The West Coast is a region of the western South Island of New Zealand that's long and relatively narrow, squeezed between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea.
Its scenery and natural attractions, which include glaciers that flow down relatively close to sea level, mountains, forests, and the sea-sculpted Pancake Rocks have featured in many travel writers bucket lists.
Uncrowded, the region has a population of 33,000, in the Buller, Grey and Westland districts with 10,000 in the largest town, Greymouth. It does not cover the entire west coast of the island – the huge Fiordland National Park in the south is part of Southland and the Kahurangi National Park in the north is part of the north-west Nelson region. Within the South Island the West Coast is sometimes referred to as simply The Coast.
Listed from north to south:
- 1 Karamea – one end of the Heaphy Track
- 2 Westport – a cute little town with a cuter seal colony at Tauranga Bay
- 3 Punakaiki – the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes
- 4 Reefton – former gold-mining town
- 5 Greymouth – the largest town
- 6 Hokitika
- 7 Ross
- 8 Whataroa
- 9 Franz Josef – the Franz Josef Glacier
- 10 Fox Glacier – larger and more accessible Fox Glacier
- 11 Haast – last settlement before climbing out of the region through the Gates of Haast and the Haast Pass
The West Coast was the last frontier to be exploited by New Zealand's colonists. The region still has that frontier look and feel in many places. Even a few metres from the roadside you can experience what the first explorers might have encountered - pure and natural nature.
Before tourism became a more economical sustainable business, coasters mined coal, dredged or panned for gold, cut down the native forests. Generally they cleared the land and drained the swamps for farming and exploiting the land for its minerals. They still exploit the land for coal and timber but now it tends to be done in more environmentally sustainable ways.
Today, much of the land and forest has been put into the conservation estate. Many areas of marginal farmland have been allowed to revert to more natural states. Environmental issues are now recognised as important and more highly valued, and fought over, where threatened.
Because of this, some believe the Coast is on its last legs, yet others see great potential for a land full of natural beauty, ready to be exploited by, and developed for, tourists, in environmentally sustainable ways.
Buller district gets its name from the Buller River that drains the district and flows into the Tasman Sea at Westport.
Westland's landscape is a combination of rugged narrow coastline, temperate rainforests and high mountains.
Initially European development was based on gold and coal mining as well as forestry and farming. Now this heritage and the spectacular scenery make tourism a major industry.
Parts of Westland receives some of the highest rainfall in New Zealand, and the world. Be prepared and bring a decent raincoat. This is during the Summer months as in Winter the area has some of the nicest weather around New Zealand.
It has been said that this more remote part of the country is the "real" New Zealand, the way it used to be. Forests with native New Zealand trees and plants are much more common here than in most other parts of the country, and native wildlife is often more abundant. When traveling on the West Coast, you'll almost certainly see weka - a flightless chicken-like bird that hapless tourists often mistake for a kiwi bird (kiwis are almost never seen outside of special predator-free sanctuaries, and almost never come out in the daytime).
Air New Zealand flies from Christchurch to Hokitika (HKK IATA) every day. Sounds Air has one to three flights a day Su–F from Wellington to Westport (WSZ IATA).
From Blenheim either take State Highway 6 via Nelson and the Hope Saddle to Murchison or take State Highway 63 via St Arnaud and the Nelson Lakes National Park. State Highway 63 meets State Highway 6 at Howard Junction, about 40 km north of Murchison.
From Christchurch there are two options:
- State Highway 7 leaves State Highway 1 at Waipara in North Canterbury, travels past Hanmer Springs and over the Lewis Pass to Reefton and on to Greymouth where it joins State Highway 6. This is a good road all year round, suitable for any type of vehicle and is the recommended route for towing caravans or trailers.
- State Highway 73 runs through Mid Canterbury to Springfield, before climbing over Porters Pass and then Arthurs Pass, and descending along the Taramakau River to meet State Highway 6 at Kumara Junction, about half way between Greymouth and Hokitika. This road has a number of steep grades and sharp corners – towing caravans or trailers over this route is not advised. The descent from the top of Arthurs Pass to Otira used to include a single-lane section that was subject to rockfalls, but this has been replaced with a viaduct. Historically, this was the horse-drawn coach route and this dictated that the trans-alpine railway line also cross the Southern Alps here, via the Otira Tunnel. Steeped in history, and with spectacular and varied scenery, be sure to stop in at Arthur's Pass National Park headquarters in Arthur's Pass township, even if only for a quick break.
