Planning your West Coast Itinerary

Initially I thought I would write a post called something like ‘The Ultimate 1 week West Coast Itinerary’. Certainly I have come across many similarly titled blogs. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that the components that make it the ‘ultimate Itinerary’ for me, won’t necessarily be the ultimate for you.

I was in Italy 2 years ago and while I liked Italy, I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. This has nothing to do with Italy, it’s an incredible place, but more to do with the activities I planned. We did all the art galleries and historical sites, you know, all the things that you do when you go to Italy, but the truth is, art galleries are not really my thing (although seeing the statue of David was quite an experience). I like a bit of history, but I’m not a history buff.

Then we got to Slovenia and we fell in love. The crystal clear waters, snow capped mountains, rolling hills. That’s my thing. If we had spent our time in Italy in the Lake District and Dolomites Mountains, I am almost certain that I would have also fallen in love with Italy.

So I wanted to share our West Coast itinerary with you, but also leave you this piece of advice, this is by no means the only things you should see and do, pick and choose from it, the parts that get you excited and give you wonderlust. Craft your own epic adventure.


Here is the route we took.

  • Day 1: Wellington to Picton by ferry, then onto Punakaiki via Nelson
  • Day 2: Short day trip up to Charlestown with a side trip to Westport
  • Day 3: Punakaiki to Frans Josef
  • Day 4: Day in Franz Josef
  • Day 5: Franz Josef to Hokitika via Okarito
  • Day 6: Day in Hokitika
  • Day 7: Hokitika to Mt Lyford via Lewis Pass
  • Day 8: Mt Lyford Lodge to Wellington via Kaikoura and Picton

Wellington to Punakaiki

Ferry Crossing: The first part of our journey involved crossing the Cook Straight. As we had a vehicle (our motorbike) we had 2 options, Bluebridge or The Interislander. If you are a foot passenger, Bluebridge may be a better option for you as it is located across the road from the train station so is really convenient. I have also found that Bluebridge tends to be a little cheaper. The reason we have used The Interlslander the last couple of times is because of the Plus Lounge, a fully catered, adults only lounge with guaranteed seating. It’s a really relaxing way to start or end your journey and your meal, drinks (and snacks) are taken care of.

The Route: We didn’t take the most direct route to Punakaiki. Being on the motorbike we always look for the scenic coastal routes and twisty roads, trying to stay of big main highways. I would highly recommend Queen Charlotte’s Drive that starts in Picton, taking you around some gorgeous coastline with stunning views, taking you all the way to Havlock.

Food: We carried on to Nelson and stopped for a bite to eat at Burger Culture. Simply scrumptious food. If you’re in the mood for a sugar overload, they have a delicious selection of donuts. And milkshakes, topped with donuts!

Accommodation: We stayed at Te Niaku Lodge which was gorgeous. Our lodge was nestled into the forest, our windows looked out across the canopy. You feel like your in a tree house here. There is also easy access down to the beach where you can watch the setting sun.

Link: Check out this post I wrote, ‘Heading for the West Coast’

Tip: Check your map for directions. We didn’t, we just assumed we were on the right track and ended up taking a rather large detour that added on a fair amount of time.

Charlestown & Westport

The Route: After a long riding day the day before, I had scheduled in a late start. I spent the morning down on the beach, breathing in the fresh ocean air before we made our way to Charlestown for our activity. It’s only a 30 minute drive but the road is sensational. We pretty much had it to ourselves, twisting and turning along the coast enjoying the incredible views. After our activity, we headed another 20 minutes north to Westport to get some petrol before enjoying the great drive back.

Activities: We headed to Charleston for a caving, tubing and glow worm experience with Underworld Adventures. This was a 4 hour tour that was super fun. Caving is such a unique experience and this cave was particularly special, being very much in it’s natural state (no built walkways, hand rails, lighting etc) It also has the most incredible glow worm colony I have ever seen. Honestly, words can’t do it justice, it was out of this world mesmerising!

