From north to south, mountains to sea, winter adds an extra layer to the drama and colours of the West Coast's iconic landscapes.
Imagine crisp mornings, misty valleys, snowy peaks, brilliant sunsets and clear night skies. Think deserted beaches, glistening rainforests, breath-taking reflections, quiet trails revealing spectacular vistas, and the soft pink glow of sunsets on the mountain tops.
Some places are best enjoyed without the crowds so, while visitors are thinner on the ground, there may never be a better time to visit the West Coast. Oh, and by the way, winter is often the West Coast's driest season with average winter temperatures usually higher than Christchurch and Queenstown.
Sit back, relax and enjoy a spectacular rail journey across the Southern Alps to the West Coast.
Let someone else do the driving on one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys, KiwiRail’s TranzAlpine running between Greymouth and Christchurch (or Christchurch and Greymouth). It's no less spectacular than when it started out in 1987 but much more comfortable with panoramic windows, dining options and a new Scenic Plus class.
With snow on the Southern Alps — and, from time to time, on the rail route — winter is the most spectacular season to take the TranzAlpine. The route travels coast to coast, east-west, taking in some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery. From Christchurch, the train travels over the Canterbury Plains, alongside braided rivers, through dramatic gorges, and high country stations, into the Southern Alps and Arthur’s Pass National Park.
On the West Coast side of spectacular Arthur’s Pass, the train descends back to sea level via leafy beech forests, mirror lakes and the Southern Alps. Covering 223 km (140 mi) one-way, the journey takes just under five hours passing through 16 tunnels (the longest at 8.5 km or 5 mi), across four viaducts and stopping at several scenic railway stations.
The luscious colours of Hokitika Gorge — turquoise water, white granite rocks, lush green forest — are a photogenic highlight.
Photogenic Hokitika Gorge — with those vivid turquoise blue waters — is an unmissable stop on the West Coast. A short drive inland from the cool little town of Hokitika, the Hokitika Gorge Track is an easy well-formed trail that’s fine for pushchairs and includes a wheelchair accessible viewing platform, a few minutes’ walk from the start.
The recently upgraded track has some spectacular features including three bridges across the river, waterfalls, leafy rainforest and, if you’re lucky enough to spot some, the rare, weirdly blue werewere-kōkako mushrooms growing on the forest floor. There are some great vantage points over the surreal blue waters coursing through the rocky white limestone gorge, and winter brings a snow-capped mountain backdrop.
Back towards the coast and Hokitika, the West Coast Treetop Walk offers a different kind of walk in the woods — an elevated close up on forest life that climbs right into a virgin forest canopy. Rising to an impressive 47 m above Lake Mahinapua, the suspended walkway is a surprisingly accessible experience suitable for wheelchairs and strollers, offering sensational vistas of the lake, forest and Southern Alps. There's also a new zipline.
Impressive on any day, Pancake Rocks and Blowholes are an awe-inspiring example of powerful natural forces in action.
Powerful forces of nature are at work 24/7 on the famed Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, creating a sensory spectacle of sight, sound and spray as the ocean grinds its way into the layered limestone cliffs. In any season, it’s compelling viewing for visitors travelling the Great Coast Road between Greymouth and Westport.
The pancake rocks are a short, easy walk on a loop trail that starts from the parking area opposite the Paparoa National Park headquarters. While the blowhole action is the main attraction here, there’s much more to see and do around Punakaiki with charming short walks to pristine beaches, verdant palm-filled rainforest trails beside the Pororari River, kayaking and paddle boarding in the peaceful estuary.
Trampers and mountain bikers completing the Paparoa Track — New Zealand’s newest Great Walk — exit at Punakaiki and the little settlement offers a wide range of accommodation (from camping to motels, baches, glamping and the 4-star Ocean View Retreat) and eateries. Brilliant sunsets, clear night skies and misty spray-charged air add to the energetic holiday vibe.
Spectacular views on the calm, wildlife-rich waters of Ōkārito Lagoon near Franz Josef village.
Ōkārito-ites say winter is the best season to visit their patch of paradise, and to meet the locals — a multitude of wildlife species, alongside the occasional rare human. Typically winter brings cool, clear weather and temperatures moderated by the ocean mean frosts and snow are rare.
The tiny settlement, north of Franz Josef, sits on the edge of a sheltered coastal lagoon (New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland), tucked in-between a wild coast and virgin rainforest. It’s a haven for rare wildlife and the scenic departure point for some of the world’s best wilderness experiences.
Winter days may be shorter but this true wilderness landscape evolves with the hour progressing from early morning mists to crystal clear vistas of snow-covered mountains, mirrored reflections on the water and due west sunsets in the evening. And, on a rainy day, it’s something else to find yourself inside a living, breathing, dripping rainforest.
The twin glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox offer the world's most accessible glacier hiking experience.
The twin glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef exist in a unique temperate location, extending well below the snow line and within 19 km of the sea, making them the world’s most accessible rivers of ice. Winter is a spectacular time to visit the glaciers so pack a few extra layers, embrace the season and head to Glacier Country for a bucket-list adventure.
It used to be that tourists could walk up from the lower valleys onto the glaciers but the ice has retreated so much over recent years that this is no longer possible. To get up on the ice, take a scenic helicopter flight, land on the glacier, then explore this icy wilderness of ice caves, deep crevasses and icy pinnacles on a guided glacier hike. The scenery is majestic — mountains behind, rainforest and the sea beyond — and it’s an exhilarating experience for anyone with moderate fitness and agility.
Tours leave every day from the small towns of Franz Josef and Fox. With visitor numbers well down at the moment, and winter deals available, it’s the best-ever opportunity to get a real wilderness experience.