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A New Zealand Travel Guide

The South Island's West Coast, New Zealand

"A heritage of mining shapes the land and the people"

West Coast

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The Coast - there's only one "Coast" with a capital C in NZ - is one of the most romantic and fascinating areas in the country, especially if you're into nature tourism.

Indeed, in that case it is one of the richest of regions. The southern reaches of the West Coast are a World Heritage Park area . . . for very good reason: They are home to the world's only example of pre-dinosaur forest. More about that later.

A recovering wilderness is probably the best description of the region. Its history is that of extractive exploitation. Now don't read me wrong - I'm not an anti-mining and anti-milling nutter and, overall, mining and milling were probably good for The Coast. Without them there wouldn't be more than a few metres of mud track - no roads, no development and therefore no significant opportunity to explore today.

But no doubt about it, they have shaped both the past and the future of this long narrow strip sandwiched between the Tasman Sea and the sheer wall of the Southern Alps.

No other region in NZ celebrates its individuality and regional identity quite as much as the West Coast. "Coasters" are different. They know it and they rejoice in it. Nowhere in the country does the pioneer past lie so close to the surface of contemporary life. Making a living here has always been hard. Mining, timber milling, farming, fishing . . . they're all hard yakker and they breed hard people. Individualists, self reliant, self-contained, and like all pioneering folk, wonderfully hospitable.

Take your time here - time moves slower here anyway. Take time to wander off into the rainforest. Take time to explore a sub-tropical glacier. Take time to breast the bar in a fair-dinkum Coast pub and study the natives in their natural habitat. Nowhere else in the country will you get a more authentic "Kiwi" experience.

Wanaka to Haast

All the way across this road you'll be entranced by the loveliness of the bush. A soft, green gentle forest.

This is the forest as it was in the ancient supercontinent, Gondwanaland. This is a forest that pre-dates dinosaurs. When the dinosaur became the dominant animal species, they, unlike any predecessor, browsed on plant life. In order to overcome the constant defoliation, the plant life had to adopt a faster breeding cycle - so they developed bright flowers to attract insects as a pollination vector.

Now you'll notice that in the NZ bush there are relatively few flowers. That's because the primeval forest here did not have dinosaurs, nor any other sort of broad-scale browsing animal.

That's why introduced species like deer and opossums have had such a devastating effect. This forest land was never designed to take that level of grazing pressure.

Don't let all this animal-rights pressure-group political indoctrination put you off wearing one sort of animal fur - possum, a.k.a. kiwibear. You'll do our economy and our forest land a big favour by buying anything made of the hide of this forestland pestilence.

Have your camera well loaded with plenty of available memory - along this stretch of road there have been many prize-winning shots snapped. But the subjects are subtle rather than bold . . . keep a watchful eye for them.

Haast to the Glaciers

The Glaciers: There are two . . . well, two down here at an altitude that makes them easily accessible.

There is something quite unique about these rivers of ice - they crash down into a temperate rain forest. Nowhere else on Spaceship Earth does that happen. (Think about it for a moment. It is a bit weird, ain't it??). How come? The juxtaposition of a steeply rising mountain chain and a warm ocean current not far off shore.

The Southern Alps are very young mountains. Thus they are steep and high - time and torrent have yet to tame them. They rear up suddenly from the narrow coastal plain that we call the West Coast. In most places it's only a few km from the seashore to the toes of the mountains. Indeed, on the southern reaches of the road - the bit from Haast to Moeraki - the mountains paddle those toes in the tide along a coastline very reminiscent of California's Big Sur. But I digress.

Just offshore, a warm current sweeps down the coastline bringing an almost sub-tropical lushness to the vegetation. Palm trees thrive here, only kms from the tongue tip of a glacier.

The Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier. Fox is slightly the more accessible. A walk from the car park to the terminal face of the glacier is about an hour round trip.

One word of advice - don't go clambering around on the ice itself without proper equipment and guidance. These are dangerous beasts.

Local guides have a variety of expeditionary options to both the Fox Glacier and the Franz.

To get a view from up above there is a range of flightseeing options including landings on either glacier:

Fox Glacier

Probably slightly the more interesting of the two townships. Go out to
Lake Matheson especially on a still morning or evening. The lake is one of NZ's most photographed spots, reflecting the near mountains with mirror-like fidelity.

Franz Josef

There are several delightful short walks in and around the township. Whitewater rafting on the Waiho River, or kayak on beautiful Lake Mapourika.

At nearby Lake Okarito is one of the nesting grounds of the rare kotuku, the white heron. You can go on foot, but take a guided tour for a really good look.

Take a look at the Anglican Church of St James. Its altar window is another famous photograph (it appeared on one of our stamps many years ago before such things were considered good commercial subjects). It's certainly a match for any stained glass.

