18 September 2019

West Coast Road Trip: New Zealand's Incredible Hidden Gems

Rich in wilderness and epic natural landscapes, the West Coast in the South Island is the longest and least populated region of New Zealand. Vast mountain ranges and native forest meet alongside the endless big blue ocean.

I spent four days on a whirlwind solo road trip through the lesser-known northern parts of the West Coast. I loved exploring off the beaten track hidden gems and at this time of year, I felt like I had them all to myself.

I was completely blown away by the untouched nature, pure beauty and the total lack of tourists!

If you're planning on visiting the South Island, the West Coast and particularly the isolated northern part is an absolute #NZMustDo.

Here is my four-day West Coast itinerary and experience, which was one of the most scenic road trips I've ever done. It includes top things to do, where to stay and why these places are unmissable.

Day One: Christchurch/Hokitika to Reefton

I intended to begin my road trip in Hokitika on the West Coast via a flight from Christchurch, however, one of my flights was delayed and I missed my connecting flight.

I asked the Hertz team at Christchurch Airport if I could change the pickup location of my pre-booked rental car from there instead. They kindly had no problems with that whatsoever so I just got to start my road trip a little bit further away, which was absolutely fine.

I got to drive to the West Coast via Lewis Pass which is a stunning drive through snow-capped alpine mountain ranges and trickling glacier-blue rivers.

I did have to miss my morning plans of visiting Hokitika Gorge, a place with water so turquoise-blue you have to see it to believe it. It just gives me an excuse to come back again soon, but if you have a chance to visit, don't miss adding it to your itinerary.


After an enjoyable three-hour drive, I arrived in Reefton, a little town on the surface but one rich in history. Once known as Quartzopolis, Reefton was officially established in 1870, a few years after the discovery of gold-bearing quartz reefs in the area.

Today it's known as the 'Town of Light' as it was the first place in New Zealand (and the Southern Hemisphere) to have a public supply of power and electric street lights.

I checked in to the cutest Reef Cottage B&B, located in one of the few remaining original buildings in the heart of Reefton. Built in 1887, it has been recently renovated into a quaint B&B with four cosy and beautifully decorated ensuite bedrooms.

Around the corner, I wandered over to Reefton Distilling Co, a modern distillery specialising in botanical gin, vodka, liqueurs and soon to be whisky. I highly enjoyed learning about and taking a peek at their distillery production, along with tasting their unique-tasting products.

The secret to their incredible flavours are the locally sourced ingredients including native leaves, flowers and berries from the surrounding densely forested West Coast region.

I highly recommend visiting if you appreciate high-quality spirits and supporting local businesses. I couldn't help purchasing a bottle of their boldly aromatic Little Biddy Gin which has become a new favourite.

Along the main street, another top spot to visit are the Bearded Mining Company at the Miners Hut. The replica 1860s style huts bring history to life, and visitors are welcomed to learn how a miner lived in the 19th century when the promise of gold lured thousands of prospectors to the area.

I finished up the day with the scenic Powerhouse walk, a forty-minute loop walk starting from the Reefton i-SITE Visitor Centre. Cross a swingbridge over the Inanagahua River to the former historic powerhouse site. There are information signs dotted throughout the walk where you can learn all about the history.

Stay: Reef Cottage Bed and Breakfast

Do: Visit Reefton Distilling Co, Bearded Miners, Power Station walk (& Hokitika Gorge)

Day Two: Reefton to Seddonville via Buller Gorge & Westport

After a hearty and delicious cooked breakfast at the attached Reef Cottage Cafe, I was on my way to Upper Buller Gorge, a breathtaking part of the West Coast.

At Buller Gorge Swingbridge Adventure and Heritage Park you'll find New Zealand's longest swingbridge spanning the mighty Buller River. At 110 metres long and 19 metres high above the river, it's a must-do activity to walk across and enjoy the surrounding beautiful nature.

You can even opt for a dose of adrenalin and take the zip-line ride back. There's also a thrilling Buller Canyon Jetboat ride, beautiful bushwalks in the area and you can try your luck panning for gold.

After a quick lunch stop in Westport, I continued my journey driving north. Up high in the mountains with a spectacular view over the West Coast, Denniston Coalmining Historic Area is a captivating place to visit. It was the largest producing coal mine in New Zealand, famous for its steep incline which was a feat of engineering at the time.

Once a thriving community, today the ghost town of Denniston Plateau provides educational panels presenting historic stories and an insight into what life was like a hundred years ago for these hardworking coal miners.

I continued my drive up the coast with eyefuls of Tasman sea to the left. Mesmerised, I stopped at a little place called Hector for a peaceful walk along the beach.

Not far from there, close to the small township of Seddonville was my final destination for the day. I was staying at Gentle Annie Seaside, a popular beachfront holiday park in Mokihinui.

I had a quaint cabin with its own little deck and the shared facilities onsite were top-notch.

It was very quiet at this time of year but I could instantly see why it would be such an attractive holiday spot come the warmer months. It's in a beautiful unspoilt location in a coastal enclave and right on the footsteps of Kahurangi National Park.

After watching a typically-lovely West Coast sunset on the beach (only steps from my cabin) I drove to nearby Seddonville Hotel for dinner. I mention this because as I walked into the only hotel/pub/restaurant in the area, I was greeted by every single person in there with a warm hello and a smile.

It left such an impression on me because sometimes I can forget that this is what small towns are like here and why so many people love coming to New Zealand. The majority of people are so welcoming and genuinely friendly and it's heartwarming.

