It seems fortuitous to start your epic west coast adventure of 1000+km of the rugged west coast of the South Island in New Zealand’s sunniest city. Can Nelson’s 300+ days of sunshine come along for your ride too? The stunning route down to Invercargill reveals dramatic mountains, dense bushland, native forest and awe inspiring glaciers. The area is sparse, even by NZ standards, but that doesn’t mean that it’s scant on things to do. We’ve packed impressive hikes, daring activities, idyllic vistas and quintessentially New Zealand homesteads into this 13-day itinerary.
Depart Nelson for Abel Tasman National Park, ready for your two-day exploration of the Golden Bay. Accommodation close to the park fills up fast so also check Airbnb as many smaller – but still fabulous - places are listed there.
Abel Tasman National Park is one of New Zealand’s most famous reserves. The glorious 51km coastal track winds its way across ridges overlooking the impressive sandy beaches of the Tasman Bay and is best seen on foot or from the water.
See the highlights in two days in a couple of ways - either make a base from Marahau and spend one day exploring on foot, the other on kayak; or opt for the 2-day Abel Tasman Adventure Journey that Aquataxi put together. It’s unguided so you can go at your own pace but they take care of the water taxis - including a fur seals side trip - and an overnight stay on the floating accommodation of Aquapackers. Your tramping (Kiwi speak for hiking) time today is around 5-6 hours from Onetahuti to Anchorage. If you arrive in time, talk to the Aquapackers team about renting a kayak before sundown.
Rise early today to continue your Abel Tasman journey, back to Marahau, passing iconic Split Apple Rock on the way. This relatively easy 12km tramp can be completed in less than four hours, ensuring you can grab delicious fish, chips or a burger at the famed Fat Tui food truck in Marahau (please note they shut up shop over the winter months.)
For an audacious end to your time in this region, head to Farewell Spit, the northernmost point of the South Island and largest sandbar in the world. This bird sanctuary and wetland of international importance presents open sea on one side, a sheltered bay on the other and over 30km of sand dunes in-between. It is home to many migratory wading birds who travel round trips of up to 29,000 kms per annum (and can be seen from September to April) as well as New Zealand’s newest gannet colony. Farewell Spit is only accessible on foot (or by 4WD tour) so park up at Triangle Flat car park and head out on Split Track Circuit, a 6km or 12km hike onto the spit over the awesome golden dunes.
Before reaching the west coast today, it’s worth a detour into the Nelson Lakes National Park. The glacier-carved waters of Rotoiti Lake make a fine picnic location and there are plenty of short walks to access greater viewing spots. (But please avoid Mt Robert car park as there have been a few vehicle thefts.)
Follow the road alongside Lake Rotoiti as it makes it way to Buller River and the famed Buller Gorge - which has proved a challenge to explorers and tradesman over the years, until NZ’s longest swing bridge - 110m - solved the problem. You can walk across it for $10, or if the thrills of the bridge aren’t enough, consider the Supaman ride for a daring harnessed flight.
Not every visitor that tackles the South Island’s west coast makes it to Karamea but it’s worth your time. Lush rainforest, 35-million-year-old limestone caves, and ancient Maori culture make it a captivating destination. Visit the limestone formations of the Oparara Arch – the largest in the Southern Hemisphere – and the Honeycomb Caves where untouched bushland preserved the bones of the extinct Moa bird. The 15km length of tunnels make a guided walk worthwhile here, and can be arranged at the Karamea information centre.
Karamea is the southern entrance to the 82km Heaphy Track – one of New Zealand’s nine great walks. The tramp traditionally takes four days through rainforest, tussock grasslands, craggy mountains and palm-fringed shoreline. For the perfect teaser, just hike the 3km Heaphy Track section from Kohaihai to Scotts Beach to gain a tiny taste of this ancient Maori trail.
Head South from Karamea, past Westport, to reach Cape Foulwind, because for great seal appeal, Cape Foulwind is a must! This is New Zealand’s most accessible seal colony and they visit here all year-round (although the bull seals arrive here to mate from October to March and this is also the time when the pups are at their most playful). Therefore a pit stop here is a no brainer. There is a 10-minute walk to the viewing platform, or a 3-hour return trip walk as an alternative if you feel like finding out why Captain Cook coined this Capes name. If mining holds interest, stop by Denniston en-route to Cape Foulwind, or if you are a surfer, then the cafe end of Tauranga Bay is the best surf in the area.
Who doesn’t love pancakes? Paparoa offers an alternative kind - the pancake rocks of Punakaiki in Paparoa National Park. At a whopping 30 million years old, this natural work of art is punctuated by the rushing plumes of water emitting from the blowholes dotted throughout. Take the 45-minute Dolomite Point walk to see the best of them.
Greymouth provides a natural resting point as the largest town on the South Islands’ west coast. If you arrive before 6pm, put on your important taste testers hat and head to Monteith’s brewery for their evening tour.
In Maori mythology, taniwha are beings that live deep in rivers, caves or in the sea, particularly when the currents are perilous. Prepare to meet these legends before tackling the 5-hour Taniwha Blackwater Cave Rafting tour. You can choose from walk-in, zip-in or abseil option to enter the cave.
For an authentic Maori experience, the one-of-a-kind Arahura Greenstone Tour delivers. Uncover local myths from your Kati Waewae tribe, guardians of the Arahura River. Here pounamu (greenstone) is coveted and your Maori guide will help your stone find you - as per local lore - and teach you how to carve your stone into a necklace. If you’re interested in greenstone but not the tour, check out the beaches in Greymouth or the mouth of the Hokitika River. Please note, the Arahura River is sacred land and you must not collect greenstone on your own.
