Go slow. That’s the best piece of advice for anyone tackling the 450-kilometre road trip between Greymouth and Wanaka. Yes, you could do it in one six-hour stretch but even by South Island standards the scenic surroundings are such a knockout you’ll want to take a couple of days to explore the natural wonders you come across.
It starts as you head out of the West Coast town of Greymouth, where the storm-tossed beaches beckon with their photogenic piles of driftwood. Travelling through former farmland gradually being reclaimed by forest, you’ll pass by fast-flowing rivers fed by glacial meltwater – a sign you’re getting close to the region’s most famous attractions, the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, massive relics of the last Ice Age.
“As you’re heading to the viewpoint for the Franz Josef Glacier, keep an eye out for the signpost leading to Sentinel Rock,” says Natalie Zieltjes of Te Waonui Forest Retreat, located nearby. “It’s just a detour of a few minutes but it offers one of the best views of the glacier and the area, with its waterfalls and rainforest. Most people miss it.”
Check into one of the local hotels for the night. Next morning, follow the road as it winds between lush native forest and the roaring sea – stop at the Knights Point lookout to spy elephant seals basking on the rocks – before following old Māori trails inland. As you head up Haast Pass, the scenery changes yet again, dominated by rugged gorges and plunging waterfalls. The Gates of Haast, a series of rapids where icy water sprays off river boulders, is another prime photo stop.
But there is still one surprise in store: as long-vanished glaciers once moved over this landscape, they gouged a series of basins that have been transformed into alpine lakes. The magnificent Blue Pools – where the water is so clear you can see the trout swimming in the depths – along with Lake Hawea and the expansive Lake Wanaka provide a grand finale to this unique drive.
How to get to Greymouth
There is no such thing as a bad seat aboard the TranzAlpine train, the five-hour, 223-kilometre rail trip from Christchurch to Greymouth.
The route, which stops at several stations along the way, winds through the rich farmland of the Canterbury Plains before heading up the Southern Alps and over the other side, with snow-fed rivers, ancient beech forests and verdant lake valleys all spooling past your window. Just as mesmerising are the engineering marvels: in the stretch leading up to Craigieburn, you’ll pass through 15 tunnels and over four viaducts.
All this and you still arrive at Greymouth station by 1.30pm, with the afternoon stretching ahead of you. The journey books out quickly so buy tickets in advance. The train has a separate baggage carriage, an outdoor viewing car, café and audio guides for those wanting to delve deeper into the landscape that’s unfurling before them.
Where to stay
Here are the places to pull up and lay your head near Franz Josef Glacier and in Greymouth and Wanaka.
Franz Josef Glacier
The lush rainforest setting is what first strikes you about Te Waonui Forest Retreat at Franz Josef Glacier. Over the course of your stay you’ll discover plenty of other delights, from the superb meals to the spa and the adjacent Glacier Hot Pools.
Guests have been swapping stories in the Albion Bar at Kingsgate Hotel Greymouth for more than 100 years so be sure to drop in for a tipple by the fire while you’re in town. The hotel’s central location is another bonus.
Just 20 minutes from Wanaka is Mahu Whenua, an intimate five-room luxury lodge where snow-clad peaks rise above you, the lake shimmers in front and hiking, biking or horse riding around the 550-square-kilometre property are for the asking.