Touring the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island

January 1, 1970

by Sandeep Nath

How do you plan your route around the famous West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand? What are the must-sees? Must-stops? Must-dos? If these are the questions on your mind, you’re in the best place!

Nelson to Queenstown – that’s the tour

You will do well to start from the northernmost city of the beautiful South island. That’s Nelson… which in fact lies in the geographic center of the country of NZ. The exact central point is marked by a little hill that is fun to climb for an averagely adventurous person. And locals say that hill has a very special energy!

As a place, all of Nelson has special energy. It is a one-Church town, and the Church provides a picturesque backdrop to the downtown street; laden with flower baskets that hang from each lamp-post, colorful awnings that extend soulful eateries, and plenty of knick-knack stores where you bump into the delightful residents. A half-day here is surely the least you must plan. And if you’re taking a bus, board one to Greymouth. A rented car is a better option though… because you don’t want to not-stop-at the amazing lakes and rivers along the way!

Nelson to Greymouth

Now we begin the adventure! As you start heading south, the first stop you must make is at a lake called Rotoroa. Note, this is different from the grand Lake Rotorua in the north island. Lake Rotoroa is by no means small either, and it is wonderfully peaceful, set in a valley of majestic mountains. Being about 10 minutes drive off the main highway, the lake is pretty isolated. Very clear. And extremely Zen!

Having started to experience the beauty of NZ’s abundant lakes, your next stop ought to be at a river. Not a normal river though. It’s the Buller River which has the slimmest suspension bridge you will ever find. And across that swing bridge are delicious trekking tracks and incredible flora that lies captured within an almost 360-degree circular bend in the Buller. Net, net, definitely a worth-cross!

From here, there are two ways to go forward and both are equally exciting. One is through the Victoria Forest Park directly to Greymouth and the other is through a more winding forest road (slower) towards Westport. The big deal about this second option is that short of Westport you will turn to the left and start your west coast drive right along the coast. And this is the most glorious piece of the Pacific Ocean you might ever see!

Especially recommended is a stop at Punakaiki, which is between Westport and Greymouth. This is the place of ‘Pancake Rocks’. An incredibly well laid out park between the highway and the ocean will walk you through this artistry of nature. Pancake rocks are exactly that – pancake shaped rocks, which are the result of millions of years of a serious partnership between the wind, the earth and the ocean!

Greymouth to Fox Glacier

You will not enter Greymouth until you drive over a delightfully long bridge across the Grey River, right where it meets the ocean. It is recommended to be at this spot around sunset (check local timings depending on the time of the year) because it is rare to see one from such a perspective. From Punakaiki the bridge is about 45 minutes away, so do plan departure accordingly.

A night-halt at Greymouth is certainly recommended because this city is lively and well spread out. It also has a railway terminus which is quite quaint and unusual in New Zealand. And then, if you have arrived by bus, you might want to take a quick tour north to Punakaiki before heading south to the Glaciers the next day! The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are about 45 minutes apart, and about 4 hours drive from Greymouth. But it will take longer because you will want to stop at Hokatika town. In my view, this is the cutest town in NZ, with some of the coolest shops for gift stuff and general window shopping!

Once you reach Fox, you might like to make a night-halt again because the walks through the forests – to see the Glaciers – are must-dos next morning. It is perhaps only in NZ that one finds lakes, rivers, oceans and even glaciers right by the roadside on a single, casual drive! Of course several people take 10-minute helicopter rides up to the top of the glacier (to land on it) but you mustn’t forget to carry clothes for the cold to do that!

At night you might also want to go glow-worm watching in the forest strip along the Fox highway. It is brilliant! And surely before you leave Fox, you must take a short drive (and long pleasant forest walk) to Lake Matheson; an incredible place to catch Mt Cook from across a long lake surface. It is perhaps one of the most photographed lakes of NZ!

Fox Glacier to Wanaka

Again a 4-hour drive, this is one you might want to make at a go, to maximize your time in beautiful Wanaka. You will pass between the huge lakes – Hawea and Wanaka, and the highway generously provides long stretches alongside each of them. The town is nature-intensive, being next to one end of the Wanaka Lake, and a boat ride is surely fun. If you have kids, or are one, Puzzling World is fun – and great learning too. And on the outskirts is Albert Town, and a Lavender Farm which is truly dazzling. They also have a cafe-cum-shop that serves lavender teas, lavender chocolates and everything lavender!

So, depending on the time on hand, either stay here or move on to Arrowtown. This town oozes of the 1800s, unpolluted by modernization. In those years Chinese settlers mined for gold in these parts and a lot of their history abounds this region. Having a meal in Arrowtown is the best way to savor its stillness.

And now you are a very short drive away from Queenstown. There are at least 3 routes connecting the two, so take one that passes past Frankton. Why? It doesn’t have intimidating mountainsides to drive on and offers better views of the peaks and turquoise rivers that you will drive past.

Once in Queenstown you are all set for your next set of adventures to Milford Sounds and the Fiord country! Enjoy!


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Ana D

February 13, 2019

Thanks for this information, it was so helpful for my trip, Now i know more things about that place and can make a better plan.