From Wanaka travel State Highway 6 over the Haast Pass to Haast and Fox Glacier at the southern end of the West Coast.
- Trans-Alpine Express. Departs from Christchurch and provides a daily return journey to Greymouth and has been described as one of the best rail journeys in the world. It includes many tunnels, apart from the 8 km long Otira Tunnel, with a grade of 1:33 making it one of the steepest grades of any two rail traction railway tunnel in the world as well as the third longest railway tunnel in the Southern Hemisphere.
- InterCity operates daily services along the West Coast departing from Nelson and Picton. InterCity also offer a range of fixed itinerary options which enable you to travel from Nelson to Queenstown via the West Coast.
- Newmans Coach Lines[dead link] provides premium daily sightseeing tours from Queenstown to both Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers.
- Atomic Travel operates Christchurch–Greymouth return.
- West Coast Shuttle. From Greymouth 08:00 to Christchurch arrive midday via Arthur's Pass then from Christchurch 15:00 to Greymouth via Arthur's Pass (all services via Christchurch airport on demand).
State Highway 6 runs the length of the West Coast and most notable destinations are either on the highway or a short distance from it. In some places it is the only road in town and some of the locals suggest that Westland is really just a village connected by the longest main street in the world.
This highway is suitable for all forms of vehicular transport, though caution is suggested if driving a campervan or larger vehicle on this road as some corners and turning areas are very tight. Drivers will also encounter the occasional one-lane bridge along the route.
Cycling and Motorcycles are very popular ways of seeing the West Coast but be prepared for long rides between settlements.
The highway travels through or near several large national parks along the scenic Southern Alps. Westland National Park is one of the most popular and accessible but can only be reached from State Highway 6. The park contains the western slopes of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman as well as Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, the two most accessible glaciers in the Southern Hemisphere.
- Punakaiki is situated along the coast south of Westport. The Pancake Rocks & Blowholes are a photogenic series of rock columns which have been weathered in such a way that they resemble a stack of pancakes. Sea spray frequently covers the walkways as there are a number of blow holes situated between the columns. On a nice day there is also a good view of the dramatic coastline stretching away to the south.
- Lake Matheson is a scenic lake near Fox Glacier. When the weather is calm and clear the lake acts as a mirror reflecting the mountains to the east, including Mt Cook and Mt Tasman - above Fox Glacier. The walking trail around the lake is enjoyable on a nice day.
- Buller River bar - Watch the fishing boats come in and enjoy the wild seas. Site of a number of accidents.
- Cape Foulwind - Windy and wild place with rough seas and walking tracks
- Pancake Rocks and blowholes in Punakaiki.
There are many beautiful lakes which are easily accessible by car:
- Lake Brunner. The largest of the West Coast lakes, Brunner and its main settlement Moana are good spots for waterskiing and fishing. Access from the Otira Highway just east of Wainihinihi, or from SH7 east of Greymouth.
- Lake Kaniere Second largest of the West Coast lakes, Kaniere lies about half an hour drive inland from Hokitika, with a partially unsealed road that loops around the lake via Kokatahi. There are some lovely walks in various bays around the lake, including Canoe Cove (which features a 15 minute boardwalk through native forest), and Dorothy Falls (about 5 minutes walk in from the falls themselves, which are visible from the road).
- Lake Mahinapua. Accessible from SH6 south of Hokitika, The Shanghai Bay area of Mahinapua is relatively shallow, and has campground facilities. There is also a fantastic walkway from Woodstock-Rimu Rd to SH6 that passes alongside the lake.
- Lake Ianthe. South of Ross, Lake Ianthe is visible from the road, and makes a great picnic spot.
- Lake Wahapo
- Okarito Lagoon Just south of Lake Wahapo, Okarito is the only breeding site for the kotuku (white heron). You can only enter the kotuku sanctuary as part of a tour 
- Lake Mapourika Just north from Franz Josef Glacier township lies Lake Mapourika. Lake Mapourika is within the Westland National Park. There are multiple recreation areas just off the Highway for photo stops, boat launches, swimming beaches and 2 DOC campsites. Lake Mapourika is renowned for fishing holding stocks of Brown Trout and wild salmon. There are guided tours and boat trips that operate commercially on the lake.
