When people say they want to get away from it all, youre never exactly sure what they mean. On New Zealands sparsely populated West Coast (tel. 64 3 768 6633; www.west-coast.co.nz), where theres more to do and see than there are residents, you know exactly what they mean. Cell phone service hardly works. Hotel owners, even at the luxury level, dont have TVs in the room, and the only beeping you hear are the sounds of birds. Now thats getting away from it all.
Whats to do there? Oh, just take helicopters to the top of glaciers; jet boat to the exact spot where the San Andreas Fault line meets the Alpine Fault line; drive down the empty coastline through tiny towns where sheep and cattle farms run on a swath of fertile green lawns between State Highway 6 and the giant waves of the Tasman Sea; and amble over a stretch of dirt road lasting 22 kilometers where youll swear youre lost and wont ever find civilization until you hit a luxurious but affordable fishing lodge in the middle of the wilderness that generates its own power, gets its water from a fresh spring behind the main house, and serves a gourmet dinner, full breakfast, hors doeuvres through the day and some pre-dinner local wines. But thats the heart of the West Coast, and thats the soul of New Zealand.
Theres plenty more to see like white herons breed, shop for possum mink socks and sheepskin rugs, visit jade factories and talk to a genuine West Coaster whos been an honest fisherman all his life but openly admits he lies about how bad the weather is on the West Coast just to keep the people away. To get this kind of rugged and rustic peace in the United States youd have toÂ¿come to think of it, theres nothing like this anywhere else but here, which is why youd have to come and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.
Like everything else in New Zealand, getting to and around the West Coast is made easy for travelers. The West Coasts comprehensive and very easy to use website (listed above), is a map-driven destination site that breaks the region along the western coast up into nine sections moving downward from Westport in the first section to Haast in the ninth region close to Wanaka, where we left off in the last dispatch. The site gives detailed information on accommodations, activities, crafts shopping, food, drives, events, and natural and other attractions. All you have to do is click on the section where you want to go and then choose what you want to do there.
We started our West Coast trip in the tow of Haast with an educational jet boat excursion from Haast River Safaris (tel. 64 3 750-0101; www.haastriver.co.nz/index.asp). A jet boat is the invention of New Zealander Bill Hamilton who in 1953 conjured up an engine for a shallow water high-speed power boat that allows the boat to cruise at very high speeds (60 or 70 mph) over very shallow water (3 inches). The boat hull is made of light but strong marine-grade alloys, and jet boat engines became a force during the Vietnam War as the U.S. military deployed them for river battles and patrols on small crafts. In New Zealand, theyre used for educational purposes and fun as river safaris take tourists and scientists as upstream as gravity allows to peruse waterfalls and rivers caused by glaciers. The Haast River is the seventh largest river in the world and it produces heavy volume and current pushing water away from the mountains into the Tasman Sea.
Taking you to the point on the Earth where the San Andreas Fault line meets the Alpine Fault line, where the platelets of the Earth meet and shift and cause tsunamis and major earthquakes, the Haast River Safari is a science lesson in how the Earth shakes and how glaciers feed waterfalls which spawn rivers which flow to the sea. (Bring your child and hell ace biology.) Fifteen thousand earthquakes, most of which are never even felt, occur per year on the spot where the Haast River Safari takes you. The cost of the ninety-minute ride taking you 85 meters above sea level (youre going up a slight hill of water) comes to approximately US$70. Along with all that science and information, the price includes some fun too, as the experienced and jocular boat captain takes the 30-passenger eight-meter vessel on high-speed spins in the shallow water. In the river through the turquoise colored clear water youll catch glimpses of 15-pound spawning Salmon.
Upon leaving Haast, its not long before you see signs saying, "Welcome to Glacier Country." Having never scene a glacier before, most tourists associate glaciers with either snow-capped mountains or ice-capped areas of mountains non-navigable by mortal. In New Zealand, they know better. Blessed with over 3,000 glaciers, New Zealand is also home to two glaciers considered warm glaciers, meaning they enter into rain forests and are more than navigable. Even tourists who never walked on ice can cruise around the top of them in T-shirt and jeans.
Of these two glaciers, Fox Glacier (www.glaciercountry.co.nz/glaciers.asp?what=FoxGlacier) is considered the easier of the two to visit and tourists who are not confident in their hiking or adventure skills usually flock to Fox.
"Fox is pretty flat," said one tour guide. "You can take your granny there." We opted for Franz Josef Glacier, a half hour drive north of Fox in the town of Franz Josef.
The weather on the West Coast of New Zealand can get murky. The morning we were set to go looked cloudy and it rained the night before. Going up to the glacier was not definite. The helicopters that take you up to the glacier need to be able to land, and of course glacier walking can be tenuous in the rain. Fortunately for us, the sun came out and the choppers were airborne. Working in tandem, two tour providers join forces to give the full glacier experience. The Heli Hike, as the four-hour glacier excursion is called, starts with a ride up to the glacier from The Helicopter Line (tel. 64 3 752-0767; www.helicopter.co.nz), one of the oldest helicopter tour operators in New Zealand dating back to the 1980s. Ever safety conscious and professional, the Helicopter Line is the only helicopter tour company in New Zealand that employs two-engine helicopters ensuring a safe trip should an engine blow during the trip up or down. With less to worry about, the trip up the glacier seems too quick. You want more time to photograph the speedy waterfalls with verticals of hundreds of feet and crevassed blue and white ice close enough to touch as you serpentine up the glacier to your flat-iced landing pad. For digital camera users, dont be so blown away by the photo opportunities that you forget the short video option. Use it, and sit next to the window in the six-person chopper to get the unobstructed views. (Sit in the front seat on the way down. Theres nothing between you and the downward slope that is the mountain.)
