Starting in Christchurch, the 255km route follows State Highway 73 west across river plains before rising to Porters Pass and Arthur’s Pass National Park. Highlights include the impressive Waimakariri and Otira River gorges, driving along the Otira Viaduct and exploring natural wonders such as Castle Hill Rocks and Cave Stream Reserve. Once on the West Coast, you have the option to drive north to the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks.
Before you depart, spend a day exploring fast-changing and funky Christchurch. Old English gardens contrast with pop-up bars and container-based shopping malls in the CBD, which is being rebuilt after the devastating earthquake in February 2011. Favourite activities include punting down the Avon River, biking in the Port Hills, visiting Sumner Beach, or taking a day trip out to the French colonial settlement of Akaroa.
Leaving Christchurch, you will first travel across the expansive Canterbury Plains, stretching from north to south as far as the eye can see. For some rural hospitality (and last minute snacks) stop off at the Original Sheffield Pie Shop or the Darfield Bakery. Then the road slowly winds up into the foothills of the Southern Alps. The scenery changes constantly as you round a bend, through a mountain pass, across a river, past lakes, ski fields and unique geological features.
Don’t miss the ancient monolithic limestone rock formations at Castle Hill. They’re loved by rock climbers, but most people simply enjoy a little bouldering, some great views and unique photo opportunities. Reaching Arthur’s Pass Village is your halfway point to the West Coast. This little village nestled in alpine grandeur is National Park headquarters and a departure point for many walking trails through the Southern Alps. Whether you want to enjoy a leisurely 10-minute stroll, a three-day trek or something in between, there are walks to suit all ages, abilities and schedules.
Just 5km up the road from Arthur’s Pass Village you will come to the Otira Lookout. The panorama sweeps across the Otira Viaduct – an extraordinary engineering feat spanning a long stretch of unstable terrain, a remarkable landscape that you might recognise from television commercials.
As you drive west and down from the mountains, you’ll notice an abrupt change of vegetation. Suddenly greener and lush rainforests replace the barren eastern side of the divide. You’re now in a region that has some of New Zealand’s best remaining stands of native forest and a wealth of rare wildlife. Here the locals – they like to be called Coasters – have a laid-back attitude to life and a strong sense of community.
Gold attracted settlers to this wild coastline in the late 1860s and you can still pan for your own gold in places such as Shantytown Heritage Park. The other precious mineral of the region is pounamu or greenstone. Traditional Maori jewellery made from pounamu is a beautiful keepsake. Ask your loved one to buy it for you, as it’s good luck to receive it as a gift.
Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast and is known for its dramatic seascapes. The local brewery runs tours or you can catch up with West Coast history at the museum. White water rafting and sea kayaking are other things to do. From Greymouth, consider taking the 35-minute drive north to explore the rugged, unspoiled coastline leading to Punakaiki and its fascinating limestone formations called Pancake Rocks. Follow the walkway that leads you from the road to the most impressive of these natural wonders.