Food: We loved The Punakaiki Tavern, we had breakfast and lunch there. The hosts were really friendly. The food is what I would describe as simple, hearty, home cooked meals and the outside garden is the perfect place to enjoy the last bit of warmth from the sun before it says goodnight. In Westport we popped into Jimmy’s Restaurant and Bar expecting to grab a quick bite to eat but ended up staying for a couple of hours chatting to a local over some good food and drinks.

Link: Check out my previous post ‘Caving in Charlestown’

Tip: Be sure to keep an eye on your petrol. There’s a station in Westport and Greymouth but nothing in between. They are an hour and a half apart. If you aren’t careful, you might find yourself out of gas!

Punakaiki to Franz Josef

The Route: We headed from Punakaiki to Franz Josef, initially along the stunning coast and then through some beautiful rainforst. We made stops in Punakaiki and Hokitika for some activities.

Activities: We didn’t have any planned activities for the day as it was a riding day, but it was a leisurely ride so we were able to make some spontaneous stops along the way. The first being a walk at Pancake Rocks. The rock formations are quite unique as well as the blow holes. We also stopped at Hokitika Tree Top Walk and experienced the forest from birds eye view. In Franz Josef I also managed a short walk along Terrace Walk track which is through some lush, green glacier rainforest.

Food: We had a rather nice dinner at Monsoon Restaurant & Bar located on site at our accommodation. The buffalo cauliflower was delicious and even my carnivorous husband loved these.

Accommodation: Rainforest Retreat in Franz Josef has been on my bucket list for a long time so I was really pleased to finally stay here. They have a range of accommodation options to suit every budget. They are in some beautiful grounds – lush rainforest, and centrally located. We also were given a room upgrade when we arrived which was a lovely surprise.

Tip: The blow holes at Pancake Rocks is tidal. If you can time your trip with high tide you will see it in it’s most impressive form. But, even if you can only visit at low tide it would still be worth checking out. At the time of writing, Hokitika Tree Top Walk is on Book Me, so if this is something you are able to book in advance then you should be able to get it at a discounted rate.

Link: You can read more details in this blog ‘Franz Josef Bound’

Franz Josef

Activities: It was a last minute booking through Book Me but we were able to spend the afternoon quad biking through some rainforest, sand dunes and across rivers. It’s a great wet day activity. We did this through Across Country Tour.

Food: The power was out for a while so we weren’t sure if we would be able to get brunch anywhere, fortunately SnakeBite was well prepared. They have a really cool atmosphere, mouth watering counter food and an extensive menu. A great place to sit and watch the world go by when it is pouring with rain (or the power has gone out)

Tips: Even if you are traveling in Summer, go prepared for rain. The West Coast is a very wet place (but it makes the rainforest smell incredible) If your looking for a deal in Franz Josef, be sure to check out Book Me. Or you could even just go for a stroll along the main street, I saw a lot of different deals being offered.

Link: Check out ‘Quad Biking in Franz Josef’

Okarito and Hokitika

The Route: We started heading back up the island, again through the spectacular forest and later along the coast, heading for Hokitika. It’s simply stunning

Activities: Okarito Kayak has been on my bucket list for a long time so I made sure to plan in this little detour. It did not disappoint. The lagoon was mirror like, reflecting the glacier forest and mountains. It is also the breeding site of the Kotuku (White Heron) It was a privilege to get so close to these majestic birds. In Hokitika, take some time to have a wander around the town, check out the beach and take a look at the Hokitika Driftwood sign down on the beach.

Food: We were rather famished after our 3 hour kayak trip so we made a stop in Harihari, a small, rural settlement. We had lunch at the Pukeko Store and Cafe. Filled with some deliciously tempting home baking, pies and friendly service, this was a delightful little stop.

Accommodation: In Hokitika we ended up staying at Mountain Jade Backpackers. I couldn’t find any accommodation that wowed me, at a price I was happy to pay, so we went budget and central. It was a great location, clean tidy facilities and perfect for our requirements.