Once on the glacier, the folks from Franz Josef Glacier Guides (tel. 64 3 752-0763; www.franzjosefglacier.com) take over the glacier walk. Bring your own suntan lotion and sunglasses and dress in plenty of layers. The guide company will lend you an extra jacket, gloves and socks and boots and "ice talonz" that fit over your boots to grip the ice. You get an ice pick for balance as well. Unique to the Franz Josef Glacier Guides, the talonz grip the ice and make walking comfortable and easy. Once you get the hang of it, you wont want off of the glacier. The walk uphill and then down includes narrow passages through tunnels if ice, light hops over small crevasses, and stairways made of ice picked and flattened by your faithful guide, in our case an affable and competent Englishman named Tim. Awesome in spectacle and accomplishment, the Heli Hike is one of New Zealands best day trips. Costing approximately $190 for four scintillating hours of sheer excitement, the Heli Hike is well worth the cost as you feel like an intrepid explorer putting your feet where no man has gone before.
"Every time you go up there, it changes" says Pip, who answers the phone at the Glacier Guides but loves hopping around on the ice at the top.
While Franz Josef is a tiny town that owes its place on the map and small economy to the glacier, you can save the travel dollars on a place to stay. The Franz Josef Mountain View Top Ten Holiday Park (tel. 64 3 752-0735; www.mountain-view.co.nz) is part of a nationwide chain of inexpensive but very comfortable accommodations offering hotel rooms, cabins, dorm-style living and RV parking. The giant properties are for the budget traveler looking to travel the way some New Zealanders do, by car and very affordably. Prices start at just US$65 for a motel-like room with a queen bed, private bathroom, kitchen unit and television. For a room with the bathroom down the hall or part of the same housing unit but a few steps away, prices start around US$41. The centrally-located properties are perfect for the fly and drive packages offered by tour providers specializing in New Zealand travel. You can book them up and down both coasts and both the North and South Islands.
For a step up thats in town, book a room at the Franz Josef Glacier Hotel (tel. 64 3 752 0729; www.scenic-circle.co.nz/hotel.asp?id=13). Just a two-minute walk to the local pub where all the guides and chopper pilots watch rugby and down Monteith (www.monteiths.co.nz) the local beer brewed up the West Coast in the town of Greymouth, the hotel has off-season rooms until mid-June costing approximately US$90 for a spacious room. Add NZ$20 or US$12.80 to add a hearty breakfast. If youre in town for dinner, the upscale Westwood Lodge (tel. 64 3 752-0112; www.westwood-lodge.co.nz) is the swankest hotel for an overnight stay and a good option for a New Zealand supper. For almost US$20, see if you cant get a reservation for the boutique hotels three course gourmet meal and pre-dinner drinks.
Voted one of the worlds top ten best drives by Lonely Planet, the car ride up State Highway 6 from Franz Josef to Hokitika (www.hokitika.com) is full of ocean views. About four small towns of tiny Main Streets pave the two and a half hour coastal jaunt that rivals the Pacific Coast Highway by Carmel, California in scope and sights. Adjacent to South Wetland World Heritage Park, Hokitika is a beach town known for its arts and crafts. With retail stores selling New Zealand jade, gold, bone carvings, and sheepskin and possum items such as rugs (US$50), pillowcases (US$37) and socks (US$14), the town has become a great day trip and a haven for West Coast artists looking for studio space and inspiration. The Sheep Station (tel. 64 3 756 8090), on a side street as you enter town, makes their own sheep and possum fur footwear, rugs, covers and outerwear. The store also sells other wool, fur and skin products at very respectable prices. If youre buying gifts, including baby booties, this is the place to do it.
Part of experiencing the West Coast of New Zealand is understanding that sometimes schedules can be thrown off or altered by the weather or road routes. Getting to the Lake Brunner Lodge (tel. 64 3 738 0163; www.lakebrunner.co.nz) is one of those dirt road experiences where youll be saying, "This cant be right." Traveling by dilapidated red barns that sparkle in the disintegrating daylight and the dark bush that looks like an African jungle, you reach the Lake Brunner Lodge by traveling 22 kilometers on a dirt road.
"We like to think the road takes you back in time," says Wally, the house manager whos a native West Coaster working in tourism for most of his life. "You go from gravel to a one-lane bridge to dirt." Wallys wife Deb is a horticulturist who takes guests on nature walks. Set between a waterfall on its backside and Lake Brunner on its front, the Lodge is well worth the trouble it takes to get to. With a goal of providing all the modern comforts such as high-speed wireless Internet access amidst the ambiance of yesteryear, the Lake Brunner Lodge generates its own electricity with a watermill and serves water fresh from a fresh spring out back.
"When youre so remote," says Wally, "its good to be self-sufficient."
Good to be recently renovated and designed by a spiffy Auckland interior designer, too. And good to be decked out in dark red walls, light wood paneling, and have a chef who used to be a farmer and is growing his own vegetable garden out back. With world class fly-fishing nearby, the lodge is populated by New Zealanders looking for even more peace and quiet and international fisherman enjoying the local fare while their wives take long walks, sip New Zealand wines, and shop the coastal towns for arts, crafts and indigenous goodies.
Its hard not be thankful that cell phones dont operate here. Per night cost of the lodge includes breakfast, a full dinner with pre-dinner drinks, and hors doeuvres. An after dinner nature walk to look at spawning spiders who light up like small pen-lights is included as well. Off-season, a night at the lodge with all the extras starts at $180 per person.
Tune in next time for available prices for vacation packages to Kiwi Land and reports of visits to Christchurch and Auckland.
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