Oceania Travel

New Zealand’s Wild West Coast

Disclaimer: This trip was partially sponsored by Abel Tasman Lodge and Abel Tasman Kayaks. This did not have any effect on my opinions or suggestions.

If there’s one thing New Zealand does better than almost any country in the world, it’s national parks. Back in 2017, Courtny and I planned a 3-week South Island road trip, where we visited many of the amazing parks this country has to offer. The first section of this adventure was along the stunning west coast, home to some of the most amazing views in the country. Before I get started, here is the most important piece of advice I can give you: DO NOT RUSH THIS ROUTE! Some people drive all the way from Abel Tasman to Wanaka in two days, and that is such a shame. I’m going to start off by covering the first section of this drive: traveling from Abel Tasman National Park to Franz Josef. To be honest, we would have gladly spent months exploring every nook and cranny of this region, but here is an idea of the itinerary (and stop offs) we took.

QUICK ITINERARY:

Marahau (2 nights)

Marahau to Punakaiki (Overnight Punakaiki)

Punakaiki to Franz Josef

Franz Josef (2 nights Franz Josef)

Marahau (2 nights):

Immediately after getting our rental car at the Nelson Airport, we took off on the 50-minute drive to Marahau, a small coastal town on the doorstep of Abel Tasman National Park. Despite its tiny size, Marahau has everything you need: convenience stores, a wonderful family-run hotel, a legendary food spot, and, of course, access to one of the best national parks in the world.

What to do:

Explore. That’s going to be a theme with this post (and every post from New Zealand). With two nights in Marahau, we didn’t waste any time. As soon as we dropped off our luggage, we hit the trails of Abel Tasman. The views of the coastline are simply breathtaking. It’s one of many places along this trip that I would love to return to for weeks at a time.

Those long New Zealand days gave us plenty of time to explore!

Our second day was mostly spent on the water. A trip to Abel Tasman National Park would seriously be incomplete without getting in the water. We booked a full-day kayaking excursion with Abel Tasman Kayaks and we were simply blown away by the beauty surrounding us. The waters along the north coast of New Zealand are such a gorgeous color blue. Add to that the surrounding mountains and forest rising out of the water, the playful seals, and the delicious beach lunch. That’s quite a day and an experience you won’t soon forget! Have longer than a couple nights? Consider one of Abel Tasman Kayak’s longer tours. They have plenty of multi-day options that include camping on secluded beaches.

Abel Tasman Kayaks: the one thing you absolutely must do in Marahau

Where to eat:

The Fat Tui. If you eat at one spot in Marahau, make it The Fat Tui! This local favorite has some of the best burgers and sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. With a variety of seafood, beef, chicken, and veggie sandwiches, we came back here multiple times throughout our short stay.

Where to stay:

I cannot speak highly enough of Abel Tasman Lodge. Located just a few hundred meters from the entrance to Abel Tasman National Park, you cannot find a better location to base yourself. On top of that, ATL is extremely clean, and the owner and managers make it their top priority to keep their guests happy. We stayed in a standard 2-person room and were greeted with a heavenly bed and access to a beautiful public walking area.

Marahau to Punakaiki (Overnight Punakaiki):

If you look on Google Maps, this drive only takes 4 hours. In fact, the drive all the way from Marahau to Franz Josef is only a bit over 6 hours! So why stay overnight in Punakaiki? It’s simple: you will want to stop every 20 minutes to enjoy the scenery. I cannot stress this enough: PLAN A FULL DAY FOR THIS DRIVE! This “four-hour” drive took us 11 hours, and we still felt like we could have stopped so many more times. Meticulous trip-planning is great, but some places require a bit of flexibility for stops, and New Zealand is definitely one of those places. I am including our stops on this guide, but I’d also recommend simply following your instincts along the drive. If you see something that looks cool, stop and check it out! That’s what we did, and the result was one of the most memorable days of our honeymoon.

Heading to the coast! Stunning countryside views

Where to stop:

We made a total of 6 or 7 stops along this drive, though they were mostly just little pull-offs where we would take a small hike. There were, however, two stops that stand out in my mind:

  1. The Buller Gorge
  2. Cape Foulwind

Neither of these places were planned stops, but both are extremely memorable. First up was Buller Gorge. It’s home to the longest swing bridge in New Zealand, hanging above the Buller River. Be prepared; you have to pay a small fee to walk across the bridge. Still, the money was well worth it to stretch out our legs and take a nice walk above and along the river. In most countries, the longest swing bridge would be something that is constantly crowded with people. But that’s not the case here! We had the area almost entirely to ourselves, and we were there in the middle of the day during the peak travel season.

The Buller Gorge. Hope you like heights!

