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West Coast secrets: Summer break in Karamea

Ōpārara Arches, Karamea

Paradise found in wild, remote, authentic Karamea

Slip into paradise. Only one road leads to Karamea – a sub-tropical paradise unlike anywhere else in New Zealand.

A scenic road trip north of Westport, Karamea is a friendly little country town surrounded by soft sand beaches framed with luscious nīkau palms, endless bush trails and natural wonders to discover.

Many visitors arrive on foot, completing the multi-day Heaphy Track. But there’s no need to be an intrepid hiker or mountain biker to enjoy the many beauties of Karamea. A short easy stroll will get you to many places.

Start of Heaphy Track Start of Heaphy Track
Heaphy Track

A canopy of nīkau palms rustling in the coastal breeze on the Karamea end of the Heaphy Track.

Natural wonders

Tucked into a wide plateau of fertile river plains and farms, between the mountains of Kahurangi National Park and the Tasman Sea, Karamea is surrounded by diverse and surprisingly accessible landscapes. It also enjoys a mild, subtropical climate with high sunshine hours and pleasant year-round temperatures. 

Kahurangi National Park has surprises above and below ground. The multi-day Heaphy Track crosses a high mountain tussock plateau to finish in sub-tropical rainforest at the beach. But you don’t have to go all the way to get a taste of this Great Walk; the final section between Scott’s Beach and Kohaihai is a gentle 1.5 - 2 hr return walk. 

Still something of a local secret, the Ōpārara Valley and Honeycomb Hill is a lost world of gigantic limestone formations and a vast network of underground caves. Follow trails through dense rainforest to massive natural arches sculpted by water or take an unforgettable guided tour into a fascinating underworld – complete with fossilised bones of extinct giant birds.

Little Wanganui Beach Little Wanganui Beach
Little Wanganui Beach

Little Wanganui Beach - 15min south of Karamea

Uncrowded beaches

Photographers love the long straight beaches of the Karamea Bight – some of New Zealand’s most beautiful coastal landscapes. By day there’s a visual symphony of sand, sea and sunsets. By night, there’s driftwood begging for bonfires and the dark skies above reveal heart-stopping views of the Southern Cross and the Milky Way.  

Your footprints may be the only ones on these uncrowded beaches:

  • Karamea Beach — a prime location for fossicking, building castles in the sand, and sitting on the dunes watching the waves.
  • Kohaihai Beach — 15 minutes north of Karamea, at the start of the Heaphy Track — is great for some wild camping in the DOC sites beside the Kohaihai River.
  • Little Wanganui Beach – a long, lonely, rugged, driftwood-strewn wilderness beach, 15 minutes south of Karamea.

NOTE: Strong ocean rips and currents mean swimming is not advised in these rugged beaches. The best spots for a dip are in the rivers at Karamea, Little Wanganui, Kohaihai, and Ōpārara. Ask a local.

Scotts Beach, Heaphy Track Scotts Beach, Heaphy Track
Scotts Beach, Heaphy Track

Footprints in the golden sand at Scotts Beach near the end of the Heaphy Track.

Short walks and long trails

Within walking distance of Karamea township, there are plenty of lovely coastal spots and bushy trails to discover. Among the 26 walking tracks close to Karamea, there are 15 family-friendly trails accessed from the township. For a Heaphy Track taster, six tracks can easily be done in a couple of hours, a morning or a day. 

  • Scotts Beach Walk and Nīikau Walk – begin at Kohaihai, do one or combine these two lovely short walks (part of the Heaphy Track) through groves of nīkau palms and rainforest to coastal views and down to pretty Scott’s Beach.
  • Zig Zag Track – from the Karamea bridge, this short (30-45 min) walk through rainforest and palms climbs to a lookout over Karamea with wide vistas of the coast, beaches and river. 
  • Karamea Estuary Walk – this interesting walk along the north bank of the river offers views of mountains, ocean, and the estuary. 
  • The Flagstaff at Karamea Beach is a locals’ favourite – recommended for a fine evening stroll to sit and quietly observe the sunset colours changing over the river estuary.
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Ōpārara Basin, Karamea

Crossing the forest-stained waters of the Ōpārara River on the track to the Ōpārara Arches.

Rivers and other adventures

Five rivers flow from the Kahurangi range across the plains and into the Tasman Sea. The mouths of these rivers attract whitebaiters, birdwatchers and fishermen. The Karamea River is a popular spot for adventure, including family rafting and canoeing. 

The lower reaches of the Karamea, Little Wanganui, and Ōpārara rivers offer year-round trout fishing. In summer and autumn, sea-run trout, yellow eyed mullet and kahawai can be found at the river mouths; snapper, rig and gurnard in the sea. 

Just east of town, the sprawling Karamea / Ōtūmahana Estuary is the West Coast’s third largest wetland – a birdwatcher’s paradise for sea and water birds such as rare Australasian bittern and kōtuku/white herons, royal spoonbills and godwits. It’s guarded by a life-size bronze statue of the giant Haast eagle – hōkioi – which once hunted these skies.

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Ōpārara Arch, Karamea

The Ōpārara Arch – New Zealand's largest and most spectacular limestone formation – is a short drive and an easy walk from Karamea.

Staying over in Karamea

Slow down, take time in Karamea to get to know the locals and let the laidback outdoors style infuse your holiday. They’re a friendly bunch; a population of around 700 that counts 21 nationalities and 54 artists – that’s a lot of creative energy in one small community. Look out for pop-up exhibitions in the Market Square.

Hospitality accounts for a fair bit of the action around town. The fertile lands and gentle climate of the Karamea Bight contributes to producing everything from milk and dairy products to berries and passionfruit. There are five establishments serving food and drinks, and several retail outlets including a Four Square, butcher, bulk foods and a Saturday market. 

Accommodation ranges from camping and motorhome sites to holiday homes, motels, two traditional West Coast hotels and an eco resort that includes a restaurant, caféand bar.  

Getting there: 

Karamea is a 1.5 hr scenic drive from Westport.
Fly Wellington to Westport (50 min flight) with Sounds Air.
Fly Wellington to Karamea (1.5 hr, via Takaka) or from Nelson (1 hr via Takaka) with Golden Bay Air.