How to Explore the West Coast from Greymouth New Zealand

How to Explore the West Coast from Greymouth New Zealand

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The West Coast of New Zealand remained a step too far for several years, but this time, I was determined to make it there and see what the fuss was all about. In this post, I will show you how to explore the West Coast from Greymouth New Zealand.

Knight's Point is a secluded and beautiful spot of the West Coast
Knights Point – West Coast

I had seen some spectacular New Zealand pictures taken on the West Coast and some of the best hikes in New Zealand are on that side as well. 

How to explore the West Coast from Greymouth New Zealand

We had several places we wanted to visit and Greymouth’s central location on the West Coast made it an obvious choice. Landing typically in Christchurch, getting to the West Coast is a great South Island road trip.

Renting a car in New Zealand with RentalCars.com was the best option. And off we went to some great South Island destinations!

Also, don’t forget to read about road rules in New Zealand.

Arthur’s Pass

The most common route for this New Zealand itinerary is via Arthurs Pass, a busy and possibly treacherous road, and the only link from coast to coast. As you leave the easygoing and pleasant Canterbury plain, you catch a sight of the snowy peaks in the distance and the mountain rises. Slowly at first and then quite steeply, the road seems too hard and too narrow for the type of traffic: merchandise trucks and tourist buses bravely climb the steep hills.

You need to drive through Arthurs Pass to go to the West Coast
Driving Arthurs Pass

The road is quite good but the heavy traffic and number of potentially inexperienced drivers can make it a challenge, especially when the weather gets involved. Many New Zealand South Island tours take this route so it’s a bit unavoidable. 

And just like that, just a few hours after landing in the “Land of the Long White Cloud”, we are experiencing mountain driving in New Zealand.

And we are clearly on the essential link between the East and the West Coast. 

The weather can be bad at Arthurs Pass
Arthurs Pass

As we reached the pass, the South Island weather became ugly: rain, wind and cloud. Not much to see in these conditions and we were left with a serious desire of trying again on a sunny and dry day.

Still, if you enjoy a good road trip, this is one of the best things to do in New Zealand South Island.

The Christchurch to Greymouth drive took between four and five hours, with a few photo stops and lunch.

What to do in Greymouth

After the descent from Arthurs Pass, through quiet meadows and rural hamlets that seem to be forgotten in time, we reached Greymouth. Locally known as “the big smoke” of West Coast New Zealand, Greymouth has an industrial feel that seems quite out of place in such a remote place, at least to first-time visitors. But this is how Greymouth came to be, through mining…

Greymouth New Zealand has an industrial feel
Greymouth New Zealand

We didn’t find many things to do in Greymouth itself but its location makes it the obvious choice for exploring the West Coast of New Zealand, being roughly in the middle.

Greymouth Hotels

Accommodation in Greymouth is not especially glamorous and consists of motels and motor inns. We were surprised at how busy they were. Spring is a busy season in New Zealand however, I got the impression that the hotels were full of local transit, and not just tourists: truck drivers spending the night on their way to the north or south of the coast.

The Kingsgate Hotel in Greymouth is convenient and comfortable
Kingsgate Hotel Greymouth

We managed to find some good Greymouth motels and stayed at two different places: the Scenicland Motels and the Coleraine Suites.

We stayed one night in Coleraine Suites in Greymouth
Coleraine Suites Greymouth

Both places were very clean and comfortable.

With its industrial feel, we felt Greymouth was aptly named but not totally devoid of personality. On our visit, the coastal weather was in full swing: we experienced wind and rain like rarely before. Coming from Australia on the verge of its worst-ever bushfire season, we felt giddy with joy at the prospect of donning raincoats and beanies for a wet walk around town.

AirBnb in Greymouth

There are also many accommodation options through AirBnb.

Greymouth Beach and Northbreaker

Getting drenched at the beach seemed perfectly reasonable and the Northern Breaker delivered well. Even in terrible rain and wind, the West Coast offered an impressive spectacle.

