With rugged coastlines, black sand beaches, rainforests, glaciers and rivers running down from the high Southern Alps, the wild West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island is one of the country’s most bewitching and varied stretches.
Given that most of the spectacular views are found in remote areas dotted down the coast, one of the best ways to take it all in is via a road trip – just make sure your passenger is camera-ready, and prepare to take (multiple) photo breaks.
There’s also plenty of topnotch kai to keep you energised on your journey. From one of the country’s best hāngi to a sandwich shop that people travel to especially, here are the best spots to eat, drink, stay and explore on a road trip down the South Island’s West Coast.
The Mussel Pot Restaurant
If you’re driving to Nelson from Picton (where the ferry gets in from the North Island), take the route that goes through Havelock – and straight past The Mussel Pot. Stop for lunch or dinner, and order famous New Zealand green-lipped mussels. They come beer-battered, in garlic and butter, grilled or in a chowder – with freshly baked dipping bread. The garden courtyard is the perfect place to enjoy your meal. 73 Main Road, Havelock.
Kiwi Kai Nelson
Even though it’s an iconic Māori dish, it can be surprisingly hard to find a good place to buy a hāngi on the road in Aotearoa. Kiwi Kai Nelson serves not only one of the best hāngi in the country, but also has a menu filled with other Indigenous classics including boil-up, whitebait fritters, fry bread, and mussel and pāua patties. It’s owned by Reni Wereta-Gargiulo, whose marinated raw fish recipe from her dad is a highlight. Make sure you get a seafood pie to take away. 149 Vickerman Street, Port Nelson.
Urban Oyster Bar and Eatery
It’s in the name: these guys serve topnotch oysters, which they get fresh daily from Te Matuku, Te Kouma and Mahurangi, depending on the weather. From the rest of the tapas-style menu, you can order snapper ceviche, cabbage with kimchi butter, duck tacos and popcorn chicken. It also has a predominantly New Zealand wine list with several good craft beers on tap, making it the perfect spot for afternoon drinks and bites. 278 Hardy Street, Nelson.
Harry’s Hawker House and Bar
For laid-back Southeast Asian street food, head to Harry’s, a favourite Nelson spot among locals. There you’ll find fresh flavours, local ingredients, regional wines and beer, and signature cocktails. You can choose to book seats at the raised chef’s dining area or chef’s table, or go drop by casually without a reservation. Just ensure you come hungry. 296 Trafalgar Street, Nelson.
Kismet Cocktail & Whisky Bar
Undoubtedly the best place to meet friends for a drink in Nelson, Kismet is a relaxed yet polished cocktail lounge with a soaring ceiling and an extensive bespoke cocktail list dwarfed only by the roughly 300-strong whisky selection. Nibble on tapas such as goat cheese flatbread, truffle fries and chicken liver parfait with preserved pear and crostini. 151 Hardy Street, Nelson.
Forsters Moutere Hills
You can enjoy wine tastings at boutique winery Moutere Hills’ cellar door, just outside Upper Moutere village, about a 30-minute drive from Nelson. And don’t miss its restaurant, Forsters, with an à la carte menu created by experienced chef Alistair Forster. Sit in the garden or gaze out onto it as you tuck into dishes including braised Lumina lamb with black garlic tagliatelle, soy-cured yellowfin tuna, or a South Island cheese platter. 42 Eggers Road, Upper Moutere.
Gravity Winery, Cellar Door & Art Gallery
Gravity Winery is also not far from Upper Moutere, and is worth a visit for a tour or tasting. Pair your wine and cheeseboard with views overlooking the vines, with the Kahurangi ranges to the left and the harbour to the right. You can also browse the on-site art gallery, featuring works by local artists. 243 Old Coach Road, Mahana.
Te Koi – The Lodge at Bronte
If you’re after a special stay, check into this luxury lodge overlooking the Waimea Estuary. It’s been going for 25 years and was renovated in 2017. Stay in an elegant suite or villa, all kitted out with comfortable amenities and lovely ocean views, wander the gardens, and enjoy the warm hospitality of owners Ian and Ali Metcalfe. 133 Bronte Road East, Bronte.
Abel Tasman National Park
In a famously scenic country, this national park is one of Aotearoa’s most beautiful places. If you’re short on time (and haven’t planned ahead), it’s possible to drive to the village of Mārahau and walk toward the idyllic bay of Anchorage, but booking a water taxi in advance means you can explore more of the area. The taxi can drop you in Bark Bay a little further up the coast and pick you up in Anchorage (a two-hour walk south), or take you even further up to Awaroa Bay. The further into the park you get, the more stunning it is. Take your swimsuit – the beaches are unreal.
Māpua is a small coastal town half an hour’s drive from Nelson. It makes for a sweet day trip, roaming around its restaurants, art galleries and boutiques. Hire a bike and do one of the local cycle trails or drive over to have a swim by the wharf. The Smokehouse has some of the best fish’n’chips in the area, and Ruby Bay Kitchen is also a great stop for high-quality takeaways and the freshest fish.
