Whitebait fritters at Donaldo’s at Carter’s Beach, Westport
I’m not much of a small town person, and one of the reasons for that is simply that I love food. And usually, cities are where it’s at for eating.
But the West Coast surprised me with amazingly simple, fresh pub grub and café eats. (I already raved about the degustation dinner at Te Waonui.) If you’re ever travelling up or down the coast, here are a few places I heartily recommend.
We arrived in Greymouth around lunchtime on a Sunday on the TranzAlpine only to find most of the town shut. One place that was open was Freddy’s, tucked away upstairs on Mackay St. A couple of doors down was a chain cafe that we actually spotted first, but when faced with a franchise vs an indie? I’ll almost always try the local offering.
While the sweet treats in the cabinet looked tempting, what we really needed was a proper lunch. I went for the classic fish and chips and was not disappointed. Generous plate, with a side salad to boot. If I recall right, my lunch buddy had the whitebait fritter special – not as big but apparently excellent.
We decided to follow the path of least resistance and dine in. If you’ve got the dosh and the desire for a somewhat upmarket dinner experience, the Ocean View restaurant is the way to go. But we wanted something more casual and a little cheaper, so we opted for the Coasters bar (it’s in the building in front). There were locals winding down with a beer after work, and a wall paying homage to local sporting talent that have done the town proud over the years.
I ordered the paprika hotpot, which arrived steaming and topped off with a fluffy pie crust. I’m still not quite sure how you’re supposed to actually go about eating a dish like that, but I think a bit of mess is inevitable.
Afterwards, it was back to my room for a soak in the spa bath while listening to my happy playlist on Spotify.
Donaldo’s is a neat spot in Westport – Carter’s Beach to be specific – looking out to the ocean that was humming with locals when we popped in for dinner.
I must confess, I don’t really get the appeal of whitebait. But I figured I’d give it another shot while I was here. It was prime whitebaiting season, after all – what better time to sample it? And while the whitebait fritters were crazy fresh, I can’t lie … I still think whitebait is plain and boring, no matter how much lemon or salt you add. But hey, a lot of people love it.
In short: whitebait ain’t for me, but this is a great place to eat whitebait if you do.
Denniston Dog, in the main Westport township, came highly recommended. We wound up eating here not once but twice – first, an early breakfast, then for afternoon tea in anticipation of the plane ride home.
I’m personally leery of anything Mexican down under, but my buddy had the breakfast quesadilla and had good things to say about it. I went for the breakfast stack myself and was absolutely blown away – every aspect was out of this world. I cannot fault the crispy hash brown, the perfectly poached egg, the hollandaise or any of the accompanying veggies. Also recommended: the cabinet snacks and the fresh fruit smoothies.
Tourists picking up handfuls of sand off the beach and placing it safely into a plastic ziplock bag, presumably to take home. Cute.
Okay, and maybe the armchair sitting in a puddle.
So, what’s Hokitika all about?
It’s a small seaside town on the West Coast, between Greymouth (north) and glacier country (south) – Franz Josef and Fox Glacier – the kind of place that’s a lunch stop or overnight stop for most visitors. (It’s also known for its end-of-summer Wildfoods Festival.) And lately, it’s been enjoying a burst of attention thanks to its inclusion in Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker-winning novel, The Luminaries.
Here’s what we got up to in Hokitika.
Getting to grips with greenstone
I learned some fun new facts while in Hokitika, touring one of the local greenstone shops. Greenstone (or pounamu in Maori) is nephrite jade and it’s highly prized, yet if you do happen to find any on the west coast beaches of the South Island (only in these areas, though!) you can collect it and bring it home with you. There is a 5kg limit in place when it comes to taking greenstone out of New Zealand.
And did you know that we actually import a lot of greenstone – from Canada, Asia, and other regions? If buying a local greenstone product – a carving, a necklace, etc – is important to you, look closely to see if it’s genuine New Zealand pounamu. Or, if in doubt, ask.
So, head to one of the many, MANY greenstone shops in Hokitika. See if you can take a tour and see the master carvers at work.
Walking through the treetops
The west coast is the wettest region in New Zealand, so it stands to reason that the greenery here is particularly lush. At Treetops just south of Hokitika, one of the newer attractions around, we went for an amble through the forest – 40 metres in the air.
I always seem to forget/underestimate just how afraid of heights I am. These bridges are engineered so that they do sway and flex under pressure, which was mildly terrifying even on a calm sunny day with nobody else around. That aside, it was a nifty thing to have experienced. If that’s your kinda jam, remember: Treetop Walk!
Alas, I’ve still yet to visit the Hokitika Gorge, which is a total stunner in photos. Next time?