The Glaciers to Greymouth:


Have a hankering to go gold prospecting out in the wild? Problem is, or problems are, a) you have to get a licence to a particular claim and b) it's such damned hard work. DOC has solved the first problem by setting aside recreational gold panning areas. You can even camp in some of them. No licence is required. After a while, you'll solve the second problem by repairing to the nearest warm watering hole. Believe me, after a short time of this back-breaking task standing hock deep in ice cold water you'll happily settle for going back to the nine-to-five grind at work.


Worth the walk if you have the time is
Ross Goldfields Heritage Centre. The Water-race Walkway is an easy 45-60min stroll through restored goldmine workings.

The City Hotel on the main road here is a gem. It looks as rough as sacks, and it is. But it's also a genuine piece of Coast history. In 1907 two miners discovered a nugget the size of a small loaf of bread and weighing 2.83kg. The locals christened it "The Hon. Roddy" after the then Minister of Mines, Hon Roderick McKenzie. It was bought by the City Hotel's publican and put on display in the hotel, and in true Coast style - you gotta admit these guys have style - he used it as a door stop!! In a pub!!! And it never went missing.


This is technically the "capital" of the coast, though Greymouth is a far larger town. But politics is an ancient sport here . . . many of the great labour conflicts were fought and won or lost with Coast miners in the vanguard . . . and Hokitika clings to its remnant of power.

It's well worth a diversion because here you'll get some of the best quality artefacts in the country - I wouldn't demean the best of them by calling them "souvenirs". They are much more than that.

In the rivers of the region greenstone is found - a high quality nephritic jade - and local artisans turn it into carvings that range from excellent craft to works of art.  You can also see glass-blowers at work and workshops that convert natural gold nuggets from the region into unique jewellery. t.

If you're here in March, time your stay to catch the Hokitika Wild Foods Festival . . . all the finest in wild cuisine from the bush, rivers and sea. It's not only wild - some of it is outright weird. Huhu grubs, gumboot milkshakes, gorse flower wine, sphagnum moss candy floss, high protein earthworms, blue fin tuna, scallops, whisky sausages, mussels, possum and bambi burgers, kumara patties, home made ice cream, pigs trotters, West Coast whitebait etc.


Biggest local attraction is
Shantytown, a recreation of a gold-mining town of the 1860s. Not as good as a carefully maintained original - but where would you find one of those - so  not bad re-creation nonetheless. Pan for gold, ride on a steam train or in a horse and trap, poke in and around the 30 historic buildings such as the printing works, the carpenter's shop, the sawmill  . . . or the jail.

Fancy a schooner of the local brew? Take a tour of Monteiths Brewery. Top drop - ask any Coaster..

You can also a slew of adventure activities such as rafting and quad biking.

Greymouth to Christchurch

Up and over the dizzy heights of Arthur's Pass. A spectacular road through a raw and elemental landscape. Stop for a look at the
Arthurs Pass National Park Visitors Centre. They have there the last of the coaches used by Cobb & Co on the road last century. The road over the mountains is a spectacular journey - not quite as hair raising as in former years now that a long viaduct has been built to smooth out the twists and turns of the "Devil's Staircase" as it writhed its way up the sheer western wall of the route - but still a stunning run nonetheless.

The railway - because trains don't do hills all that well - had to burrow under said "hill" and the Otira Tunnel is still one of the longer railway tunnels in the world. It's a highlight of the now-famous Tranzalpine train journey that daily makes a return crossing from Christchurch to Greymouth and back. There's no doubt that this is a big attraction and in summer you'll have to book well in advance.

Greymouth to Nelson/Blenheim/Picton

Take State Highway 6 north from Greymouth (there's also an inland route) to
Punakaiki Rocks. ("Punakaiki" is a Maori approximation of the work "pancake" - and you'll quickly understand why they're called the Pancake Rocks). Dramatic coastal rock formations - a must-stop.

Get a closer look at the wild beauty of the coast by kayaking on one of the local rivers in the Paparoa National Park.

Stop in at Mitchell's Gully Gold Mine - a genuine working gold-mine. Although it has won tourist awards, it is still run first and foremost as a gold mine, using traditional methods, rather than as a tourist attraction.

As an alternative to the SH6 route between Charleston and Westport, divert off to Cape Foulwind to see the Seal Colony.

In Westport stop off for a look at Coaltown Museum. It is museum, a recreation, of the coal mining industry. But if you'd really like to see coal mining in action Underground Union Experience is probably my pick of the Wesport experiences - a two hour guided journey underground in a real coal mine, reliving the lives of the old Denniston miners. You'll also get to see the world-famous (among miners) Denniston Incline.

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Arrival  Formalities



A Regional Guide




12 March 2012