Zealand’s premier cultural and heritage attractions — is a faithfully recreated 1900s pioneer town, inspired by the great West Coast gold rushes of the 1860s.
A family holiday to the West Coast isn’t complete without seeing the glaciers. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience to impress even the most reluctant teen, book a heli-hike on either Franz Josef or Fox glacier. A thrilling helicopter ride transports you to an icy planet where you explore luminous blue ice caves, arches and tunnels.
Young kids can enjoy the otherworldly ice-scapes from above on a scenic flight, and for whānau members who like to keep both feet firmly on the ground, there are family-friendly walks in both Franz Josef and Fox that offer stunning glacier views. Spot stunning reflections of Franz Josef Glacier and snowy peaks in Peters Pool (1.1 km walk). The steady 900-metre climb to Sentinel Rock is rewarded with impressive views of Fox Glacier and the Waiho River.
Okay, so it’s not quite Jurassic Park but in the limestone caves of the Ōpārara Basin, you can find subfossil bones belonging to nine types of moa and the supersized hokioi (Haast’s eagle). Explore the main Ōpārara Arches for free, but access to the fossilised taonga in the Honeycomb Caves is by guided tour only. Book via the Karamea Information Centre.
A few million years younger than the dinosaurs but still relatively ancient, the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks provide a natural spectacle kids of all ages will enjoy. At high tide the ocean heaves, hisses and thumps through narrow tunnels and blowholes in the pancaked rocks. Another firm family favourite is exploring the nearby Pororari River by canoe or paddle board.
Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki is the most visited natural attraction on the West Coast, and they really do look like pancakes!
The subterranean world under Charleston is special whatever the weather. After exploring a vast and impressive cave system, Underworld Adventures takes you on a gentle float under the light of a thousand tiny blue stars (or glow-worms). The tour starts with a “bush-train” through lush rainforest and ends with a float down the kid-friendly rapids of the Waitakere River, a magical experience for the whole family.
Another hidden glow-worm gem is the Velenski Track at Lake Brunner. The 20-minute track through regenerating bush is a great after-dark adventure, with lots of glowing grottoes in the banks beside the track.
Backstage at the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef you can not only see precious rowi kiwi chicks up close, but also find out more about how they are given a life-saving helping hand on the West Coast. Nearby Ōkārito forest is the last place to spot these rare (and noisy) kiwis in the wild.
In the tiny village of Ōkārito (population: 30), rare birds outnumber people. The mythical, elegant kōtuku (white heron) feeds in nearby Ōkārito Lagoon and may be spotted on a kid-friendly kayak tour through the still waters.
Keep your eyes peeled for Fiordland crested penguins and Hector's dolphins from the coastal walks at Monro Beach and Ship Creek near Haast (suitable for little legs).
At the Hokitika Gorge, everyone’s wearing blue-tinted glasses: spot glimpses of turquoise waters through lush green forest as you approach the swingbridge where you can peer into the rocky gorge below.
This is selfie heaven but there’s also a science lesson in why those glacial waters are so blue. Then look closely at the undergrowth and you might spot the rare, smurf-blue werewere-kōkako mushrooms, named after the blue wattle of the kōkako bird – only found here and on our $50 banknote.
Family-friendly doesn’t have to mean tame – mini adrenaline junkies will love the Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park, where you can zipline across the churning Buller River (‘supaman’ style or in seated tandem with mum or dad) or bounce and sway across on New Zealand’s longest swing bridge.
At the all-ages West Coast Treetop Walk near Hokitika, walk 20 metres above the ground in the rimu and kamahi canopy. Those looking for a double dare should scale the 40-metre Hokitika Tower or inch out to the end of the cantilevered Mahinapua Springboard, built to sway like the trees, or launch out on the zip line.
Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park is on the scenic Buller Highway. Take five or spend a few hours adventuring above or below on the spectacular gorge.
Cape Foulwind might be the one place you’ll wish for bad weather – see the westerly swells pounding the rugged coastline, spot a large fur seal colony and blow away the cobwebs on this family-friendly walk. Plus there’s no doubt kids will get some mileage out of the name!
The Kawatiri Coastal Trail has been designed with families in mind, and it’s easy to see why 80,000 trail users (and counting) have set off on the smooth, flat 22-km ride or walk between Westport and Ōkari Lagoon. With the rugged Tasman Sea on one side and the majestic Paparoa Range on the other, there’s stunning coastal views alongside wetlands and West Coast wilderness.
The Hokitika – Ross section of the West Coast Wilderness Trail is a great day out for active families. Ride through wetlands, native forest and old mill sites before hitting the historic goldfields of Ross, where parents can have a rest while kids have another go at panning for their fortune.
Young equestrians will find horse-riding opportunities dotted around the West Coast – a particularly scenic option is with Experience Fox Glacier, where riders trot along a bush-clad river with the glacier in the background.
Don’t have a boat? At Lake Mapourika in Glacier Country, Franz Josef Wilderness Tours has the perfect fun family fishing expedition. The comfortable, covered and all-weather fishing charter boat comes complete with knowledgeable fishing guide, rods and reels, plus a bbq to cook the catch for lunch.
If you’re looking to get a little more active, Lake Mapourika’s quiet waters are ideal for learning new water skills on a guided or freedom kayak expedition with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours.
A well-loved summer spot for Kiwi families, Lake Brunner is so full of trout that even wriggly kids might not have to wait too long for a catch. Sail, kayak, paddle board and swim the pristine waters or explore the beaches and walks on shore. Ample budget-friendly accommodation in Moana includes holiday parks and camping spots.
Adventurous eaters might enjoy Hokitika’s legendary Wildfoods Festival but you’re also never far from more traditional kid-friendly fare on the West Coast. Some top treats include: the Coast’s best sammies at Hokitika Sandwich Company, pizza from Fat Pipi (Hokitika), pancakes at Pancake Rocks Café, and fish and chips from The Craypot (Jackson Bay).