Coastline-hugging highways are proven performers that excel in delivering epic scenery. The South Island is blessed to have one of the world’s best in State Highway 6.
The West Coast Highway, wedged between the booming Tasman surf and the Southern Alps, threads its way from Charleston to Haast. But the specific section that rides the coastline, is the 166km stretch linking Ross with Westport.
Ross is a cute-as-a-button settlement, with a storied past steeped in gold-mining. The historic village features a cluster of colonial buildings, including the old Ross jail, bank and miners’ cottages.
Over 140 years old, the Empire Hotel is one of the grand-daddies of Coast hospitality, infused with history, personality and hearty pub cuisine.
Call into Hokitika for its cluster of artisan studios and workshops, specialising in pounamu(greenstone) sculpture and carving, gold and glass-blowing art. Heading north again, just before Greymouth, Shanty Town is a re-created 1860s gold-mining town, complete with pub and post office.
There are lots of interactive experiences to try your hand at, including gold-panning, sawmilling and the far more leisurely pursuit of the miniature train rides. This tailor-made tourist attraction is a perennial crowd-pleaser with families.
A recent addition to the West Coast’s stable of attractions is the $7 million Treetops walk, just south of Hokitika. 25 metres above the forest floor, the mesh-steel gantry leads you through a dense vista of native forest, with giant specimens of rimu, kamahi and matai, interspersed with tree ferns, rchids and other forest floor residents. It’s lushy, dreamy – as if you’re floating below the canopy and the highlight is the 47metre high spiral staircase, which takes you to the top of the tower. Drink in the lofty views of the forest, nearby Lake Mahinapua and the mountains of South Westland.
Like all West Coast towns, “Grey”( as the locals call it) has a welter of pubs dripping with character. Monteith’s Brewery ( which runs regular tours), The Royalist Hotel and Revington’s are all landmark establishments.
Heading north from Greymouth, it’s a 70 km drive to one of New Zealand’s most spectacular attractions, the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. The drive itself is exceptionally engaging, as the road caresses the rocky coastline under relentless attack from the pounding surf of the obstreperous Tasman Sea.
Punakaiki is nestled at the base of the thickly forested Paparoa Ranges, which form the backbone of the Paparoa National Park. This gorgeous blanket of native forest brims with rimu, beech and matai trees, in addition to the striking Nikau Palms. The national park’s visitor information centre is situated on the highway roadside, in the heart of Punakaiki, and is a font of information and advice. There a dozens of enchanting walking tracks on offer, to suit all tastes and endurance levels.
If time is tight, I recommend the 30 minute Truman Track, which weaves its way through pristine native forest, taking you right to the edge of the Tasman Sea coastline, with a stunning seascape. Climb the stairway above the beach, to enjoy a grand sweep of Punakaiki Beach to the south. But of course the blockbuster attraction is a raw encounter with nature’s power at Pancake Rocks and Blowholes.
These remarkable geological formations, which resemble layer upon layer of pancakes, is the result of centuries and centuries of weathering. The formal term is stylobedding. When the tide is high, nature’s riot of stone and sea is extra-special, with the ocean surging into the caverns and booming ferociously through the blowholes. Even the wondrous waterworks of Las Vegas or Dubai would be hard pressed to match this spectacular multi-sensory show. An attractive strip of roadside cafes and eateries neighbour the visitor centre, enabling you to savour the experience over some tasty morsels and fine refreshments. If you wish to overnight it, before heading for the Westport finish line the highly-recommended option is the award-winning Punakaiki Resort.
Go West with Thrifty, who have plenty of handy pick-up and drop-off locations including Christchurch, Queenstown, Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport.