The Ultimate West Coast Itinerary – Exploring New Zealand’s South Island
The West Coast is exactly what you’d hope for when visiting New Zealand – it’s imposing, rugged and above all else, beautiful.
Wedged between towering mountains and the crashing sea, the West Coast is the region forgotten by the rest of its country. Our trees are skyscrapers that touch the sky, our rivers and lakes are the best New Zealand has to offer and our attractions are authentic.
So if you yearn for something more from your holiday; real people, real towns and real experiences, then this is the place for you. Be prepared to be astounded, have your breath taken away, be at a loss for words, as this is the West Coast.
The coast has a commanding presence that needs to be seen to be believed. So, what are you waiting for?
To help you on your way, we’ve put together a run down of our own week-long itinerary to help you see the very best of the West Coast.
Isn’t it time you packed your bags and discovered the real Aotearoa?
Pro Tip: Though New Zealand isn’t exactly a cheap country to travel in, with fantastic budgeting tips and mindful planning it doesn’t need to be as expensive as you might be expecting.
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Our jumping off point, Christchurch, is the largest city in the South Island of New Zealand and the third largest in the country.
If you’re flying into the South Island, it will likely be your first stop, at which point you’ll have to decide if you travel across to the coast by plane, train, rental car or coach.
Getting to Christchurch
Auckland to Christchurch on Air New Zealand – our favourite airline!
Time in Christchurch
1 night before continuing through to Greymouth on the TranzAlpine the following morning.
Where to Stay in Christchurch
Sudima Hotel Christchurch Airport. Conveniently located walking distance from the airport.
How to Get to the West Coast
The best way to travel to the West Coast, we enjoyed a morning on the TranzAlpine checking out incredible alpine scenery in style – it’s an absolute must!
The end of the line for the TranzAlpine is also the mid-point of the West Coast so any arrival there will position you perfectly to explore both the northern and southern parts of the West Coast.
Getting Around the West Coast
We picked up a rental car from Hertz which we then used for the duration of our trip.
Book: Discounted rental cars in New Zealand.
Time in Greymouth
Though we didn’t have time to stop in Greymouth, there is plenty to do there if you have more time than us.
Known for its unique rock formations and powerful seashore, Punakaiki is one of the West Coast’s real sightseeing highlights.
Time in Punakaiki
The afternoon to explore and 1 night.
Where to Stay in Punakaiki
Tasman Sea Resort. Experience world-class service and unbelievable views.
What to do in Punakaiki
- Punakaiki Canoes. Explore the stunning Paparoa National Park by kayak. Make your way up the Pororari River, through a towering limestone gorge lined by native rainforest.
- Visit the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. This unique coastal rock formation is iconic on the Coast and free to visit. Have your camera ready!
Where to Eat in Punakaiki
We recommend grabbing a bit to eat at the Pancake Rocks Cafe. All of the food was delicious (I’d recommend the steak), but whatever you order, get yourself a side of fries – they were amazing.
This little town, that prior to this trip we’d only ever driven straight through, has an amazing underground secret that’s well worth stopping for. Make sure you’ve got your togs packed and get ready for some serious fun!
Time in Charleston
Just the day for our activity before driving onwards.
What to do in Charleston
Cave rafting with Underworld Adventures. If you’re looking for serious fun, this is a must – it was one of our favourites on the coast! The team will kit you up with all of the gear you need to stay warm but we certainly can’t promise you’ll stay dry – quite the opposite.
Riding a little custom-built train into the rainforest, you’ll hike to the mouth of their caving system. From there, you’ll explore three levels of the cave on foot before taking to the water on your tube and floating through masses of New Zealand glow worms. Finally, you’ll wade through the river and hop back onboard your ring to ride the rapids back to your starting point. Plenty of giggles guaranteed!
Where to Eat in Charleston
Underworld Cafe. They do a great toasted sandwich for breakfast.
The northernmost settlement on the West Coast, Karamea is a little off the well-worn tourist path – but not for much longer! This little community has a great deal of heart and some fantastic nature-based activities for those that go exploring.
Time in Karamea
1 night and 1 day.
Where to Stay in Karamea
Karamea River Motels. Clean, tidy and comfortable, this is a great option in Karamea.
What to do in Karamea
- Oparara Kahurangi National Park Guided Tours: Guided Cave Tour. Begin with a gentle hike through the stunning national park before descending down into the Honeycomb Hill Cave where you’ll find bones of the extinct moa and a number of interesting cave features. When your guided hike is over you’ll warm up with hot drinks and delicious home baking before being free to explore the rest of the national park at your own pace. Important to know: Parts of the national park are only accessible with a guide – this includes the Honeycomb Hill Cave.