The Hokitika Sandwich Company
Perhaps the most essential stop in Hokitika is this sandwich shop, which is so popular it recently opened a Christchurch store – and has rave reviews to prove it. The bread is baked fresh in-house every morning and filled with free-range local meat, South Island cheeses and house-made condiments. The New Yorker is the most famous signature – with corned beef, Swiss cheese, thousand island dressing and sauerkraut – but The Fish also slaps, with smoked fish, cream cheese and capers. 83A Revell Street, Hokitika.
Fat Pipi Pizzas
For the best pizza in town, head to Fat Pipi, Hokitika locals’ easygoing diner since 2006. Dine in surrounded by the wood-clad interiors or in the garden courtyard, and try a glass of wine from the in-house label Far Canal – a Central Otago pinot noir. Or, get takeaway to eat on the beach watching an iconic West Coast sunset. The whitebait pizza is a seasonal signature, served on a garlic butter base with capers and lemon. 89 Revell Street, Hokitika.
Built in 1865, the historic Woodstock Hotel is the best kind of pub – full of character and small-town charm. Sit in the beer garden overlooking the Hokitika river and Southern Alps, and order pub classics such as beer-battered fish, chips and salad, burgers and Sunday roasts. Live music on select nights adds to the atmosphere – and it has its own craft beer and cider brewery on-site. 250 Woodstock Rimu Road, Hokitika.
Hokitika Fire Station Boutique Accommodation
Chic hotels can be hard to come by when you’re travelling through rural New Zealand, but thankfully this is a stay you can rely on. As the name suggests, the building is the city’s historic fire station and has five self-contained apartments available. All sleep four with one sleeping up to six, and they’re modern, comfortable and spacious with in-room kitchen facilities. 9 Hamilton St, Hokitika.
The Hokitika Gorge
This short, easy walk takes you to a viewing platform, where the vibrant, milky, turquoise water below is an impressive sight. This hue is created by the river flowing down from the glaciers, full of “rock flour”. In August 2020, a second suspension bridge was built across the river, making the track a round loop – and providing another photo opportunity.
Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall track
Just over an hour’s drive from Hokitika through Arthur’s Pass (one of the most spectacular drives in the country), this walk is an easy one-hour round trip through native forest. The destination: an impressive 131-metre waterfall.
While it’s technically a 40-minute drive south from Haast, in Jackson’s Bay, The Craypot is well worth the scenic journey down the coast. This no-frills seafood restaurant serves lunch daily from 11am to 3:30pm, with mostly outdoor seating to make the most of the water views. Get seafood baskets, chowder and – an essential – the whole cray tail with garlic butter, served with fries and salad. The Esplanade, Jackson Bay.
Crepe & Snow
Blink and you’ll miss this tiny food truck, selling delicious French crepes on the side of the road – but keep an eye out for it, because owner Apolline Faye knows what she’s doing when it comes to these sweets. There are also gluten-free and vegan options available. Marks Road, Haast.
Hard Antler Bar & Restaurant
Serving whitebait fritters traditionally (on a piece of white bread) and with fries and salad, Hard Antler is the place to go when you’re ready to park up with an ice-cold beer and a pub meal after a long drive. The decor is rustic, with its main feature being dozens of pairs of antlers hanging from the rafters, and wall-mounted taxidermy here and there. 5 Marks Road, Haast.
Makarora Mountainview Accommodation
There are many no-frills roadside motels that’ll do the job for a one-night stay in Haast, but if you want to continue the wilderness experience right through to the moment your head hits the pillow, opt for a private room or self-contained unit at Mountainview Makarora Accommodation. It’s an hour’s drive from Haast, between Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, and is surrounded by the Mount Aspiring World Heritage National Park. As it’s such a remote area, and the rooms are affordable ($140 to $150 a night), they’re often booked out – so try to book well in advance of your visit. 53 Rata Road, Makarora.
Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier
You’ll have an amazing experience at either of these glaciers. They’re 25 minutes from one another, and between 1.5 and two hours from Hokitika. If you’re looking for more of a buzz, Franz Josef Glacier township has more options for shopping, eating and drinking, as well as the Glacier Hot Pools (though they’re temporarily closed). Near Franz Josef, you can also explore Lake Mapourika or Okarito Lagoon, while the photo-perfect reflective Lake Matheson is closest to Fox Glacier.
Blue Pools track
The drive through the Haast Pass is absolutely spectacular – so don’t rush it. Stop at the sightseeing spots and attractions on the way, including the stunning Blue Pools. The looped track is three kilometres, during which you will cross two swing bridges over the pools. They’re part of the Makarora River, with water that runs down from the nearby mountains in Mount Aspiring National Park. If you’re brave – ideally, when it’s warm – jump in for a swim.
The writer was given a car from Sixt’s luxury fleet for this trip.