This time around I was even more on edge in general (as I have been for a couple of months) and the weather was similarly awful – this is, after all, one of the wettest parts of the country. But despite all that, this was exactly what I needed. A work trip with a healthy dose of leisure slotted in, with luxury and pampering making up for the typically wild weather.
Franz Josef is a tiny little tourist town (population approximately 400) that revolves around tourism – glacier walks, kayaks and scenic flights; horse treks; 4WD adventures; skydiving. Luckily, there are other activities you can do in wet weather!
As the rain intensified overhead, we sought refuge at the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz Josef. The public pools are incredibly nice, with 36, 38 and 40-degree pools, all nice and large so you aren’t squeezed up against half naked strangers. They’re under cover, so if it’s raining as it so often does, you can still enjoy the water. There’s also private pools out a little way into the forest, surrounded by trees and paired with their own changing rooms – these have heated floors and deluxe showers. Little covered alcoves at the end of each pool offer shelter from the elements; it was surprisingly cosy in there despite being restricted to maybe 35% of the pool area since we wanted to avoid the icy rain.
Best of all, the pools backed onto Te Waonui, the five-star resort we were booked into. This is quite possibly the fanciest place this pleb has ever stayed at. Glasses of kiwifruit juice and fresh hand towels were brought to us at reception as we checked in. Branded umbrellas at the entrance were a nice practical touch. Service was outstanding, as you’d expect.
Huge, fluffy and a welcoming sight for sore eyes.
It may not look like anything particularly special, but this is the most wonderful bed I have ever laid in. It was like sleeping in a cloud. 8 hours was not enough. (A lifetime would probably not have been enough.)
Heated bathroom floors (I need these in my life). A heated mirror to clear steam. A speaker in the bathroom that amplifies whatever is playing on the TV. An adorable little deck opening out onto the forest. I could so get used to this.
While I’m not normally one for fine dining, I really don’t have any other words to describe the five-course degustation aside from exquisite (and not overwhelmingly fussy). Each course had approximately 5 options, and between the two of us, we sampled 10.
Highlights: I found the ostrich carpaccio, seafood (hapuka, clam, octopus and squid ink) risotto, and L&P ice cream with fondant particularly innovative. The kumara croquette and spinach/potato gnocchi were both divine (though the accompanying venison and cheese, respectively, not as impressive – I’d expected the cheese to be melty, or at the most, a little bit stringy, but instead it sat solidly in gobs around the pasta). I even mustered up the courage to down some beef cheek – I think it was actually rather good; I just couldn’t get past the mental ick factor. Current menu in full here.
And, importantly, the portions are good-sized. We both went to bed well satiated.
Sadly, our glacier flight and heli hike were canned due to the weather, so instead we popped into the West Coast Wildlife Centre for a bit. I’ve seen kiwi before and I’m not sure I’d personally pay full price $35 to go through the centre, but perhaps the guided tour ($55) may be better value.
I also got to do a couple of things I missed the first time around through the West Coast.
With brief snatches of almost decent (or at least less wet) weather, my colleague and I managed a quick walk to a lookout over Lake Matheson (the postcard-famous mirror lake – on a fine day, that is).
We also paused at Lake Ianthe between Franz Josef and Hokitika to stretch our legs.
I’ve got fond memories of rail journeys through Europe (plus a few nightmarish ones) but I’d never done a long distance trip by train in New Zealand until this year.
Stupendously scenic, the TranzAlpine is one of the world’s most famous rail journeys. It travels between Christchurch and Greymouth through Arthur’s Pass, a national park nestled in the mountains.
I had a much needed doze in the beginning, as we rolled through the outskirts of Christchurch and the beginning of the Canterbury plains, peeking out every so often to catch glimpses of lush green fields and the darling spring lambs and calves.
When things really get exciting on the TranzAlpine is the point where we reach the ice-fed Waimakariri Gorge. It is jaw-dropping – pure aquamarine waters carving through the steep ravine. Take my advice and get your ass up to the observation carriage before then. It’s open air, no glass windows between you and the scenery – all the better for snapping pictures. (Be warned: it’s a little smoky up here near the engine, and if you don’t tie up your hair it WILL whip you painfully in the wind.)
From here the train approaches the Southern Alps and the weather gets wilder – foggier, windier, rainier. Enroute to Arthur’s Pass we snaked our way past rocky river beds and tussock, over bridges, and through tunnels and viaducts.
Past the misty mountains, there’s a beautifully still lake and couple of cute little settlements before the last stop in Greymouth, a historic mining town.