With powerful beaches against a stunning mountain backdrop, the sleepy town of Hokitika is the only one on this journey that is right on the coast. Famed for its art, pounamu and as gateway to the glaciers, Hokitika is considered the heritage and cultural centre of the South Island’s west coast. Time your arrival to visit the driftwood art on Hokitika Beach at sunset. Book in at quintessential kiwi bach 'The Nest' or take a turn at glamping at Hurunui Jacks, sleeping amidst their 30 acres on the banks of the Kaniere River. Alternatively, the gold rush heritage of Teichelmann’s B&B wins for a more central Hokitika option.
Hashtag #nofilter is necessary today as you make a worthwhile detour to the aquamarine waters of the Hokitika Gorge. The colour is out of this world! (Please take some insect repellent as the sand flies are super friendly.). This easy 15-minute walk takes you to the swing bridge and across the crystalline Hokitika River. Return to Hokitika and sample Fat Pipi’s for lunch before heading back out onto the road.
New Zealand’s most famous glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox are located around two hours south of Hokitika and only 25km apart. Franz Josef is NZ’s fast moving glacier and Fox is the largest. The crevasses and ice caves of Franz Josef make it more likely to reveal the striking blue ice hues. This is one part of the trip where you don’t want to have a firm grip on your wallet. The best way to experience the glacier is by being over or on it, and a heli-hike achieves both. Chopper to the glacier, hike for three hours and then later relish in a soak at the glacier hot pools. It’s a magical half-day adventure. For Franz Josef stays, Rainforest Retreat is popular and if you’re looking for somewhere a little bit different The Church at Fox is an extraordinary place listed on Airbnb.
NZ has many skydiving hotspots but nothing beats leaping out over Fox Glacier, Mt Cook and the breathtaking views of Westland National Park as you plummet back to earth. Allow two hours for this traveller extravaganza and if you’re good with early mornings, book the 7am spot to get the most out of your day.
Take a 30-minute walk through verdant rainforest to reach isolated Monro Beach, habitat for the Fiordland crested penguin – one of the rarest in the world. If you do spot a penguin, keep your distance. Seals can also be observed from here. Be prepared for pesky sandflies (bring some repellent) and think about a detour to the mirror reflections of Lake Matheson en-route.
The remarkable UNESCO World Heritage area at Haast delivers an intense array of natural features here, including the wetlands, dunes, beaches, and lakes as well as an abundance of native wildlife. Activities in Haast are mainly outdoors related, including the jet boat tour, whitebait fishing, and tramping. Head to the informative Haast Visitor Centre where they have a short video capturing the splendour of the region. If time allows, opt to make a 2-hour detour to devour freshly caught fish, with chips, at the Craypot in Jackson Bay - one of the most remote villages in New Zealand.
Continue on to the breathtaking Haast Highway and stop at both the precipitous gorge crossing at the Gates of Haast and the Blue Pools Walk – a 30-minute amble to translucent waters.
You can’t quite put your finger on it, but there is something quite magical about Wanaka. The picture-perfect lakeside location, laidback vibes, and proximity to stunning mountains make this a must-do on your adventure. Airbnb or Bookabach offer the best chance of getting a lakeside place without blowing your budget. Head to quirky Cinema Paradiso tonight no matter what movie is showing - the freshly-baked half-time cookies will make up for any kind of movie shortfall!
Rise early and drive to the entry point to Mt Aspiring National Park, Rob Roy Glacier track. This 3-4 hour hike takes you on a journey through alpine scenery of gushing waterfalls to magnificent glaciers under the towering presence of Mt Rob Roy. The glaciers are active so stay alert but the bigger threats here are the mischievous kea birds that will stop at nothing to capture your trail mix.
A travel moment of a lifetime awaits you at Mou Waho – the lake on the island in a lake! This little-visited, protected conservation island has neither roads nor infrastructure so it’s just you and the elements (and maybe a handful of other visitors). It is a predator free island and is home to the rare and flightless Weka. Eco Wanaka offers tours (Lake Cruise and Island Nature Walk) where, with DOC approval, you can plant a tree as part your eco experience. Mou Waho can be reached by water taxi and the skipper will fill you in on the rich geological heritage found here. The 1.30pm taxi will allow you to do Rob Roy in the morning and still make the island. Book early, as spaces are limited.
Driving the Crown Range is as rewarding as it is windy. Stop for a short black and brekkie (that’s Kiwi for coffee and breakfast) at the historic Cardrona Hotel, one of New Zealand’s oldest and most iconic. Or if you choose to ski the slopes of Cardrona for the day, pop in after skiing for potato skins and a beer or mulled wine (only one for the designated driver) and hang out with other skiers in the garden chatting around the brassiers. Be cautious over the Crown Range (check the road report) as it is very weather affected and if there has been snow or a storm it’s crossing can be treacherous. For LOTR fans, drive up Mt Cardrona in the warmer months for views of Middle Earth.
New Zealand’s most exhilarating destination, Queenstown is like a gorgeous supermodel - every angle looks perfect and she knows just how to catch the light. With stunning scenery, appetising restaurants, a buzzing nightlife and all the blood-pumping thrills you can think of, Queenstown is a firm fave. Famed for bungy jumping, you’ll also find Queenstown serving up adventures via jetboating, paragliding, skydiving, skiing, scenic flights, luging and so much more. Apartments deliver the best value accommodation here and all are on Bookabach or Airbnb.
To get your bearings on arrival, ride the Skyline Gondola and witness scenery that will remind you why NZ has it’s reputation for incredible land and water scapes. Before you gondola back down take the time for the hijinks of the luge. From a skyline high to a culinary one, no visit to Queenstown is complete without a bite at Ferg Burger, a pizza at The Cow or an ice cream from Patagonia.