Tips: Take insect repellent if you go to Okarito Lagoon. They will attack you in thousands!

Link: Kayaking with Herons


Activities: Of course you could buy your own greenstone souvenir, but why buy a pre made one when you can carve it yourself. At Bonz ‘n’ Stonz you create your own piece to take home. Everything you need it provided and there are excellent tutors on hand to help you every step of the way. This was a most excellent day.

Food: If your a pizza lover like me, head to Fat Pipi Pizza. Fresh, simple ingredients, delicious food and a lovely outdoor courtyard. Also try Sweet Alice’s Fudge Kitchen if you are craving a sugar hit.

Tips: Make sure you allow time to sit and watch the sunset. Hokitika is famous for its gorgeous sunsets. Even on an overcast day like we had, it was still a beautiful sight.

Link: Read more about my greenstone carving experience here.

Lewis Pass & Mt Lyford

The Route: This is where we left the West Coast. We could have gone back up country through the West Coast but it would have been a lot of back tracking. Instead we headed over to Canterbury to My Lyford, via Lewis Pass. Its a pretty well known route and a nice bit of road.

Activities: Check out Hokitika Gorge before you leave. You will be wowed by the incredible colours of the water. Its an easy walk too, suitable for all fitness levels.

Accommodation: We splashed out a bit here and stayed at Mt Lyford Lodge. Nestled into the mountains with a couple of spa pools, it was the perfect place to soak away the aches of being on a motorbike for a week, while breathing in the fresh air, watching the sun slip behind the hills and enjoying a drink or 2 at the bar.

Tip: Just be alert on Lewis Pass. It’s a popular road with tourists (along with many other South Island roads.) We drive on the left hand side. There are instances where tourists will get confused and drive on the wrong side. Or sometimes just stop on a blind corner to take photos of the beautiful scenery. A lot of our highways are not like highways you may be familiar with. Narrow, single lane and twisty. Make sure you allow a lots of time.

Link: Turquoise Water, Swing Bridges and Pool.


The Route: First you will do the inland route to Kaikoura. If your on a bike, just watch out for gravel, there was quite a bit on the road when we did this ride as well as a year ago when we were down that way. From Kaikoura to Picton you get to enjoy more coastal road, this time along the East Coast. Keep an eye out for seals which you can easily spot from the road while driving (Only do this if your a passenger! Eyes on the road driver.) You will see them on the rocks or frolicking about in the ocean.

Activities: If you are in Kaikoura and an animal lover, Kaikoura Seal Swim is outstanding. Don’t go near seals on land, they can be very aggressive. But in the water, just wow. I have heard them be described as dogs of the ocean and they really are. They are playful, curious and so much fun to watch. This experience was a real highlight.

Link: Want to know more about swimming with seals? Read my previous post here.

A few other things

There were a few activities we didn’t get to do on this trip for various reasons, but I want to still mention them here as I think they would be activities that are well worth while.

  • The Wild Kiwi Center in Franz Josef. We ran out of time for this one. Here you will be able to see Rowi, the worlds rarest kiwi, and tuatara, often described as the oldest living dinosaur.
  • Lake Matheson – a glacial mirror lake that is picture perfect. But you want to see it on a nice day to get the full impact of the lake. I have tried to get here twice now. Hopefully it will be third time lucky.
  • In Franz Josef we were booked in for a glacier nature tour with Glacier Valley Eco Tours. This was unfortunately cancelled due to the weather. We were prepared to get wet, but DOC had closed the walking track. We were in the West Coast back in 2012 and were able to do a tour of Fox glacier. It was such a unique experience and I am definitely keen to do something like this again. The difference being that now, if you want to walk on the glacier, you need to do it by helicopter, you can no longer walk in. The tours with Glacier Valley Eco Tours don’t go on the ice but do offer views of the glacier, along with expert knowledge of the area.
  • I was hoping to book in a nighttime kiwi spotting tour with Okarito Kiwi Tours. We unfortunately missed out as they closed up from 2nd Feb, but they reopen again in October so make sure you check them out.
  • At the top of the West Coast is a place called Karamea, home to the Oparara Basin Arches. These natural limestone arches were formed by the Oparara river and sound really impressive. The main reason this one didn’t make it onto our itinerary is because access is down 13km of gravel road. Gravel road is not fun when your on a sports bike.