If you’re taking the TranzAlpine back the other way, it departs Greymouth in the afternoon and returns to Christchurch just in time for dinner.
Here’s what you need to know about taking the TranzAlpine train:
TranzAlpine train journey: 4.5 hours one way. Departs Christchurch at 8.15am and departs Greymouth at 1.45pm
TranzAlpine train tickets: Start at $89 one way
Getting to the train stations: The shuttle from our central Christchurch hotel took about 10 minutes to reach the train station in Addington; in Greymouth, the train station is fairly central – it’s a small town – right by the big Warehouse and the i-Site and rental car depots.
There’s a wee cluster of them in the airport by the baggage pickup. And once you get into the city centre, they are the first thing you’ll notice in the central square.
Apparently it’s all part of a big public art project. They’re on display over the summer; there is, of course, a smartphone app and a trail to follow.
There’s no shortage of colour around. Re:Start mall is looking vibrant, with tons of cool boutiques and souvenir shops housed in containers. And as we passed charming New Regent St I did a double take. Plus, there are countless cool murals on walls around the city centre.
But it is still very quiet in the city centre – almost deathly still in the off hours we were there (Saturday evening). It was probably 90 percent tourists, and a couple of rough looking characters (the Christchurch housing market is squeezed, although for different reasons than Auckland).
Abandoned buildings are scattered throughout. The iconic cathedral now houses pigeons, lined up on a perch under its roof, open and yawning onto the square.
On the upside, the few eateries near our hotel that were open were humming. We had dinner at The Himalayas, a pulsing Indian restaurant. I wasn’t in love with my butter scallops, but I think it was more a personal issue with the texture of seafood in curry than a reflection of the food quality; the curry part was definitely fantastic. Chicken tikka masala = unreserved thumbs up.
The thing about our country, if you’re a tourist, is that it will squeeze you for all you’re worth. That said, there are still things to see and do for free (and if you’re the outdoorsy type, there are countless trails and parks and beaches to explore). And as one commenter pointed out, they don’t have to be particularly taxing. Heck, some of them are even wheelchair-friendly.
Write your name on the rocks at Byron Bay on the West Coast
We drove past this beach, marvelling at all the smooth white pebbles – and it took a few seconds to click to the fact that they all had writing on them. Travellers have apparently been carving their names into the rocks for years, or writing on them using markers. We had neither a permanent marker nor knife with which to scratch the date and our initials, sadly.
Explore the trails in Mt Aspiring National Park
There’s no shortage of spots to do so. Lots of smaller/shorter ones can be found toward the top end around Haast.
Check out the Catlins
The Catlin coast at the southern end of the country is home to seals, penguins and other wildlife. You probably won’t be rubbing noses with them, but seeing them in their natural habitat is truly awe inspiring.
Pub crawl in Queenstown
Pick up an attraction brochure (probably a Jasons one) in Queenstown and you’ll see ads for a couple of different pub crawls.
Think along the lines of six free drinks, free food and plenty of company.
Marvel at the raw power – and beauty – of the pancake rocks
I’m pretty sure my mouth was agape for the entire time it took us to walk around this clifftop track. At high tide, the ocean rushes into the channels, throwing sea spray all up the sides, and blows off pressure through the naturally formed blowholes. And you’ll probably encounter some friendly native birds!
Here’s how we planned our South Island road trip, and what it’s like to be travelling inside, well, your house.
Stalk one-way campervan relocation sites.
A free campervan rental! What could be better? Some even throw in free fuel, free insurance or a free island ferry journey.
Eventually scrap that idea. Relocations come up on very short notice (hard to play along with when you have two full-time workers), only go for about 3-4 days (not enough time to see or do anything particularly when one entire day will be spent driving up the North Island alone) and run from Christchurch to Auckland (coupled with the time limit, this means you can’t see any of the good stuff in the south). If you’re going to be stuck paying last-minute airfare prices to fly down to Christchurch to pick up your campervan, it better be worth it.
Stalk campervan rental websites and comparison websites.
Nearly pass out at the daylight robbery rates.
Argue with partner about when to go. Weather will be infinitely better in summer and roads safer, but the costs are astronomical and that means no skiing in Queenstown on the trip. He’s angling for winter – after all the South Island is all about snow. We settled on spring, right on the tail end – in time to catch the end of snow season, avoid the school holidays, be away on his birthday and still take advantage of off-peak prices.
I feared the cold, to say nothing of bad weather (but one thing I didn’t consider is that I’d be much more likely to get sick in winter – in fact I caught the flu the week before we left). But it was glorious. We had better weather during those whole two weeks than I swear we’ve had in Auckland for the last two years. This happens to be the rainy season in the Milford sound, but apart from a slight drizzle when we first arrived, our time there was all we could have asked for – it was so bright I wore my sunglasses the entire Saturday from when I woke up through to the drive back out.
