This is part two in a series of posts about driving New Zealand’s South Island. Don’t forget to check out part one, driving from Christchurch to Marlborough.
And if you’re looking for more of what to see and do in Marlborough itself, you can check out these posts:
- Sipping Sav: A Tour of the Marlborough Wine Region
- Cruising the Marlborough Sounds on a Mail Boat
- Things to Do in Marlborough
- The Best Tours in Marlborough
- Where to Stay in Marlborough
Leaving Picton or Blenheim in the Marlborough Region of New Zealand’s South Island, there are two routes you can take to reach the Wild West Coast. Both routes join about halfway to the coast, one offering a quicker more direct route, the other is a bit more scenic.
For this New Zealand West Coast drive we will look at the scenic route because really, that’s what a road trip all about, spectacular scenic drives.
This post contains affiliate links. Our full disclosure policy is here.
New Zealand West Coast Map
Here is a map of the New Zealand West Coast road trip leading from Picton and ending up in Franz Josef. You could easily do the drive in reverse or from another starting point like Nelson in the north or Wanaka in the south.
New Zealand West Coast Road Trip
This route is just over 600 km which could easily be driven in one day. However, if you want to see many of the sights and experience some of the beautiful nature along the way, I suggest tackling it over two days with an overnight stop in Punakaiki which is right on the halfway point.
Day 1 – Picton to Punakaiki
Start your New Zealand West Coast drive in Picton, gateway to the Marlborough Wine Region. The drive time from Picton to Punakaiki is around five and a half hours without stops, so make an early start to give yourself plenty of time for scenic stops along the way.
Still part of the Marlborough region, Havelock is just over a 40 minute drive from Picton (closer from Blenheim). From Picton there are two routes you can take, one along the edge of the sound and the other back towards Blenheim, cutting through the mountains.
The town of Havelock is small and its biggest draw card is that it is situated on the Sounds, similar to Picton. If you’re ready to stretch your legs, park the car at the marina and take a short walk around the waterfront. If you’re spending more time here you can take a mail boat cruise through the Pelorus Sound, similar to those that leave from Picton.
It’s just under an hour’s drive from Havelock to Nelson with the picturesque road heading up, down and around mountains, over rivers and streams and through forests.
Nelson itself is set on the Tasman Bay which you’ll see on your right as you approach the city centre, and you will continue to follow the bay all the way out of town as you head south.
If you decide to stop in town you’ll find it to be a thriving city that has more artists per capita than any other city in New Zealand. There are plenty of stores and galleries in town where you can browse and buy artisan goods from the locals. It is also the perfect jumping off point for day trips into the Abel Tasman National Park.
If you decide to stay in Nelson for a while, there are many tour option that will take you into the Abel Tasman National Park. Here are the best of the best!
After leaving Nelson and the Tasman Bay behind, it’s a further one hour drive to Murchison which is about the halfway point between the Marlborough region and the Wild West Coast.
The road starts out flat as you head through farmland and open plains. This leads to the scenic mountains again and takes you through the Buller Gorge along rivers and through gullies with mountains towering high above.
Murchison is a picturesque small town set on the mighty Buller River. If you’ve got the time and enjoy a bit of adrenaline pumping action, you’ll find the whitewater rafting and jet boating activities on offer to be among the best opportunities in New Zealand.
Otherwise Murchison is a great chance to stretch your legs near the river or grab a bite to eat. The Rivers Cafe at 51 Fairfax Street is an excellent choice. Make sure you try a scone!
Hawks Crag & the Kilkenny Lookout
From Murchison continue towards the West Coast for another 50 minutes or so through the Buller Gorge along the river until you get to Hawks Crag.
This craggy one way road is cut into the cliff that drops into the Buller River below. Make a stop at the Kilkenny Lookout just before the bridge to get a good look at the road, fast moving river below and the beautiful surrounding scenery.
Westport & Cape Foulwind
It’s just a further 20 minutes to the coast and the town of Westport. The drive into Westport follows the Buller River which empties into the Buller Bay.
The town itself is quite frankly dull so make your way through it quickly and jump onto Cape Foulwind Road which leads to the Cape of the same name and its seal colony.
At the Cape there is a short walk you can do up to the point which offers great views of the wind swept beach and coast. It also leads to the seal colony which, if you’re lucky, you’ll see large numbers of seals chilling on the rocks below the track. There are information boards along the walk that tell you about the local flora and fauna including info on the seals and their habits.
Now you’ve finally reached that Wild West Coast it is time to head south and make your way to Punakaiki and the Paparoa National Park where I suggest you stay the night to make the most of the area.
The road from Westport follows the coast all the way to Punakaiki and is dramatic with the ragging sea on the right and steep rainforest covered mountains on the left.
If you’re planning to take a few walks in the area I suggestion heading straight to the iSITE just south of the town to pick up a map and some information.
While you’re at the iSITE you might as well check out the most popular thing to see on the west coast, the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. The staff in the iSITE will be able to tell you when the next high tide is so you can time your visit to these rocks when the blowholes are most active.
The Pancake Rocks are limestone formations which began forming 30 million years ago and are made up of lime-rich fragments of dead marine creatures which were deposited on the seabed, then overlaid by weaker layers of soft mud and clay.
The rocks that you see today have been shaped and formed by the crashing seas, rain and wind that this area is prone to. During high tide each day the sea rushes under the rocks and up through holes in the rocks to create blowholes, spouting water metres into the air.
As for the walks in the area, there are about ten, four of which take under an hour to complete and are pretty easy for all fitness levels (although some lead you through narrow rainforest tracks and up and down steps).
If you only have time for one more walk after Pancake Rocks, I recommend the Truman Track. Located north of town, the path leads from the road through lush rainforest to the headland and beach with spectacular coastal views. Here you can descend the stairs and walk the beach, getting a closer look at the wind carved rock formations.
In the evening, things close early, so make sure you head on down to the Punakaiki Tavern for a dinner and a drink before it gets too late. Some nights the kitchen closes as early as 8pm.
Where to Stay in Punakaiki
There is limited accommodation in Punakaiki, however there is at least one place that suits each budget range. Here are my recommendations.
Budget – Te Nikau Retreat
Mid-Range – Punakaiki Beachfront Motels
Luxury – Tasman Sea Retreat
Day 2 – Punakaiki to Franz Josef
On day two of your New Zealand West Coast road trip make your way further south along the coast to Franz Josef. The drive time is about three hours, giving you plenty of time for stops along the way.
Leaving Punakaiki refreshed after a good night sleep, the road continues to follow the rugged coastline with stunning views of the ocean and surrounding rainforest covered mountains.
It’s about 40 minutes before you’ll reach Greymouth, the largest town on the West Coast. There isn’t a huge amount see in Greymouth, but if you feel like a coffee you’ll find plenty of cafes in town. There is also the Monteith’s Brewery where you could stop in for a quick one hour brewery tour.
Another 30 minutes south is Hokitika, a former thriving gold mining town which is now known for its production of greenstone and interesting festivals throughout the year, including the Wild Food Festival which is usually held around March each year.
If you’re not lucky enough to catch a festival you can still wander the local stores and galleries for greenstone and other locally made goods.
Just 10kms south of Hokitika is the Mahinapua Scenic Reserve and Lake Mahinapua. Here you can take a walk around the lake and through the reserve. Walks range in length from 10 minutes to two and a half hours long, all of which are flat and suitable for all fitness levels.
The conservation area is home to black swans and mallard ducks, so as you’re taking a walk keep your eyes peeled for these graceful creatures.
Even if you don’t have time for a walk, the lake is a nice place to stop for a short time and take in the stunning lake and views of the snow-capped Alps in the distance.
The journey along the West Coast is just about over with the road leaving the coast not long after you leave Lake Mahinapua. The one and a half hour drive to Franz Josef is very scenic with flat farming land on your right and towering snow-capped mountains on the left. Glimpses of peaks higher than any mountains I’ve ever seen come into view the closer to Franz you get.
One last stop before arriving at the final destination on this leg of the trip and it’s for lunch.
Hari Hari is one of those blink and you’ll miss it kind of towns. It has a population of around 300 and the main street is just a few shops along the highway.
I stopped here only because the map showed a lack of other places to stop further down the road. And boy was I glad! Set up along the highway on the southern side of town is a food truck called West Coast Food Co.
Here I bought the most delicious pork sausage roll and pesto salad and sat in this totally deserted town surrounded by mountains and ate.
Looking for things to do in Franz Josef and surrounds, check out my post Things to Do in New Zealand’s Glacier Country for more information.
Where to Stay in Franz Josef
Arriving in Franz Josef, there are many great places to stay in this resort style town. Here are my picks for budget, mid-range and luxury stays.
Budget – Chateau Backpackers & Motels
Mid-Range – The Terrace
Luxury – Westwood Lodge
Over to you!
What would you most like to see and do on the road driving New Zealand’s Wild West Coast?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.