So there you have it. Some suggestions on how to spend your week on the West Coast. I am sure that you will, like me, fall in love with this part of the country. The people, the forests, glaciers, wildlife, it feels pure and untouched. The glacial rainforest had me captivated. They made me swoon. The vibrant colours, the ancient feel from moss covered trees, it’s unlike any other forest I have experienced before. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Planning a West Coast itinerary? What parts will you be including in your epic adventure?

Caving in Charleston

One of the things I love about international travel (it’s certainly not the flight getting there, I am quite fearful of long haul flights!) is that you know you are somewhere else. It might be the landscapes, the climate or the smells. Your senses tell you the place is foreign. Somewhere different to what you are used to.

I am getting that same feeling here on the West Coast. Not to the same extremes but enough for my senses to pick up the change. There is no wind, which I always find odd. A windless day in Wellington is very rare! The landscape and vegetation here is so different, foreign even. I am loving the tall gangly nikau palms and punga trees that cloak the land. It is so dense, green and lush. I feel like I could be on the set of Jurassic Park!

Breakfast is at the local tavern and we are greeted by the friendly staff. It’s a lovely setting, it’s interrior has lots of timber giving it a warm and inviting feel. The fire is going too. Out of every window I see green. The West Coast is so pristine. It has a very pure and untouched feel to it.

Today we are heading to Charlestown. Population 522. Until recently, I had never heard of the place, I came across it while doing research for this trip. It is a historic gold rush village and in the mid 1800’s it population swelled to 30,000. Nowadays, it is the limestone caves and caving experiences that attract tourists to the place.

That’s exactly what we are here for. Today, we are joining Underworld Adventures to explore limestone caves and gaze upon a galaxy of glow worms. After a safety briefing we kit up in all the gear, jumpsuit, jacket, socks, boots, and helmet. There is a lot of gear to get on. It’s always challenging when it’s made of neoprene!

Our journey begins with a short drive in their van, followed by a ride in Dorothy, a bush tram like train that takes us through The Nile River Rainforest. The forest is stunning, lush, dense and so green I am in awe at it’s beauty. We also past huge limestone cliffs, again I feel like I am on the set of Jurassic park!

We disembark the train and begin our walk, pick up our rubber tyres for later and continue walking some more. We then reach the steps. There is 148 of them! We climb them slowly. Everything is much harder when you are dressed head to toe in rubber!

It’s now time to begin our walk into the cave. I’m slightly nervous, I don’t like being in confined spaces, but am relieved to hear that most of the cave is pretty large and open.

Wow! Just Wow! This place is stunning! It’s hard to believe that treasures like this exists beneath the forest. How many times have the hills above it been walked, without anyone having a clue what lies below?

It’s a secret, magical place.

As we walk through the cave, our guide, Samamra, tells us about the cave’s history, how it was formed, how it was discovered (by a man and his dog, the footprints and paw prints can still be seen.) Super interesting stuff!

Samara also stops to point out all the different types of formations. Cauliflower rocks, thin straws, lace and of course the impressive stalagmites and stalactite all glistening with mineral water.

Absolutely gorgeous!

The cave is super impressive and also very natural. I have been in caves before, at Waitomo in the North Island and Skocjan Cave in Slovenia. What makes The Nile River Cave System so unique is how ‘untouched’ it is. There are no ropes, no barriers, walkways, platforms or permanent lights, it’s very much in it’s original state. It does mean you have to be super careful, the surface is uneven and if you’re not paying attention you could easily trip, but it’s natural rawness is so beautiful.

