Conservative estimates have the Hokitika of the gold rush-crazy 1860s being the proud owner of no less than 100 pubs. Less conservative estimates place the number closer to 200. Either way, in what was a booming population of 25,000 transient souls looking to find fortune in those rich West Coast soils, whether your pub-to-person ratio was 1:250 or 1:125, you were unlikely to have gone thirsty.
All of which can be gleaned from the history lesson that comes free when you stay at the Hokitika Fire Station Apartments, a place with a history that dates back to those gold-digging, beer-swilling days. With all those pubs 'n' people crammed together in hastily-built quarters, fire was an ever-present risk. Indeed, in an ironic divine act, the town's first fire station once burnt to the ground after a lightning strike.
Luckily that particular fire of 1875 proved just a hiccup in the now 155-year story of the Hokitika Fire Station, one that involves a couple of rebuilds and minor relocations. And since 2018, a quirky, luxury, boutique hotel complete with in-room firepoles.
When the still functioning fire station finally moved out of the Hokitika CBD in 2003, the impressive two-storey building it had been housed in since 1950 was converted to retail. That lasted until 2018 when the property was sold and a new chapter began, albeit one with constant nods to the past.
Beyond just the firepoles, the five suites of the Hokitika Firestation Apartments are decked out in ornaments such as fire ladders, hose nozzles and classic fire helmets. Everything - including naming each room after a former station fire chief - is proudly retro and there's even an old mid-20th century fire-engine guarding the downstairs suites.
In short, the place is utterly unforgettable. It also acts as the perfect launchpad to explore this part of the South Island. When the gold rush of the late 1800s ended, with it went Hokitika's days as one of the six largest towns in New Zealand. But gold is far from the region's only attraction with the West Coast inarguably blessed with some of New Zealand's most spectacular scenery.
While the cliche about how unbeatable Wellington is on a good day might be true, don't overlook Hokitika when the sun is shining and you can look down main street past the famous clock tower directly to the summit of Mt Cook. As the crow flies, New Zealand's highest mountain (3724m) is little more than 100km away, but it's the lush, temperate forests beneath the snowline that blanket so much of the West Coast that really pull me in.
One of the best, most thrilling ways to experience that ancient rainforest is just 15 minutes by car from Hokitika at the West Coast Treetop Walk. An engineering triumph, most of the 2012-built raised-steel platform is 20m above the forest floor, but a separate spiral staircase leads you to a 47m high lookout. Roughly the same height as a 15-16 storey apartment building, the views encompass the dense canopy jumble of rimu, miru, kamahi, mataī, kahikatea and tōtara trees as well as the Southern Alps, nearby Lake Mahinapua and the Tasman Sea.
The walk takes about 45 minutes and is a reminder of just how stunning New Zealand's remaining virgin forests are. I got a further taste of them at the Hokitika Gorge, a little over half an hour from town, though the lure here was less about the vegetation and more the colour of the water.
A shock of dazzling cobalt blue, the gorge gets its hue from the minerals found in the underground glacial waters, or "rock flour" as it's known. The gorge is made even more Insta-worthy with a 90m suspension bridge that forms part of a 2km loop track. The locals are right to warn you about the sandflies, but when a place is this remarkable you forgive a lot.
Back in town, there are galleries to visit with Hokitika hosting a thriving art scene that's especially notable for its glassworks and pounamu. Unfortunately - or fortunately - there are no longer dozens upon dozens of pubs, but several terrific heritage buildings remain, including a certain former fire station.
I did some Googling and bit of maths. My research tells me there are now seven pubs for Hokitika's approximately 3000 people. A far cry from the wild west, swing-the-saloon-doors era of the gold rush, if modern-day Hokitika wanted to replicate that less conservative 1860s estimate and ratio, they'd have to up their count to 24 pubs.
Tempting as that may sound, I'll gladly take seven plus a boutique hotel as memorable as any on the West Coast.
FIVE THINGS TO DO IN HOKITIKA
Hokitika beach sculptures
Hokitika Beach faces the full force of westerlies coming in from the Tasman. With these prevailing winds comes a variety of driftwood and drifting artists who leave their mark on the shore. Every January the Driftwood and Sand festival invites both amateurs and pros to sculpt an open-air gallery out of whatever washes up on the beach.
See the scenic waterways
The custom-built Eco Adventurer, a double-decker motor-raft, is a unique sight on the Mahinapua waterways. She might not be much to look at but from the floating frame you'll be able to get a little closer to the West Coast flora, fauna and views of the Southern Alps.
With kayak hire also on offer, Scenic Waterways offer a BYO sunset cruise giving the chance to enjoy the dramatic twilight hours with a take-away fish supper.
Polish up on pounamu
To the north of Hokitika, the Arahura River is the home of Greenstone. Plenty of workshops like the Mountain Jade or Bonz 'n' Stonz will offer tours or even a lesson in carving your own pounamu keepsake.
In the footsteps of Luminaries
The mazy plot of Eleanor Catton's award-winning book is spread throughout this West Coast gold rush capital. However for a taste of what boomtown living was really like you can take a steam-powered trip back to the late 1800s at the Shanty Town heritage park.
With steam engines and a lesson in gold panning on offer, the replica town is as close to the pioneer days of the Luminaries as you will wish to get.
See NZ's rarest birds
Hokitika is home to the West Coast kiwi, the rarest of this family of flightless birds. The fact that there are only 350 in existence can make them hard to spot in the wild. At the centre, however, you're guaranteed a sighting of the elusive birds.
The kiwi may give their name to the centre, but there are plenty of other critters here. You'll find Tuatara, hungry giant long-fin eels and freshwater crayfish or "Crawlies" as they are known locally.
Head out on two-wheels
The West Coast Wilderness Trail links Hokitika to both Greymouth and Ross. Normally done as a four-day cycling trip, the well-maintained route offers the chance to get out into the thick of the bush and beach trails. The relative flat towards Lake Mahinapua makes for an ideal day trip on two-wheels.
A choice of bike hires in town offer the opportunity to borrow a ride for the day or longer, if you intend to do the whole 139km trail.
- Thomas Bywater