West Coast (New Zealand)

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.

Towns

The isolated coast in stormy weather

Listed from north to south:

Other destinations

Understand

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.

Get in

By air

Air New Zealand flies from Christchurch to Hokitika every day. Sounds Air has one to three flights a day Su–F from Wellington to Westport.

By road

From the north

From the east

This road has a number of steep grades and sharp corners - towing caravans or trailers over this route is not advised. Until recently, the descent from the top of Arthurs Pass to Otira included a single lane section that was subject to rockfalls. It has now been replaced with a viaduct.
Historically, this is 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 Arthurs Pass National Park headquarters in Arthurs Pass township, even if it is only for a quick break.

From the south

By train

By coach

Get around

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.

See

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.

There are many beautiful lakes which are easily accessible by car:

Do

Eat

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.

The annual Wild Foods Festival is a must-do if you happen to be on the Coast at the right time of year.

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.

Drink

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.

Sleep

The area has a good supply of backpacker accommodation. These are generally all equipped with a bar that will stay open into the wee small hours.

Stay safe

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.

Connect

Do not rely on mobile telephones working outside of the settlements of Westport, Punakaiki, Greymouth, Hokitika, Whataroa, Franz Josef and Fox. After you leave Fox there is no more cellphone coverage until Wanaka.

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 and Greymouth. Some Holiday Parks may also have Internet for a fee.

Go next

Nelson, Christchurch or Queenstown. You can always come back for another look if you go to Te Anau and take the long road back through the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, October 29, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.