- Buller Gorge Swingbridge - you can walk across a swing bridge, or go on a flying fox, and on the other side there are nice walks, some to the epicentre of a huge earthquake.
- Visit the Denniston Incline - Drive to the top and marvel at the near vertical rail incline. This is where they used to load up the coal wagons and send them down for processing.
- Pan for Gold. There is still plenty in the hills, though it is not economic to extract commercially. You might even find enough to cover the cost of the panning fee.
- Climb the mountains.
- Fishing. Recreational fishing available on all the Freshwater Lakes. Fishing Charters are available on Lake Mapourika.
- Glaciers at Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. Take an unguided walk yourself, a guided trip, guided ice climbing, a sightseeing flight, or a heli-hike to the top of a glacier where the ice is blue.
- If you're leaving by car get up early and see how many hours you can drive before meeting another vehicle on the road.
- The entire coastline offers some of the most breathtaking scenic walks and views in the country.
- Try whitewater rafting in Greymouth or make a knife in Barrytown.
Westland is the major source of whitebait, a New Zealand delicacy. The tiny fingerlings of native fish are pan fried whole in an egg patty.
- Other wild foods are also found here including Possum pies and stew.
The annual Wild Foods Festival in Hokitika is a must-do if you happen to be on the Coast at the right time of year (in March).
Classic Kiwi places to eat such as the RSA and Workingmens club. Quality food available at a number of restaurants. One of note is located at Cape Foulwind.
The Coasters have never been afraid of alcohol or consuming large quantities of it, especially beer. They were never afraid of the licensing laws either and always enjoyed a drink - after hours. The operative word though is were. With the relaxation of liquor licensing laws, Coasters have continued in their anti-regulatory approach to life and voluntarily leave the bars early, if they even go there at all.
There are lots of pubs in Palmerston Street, which is the main road of Westport.
At one time Hokitika, alone, had over 100 drinking establishments. Now you will be hard pressed to find that many in the whole of Westland. However, the brewer's tradition has not been lost and beer is still the favoured drink after a hard day's work or travelling.
There are breweries in Westport and Greymouth, which offer tours.
The area has a good supply of backpacker accommodation and hotels. However places can fill up at busy times, so it is worth booking a few weeks in advance. See individual towns for listings.
Stay safe! Literally - the region is quite isolated so if you get in trouble you may have difficult getting medical treatment or emergency assistance in a hurry. Ensure your spare tyre is in good condition, your emergency kit is stocked up, you have a full tank of fuel, some emergency food and drink, warm clothes and a map; because it could be a long wait if you have a mishap or a long walk to the nearest place to get help. Also, be prepared to stop and assist another traveller in trouble.
It rains here. Carry a raincoat and gumboots (wellingtons), waterproof your shoes or accept being wet - accept it, you will get wet anyway, just more slowly.
Coasters are apparently immune to the endemic sandflies, but visitors need to cover up (especially ankles and wrists) or put up with being bitten. Their bites leave nasty little itchy spots but are relatively harmless otherwise.
Have an emergency? Call 111 for the Police, Fire or Ambulance services, but don't expect to get what you thought you were asking for. Someone will turn up to help, but they might not wear the uniform you were expecting, they might not wear a uniform at all, but they'll help, because Coasters are like that. Mind you, if you see someone and the help you asked for hasn't turned up yet, ask them too. And if you're asked, or even if you're not asked and have to ask if help is needed, - please help - it could be you tomorrow.
Don't rely on mobile telephones working outside of the settlements of Westport, Punakaiki, Greymouth, Hokitika, Whataroa, Franz Josef and Fox. Heading south from Fox there is no cellphone coverage until Hawea in the Queenstown-Lakes region, although coverage is due in the Haast area by the end of May 2018.
It is possible to use satellite phones and some businesses may give a satellite phone number as an alternative contact number.
Internet access can be found in the libraries of Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika. Some holiday parks may also have Internet for a fee.
- Hanmer Springs in Canterbury region
- Murchison in Nelson Bays region
- Wanaka in Queenstown-Lakes region