Stay: Gentle Annie Seaside

Do: Buller Gorge Swingbridge, Denniston Coalmining Historic Area, catch a sunset

Day Three: Seddonville to Karamea via Oparara Basin

The next day, I hit the road to explore what is undoubtedly the West Coast's best-kept secret, Oparara Basin. I passed through the township of Karamea and headed into the hills of Kahurangi National Park via a long, winding, narrow gravel road.

I had a prebooked Honeycomb Hill Caves tour with Oparara Guided Tours and met my guide, Cliff, at the second carpark. It's a 45-minute walk to get to the cave network through immense, thick rainforest of a thousand shades of green. The native towering trees and even the paths are moss-laden and I felt like I was wandering in an Avatar movie.

The tour through the million-year-old tunnel network was incredibly fascinating, being transported further to a lost world, with incredible rare geological formations. The caves were littered with glowworms and fossils of extinct birds including moa bones.

Cliff was extremely knowledgable and I learned so much from him all throughout the three-hour tour. The caves are in a protected area and access is by guided tour only so I very highly recommend booking one in advance. Following our cave and rainforest trek, we enjoyed coffee and homemade cakes.

At Oparara Basin there are also must-see ancient and magnificent limestone arches. At an impressive 200-metres long and 37-metres high, Oparara Arch is one of the largest in Australasia. It's reached by an easy well-formed track alongside a honeycomb-coloured river. The amber colour comes from natural acidic tannins released from plant species in the area and it's gorgeous.

The smaller but even more spectacular Moria Arch is reached by a second track and through a small cave opening. It is entirely enchanting and I was blown away by the incredible natural beauty.

Oparara Basin is a truly special part of New Zealand. It's one of the greenest and most untouched places I've ever been to and I could not believe that I had the whole place to myself. A true hidden gem of the West Coast.


The day flew by and before I knew it I was back in Karamea for the evening. I checked into Last Resort which is the best place to stay in the area. I had a spacious and well-equipped studio room with a kitchenette.

I ordered one of the daily specials at their onsite restaurant and it was absolutely delicious and high-quality.

Karamea is the northernmost settlement on the West Coast and is known as the sunniest spot. I would recommend spending an extra night there if you have the time and spend a day doing part of the Heaphy Track. It's one of New Zealand's Nine Great Walks and takes several days to do the whole thing, but my cave guide Cliff recommends doing at least the first two kilometres as it's truly spectacular.

Stay: Last Resort, Karamea

Do: Honeycomb Hill Caves guided tour, Oparara Basin arches, drive with care!

Day Four: Karamea to Hokitika via Punakaiki & Greymouth

My final road trip day was an enjoyable venture back south towards Hokitika. The main highway between Westport and Greymouth is called the Great Coast Road and has been named one of the top ten coastal drives in the world. It's an incredibly scenic drive with plenty of photo-opp stops along the way.

56 kilometres south of Westport, the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes are a must-see on any visit to the West Coast. It's an easy 20-minute loop walk to see incredible formations of powerful nature over millions of years.

Weathering carved the limestone rocks into what look like stacks of pancakes, hence the name.

Forty-minutes further south is the largest town on the West Coast, Greymouth. One of the top things to do is to visit one of New Zealand's best producers of craft beer, Monteith's Brewing Company.

Founded in 1868, they have 150 years of brewing history and a newly refurbished modern brewery. I joined a tour and enjoyed learning all about their history and seeing behind the scenes of their highly successful production.

I had an excellent lunch at their divine onsite restaurant where they food-match with their different types of beer. I highly recommend stopping by if you're visiting or passing through Greymouth, if not for the brewery tour then to check out their delicious menu.

My final West Coast destination, Hokitika, is a cruisy little beach town. I visited the iconic beach-sign made of driftwood before heading to the airport to drop off my rental car and head home.

Do: Punakaiki Pancake Rocks & Blowholes walk, Monteith's Brewery, Hokitika beach sign

If I did all of this in four days, imagine what you can do in a week or longer. Your West Coast road trip doesn't have to end here either, continue heading further south for the incredible Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and to the Haast region, a UNESCO World Heritage Area.

Hertz Rental Car

This was my first experience using a rental car service and Hertz were fantastic right from the start. My Mitsubishi ASX had touch screen audio, an integrated reversing camera, Bluetooth and alloy wheels. It was in perfect condition and it was a joy to drive.

As well as so few people on the roads, I loved the freedom to explore in my rental car, pulling over constantly to soak up epic views and being able to spend as much time as I liked in the most incredible spots.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes getting away, doing a solo road trip and getting stuck into nature is exactly what the doctor ordered. The West Coad Road has to be one of New Zealand's best scenic road trips with a mixture of spectacular natural landscapes, stunning wilderness and pioneering history.

The northern part gives a great insight into Aotearoa as it used to be, with vast amounts of undisturbed nature and the purest natural beauty.

My time spent on the West Coast was more than just a road trip, it was a journey. It was exciting to explore lesser-known places and it was a great reminder that beyond main highlights and top tourist attractions that everyone knows about, there is still so much to explore off the beaten track in this incredible country. It was a privilege to spend time in the remote northern West Coast area and I'm already planning a return visit.

If you would like to see a bit more, check out my West Coast NZ road trip vlog I made for YouTube:

Have you been to the northern West Coast or is it now on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy Travels,

Pin it! :)

Thank you to West Coast Tourism, Hertz New Zealand and all of the operators for making this trip possible.

1 comment

  1. I've enjoyed your watching your tours in New Zealand and around the world. Well done!


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