- Self-guided walk through the Oparara Basin. With two stunning arches to explore and a number of additional walks in the national park, it’s easy to spend a day in Kahurangi. The Oparara Arch flanks a beautiful tannin-stained river all the way up to the arch itself (which is 219 metres long, 79 metres wide and 43 metres tall!) but it was the smaller Moira Arch that I particularly enjoyed. There, you can climb down into the arch itself for stunning photos.
The largest settlement in the northern region of the West Coast, Westport is an ideal stop as you travel from Karamea and Charleston and also provides an excellent opportunity to stock up on supplies.
Time in Westport
1 afternoon and 1 night.
Where to Stay in Westport
Buller Court on Palmerston. A lovely little refurbished motel, Buller Court is well positioned in Westport and with fresh shortbread served up, you know you’re onto a good thing! The beds there are incredibly comfortable too.
What to do in Westport
Cape Foulwind and Seal Colony Walk. This is one of the most accessible seal colonies in the country and whilst it’s great all year, October to March is when the massive bull seals return to mate (and you have the best chance of seeing playful pups). Rug up warm for your walk as the wind really can get up.
Pro Tip: If you’re feeling really energetic, continue your walk past the seals and you’ll reach the lighthouse. Or, if you’d rather drive, you can re-park your car in the lighthouse carpark after returning from the seals.
Where to Eat in Westport
Smiley’s Pizza & Takeaways. Literally the best takeaway fish and chips we’ve ever had – yum!
Our favourite little town on the West Coast, Hokitika has a fabulous arty, seaside feel to it. There’s plenty to do in the area too so definitely book yourself a day or two in the region to explore properly.
Time in Hokitika
1 day and 1 night.
Where to Stay in Hokitika
Stations Inn. Located an easy drive out of town, Stations Inn is a boutique semi-rural property overlooking a field of alpacas – could you ask for more?
What to do in Hokitika
- Visit the Hokitika Gorge. With its incredible blue glacier-fed pools, it’s like something off of a postcard.
- Check out Lake Kaniere and the Dorothy Falls. With crystal clear water, the lake would be a perfect spot to cool off in the summertime.
- Pick up some luncheon sausage from the supermarket and head along to feed New Zealand eels in the wild!
- West Coast Scenic Waterways: Sunset Cruise. Cruising up the Mahinapua Creek and onto Lake Mahinapua, you’ll be treated to spectacular views of Aoraki Mount Cook (our tallest mountain) and the Southern Alps, along with lush rainforest full of native birds. The reflections on the water are out of this world and with comfy beanbags to relax on, it’s the perfect way to lay back and soak in your surroundings.
- When the sun goes down, head along to the Glow Worm Dell to see thousands of these little guys in their natural habitat.
Related: The best things to do in Hokitika.
What to Buy in Hokitika
If there’s one souvenir that’s worth taking home with you when visiting New Zealand, it’s a piece of pounamu (New Zealand jade). Mountain Jade specialise in a variety of jade carvings and can explain the differences and help you pick out the perfect piece.
If you’re in town at 9.30am or 2.30pm, swing by their larger shop to join a ‘Jade Discovery Tour’ free of charge.
Where to Eat in Hokitika
- Stella Cafe. The best bacon and egg butties in town!
- Stations Inn Waterwheel Restaurant. Having won a place in the NZ Beef + Lamb Awards every year since 2005, it’s not surprising that this is a restaurant for special occasions. With competitive pricing and the most incredible pork belly dish, I’d be tempted to visit all the time if I were a local!
One of the real tourism hot-spots on the West Coast, visitors flock to this region to see the glaciers – made all the more special when you consider they’re right in the middle of a temperate rainforest.
Time in Franz Josef
2 days and 1 night.
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
Rainforest Retreat. Easily our favourite accommodation of the trip – the Deluxe Tree Huts are perfectly tucked away in the bush. Fitted out with incredible beds, all the mod-cons and a complimentary mini-bar, be sure to factor in some time to relax and really enjoy your room!
What to do in Franz Josef
- Glacier Valley: Franz Josef Eco Tour. Though we’d both visited the Franz Josef glacier before, we’d never seen it through the eyes of a nature guide. Cliff really brought the walk to life for us both. He got us off the main trail, pointed out little treasures that we’d never have noticed ourselves and shared his obvious passion and knowledge with us. When we looked at the other travellers walking right past points of interest (and other companies with tours of 25+ as opposed to our group of 4), we knew we’d made the right choice to join him.