Well into the tour, we enter into a big chamber and we are instructed to all turn off our headlamps.

Total darkness.

I stand there, looking around, waiting for my eyes to adjust – of course they don’t. There is not an glimmer of light around for my eyes to adjust to. I can’t even see my hand when I hold it up right in front of my face. It’s quite an unusual experience. We stay like this, standing in the pitch black for quite sometime, listening to the quiet dripping sounds of water.

It’s so peaceful.

After a while we start to turn our headlamps back on, starting with the low setting first, to let our eyes slowly adjust. Apparently, if we stayed in total darkness for a long period of time we would start to get disorientated and loose our sense of balance.

Carrying on, we come to a huge, impressive formation, a stalagmite and stalactite that have joined together to create a column. This part of the cave is also full of little droplets on the ceiling that sparkle, giving the appearance of being covered in gold dust.

When we get near the water, we sit down and turn off our head lamps again, only this time, we are not in total darkness. We are in the remarkable presence of glow worms. As time passes, more and more turn on their lights. They use their lights to attract food. When our lights are on, they turn theirs off as they can’t compete with the amount of light and is just a waste of their energy.

Before moving on, I take some time to look carefully at the rocks with my light on. I can see the little worms in their ‘hammocks’ and their ‘fishing line’ that they use to catch their food on.

Now the part I have been looking forward to and the reason why the have walked all this way in wet suits carrying a rubber tyre! It wasn’t just for a laugh! We enter the water, sit in the tyre and turn off our lights. The water feels cold but not freezing. The wet suits are pretty thick.

We then form a long train and our guide paddles us along the river, through the cave. A few glow worms appear on the ceiling. And then some more and then all of a sudden I am staring up at hundreds and thousands of tiny little lights. I have never seen so many before in my life. Apparently, there are somewhere between 800,000 and 1.2 million glow worms here.

It is absolutely magical. I feel like I am looking up at the night sky, although I am sure I have never seen this many stars in the night sky. Perhaps more like looking up at the galaxy on a clear night in a dark sky zone. It is enchanting and mesmerizing and I can’t take my eyes off them as we float silently down the river.

I don’t want this to end.

But it does. We reach the entrance of the cave, light is streaming in through a large opening in the ceiling. We have emerged from a magical underworld, our faces are once again touched by the warmth and light of the sun. We are a fair way from where Dorothy is, but we are not walking back. We have our tubes so we are taking the river!

Unfortunately a lot of the river is quiet shallow. The West Coast hasn’t had any rain for 3 weeks, which here, is considered a drought! This means there are a few bums scraping on the rocks as we make our way down the river (and I kept getting stuck, impersonating a beached whale) but there are also a few rapids which are fun to go down. We board Dorthy and make our way back to base after an exciting 4 hours of rainforests, caving, glow worms and tubing. This was a pretty unique experience!

It’s mid afternoon but we are in need of petrol so we head north to Westport (We won’t pass any petrol stations on our way back to Punakaiki. We have been caught out before on a previous trip and are keen not to repeat that mistake!) After filling our thirsty bike, we find ourselves at Jimmy’s Bar & Lounge for some tapas and a drink. We weren’t planning to stay long, but ended up chatting to a local for well over an hour. So far, I have found the people on the West Coast to be really friendly and hospitable.

Dinner is back at Punakaiki Tavern, enjoyed in a beautiful garden area, looking out at the lush forest and huge cliffs, while watching the setting sun. I’m pretty sure I am falling in love with the West Coast.

Most of these photos were taken by our awesome guide, Samara which were made available to everyone after the tour for free! How great is that!

If you want to join Underworld Adventures and gaze upon a galaxy of glow worms, check out their website here. They also have a 12.5% discount off their Underworld Rafting and GlowWorm Cave Adventures till September 21. Win Win.