NZ’s West Coast: Mother Nature’s playground

New Zealand’s West Coast is enjoying a resurgence of international interest after the wild and rugged region was hurtled headlong into the international limelight not once, but twice in the past year.

The South Island region - the longest in New Zealand - stretches 600km from Kahurangi Point to Awarua Point and includes iconic New Zealand townships like Westport, Greymouth, Hokitika, Franz Josef and Fox.

The town of Hokitika was on the tip of international tongues in 2013 after it featured in the Eleanor Catton, Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries.

In her epic 832 page-turner Catton writes about the small historic township during the gold-rush era of the 1800s. Speaking after her own historic win, Catton told reporters: "It feels like a victory for New Zealand and I feel so proud and pleased that so many readers will now be going to Hokitika...metaphorically speaking."

The Luminaries has since made a plethora of ‘best books of 2013’ lists.

Lonely Planet Top 10

The West Coast hit the headlines again, reaching number eight on Lonely Planet’s top 10 must-visit regions in 2014.

The influential travel publisher applauded the region for its diverse terrain, variety of adventures and new developments, including cycle ways, wilderness walks and easily accessible New Zealand nature.

It is not the first time the West Coast, often referred to as ‘mother nature’s playground,’ has made one of the publication’s top 10 lists - the Great Coast Road to Westport was named among the world’s best coastal drives and is the perfect route to explore the unfolding landscape.

The untamed coastline is a major draw card for visitors wanting to get away from it all. Pancake Rocks, near the small coastal settlement of Punakaiki, is a series of limestone bedrock formations created by nature.

These astonishing rocks are an estimated 30 million years old and are continuously shaped by the thundering Tasman Sea, creating a noisy and spectacular show as it smashes itself up, over and through the rocks as the tide changes.

Walks and national parks

National parks criss-crossed by some of New Zealand’s best walking trails occupy much of the West Coast which is New Zealand’s most protected region.

A variety of walking and hiking experiences cater for all abilities. One of the most rewarding is the Heaphy Track - a five-day, easy-ranked walk between Karamea and Golden Bay - which is often described as one of New Zealand’s best walks. The Heaphy Track offers the chance to explore tussock-filled landscapes giving way to moss-covered limestone, lush rainforest and rugged beaches.

Located towards the bottom of the region, ‘The Gates of Haast’ is a primeval wonderland and designated UNESCO World Heritage Area, acclaimed for its remoteness and abundance of native New Zealand wildlife.

Tours take visitors to view rare Hector’s dolphin and New Zealand fur seals or on water-borne adventures along pristine rivers. Beneath a towering mountain backdrop, a thrilling jet-boat safari travels the turquoise-hued waters of the Haast River.

Westland National Park

Westland Tai Poutini National Park is another West Coast treasure. Scenic lakes, glistening glaciers, temperate rainforest and remnants from the West Coast’s gold mining history all sit within Tai Poutini’s borders.

The park is also home to two of New Zealand’s thrilling natural wonders - Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier are also two of the world’s most accessible glaciers.

The glaciers are examples of the diverse locations and attractions the West Coast offers. The small tourist town of Franz Josef - just 5km from the glacier terminal face - has a variety of restaurant and accommodation options from backpackers to five-star luxury hotels and apartments.

Guided walks are one of the best ways to explore the glaciers. Franz Josef Glacier Guides offer plenty of options including heli-hikes, heli ice climbs and a glacier valley walk. The Glacier Hot Pools, located in the heart of the Franz Josef township and nestled in a rainforest, are the perfect place to end the day with a relaxing soak in the glacier-fed springs.

Less crowded than Franz Josef, Fox Glacier is another major West Coast tourist attraction. The glacier terminates within a temperate rainforest and at less than 300 metres above sea level. Activities include everything from easy guided or self-guided walks to scenic flights and heli-landings on the glacier.

Mesmerising Lake Matheson, described by Lonely Planet as "a hidden jewel" of the West Coast, is also part of the forested shoreline just 6km from Fox. On a good day, New Zealand’s highest peaks, Aoraki Mt Cook and Mt Tasman are reflected in the still mirror-like waters.

Culture & history

Culture and history are an integral part of the story of the West Coast and inspiring tales can be found across the region.

The Maori name for the West Coast is Te Tai Poutini - translated as ‘tides of Poutini’ in reference to the bountiful pounamu (New Zealand greenstone or jade) which is found exclusively in the river boulders and rocks of this region.

In Hokitika, Mountain Jade offers workshops and history talks giving visitors the chance to be captivated by the ethereal nature of this precious stone.

Gold Rush days

Gold is also an integral part of the West Coast’s fabric and it was the pursuit of riches that really put the region on the map during the gold rush era of the 1800s.

These roots are still celebrated on the West Coast with various artefacts from the glory days visible. Near Greymouth, visitors can take a trip through time as they explore over 30 historic buildings at the Shanty Town Heritage Park, a recreated village that delves into the history of the area.

In the scarcely populated town of Kumara, situated on the picturesque Great Alpine Highway, visitors can combine luxury with an old-world experience at the Theatre Royal Hotel.

Built in 1876, at the beginning of the Kumara gold rush, the hotel was a haven for miners looking to drink and play away their wealth. The derelict hotel was loving restored in 2010 and has since been awarded the prestigious ‘Best New / Redeveloped Accommodation Hotel’ category at the New Zealand Hospitality Awards.

Rooms at the Theatre Royal have themes like ‘Scottish Sandy’s Room’ and ‘Kick Dick’s’ while the Kumara area offers outdoor adventures including hunting and fishing and the chance to catch another of the West Coast’s most abundant delicacies, whitebait.

Tree Top Walkway

Just as the West Coast celebrates its colonial past, the region always has an eye on the future. West Coast Tree Top Walkway offers visitors the chance to experience the West Coast from above as visitors traverse a canopy of native rimu and kamahi trees from a 20 metre high, 450 metre long platform.

The West Coast Wilderness Trail is another outdoor adventure, flavoured with gold rush fever. The cycleway is the newest ride forming part of Nga Haerenga - The New Zealand Cycle Trail.

The recently opened four-day West Coast Wilderness Trail takes cyclists over old historic gold and rail trails between Greymouth, Ross and Hokitika. The trail passes through wetlands, rainforest, and wild black sand beaches populated with New zealand wildlife.

Natural beauty

The West Coast is a breath-taking slice of New Zealand with natural beauty, rugged landscapes and a colourful history, and writers of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 regions list couldn’t have been closer to the truth when they wrote:

"Here's your chance to venture into untamed territory normally well beyond your limits, such as the icy faces of Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, or beyond them into the midst of the Southern Alps on a scenic flight. Raft down the wild white waters of the Buller River or kayak across New Zealand's largest natural lagoon and up into narrow channels overhung with strange plants and enriched with birdlife. Those who think they've seen it all should prepare for some enlivening surprises…"