The view from Greymouth northbreaker is spectacular
Greymouth Northbreaker

The wet pebbles of the beach had amazing colours, all in greys and browns. By that stage, we wished we could send some of that rain to the East Coast of Australia.

Greymouth Restaurants

Greymouth didn’t strike me as a foodie’s paradise, a bit like many medium towns in New Zealand. But you can always rely on quality meat and produce in New Zealand. We had an expensive but delicious breakfast at SevenPenny.

Breakfast at SevenPenny in Greymouth was delicious
Breakfast at Seven Penny

Monteith’s Brewery is one of the best Greymouth attractions though. The brand is well known for its range of beers and ciders. Monteith’s is a big commercial brand in New Zealand, and whilst not a lot of beer or cider is brewed onsite, the brewery tours are quite popular.

Have a great dinner at Monteith's Brewery in Greymouth New Zealand
Monteith’s Brewery

The restaurant is really good and you can sample the various beers and ciders, as well as buying some to take away. I would describe the food as higher-end pub fare, with delicious sliders and burgers.

We really enjoyed the food, the working warehouse atmosphere and tasting the more unusual kind of cider. I wouldn’t normally go for a berry cider but this one was not overly sweet.

Driving the West Coast

The West Coast has got to be one of the great drives of the world. Generally, the roads in New Zealand are good, although you need to be mindful of the weather conditions, which can change pretty quickly. The road along the coast is a two-way track, with a fair bit of tourist traffic.

The new Zealand West Coast is quite dramatic
New Zealand West Coast

The stretch of land between the ocean and the mountains is pretty narrow and can only accommodate a road, a train track and maybe a few fields.

The “bush” or tropical forest at the foot of the mountains, seemed completely impenetrable.

There are lookouts and places to stop for photos, and they can get busy sometimes with tour buses and campervans. 

New Zealand beaches are full of pebbles and volcanic sand
The West Coast of New Zealand

The New Zealand beaches in that area are a mix of pebbles and dark volcanic sand. They are quite stormy and most probably very cold.

I could have sat there for hours watching the waves crash along the coast but we had planned a whole New Zealand South Island itinerary so it was time to get going.

Punakaiki – Pancake Rocks

We took a day trip towards the north to Cape Foulwind, which is a couple of hours’ drive from Greymouth. Along the way, we stopped at Punakaiki, to see the Pancake Rocks. As independent travellers on a road trip, we felt a little uneasy to stop where all the tour buses were, but it is one of the West Coast attractions and well worth seeing.

Pancake Rocks are a strange rock formation on the New Zealand coast
Pancake Rocks

The Pancake Rocks are a natural formation of perfect sediment layers. The reasons of this phenomenon are largely obscure but the regularity of the layers and combination of colours is fascinating.

The circuit takes about 20 minutes to complete, allowing more time for photographs. Most of it is fairly flat and accessible however, there is a section with a few stairs.

Pancake Rocks are worth a visit when you drive along the West Coast
Pancake Rocks

The view of Pancake Rocks against the backdrop of the New Zealand Coast is quite stunning.

Cape Foulwind

We were very keen on some day walks for our New Zealand South Island road trip, and Cape Foulwind was one of the first. British explorer James Cook bestowed its unfortunate name in 1770 after his ship Endeavour was blown off the coast by strong winds…

The beach at Cape Foulwind is quite nice
Cape Foulwind Beach

It’s a beautiful stretch of coast, between Tauranga Bay and the Cape Foulwind Lighthouse. The walk is about 3.5km and not too difficult. We started at the northernmost point, near the lighthouse. The path is quite easy, if very close to the cliff. You get amazing views all the way to the other end and some sheep will watch you walk past.

