Knock off early on a Friday and escape to a part of Aotearoa that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Experience giant glaciers, ancient caves, rugged coastlines, lush rainforests, and remote wilderness so special it’s earned itself UNESCO World Heritage status. And while the landscape may be untouched, you can still enjoy creature comforts in the friendly towns along the way.
Here are three ways to drive into the West Coast from three different directions. Stay for the weekend, or tack on an extra day to make the most of all the ‘Coast has to offer.
Powerful natural forces are at work at the spectacular Pancake Rocks & Blowholes on Dolomite Point.
The drive through Arthur’s Pass National Park is truly spectacular and a great way to kick-start your weekend away. Make sure you make lots of stops to take in the clear braided rivers, steep gorges and snow-capped Southern Alps. You’ll emerge from the mountains in historic Kumara, a good spot to stay the night at the West Coast’s only fully restored gold miners’ hotel.
Another hour’s drive on one of the world’s most scenic coastal roads takes you to Punakaiki (with a stop in the ‘big smoke’ Greymouth en route). Here, there’s more to see than the impressive pancake rocks Punakaiki is so famous for.
After you’ve taken an exhilarating stroll watching the West Coast waves blasting through the limestone blowholes, cross the road to the Paparoa National Park visitor centre — conveniently located at the end of the Paparoa Track.
You might not have time for the newest Great Walk this time around, but why not recce your next adventure with a wander through lush nīkau palms on the Pororari River Track (the exit/entrance to the Paparoa Track).
Or paddle on the peaceful waters of the Pororari River instead, by kayak or SUP. A 30-minute rainforest walk on the Truman Track will take you worlds away from pancake rock revellers, to a stunning beach.
Get there via the Great Coast Road, one of the Top 10 Coastal Drives in the world!
There’s accommodation options here to suit all budgets and tastes — from campsites to waterside hotels. If you’re here for one night and want to make the most of a West Coast sunset, why not try soaking it in (literally) in the outdoor hot tub of cliff-top Woodpecker Hut, 9km south of Punakaiki.
On your way home, consider turning inland towards pristine Lake Brunner — a hidden holiday gem with plentiful trout fishing, lakeside walks, and swimming spots surrounded by ancient forest.
Theatre Royal Hotel, Kumara — six individually themed ensuite rooms, two luxury suites and six self-catering Miners Cottages.
Woodpecker Hut or Indo Kiwi — self-catering, unique glamping retreats.
Ocean View Retreat, Punakaiki — comfortable, environmentally friendly accommodation with rainforest and ocean views.
Breakers Boutique, Coast Road — peaceful, private beachfront B&B.
Cape Foulwind — a windswept promontory south of Westport — is home to New Zealand’s largest colony of kekeno NZ fur seals.
Set off on a Friday morning if you can as you’re heading to the end of the road — literally.
The journey from Nelson takes you through the windy but picturesque Buller Gorge, where the churning Buller River carves its path through mountains and dense forest, before emerging at the sea in Westport. You can zipline across or sway along New Zealand’s longest swing bridge at the Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park. There’s also a jet boat ride here that Lonely Planet thinks might be one of the most scenic in the world.
Stop for lunch in Westport — try a premium pie from The West Coast Pies Company — before heading north towards Karamea. Wind your way up to the Denniston Incline for magnificent views and to experience the extreme conditions coal miners and their families endured here back in the day.
Check in to The Last Resort in Karamea, offering a range of room types on grounds sandwiched between the Kahurangi National Park and the Tasman Sea.
Feel the rush of the Cometline ride, experience the thrill of a jet boat, walk the heights of New Zealand's longest swingbridge, pan for gold, or simply relax and take in the views of Buller Gorge.
Keep driving north and you’ll reach the Oparara Basin, a wonderland of limestone phenomena beautifully crafted by nature over millions of years.
The largest and most iconic feature, the Oparara Arch, can be accessed independently via a short, well-formed track. But to see the sub-fossil remains of nine types of moa and giant hokioi (Haast’s eagle), visit the Honeycomb Hill Caves. Access is by guided tour only (book at the Karamea Information Centre), to protect this special taonga.
The Heaphy Track pops out nearby — another Great Walk that you can enjoy a taster of. There’s a 20-minute loop through nīkau palms, or you can continue on to Scotts Beach (two hours return) where the trail opens out onto a beautiful stretch of coastline.
On your drive home, stretch your legs on Cape Foulwind Walkway. The 3.4 km track takes you to New Zealand’s biggest fur seal colony, a lighthouse, and panoramic coastal and mountain views.
If you have an extra night, the detour to Maruia Hot Springs is well worth it. Take a yoga class, treat yourself to a massage, enjoy a nourishing meal, then spend the evening soaking in natural geothermal pools surrounded by leafy beech forest and snow-dusted mountains.
Relax after a day's adventures with a soak in the Waiho Hot Tubs in the rainforest at Franz Josef.
On your way to the West Coast, take a break and stretch your legs on the Blue Pools Track. This short walk through beech forest to an impressive swing bridge rewards you with the sight of deep, blue glacial water flowing into the Makarora River.
Keep going on SH6 and you’ll soon find yourself in a UNESCO World Heritage Area. Haast belongs to Te Wahipounamu South Westland — a 2.6 million hectare conservation area that covers four national parks (Westland Tai Poutini, Aoraki Mt Cook, Mt Aspiring and Fiordland) ranging from wild beaches to tranquil coastal wetlands, virgin rainforest to New Zealand’s highest mountains.
A good way to explore this untouched natural beauty is by jet boat safari. Racing up the pastel-blue Waiatoto River surrounded by pristine deep-green native forest, you’ll experience some of New Zealand’s remotest and least visited landscapes.
Waiatoto River Safari will take you on an incredible eco jet boat adventure through the Haast UNESCO World Heritage Area. The only ocean to alps river tour in New Zealand, voted by Lonely Planet as one of the top-rated boat tours in New Zealand.
Continue on up the coast in the region of superlatives and you’ll reach the spectacular Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.
The most accessible of the 60 plus glaciers in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, you can spot these creeping ice flows from local look-out points, but for a truly overwhelming experience, take a guided heli-hike on the luminous blue ice.
If the rain clouds roll in on the day, there’s lots of other ways to experience nature here. The lush greens of the rainforest come alive in the mist, best experienced on one of the many short walks and day hikesin the area.
Stay dry on a tour of the rare rowi kiwi hatchery at the West Coast Wildlife Centre, and hear about the centre’s conservation programme. There’s more sustainable bird spotting nearby with Okarito Eco Boat Tours, glide through New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland area, framed by lush native rainforest and the snow-capped Southern Alps.
Another great all-weather activity is a soothing soak under the rainforest canopy. Waiho offers rustic, wood-fired tubs, and guests at the Franz Josef Rainforest Retreat can enjoy ‘spa-gazing’ from a private tree-lined deck.
Rainforest Retreat, Franz Josef — self-contained tree-hut style apartments nestled in the lush native bush just metres from Franz Josef township.
Scenic Hotel Franz Josef — 4* hotel accommodation in the heart of Franz Josef township. On-site restaurant and bar serving hearty West Coast fare.