Known simply as 'The Coast' to New Zealanders, this region stretches 600km from Kahurangi Point in the north, to Awarua Point in the south. The Tasman Sea crashes onto the western shores, whilst the Southern Alps dominate the eastern borders. The rugged wilderness of this part of New Zealand means the area is sparsely-populated by permanent residents, despite towns like Hokitika being home to over 25,000 people during the boom of the gold rush.
These days, the West Coast largely remains as nature intended – a region dominated by beautiful, forest-clad coastlines, transparent rivers and lakes, luminous mountains and diverse wildlife. And don't forget the glaciers...
The area is split into three distinct districts:
- Buller - covering the towns of Westport, Karamea, Reefton and Inangahua Junction. Rich in dense forest and wild coastline, this is New Zealand stripped bare.
- Grey - includes the towns of Runanga, Blackball, Cobden and the council seat of Greymouth. The famous TranzAlpine Express terminates at Greymouth.
- Westland - home to the Fox and Franz-Josef Glaciers and the former gold-mining town of Hokitika.
Of the 140 glaciers flowing from the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps, only two extend as far as the lower rainforests – the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. These two giant tongues of ice are still 'growing', sometimes at the astonishing rate of 70cm per day.
Hugely popular, due to their beauty and accessibility, visitors can book half and full day hiking trips that take you right onto the glacier, and up close to the blue, ice arches and tunnels. Heli-hikes and scenic air tours (with or without snow landings) offer breathtaking views from the skies. Other activities include rafting, wildlife tours, rainforest trails and coastal walks.
Franz Josef and Fox townships are situated just 20 minutes apart, and offer sufficient accommodation for overnight (and longer) stays, ensuring you get the most out of visiting this remote, but never-to-be-forgotten place. Away from the glaciers, nearby Lake Matheson offers a more serene experience, with stunning reflections of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman to be seen in its waters.
Pancake Rocks at Paparoa National Park
Found at Dolomite Point in the relatively small (for New Zealand) Paparoa National Park, Pancake Rocks - named for the layered way the stones sit - is a limestone formation containing several, vertical blow-holes, through which the ocean bursts at regular intervals. The effect is quite stunning, although visitors wishing to explore the rocks' many paths and carved stairways, might want to take an umbrella.
The park itself covers 306 square kilometres and is famous for its caves and creeks. The Paparoa Mountain Range contains significant coal deposits, and was responsible for the founding of much of the region's old rail network.
The TranzAlpine Express at Greymouth
Introduced in 1987, the TranzAlpine Express is a passenger train operating on what is regarded as one of the world's outstanding rail routes. Starting in Christchurch, the 220km trip takes in the Canterbury Plains, Southern Alps and Waimakariri River Gorge, before terminating in Greymouth.
The West Coast's largest town, Greymouth lies close to several major roads, including State Highways 6, 7 and 73, making it a natural 'through town' for visitors. Greymouth even boasts its own jade-mining industry. Called 'Pounamu', or 'greenstone', this beautiful mineral is found in the local rivers, and used to make jewellery, ornaments and even tools. Other attractions of Greymouth include Monteith's Brewery, and Shantytown – a reconstructed gold mining settlement, where visitors can pan for real gold. Many other activities such as rafting, dolphin-watching and quad-bike riding, are also available here.
Air New Zealand operates flights to Hokitika from Christchurch, and to Westport from Wellington.
Regular buses travel to the West Coast from Wanaka, Queenstown, Picton, Nelson and Christchurch.
The TranzAlpine Express is an obvious choice for rail passengers - pick it up at any number of stops out of Christchurch.
State Highways 6, 7 and 73 all serve the West Coast, along with the Haast Pass.