For the ultimate luxury, explore South Island's West Coast on a small-group coach holiday, writes Belinda Luksic
Big and bold, the South Island's Te Tai o Poutini (West Coast) is nothing short of spectacular. Wedged between the Southern Alps and the wild Tasman Sea is a dramatic, rain-buffeted coastline with beauty at every turn.
Glaciers spill into lush rainforest. The alps seesaw between valleys and braided rivers. There is Unesco World Heritage wilderness and tiny hamlets barely changed from gold-rush days.
For many New Zealanders, this is the road less travelled - a 600km coastline that ranks as one of the world's best coastal road trips. Milford Sound may be its crowning glory but this sublime wilderness has no shortage of star attractions. For the ultimate luxury, let someone else do the driving and join a small-group coach trip as I did. Here are some of the highlights.
Crossing the Southern Alps into Greymouth can feel like stepping back in time. This is the final stop on the Tranz Alpine Rail - and the beating heart of the West Coast. Gold was once the lifeblood here, a history of tall tales true told at nearby Shantytown, a faithful recreation of a 19th-century gold-mine town.
Go behind the scenes at Monteith's Brewery, one of New Zealand's oldest breweries. Here you can learn about hops and settle in with a tasting paddle and tapas. In summer, Rapahoe Beach is a popular swimming haunt.
Formed over millennia, the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes near Paparoa National Park are breathtaking. At high tide, the ocean blasts through the blowholes, whooshing columns of water skywards.
For dress-circle views, the 45-minute coastal walk winds between spiky flax, nīkau palms and clifftop lookouts pounded by savage seas. Here birds squawk and circle the strange limestone rocks - like giant stacked crepes - and you can sometimes spot Hector's dolphins frolicking in the sea.
Don't miss Devil's Cauldron, a natural sea pool where the ocean rages and ebbs. Stick around for sunset on the beach. At dusk, the sun turns the sky golden as it sinks into the Tasman Sea.
The local coasters call it a "cool little town" and it's not hard to see why. From the driftwood sign on the beachfront to the Hokitika Sock Machine Museum in town, Hokitika is buzzing with artisan crafts and history. Greenstone lovers can pick up a trinket at any one of the pounamu galleries in town or watch as master craftsmen bring the jade stone to life.
You'll also find galleries showcasing local art, woodcarvings, silver and pottery. Stop by the local museum, a hotbed of Māori artefacts, and tales of gold miners, pounamu hunters and Hokitika's shipwreck past. Or grab a map and walk the historic sights brought to life in Eleanor Catton's whodunnit, The Luminaries.
For adventures further afield, Hokitika Gorge is an Insta-worthy drive for its luminous blue waters. Adventurers with time on their hands should tackle the West Coast Treetops Walk.
Franz Josef Glacier
It's not every day that a walk in a rainforest ends in a glacier, but Franz Josef is no ordinary glacier. This temperate maritime glacier - one of two in the world - once flowed from the mountain to the sea. For a bird's-eye appreciation, take to the sky with Glacier Helicopters. The 40-minute scenic flight takes in Mt Cook, and both Franz Josef and nearby Fox glaciers, with a soft snow landing at the top.
For a view of a different kind, tramp one of three glacier trails in Westland Tai Poutini Park. The 90-minute Franz Josef Glacier Walk crosses the moraine, ending within 750m of the terminal face. Head to Glacier Hot Pools post-hike for a soothing soak in hot springs fed by a glacier. It's in the Glacier Base Building in town.
This epic 82km highway is one of New Zealand's most scenic roads – a mountain pass that joins Haast to Wānaka and Queenstown. One of three passes through the Southern Alps, it winds through dazzling World Heritage wilderness in Mt Aspiring National Park. From open plains to beech forest, the road travelled is an ever-changing landscape, with the alps never far from view.
Look out for waterfalls, glacier-fed rivers and the gorgeous shimmer of Lake Wānaka, a lake gouged by a glacier. At the northern tip of the lake is Makakora, a popular launching pad for multi-day hikes. But you'll also find several bushwalks that start at the highway between Makarora and Haast.
Don't miss the Blue Pools, a slice of glacial beauty a short walk from the car park. The aquamarine waters are so clear that from the swing bridge above you can spot trout swimming. Fantail, Thunder Creek and Roaring Billy waterfalls are other stunning stops.
For a taste of the West Coast and its "coasters", hit the water with family-owned-and-operated Haast River Safari. The full-throttle ride in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, shoots across the Haast River to where Roaring Billy Falls plunges 30m through the forest. Stay on board for churning 360-degree spins or watch the action from the pebbly shore, a fun spot to skip rocks.
Rudyard Kipling famously described Milford Sound as the "eighth wonder of the world", and it's easy to see why. Carved by glaciers during the ice ages, sheer cliffs rise from mercury waters; waterfalls thunder from the tops of forest, and snow-covered mountain peaks seem perpetually slung in cloud.
Its highest summit is Mitre Peak, a jagged point that commands attention. There are fur seal colonies, penguins and dolphins. Set within World Heritage wilderness in Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is unique for being the only fiord you can access by road.
The 54km Milford Track from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound remains a popular wishlist tramp. You can also explore the fjords by kayak, helicopter or on a scenic boat cruise. While a day cruise delivers amazing views and wildlife, an overnight cruise is the chance to experience the fjord at its most peaceful, away from day-trippers and the tour bus crowds.
Tranz Alpine Rail
Getting to the West Coast is part of the experience, especially if you take the Tranz Alpine, one of the Great Rail Journeys of the world. The 224km four-hour journey from Christchurch rolls through the vast and fertile Canterbury Plains, before climbing up and over the Southern Alps via Arthur's Pass. It hurtles through 16 tunnels and over five vertigo-high viaducts, before arriving, four hours later in the West Coast town of Greymouth. Get camera-ready in the outdoor viewing cart for grandstand views of gorges, braided rivers and snow-dusted mountains.
CHECKLIST: WEST COAST
Inspiring Journeys' 12-day The Southern Drift is a small-group tour with a maximum 22 guests, that departs Christchurch and takes in the West Coast, Queenstown and Dunedin, priced from NZ$7925pp, twin share. This includes 11 nights in a 4-star hotel, breakfast, most dinners, airport transfers and the Tranz Alpine train from Christchurch to Arthurs' Pass. The itinerary includes Punakaiki, Hokitika, Franz Josef Glacier, Milford Sound, Dunedin, Christchurch and Queenstown.