Whirlwind travelers (those trying to see all of New Zealand in a couple of weeks) rarely make it to the South Island’s west coast. That’s a shame because the west coast is beautiful in a way that is different from anywhere else on the island.
Parts of the Fiordland area that we loved so much, such as Doubtful and Milford Sounds, are technically on the South Island’s southwestern coast. But since no roads run along that remote stretch of coastline, the west coast is generally considered to start around the town of Haast, near the southern end of coastal Highway 6.
While exploring the west coast, we spent one night each in Haast and Franz Josef Glacier (the village, not the icefield) and two nights each in Hokitika and the colorfully named Cape Foulwind near Westport (where the weather was not foul at all). That slow progression meant we only had to drive for a few hours at a time, leaving lots of time for hiking, sightseeing, sketching, and taking care of such mundane activities as work and laundry.
The west coast packs a wide range of scenery into the less than 300 miles where Highway 6 hugs the coast. There are long, windswept beaches you can have almost to yourself; dunes and marshes full of bird song; forests of tall trees sculpted by the wind, dotted with ferns and the world’s southernmost palm trees; small towns founded by gold miners who flocked here from all over the world in the mid-1800s; and rocky headlands and sea stacks that shelter sea birds and seal colonies. The tall mountains just inland from the coast trap rain from clouds rolling in from the ocean, leaving the coast green and lush.
Some parts of the region reminded us of the coast of Oregon or of pictures we’ve seen of the Hawaiian Islands (which we haven’t visited yet). Other parts felt unique: a gorge near Hokitika where the water is an unearthly shade of turquoise, rock formations near Punakaiki where eroded limestone cliffs look like stacks of pancakes, and a trail near Franz Josef where you hike through a rainforest to see a glacier.
You can see all of those things in the West Coast photo gallery linked below. Also linked is our final photo gallery from the South Island: a miscellany of interesting places we stopped along the routes between our destinations to see everything from alpine parrots to gigantic fruits and donuts.