- Glacier Hot Pools. Tucked away in dense rainforest, listening to the sound of gently cascading water, it’s hard to feel anything but relaxed when you visit the warm waters of the Glacier Hot Pools. Pro tip: We recommend treating yourself to the private pool upgrade whilst visiting – it’s an affordable way to splash out.
- Franz Josef Glacier Guides: Glacier Heli Hike. The main reason we visited the West Coast, our heli hike was everything we’d hoped for and more. After being kitted out, you’ll be flown up onto the glacier where you’ll squeeze, climb and traverse the ice on an adventure of a lifetime. The photos really speak for themselves!
Related: Our favourite hot pools in the South Island | The best things to do in Franz Josef.
Where to Eat in Franz Josef
- Snake Bite. For the best coffee in town and quick cabinet food for lunch.
Fox Glacier Township
The slightly quieter little brother to Franz, Fox is definitely worth stopping over at – whether it be to visit the Fox Glacier or in the hopes of catching that perfect mirror reflection off of Lake Matheson. It is also home to a number of worthwhile walks.
Time in Fox Glacier Township
1 afternoon, 1 night & 1 morning.
Where to Stay in Fox
Distinction Hotel Fox Glacier. Really comfortable rooms and a delicious breakfast the next morning.
What to do in Fox
- Lake Matheson Jetty Viewpoint. You just can’t beat Lake Matheson on a still day! With stunning views out to Mt Cook and Mt Tasman (and a picture-perfect reflection in the lake), be sure to have your camera at the ready. To take it up a notch, head out just before sunrise/sunset – just remember that it will take you approximately 20 minutes to walk to the first jetty viewpoint.
- Mt Cook and Fox Glacier Lookout. Instead of turning right to Lake Matheson, continue driving for 5 minutes until you come to a little carpark just before the bridge. There you’ll find a small park that offers fantastic views of the surrounding mountains (and a clever dial that helps illustrate which is which).
- Walk up to the base of Fox Glacier.
Where to Eat in Fox
Cook Saddle. Here you’ll find really delicious pub food served with a smile. We’d highly recommend the pork ribs and chicken & bacon burger – seriously good food!
As far south as the West Coast officially runs, this region connects the coast with Wanaka and Queenstown. There’s plenty to do in Haast though!
Unfortunately, bad weather in Franz Josef delayed our heli hike by a day which meant we missed out on the Haast Whitebait Festival, heading out on the Haast River Safari (which looks absolutely amazing!) and checking out Thunder Creek Falls. We’re already planning our return to the region to make up for lost time though – we’ll certainly be back.
Time in Haast
1 night (with a longer stay had time allowed).
Where to Stay in Haast
Heartlands World Heritage Hotel. Warm and snuggly, the Heartlands World Heritage Hotel is an older property but it’s comfortable and well-located. They do a great breakfast too – I’m still dreaming of their hashbrowns!
What to do in Haast
Haast Heli: The Hanging Lakes Flight. It was a squeeze to fit an early morning flight in but we’re so pleased we did. Both Nathan and I were in awe of the incredible scenery of the Mt Aspiring National Park – easily the most scenic helicopter flight that we’ve ever been on! Rainforest, cascading rivers, massive waterfalls, mountainous lakes, sea-views and more – this flight has it all.
Where to Eat in Haast
The Frontier Café & Bar. If you’re looking for hearty kai, this is the place. With whitebait, fresh fish and chips and lamb shanks on the menu, they serve up the kind of food that puts a smile on your dial.
Returning to Christchurch
Drive along coast back to Greymouth and then up and over the beautiful Arthur’s Pass, before flying on with Air New Zealand.
How do you know that you’re onto a real gem of a spot?
Having spent eight full days on the South Island’s West Coast, we’ve returned home to Auckland with plans of returning back in the autumn as there’s still so much to discover!
Regardless of the time of year you visit, the West Coast offers so much to travellers. It’s unspoilt, unique and completely mesmerising.
Welcome to the real untamed natural wilderness.
Thank you to West Coast NZ for making this trip possible. All thoughts are our own.
I loved the seals in Westport! And Karamea is either the start or the end of the Heaphy if you feel like a multi day hike!
This is such a great itinerary! I might do exactly this when we visit NZ hopefully really soon! Its our next holiday for sure.
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