Over the Mountains and Along the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island

In the U.S., it takes (at least) five days to drive 2,900 miles from New York on the east coast to San Francisco on the west. The comparable coast to coast trip in New Zealand from Christchurch to Hokitika covers 155 miles and could be completed in about three hours. But with stunning views and sights to explore along the way, what’s the rush?

After a couple of days at Arthur’s Pass (see map below), we spent two more days meandering along the west coast.

Heading west from Christchurch, we first traveled through the Canterbury Plains, a large, flat agricultural area, described on http://www.newzealand.com as “a patchwork quilt made with every shade of green . . . an area of braided rivers and pastoral perfection between the Southern Alps and the Pacific Ocean.” Poetic description notwithstanding, it looked a lot like Kansas to me.

More scenic mountainous terrain emerged as we continued toward Arthur’s Pass.

We stopped to walk around at Kura Tawhiti, also known as the Castle Hill Conservation Area, a prominent display of limestone outcroppings and Maori cultural site.

We arrived mid-afternoon at Arthur’s Pass, a tiny village within the boundaries of Arthur’s Pass National Park. It’s a beautiful setting with limited lodging and dining choices, and no cell phone service (which was fine with us).

We were quite comfortable during our two-night stay. Four bedrooms, each with an en suite bathroom, were situated around a central kitchen and dining area that served as a gathering place for guests to prepare food, play board games, or simply chat about their day. Our fellow travelers were from New Zealand and the UK.

Other highlights in the village:

The star attraction at Arthur’s Pass was the short walk to Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. It took about 1/2 hour to walk across the Bealey River and up 240 steps to the base of the 131 meter falls. Easy and beautiful, so I did it twice.

The waterfall was fun to watch, especially as the look changed between day 1 and day 2, and even after just a few minutes of following the flow of the water on day 2.

The morning of day 2 featured sunny skies and calm winds – hiking seemed like a good idea. Alas, our chosen trail was just enough higher in elevation that we were walking in the clouds and the rain for the entire time. Not what we had hoped for but still nice to be outdoors!

Time to continue traveling west toward the Tasman Sea. Along the way, we stopped to stretch our legs at Moana, a cute town with beautiful views of the mountains where we had been.

Driving along the coast, our first stop was Punakaiki, a small community best known as home of the Pancake Rocks, a popular tourist destination.

The rocks are composed of limestone layers alternating with thinner, mud-rich layers. The distinctive pancake effect (technically known as stylobedding) was created through erosion caused by water, wind, and salt spray from the ocean.

It was pretty cool.

We arrived in Hokitika in the late afternoon, affording us the opportunity to explore the town for a few hours before sunset. This cute town in close proximity to both mountains and beach originated as a gold rush town in the 1860s. Today Hokitika has around 3,000 full time residents and caters to backpackers and other tourists.

The long, wide beach is adorned with copious amounts of driftwood. Each year in January, the town hosts the Driftwood and Sand Beach Sculpture Festival, an invitational event in which artists create sculptures from materials found on the beach. Here are a few pieces that were still intact when we visited in mid-February.

Hokitika’s downtown area offers interesting shopping opportunities, most notably items made from greenstone (New Zealand jade) and clothing made from Merinomink – a blend of merino wool, possum fur (not mink!), and silk. I purchased a sweater that is quite possibly the warmest and softest, as well as most lightweight and comfortable garment I have ever owned. There will be more in my future.

Why possum fur? Classified as pests in New Zealand, these non-native mammals are decimating the country’s native forests and bird populations. The country aims to rid itself of rats, stoats, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million possums by 2050, using extensive networks of mechanical traps and limited application of poisons. You can learn more about the possum problem and Merinomink by clicking HERE.

We enjoyed our brief visit to Hokitika and could have stayed another day.

The west coast of the South Island receives a lot of rain. So we weren’t surprised the next morning to wake up to steady rainfall and poor visibility. No reason to stop at the famous Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, unfortunately.

The rain let up, however, just long enough for us to stretch our legs with a hike around Lake Matheson. It was beautiful even without the advertised views of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook.

The destination for our last night on the west coast was the small town of Haast – population 250 (give or take).

We would love to spend more time on the west coast if we come back to the South Island, as there is much to see that we didn’t. Plus the blood-sucking sand flies we were expecting didn’t materialize. But for now, it’s time to head inland.

Next post – Queenstown

Categories: New Zealand


  1. Oh yeah!!!!!! Everyone should come here. And you should travel with Carol and Bill

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do they even make words for this kind of beauty!? Gorgeous post that fills my soul. xo

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Words are inadequate, at least for me. Thanks for your comment!


  4. Amazingly beauty isn’t it ? Great writing ! Keep sharing this wonderful journey, thnx

    Liked by 1 person

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