There is a small lighthouse at Cape Foulwind
Cape Foulwind Lighthouse

As in several New Zealand hiking trails, a section of the track is a boardwalk, with a viewpoint over a colony of fur seals. You will see them rest and soak up the sunshine, lying on the rocks. As they spend long periods of time at sea, this rest time is very important.

The walk finishes at Tauranga Bay, as always patronised by campervans and sea birds. We walked back from there. Our total walking time for the return walk was around 2 hours.

New Zealand hiking is a great experience and we enjoyed Cape Foulwind so much I added it to my list of best day hikes in New Zealand.

Cape Foulwind is a beautiful New Zealand day walk
Orientation at Cape Foulwind

Driving to Cape Foulwind to take a coastal walk, with a stop at Pancake Rocks, a stop for lunch and several photo stops along the way was a very good day trip. We drove back to Greymouth and still had time to spare in the afternoon.

Hokitika

The smaller township of Hokitika is one of the places to visit on the West Coast we really enjoyed. Greymouth to Hokitika is a half-hour drive (36 km) along a straight road. We went there on a recommendation of the locals and were very pleasantly surprised. 

Hokitika is a small but friendly town on the New Zealand West Coast
Hokitika Town

Hokitika is smaller than Greymouth and has a more beach town feel to it, much less industrial. The town obviously benefited from the same industrial growth, as some expensive-looking buildings in town attest. But somehow, the presence of coal and merchandise traffic is less prevalent. 

Party on the beach at Hokitika
Hokitika Beach Access

The streets are lined with pretty houses and the beach is quite inviting, especially at sunset.

The West Coast of New Zealand looks peaceful at sunset
Hokitika Sunset

Again, the food scene is limited and prices are on the high side, but we thought Hokitika would be a perfect alternative for your West Coast accommodation. And if you stay the night, you can visit the glow worm dell, just outside of town. This is one of the few places in New Zealand where you can see glow worms for free.

Hokitika Gorge

As far as exploring the West Coast, Hokitika Gorge wasn’t that further away on the road to the glaciers.

It’s a pleasant drive through the green meadows, showcasing New Zealand’s rich pastoral industry. 

Make a detour to see Hokitika Gorge on your West Coast tour
Hokitika Gorge

The road progresses calmly through fields and Hokitika Gorge appears quite suddenly, as a dip in the landscape. The gorge is an example of the beautiful blue colour created by “alpine flour” in New Zealand lakes and rivers. Alpine or glacial flour is a very fine powder generated by the grind of glacier rocks at the bottom of rivers and lakes. It gives an eerie (and highly photogenic) turquoise blue tinge you can’t help but want to capture. 

The brightness of the colour is somewhat dependent on sunshine though. It was a bit of a grey day when we visited Hokitika Gorge so the result isn’t spectacular. Still, it was a lovely drive.

Haast Pass

The other road to return from Greymouth to Christchurch is through the Haast Pass. We drove from Greymouth to Franz Josef in about three hours (175 km), with a few stops to look at waterfalls.

You need to go through the Haast Pass to leave the West Coast
Haast Pass

The pass is not as spectacular as Arthur’s Pass but it still some good mountain driving. The road was closed due to flooding not long after we went through.

That was our way back to Queenstown and Milford Sound.

Franz Josef Glacier

The reason why most people embark on the long drive along the West Coast is to see the glaciers. If you are after more great New Zealand walks, Franz Josef is a good place to stop.

New Zealand is a major hub for adventure travel activities and Franz Josef has plenty of options. We elected to stay in Fox Glacier but still chose to do the Franz Josef Glacier walk, which is a popular and relatively easy day walk.

Take a break from the West Coast to visit Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier Walk

On this walk, we got as close to the glacier as currently possible. Since 2008, the glacier has retreated a fair bit so the actual ice is some distance away.

Franz Josef Glacier has been receding since 2008
Franz Josef Glacier

For other things to do in Franz Josef, consider a helicopter tour. We wanted to fly over both glaciers from there but unfortunately, we had to cancel our plans due to the weather. We always try and include a helicopter ride in New Zealand!