Finally, with only about an hour left in the drive to Punakaiki, Courtny spotted a sign for seal colonies. It was a bit out of the way, but our interest was piqued, so we took the turn for Cape Foulwind. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the best camera equipment for this area, as our view of the seals was from the cliffs above. Still, this little detour still sticks out in our minds as a favorite moment from the entire trip. The walk along the rocky coast provides some incredible views, and there’s nothing quite like the peace and solitude of off-the-track New Zealand.

Along the Cape Foulwind walk

Following our time with the seals, we hopped in the car and took off toward Punakaiki. With about 30 minutes left, we pulled off the road and made our way to a random beach to watch the sunset. We were the only two people on this incredible stretch of sand. Unreal. We finally pulled into Punakaiki around 10PM, smiling and ready to do it again the next day!

What a way to end the night!

Where to eat:

We fueled up on Fat Tui breakfast burgers before starting the drive, and that held us over until we reached Punakaiki. Since we arrived so late, we didn’t have a ton of options, but there is a bar in town that serves food, so we strolled over there and had a few drinks and some food after a long, satisfying day.

Where to stay:

We stayed at the Punakaiki Beach Hostel, and I would definitely recommend it! It’s in a super cool spot right on the beach, so you’ll fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves. Plus, it’s budget-friendly and clean; what more could you want from a hostel?!

Punakaiki to Franz Josef

Ready for another “short” drive? We definitely were! After our first full day on the road, we couldn’t wait to get back out and explore. And once again, New Zealand did not disappoint.

Yeah… you’re gonna like this drive!

Where to stop:

Once again, we made numerous stops along this drive. The two that jump to mind are the Pancake Rocks and the Hokitika Gorge. These were both stops that I had planned to make as long as the weather cooperated, which, thankfully, it did.

The Pancake Rocks are simply stunning. And easy to get to!

The Pancake Rocks are actually located right in Punakaiki, just a five-minute drive from the Beach Hostel. We spent an hour or two here, and that was a good amount of time. There are so many awesome rock formations, and the rough Tasman Sea crashing below provides tons of opportunities for photos.

One of our favorite stops on the whole South Island was Hokitika Gorge. The further down the coast we went, the bluer the rivers got. Hokitika had a milky blue color I’ve never seen before, and it was an amazing site. It’s about 30 minutes off the main road, but if you have a nice day, it is 100% worth the detour.

The Hokitika Gorge with some moody clouds in the distance

Where to eat:

We packed a lunch for the drive, but when we got to Franz Josef, we were ready for a proper meal. Fortunately, Franz Josef has some delicious food options, which I’ll cover in the next section!

Franz Josef (2 nights)

It’s hard to believe that the little mountain town of Franz Josef is less than 50 miles from the coast. But that’s how New Zealand is: compact and hugely varied. We absolutely loved our time here, and we can’t wait to come back and experience more of the amazing outdoor activities.

The Franz Josef Glacier looms right next to town.

What to do:

There are a few things the Franz Josef area is known for, not least of which is the mirror-like Lake Matheson. Originally, we planned on just relaxing on our arrival night, with a drive to Lake Matheson the next morning. Unfortunately for both our Lake Matheson trip and our scheduled glacier walk, the weather was looking stormy for the next morning. So, to be safe, we hopped in the car and drove the 30 minutes to Lake Matheson on our arrival night, and we’re so happy we did. We walked the short hike to the lake’s viewpoint, broke out the cameras, and settled in for the evening. We spent over four hours at the lake, capturing it at sunset, blue hour, and under the night sky. It was just us and two guys from Finland, who we still talk to today!

The next day was our planned glacier hike. Unfortunately, the weather forecasts were correct, and our heli-hike had to be canceled. Of course, we’re not ones to get too discouraged, so instead we took a hike through the glacier valley and viewed the Franz Josef Glacier from the ground. I’m sure the actual glacier hike is an amazing experience, and that’s probably the one thing I’d definitely suggest booking there. Maybe you’ll have better luck than us!

The Franz Josef Valley walk.

In the evening, we relaxed in the hot pools in Franz Josef, followed by drinks at the restaurant across the street.

Where to eat:

Franz Josef has some great options for food, but our favorite was definitely the Monsoon Restaurant. They have great pizzas and plenty of drink options. It was the perfect place to stop and relax for a few hours in town, and it has extremely reasonable prices, too!

Where to stay:

We stayed in a private room at the Glowworm Hostel. It’s a great option for anyone looking to stay on a tight budget but still wanting to be comfortable. It is clean, cheap, and has great management if any issues arise.

UP NEXT:

Be sure to check out the rest of our guide to New Zealand’s South Island! The next portion of our trip was from Franz Josef to Wanaka. Thanks for reading!

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