En Route to Greymouth: Punakaiki

The drive between Westport and Greymouth is simply stunning, with some of the best coastal views in the country. There are many walkways leading to a variety of natural attractions. Chief among them is the world-famous Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, the main feature of the 10-minute Dolomite Walk in the heart of the Paparoa National Park. These strange pancakelike limestone formations were pushed up from the ocean floor by seismic action 30 million years ago. For the best show, try to visit the rocks at high tide with a westerly swell running; water comes surging into the deep caverns below and can spout up to 9m (30 ft.) in the air. The rocks are 45km (28 miles) north of Greymouth on the coast section of State Highway 6. If you're on an InterCity coach, the bus will stop here to enable you to do the 20-minute round-trip walk. The track is wide, well maintained, easily negotiable, and there are opportunities for great photos. Expect crowds in mid-summer.

Across the road from the track entrance, you'll find a busy gathering of little cafes and crafts stores, along with the Punakaiki-Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre, SH6, Punakaiki (tel. 03/731-1895; fax 03/731-1896; www.punakaiki.co.nz). The Department of Conservation (tel. 03/731-1895; www.doc.govt.nz) is in the same building; it is open daily in summer 9am to 6pm, and in winter to 4:30pm (closed Dec. 25). Punakaiki Crafts (tel./fax 03/731-1813; www.punakaikicrafts.co.nz/crafts) is a cooperative with the best, most innovative arts and crafts on the coast. It's open daily from 8:30am to 6pm. There's an excellent espresso outlet here, too, but you may have to queue during peak tourist season.

There are plenty of other excellent short walks in the area. Both the Truman Track  and the Punakaiki Cavern are under 1 hour and suitable for the entire family. The Truman includes a stroll through coastal forest to a beach with caves and a waterfall. The Pororari River Walk is another beautiful walk. I did this as part of a guided walking tour run by Christchurch-based Tuatara Tours (www.tuataratours.co.nz). It's part of their excellent West Coast Trail, an easy 4-day experience that introduces you to some of the best highlights between Porter's and Arthur's Passes, and the West Coast from Greymouth to Punakaiki. You get to the Punakaiki area on day 3 of the tour, and for 2 days your guide will lead you through the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks Track, the Truman Track, the Fox River or Cave Creek Track (depending on weather), and the Pororari River Walk.

All of these afford you a terrific insight into the Paparoa National Park area, which is often overlooked in favor of the better known, longer tracks elsewhere in the South Island. It's an area filled with dramatic limestone cliffs, towering bluffs, and dense subtropical forest filled with coastal broadleaf plants, nikau palms, incredible tree ferns, and immense rata trees.

There is also rich bird life here, and if you go quietly, your guide will point out the friendly plump wood pigeons; tomtits; our favorite songbirds, the tui and the bellbird; and the friendly New Zealand robins that will hop right up to your feet. The tour is one I recommend constantly. Apart from the stunning scenery, you stay in comfortable accommodations along the way, and you only have to carry a day pack. It is rugged country though, so you need excellent hiking boots and a reasonable level of fitness.

Punakaiki Horse Treks (tel. 03/731-1839; www.pancake-rocks.co.nz) offers a variety of activities from the third week of October through June that explore the rich park environment, including nature tours of the magnificent Punakaiki Valley in an eight-wheeled amphibious vehicle, and horse treks through bush and beach environments. The latter start at NZ$145 per person for a 2 1/2-hour ride.

Punakaiki Canoes, State Highway 6, Punakaiki (tel. 03/731-1870; www.riverkayaking.co.nz), will take you upstream on the Pororari River, through a stunning gorge cut from limestone cliffs. It's suitable for all ages and experience levels and costs NZ$45 per person for half-day rental; guided trips start at NZ$85.

Where to Stay -- Many travelers now stop over in Punakaiki on the trip from Nelson to the West Coast. It's an excellent place for a rest before heading south to the glaciers, but accommodations options are fair to middling at best.

Punakaiki Resort, State Highway 6 (www.punakaiki-resort.co.nz; tel. 0800/624-646 in NZ, or 03/731-1168), opened in 2001 with bright rooms right on the beach. It's a stunning location, and while rooms are comfortable, I have found the service here to be less than impressive, especially in the restaurant. But it's the closest to the Pancake Rocks, and the prime location may make up for other flaws. The 61 rooms range in price from NZ$140 to NZ$350. Paparoa Park Motel, State Highway 6 (www.paparoa.co.nz; tel. 0800/727-276 in NZ, or 03/731-1883), is just a short distance south of the Pancake Rocks over the Punakaiki River. It has tidy native-timber studios and family units from NZ$120 to NZ$220.

You can find lovely rooms just north of Punakaiki, at Birds Ferry Lodge & Ferry Man's Cottage, Birds Ferry Road (www.birdsferrylodge.co.nz; tel. 0800/212-207 in NZ, or 03/429-1604). Andre and Alison Gygax have two en-suite rooms plus a self-contained cottage that sleeps up to six people. Rates range from NZ$275 to NZ$425, and include breakfast. The property has a Qualmark Enviro-Gold rating. The Rocks Homestay, 33 Hartmount Place (www.therockshomestay.com; tel. 0800/272-164 in NZ, or 03/731-1141), is 3km (2 miles) north of Punakaiki; their three rooms cost from NZ$195 to NZ$220. Farther south, 29km (18 miles) from Punakaiki and 15km (9 miles) north of Greymouth, Breakers Boutique Accommodation, 9 Mile Creek, State Highway 6 (www.breakers.co.nz; tel. 0800/350-590 in NZ, or 03/762-7743), has four en-suite rooms for NZ$215 to NZ$355, and a Qualmark Enviro-Silver rating. Request the Breakwater Room for fabulous views.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.