Fox Glacier

Fox Glacier is the smaller township over the mountain from Franz Josef. Slightly less busy than Franz Josef, it offers the same types of adventure activities and a view over the glacier. For more leisurely New Zealand walking tours, I recommend Lake Matheson.

We couldn't see Fox Glacier too well because of the clouds
Fox Glacier

We didn’t get to see a perfect mirror effect on that day as it was a bit windy but it was a very pleasant walk through the wetlands.

If you are pressed for time, you can skip Franz Josef and head directly from Greymouth to Fox Glacier. Similar helicopter tours are available there as well.

South Island Points of Interest

There are plenty of New Zealand South Island attractions to discover during your West Coast holidays. I haven’t explored the north of the West Coast yet, I’ll need to design another South Island itinerary for that. 

I also need to go back to the North Island of New Zealand as my road trip there was a little hit and miss! If you are doing a road trip, don’t miss my list of essentials to take with you.

Have you visited the West Coast of New Zealand? Please tell what I missed in the comments below!

How to Explore the West Coast from Greymouth New Zealand

10 Comments

  1. Rhonda Albom

    March 10, 2020 at 8:02 am

    The west coast of New Zealand’s South Island is very rugged. I haven’t been to Punakaiki in a number of years. It is an interesting rock formation. I also remember a number of small caves along the coast that you can easily visit if you are driving.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      March 13, 2020 at 2:07 am

      Hi Rhonda, I didn’t know about caves along the coast but I’m not surprised there should be some… I thought the Pancake Rocks were really good, even if there are plenty of tourists having a look. The rugged coast of New Zealand in the background made for some really beautiful photos!

  2. Indrani

    March 11, 2020 at 8:54 pm

    Interesting history of Greymouth. Mining is one of the oldest industry, no wonder why towns and cities came up around such places. I am amzed at the Pancake Rocks, hope to photograph them myself some day. That is a great recommendation you got from the locals about Hokitika, they know the best.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      March 13, 2020 at 2:05 am

      Hi Indrani, it was good talking to the locals about Hokitika, I think I will stay there next time, it has a relaxed vibe and there are a few good places to eat…

  3. Mei and Kerstin

    March 13, 2020 at 12:58 am

    We’ve never been to New Zealand but of course it’s on our bucket list. Arthurs Pass seems very interesting! The only problem we have regarding roadtripping in NZ is that we can’t drive on the left side… So we might have to explore NZ with a private tour guide and driver.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      March 13, 2020 at 2:04 am

      Driving on the left isn’t that hard, but it does need paying attention… There are accidents related to that in New Zealand unfortunately… Organising a tour is not going to be difficult though, there are plenty of very good companies around!

  4. Mel Butler

    March 13, 2020 at 7:30 am

    I love New Zealand and I think it has been about 25yrs now since I sent on a road trip there. I never have done a west coast one though but something that I would be totally keen to do with my husband. I would definitely try and do a helicopter tour over Franz Josef how amazing. The Pancake Rocks of the sediment layers must have been cool to see too.

    1. Delphine Mignon

      March 14, 2020 at 8:22 pm

      I loved the helicopter rides, I would definitely do it again. I’m very sorry I missed out on the glaciers due to the weather so I’ll have to go back again!

  5. Lara Dunning

    March 13, 2020 at 3:06 pm

    New Zealand has been on my list for a while and will be on there for a while longer as I couldn’t bear to be away from my dog for that long. LOL – I know – crazy. I so loved seeing all the photos and reading about your experiences. What a great name for a lighthouse and I’d love to see a the pancake rocks!

    1. Delphine Mignon

      March 14, 2020 at 8:21 pm

      Hi Lara, it’s hard to be away from loved ones when you travel. New Zealand is far away from many places but it is absolutely worth the trip, when the world goes back to normal that is!

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