NZ Road Trip: South Island West Coast

Having lived for a year on the North Island we decided a visit to the South was well overdue. What better way to explore than a three week road trip of South Island highlights. With so many adventures we have had to split our trip into a week at a time, for the full route and road trip tips check out our blog The Road Trip Planner.


Heading off from Wellington, across Cook Strait, we cruised through the beautiful Marlborough Sound, arriving in Picton to our first glimpses of the South Island. We took the scenic Queen Charlotte drive around the winding coast and forest to our first destination, Abel Tasman National Park. The drive gave us amazing views of the finger-like spits of land that protrude into the sounds, the bays and inlets between them creating idyllic beach escapes. Along the coast we weaved past long sandy beaches to Marahau, a huge sandy beach with sand bars and spits creating gentle lagoons for paddling and kayaking. Our campsite for the evening was just back from the beach and we sat by the river and watched a fiery, fleeting sunset to finish off the first day of our adventure.

The following morning was a bit choppy for a paddle board so we headed to nearby Kaiteriteri beach. This golden sandy beach is a hotspot for tourists but go just a bit further and you’ll have the beach to yourself instead! We had a paddle here before continuing over the Takaka hills. Winding up hairpin bends, we stopped at incredible viewpoints to see all the way back to Nelson, before dropping into the lush valley the other side. On the way to our next campsite we visited the Waikoropupu Spring. A short forest walk brings you out to the dazzlingly blue pools of water. Churning out 10 cubic metres of calcium rich water a second, this swirling mass has built stalagmites and a unique ecosystem. The water is also incredibly clear an surrounded by stunning forest for a great detour.

Continuing west we arrived at our isolated campsite at Wharariki beach in the very North West of the island. Just 20mins walk from the campsite, through fields and sand dunes, lays the Wharariki beach. Much like the North Island the west coast down South is wild, carving out amazing rock features, caves and arches in the sea. Backed by vast windswept sand dunes it makes for a photogenic scene, you could spend hours wandering the length of the beach. In addition we spotted a seal pup playing in the rocks who seemed fairly relaxed about us watching, and valella (jelly fish-like sailors of the wind) washed up on the tide line, before returning to camp for the evening.

Leaving the golden sands of Abel Tasman behind, we headed inland and down the west coast. Passing through the vineyards and hops plantations of Motueka, the valley gradually turned to forest. We dipped up and down the hillside glimpsing the bright blue river as it meandered through white pebbles below. When we reached Westport we had our main stop of the journey at Cape Foulwind. The short walk along the cliffs showcases crashing white water and rocky shorelines, as we reached the lookout the black spots on the sea turned out to be seals. Hundreds of them all swimming or sat on the rocks below the cliff. There were pups playing, and large males fighting over space, and undoubtedly women! Despite the barrelling waves the seals are apt at diving off the rocks into the bubbling white water unscathed, it made for some fascinating watching.


Further south still we finally reached our destination for the evening; Punakaiki beach. The rugged coast here is skirted by rainforest, dappled with pockets of bright red Southern Rata. The campsite is right on the edge of the beach and we wandered the black sands looking for the infamous greenstone that washes up around the area. It’s an amazing beach, long and sandy, with a wind and wave swept stack, and the river estuary at the back edge. Here we sat and enjoyed a west coast sunset, out in the distance the waves crashed against the rocks spraying up watery silhouettes as the night drew in.

Along the road from Punakaiki are the intriguing pancake rocks, interestingly geologists are still unsure of the exact cause of these precise sediment layers. In any case they make a unique landscape and thanks to coastal erosion some eye-catching formations. A loop track takes you past the best stacks, arches and caves. There are even a couple of blow holes but our visit coincided with low tide so these were out of puff at the time.


Stopping in the west coast town of Greymouth to restock and visit the Monteith’s brewery for supplies, it was then on to Hokitika. Once at the heart of Gold mining in New Zealand the west coast has struggled since the mines closed, but now is recognised along the tourist route as the home of New Zealand Jade. Hokitika is a pretty town with a mountain backdrop, a slim but stretching beach front, and some good little shops. Being Christmas Eve we decided that some last minute shopping was in order and bought each other some Jade gifts before continuing on our way.

Inland from Hokitika we came across a highlight of the trip, along an unsealed road, and a short forest path – the Hokitika gorge. Easily surpassing all expectations we were blown away by the colour of the glacial waters here. Crossing over a suspension bridge, which Guy took great pleasure in bouncing as much as possible, the almost turquoise waters of the river below were breath taking. The colour is created by the glacial melt mixing with the limestone sediment, and although inviting the water was freezing! Despite the short walk the river seems as million miles from anywhere and we sat on the small rocky beach soaking in as much of the beauty of the place as we could in our short visit.


Beyond Hokitika, we passed mountains, floodplains and many more gorgeous glacial rivers on our way to our Airbnb in Franz Josef. Kahere Retreat; Our quaint hand built chalet for Christmas with views of the mountains.

Christmas was a relaxed affair, pretty different, but certainly memorable. We enjoyed a walk on Christmas morning around the gorgeous Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier. Circumnavigating the lake through moss covered native forest we stopped at viewpoints along the way to admire the views across the water to the mountains beyond, including the glaciers and Mt. Cook. Unfortunately, the reflective lake evaded us owing to a light breeze but this in no way detracted from the scenery. A wet afternoon meant that we had a fairly relaxed end to the day, spotting kiwi at the Franz Josef Wildlife Centre. Here they rear the incredibly rare Okarito kiwi to release back into the wild. There were three youngsters foraging around in the enclosure, although hard to spot they are pretty adorable, and funny things to watch. We certainly wouldn’t have been able to spot any wild ones so we enjoyed our encounter here instead. The rest of the day was spent curled up out of the rain in our stunning cabin with good food and champagne, a lovely unorthodox Christmas day.


Boxing day had thankfully brightened up and brought more adventure as we headed to Fox Glacier for our heli-hike! Taking the helicopter up to the glacier is an adventure of its own, banking up the valley with the steep forested cliffs either side and the river and glacier below, eventually landing on a make shift helipad on the ice. From here we donned cramp-ons to help us over the icy terrain and set off in a snail trail across the glacier. Above us the fractures of the steeper ice flow, and on our shallower ice (still moving at 40cm a day) we walked over undulating ridges, passing crevasses, pools, ice arches, caves and waterfalls. We made our way to Victoria Falls that cascades out of a hanging valley above, here there are some awesome blue ice features created by denser ice absorbing blue wave length light.

Our favourite feature though was an ice cave, bright blue and about 60cm high we slid in feet first using our crampons to pull us along through the cave and edging our way to the hole that acted as an exit. The heli-hike was an amazing experience and sadly one that might not be there forever but the scenery, flights and adventures on the ice made for an unforgettable visit to Fox Glacier. Back in Franz Josef we finished our stay on the west coast with a relaxing visit to the Glacier Hot pools. We had treated ourselves to a private pool here to sit and relax and warm up after our adventure on the ice. The perfect end to an adrenalin filled day.

The following morning it was regrettably time to leave our idyllic cabin and move away from the west coast. Passing the lovely beaches of Bruce Bay and Ships Creek we headed inland to the Haast region, immediately in awe of the scenery, high mountains, gravelly rivers, snowy peaks and waterfalls. We stopped at a number of the falls including Roaring Billy and Thunder Creek before visiting the Blue Pools. Much like Hokitika Gorge the water here is dazzling blue and we enjoyed a picnic on the rocks as we watched others jump off the bridge into the frigid water below, rather them than us!

After Haast it was onto the southern regions and our first stop down south, Wanaka….


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