The town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s West Coast reminded me of a nostalgic seaside experience I’d never actually had. Though the views are spectacular and tourism services are plenty, the region maintains an element of the undiscovered country. Sure, there are tourists, but they don’t overwhelm the place.
There’s an electrician’s shop on beachfront property. Industrial spaces like these have been gentrified in every seaside town I’ve visited in the USA. Driving along Highway 6 from Greymouth, you’ll see cows in a pasture with a view. More than a view, this is 100% ocean frontage, and the cows don’t even appreciate their prime real estate. They just stand there nibbling the ever-growing grass as the Tasman Sea churns beside them.
On a Sunday afternoon in February–New Zealand’s summer–the easy availability of parking in Hokitika’s heritage district made me fear we’d arrived after the shops and restaurants had closed. In fact, there were a few shuttered doors, but most cafes were serving and opportunities to buy pounamu (greenstone) and possum merino abounded. I was also struck by the number of book shops and vinyl record stores for a little hamlet. No wonder they call themselves “the cool little town.”
Having arrived on the TranzAlpine train to an hour of heavy downpours in Greymouth, we learned immediately to appreciate the sun when it showed its face. Make hay–or make merry!–as soon as the sun shines.
Note: Every season warrants foul weather gear in the Westland. Do not visit New Zealand without a rain jacket unless you plan to buy one for an apt souvenir.
Our decision to store the large baggage with a helpful Greymouth i-Site Visitor Center employee at the station while we ate a late lunch and let the crowds disperse from the car rental counters turned out to be clever. An hour after the TranzAlpine’s arrival and subsequent return to the Canterbury Plains, we were the only people requesting information in the fully staffed station that had been a scrum a short while before.
I still forgot to ask where I could buy postage stamps, but not because of madding crowds. Chalk that one up to my aging brain or jet lag.
Note: My postcards arrived about two weeks after I mailed them from a downtown Christchurch streetside post box. Don’t be surprised if you beat your posted letters home.
“Hiring” a car, while not essential, offers the West Coast visitor the most flexibility to vary one’s itinerary with the rapidly changing weather. Neither DH nor I particularly enjoyed driving a strange car on the “wrong” side of the road, but the low population density and clear signage in our native language made the process manageable. He never did master using the turn signals backwards, though. We ran our windshield wipers every time we turned.
The next morning, being blessed with stunning weather, sunny and warmer than average, sent us from our oceanside B&B in Awatuna straight to Hokitika Gorge… after a better than average continental breakfast and one more cup of coffee.
The GPS knew the way, but the simple tourist map available everywhere plus bright yellow informational signs at every relevant crossroads would have gotten us to the popular site without any need for modern technology.
New Zealand rates and advertises many public parks with specific advice for fitness levels and time required to complete each track. This attention to detail is reflected on road signs as well.
The primary car park at Hokitika Gorge was full by 10 AM, but the overflow lot had plenty of space when we arrived. Parking looked a bit more difficult closer to noon, but there were definitely still spaces available. I’ve found that most popular tourist destinations are best seen either early or late in the designated hours, and that seemed to hold true here.
Be aware that part of the roadway approaching the scenic area, and the parking area, are gravel, not paved.
Hokitika Gorge has a pair of restrooms with flush toilets including cold running water for washing hands, but you’ll need to air dry. A food truck parked in what seemed to be a permanently designated spot offered drinks and snacks for sale. We didn’t try its wares, but I was glad to know a hot coffee could be had if desired.
Note: I have yet to find so much as a street corner in New Zealand where a coffee isn’t available, and all but one cup I had in the nation were very good.
The “easy” designation on a New Zealand walk doesn’t necessarily mean a flat paved path, but conditions were predictable and manageable for my arthritic feet and recently aggravated hip. Those of us with joint issues should wear supportive shoes and set a moderate pace. Let the local kids in bare feet jog past you while you take your time.
You might also see those local kids plunging into the icy water from a well situated boulder. Use your best judgement as to whether you should follow suit. They were giggling but shivering on their way back to the parking lot.
Even visitors in wheelchairs can reach the initial lookout point, but the journey’s continuation uphill and across the swingbridge is more fun.
Be aware that the “swing” in the name is literal. If your balance is less than optimal, don’t cross the bridge with any rowdy kids. When they run, it can leave you feeling like your footing is not secure. Though there were plenty of people around on our visit, traffic fluctuated, and a little patience made a smooth crossing–or a photo without unwanted strangers in the shot–possible.
Heading to town after our walk, and having read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries before visiting Hokitika, I joked that I would be on the lookout for three things:
- gold prospectors,
- opium addicts, and
- ladies of the evening.
I didn’t really expect to encounter any of them in person. Imagine my surprise to find that our host at the B&B was a bona fide gold miner! If Hokitika is still home to opiate addicts and streetwalkers, they aren’t as readily seen by casual tourists on a fine afternoon. That’s probably just as well, for the town of Hokitika as well as my rule-abiding self.
Aside from wandering around, joining the other tourists at the beach, and visiting the little shops along Hokitika’s four or five commercial streets, we chose to eat lunch at Fat Pipi Pizzas. The pizza was fine, not fabulous, but the oceanside outdoor patio was a real pleasure.
We got takeaway pastries and sandwiches at a bakery near the northern end of the Main Street parallel to the ocean. These were tasty and affordable, and meant we didn’t need to go out to dinner or drive later in the evening. Even cold food was delicious on the B&B’s terrace as sunset approached.
The Tasman Sea rolling in over and over in crashing waves is a sight to behold. I’d recommend a trip to the South Island’s West Coast for this alone if you enjoy being hypnotized as much as I do.
The relatively empty beaches are another wonder in and of themselves. Here, you find yourself in a position to appreciate God’s work with less commentary on the part of mankind. Coastal areas are so appealing that we scramble to despoil them with beach homes and ice cream stands. New Zealand’s seeming endless coastline leaves more stretches less touched by human endeavors, and that absence was one of my favorite things about this part of the country.
Hokitika would probably be the best base for staying on the West Coast for those foregoing a rental car. It’s also the best option for those who’d prefer lodgings adjacent to restaurants and services. Choose to visit as a day trip if you prefer, like we did, to stay somewhere less built up and drive out to access dining and shops.