There were only two miserable days on the west coast, true to its reputation. To be fair, they were pretty shit. Cooped up in your damp camper, with wet gear everywhere that has no chance of drying, was ever so slightly unpleasant. Once the sun finally came out, the next time we came back into the camper after being outside, we both choked on the thick, wet, smelly air, and threw every door and window open to freshen it up.
In regard to temperature, it wasn’t really all that cold – not nearly anywhere what I expected. The camper was warmer than our house, which may as well be made of paper, and was certainly more insulated and weathertight…
I imagine the weather can be dicey when it turns, but I’d definitely recommend going in shoulder season. We must have seen a couple hundred campers on the roads and in holiday parks just during our journey, so I can’t imagine the crush of the summer crowds.
Book a campervan.
Using campervanhiresalefinder.co.nz, we chose an Apollo 2-berth with shower and toilet, a 2.4l litre turbo diesel manual transmission (T’s choice). It was surprisingly grunty. While we had our fair share of overtakers, we passed many other campers, trucks and even some cars. Seriously. And the seats are unbelievably comfortable; you can drive all day and not wind up with a sore ass or back.
It’s much cheaper to book at the last minute, especially in winter, I think (and as for summer I imagine you’d need to get in early if you want to secure a vehicle; I’m not sure what the optimal time to book is). However, T and I both had to arrange our leave from work in advance and I also didn’t want to be at the mercy of last minute flight bookings, which can cost a fortune.
We opted to pick up and return our campervan in Christchurch, which was cheaper than Queenstown. We could have rented one in Auckland but that would mean we’d have to drive down the whole country – it takes a day just to get to Wellington and the fares crossing the Cook Strait with a vehicle are outrageous.
Make sure your credit card can withstand the weight of the bond you’ll need to pay when you pick up your campervan (in the thousands). I increased mine online, and found ASB has a handy tool right there in Fastnet with a slider showing your pre-approved limit. Score! I thought. No messing around on the phone. I’d originally thought I might double my limit to $6k before thinking that might be a bit much – $5k might be more reasonable. But my approved amount was, lo and behold, $6k, so I ran with it. All done, instantly and painlessly.
Outline your must-dos and your like-to-dos.
I was pretty flexible, with most of my itinerary in the latter category. I kept an eye on Bookme for South Island tourism deals (it’s a bit like a daily deal site specifically for that sector) and picked up a Milford cruise for stupidly cheap, $22. So cheap in fact that I figured if we didn’t make it there by that date, I didn’t mind eating the cost. And if we did, then we’d just have to book the second person’s spot when we got there (the deal was limited to one). We didn’t end up getting there on the day, and paid full price for a combo deal that included time on the water in kayaks.
One thing I absolutely wanted to do was ski. But seriously, the amount of information and options available is dizzying. There’s Coronet Peak and Remarkables. Cardrona and Treble Cone are not far away. (Or we could even hit the snow in Canterbury…) There’s Mypass and Onepass and who knows what else. In the end I basically threw in the towel. “Bugger it, let’s wing it.” And we did. And it was totally fine.
Research some places to stay beforehand.
You can pick up free booklets outlining accommodation options at visitor information centres, but it’s probably a good idea to do a little preparation in advance as well.
Rankers is invaluable as a resource for finding safe places to free camp. In the more built up areas, no camping signs are everywhere. Out in the country, you won’t just want to stop on the side of the motorway or outside the fence of someone’s farm. Before leaving, I made a list of both paid holiday parks where we could use the facilities (try nzcampsites.co.nz, holidayparks.co.nz, nzcamping.co.nz), and free sites from Rankers, in roughly the order we might need them as we drove around the country. And of course, there were a few nights where we simply found a handy spot and made it ours for the night, which is the beauty of campervanning it.
Holiday parks are expensive – you’re looking at about $40 a night for a powered camper site – but they do provide a place for you to empty your waste, fill up on water and recharge your power. The Department of Conservation has cheap campsites all over, but they generally don’t have much in the way of facilities. (We did see a large sign on the way out of Hokitika advertising $20 camper sites – so you may find some off-the-radar bargains.)
We found ourselves rising with the sun and going to sleep early – which is hard to avoid when you’re so out in the open – just like nature intended.
Bring a GPS, guidebook, and also, pick up free maps that will be available for the taking along the way.
Do not rely solely on your guidebook, however. (Obvious.) From research stage to on-sale stage a lot can change. I actually bought mine on deep discount a year or two ago in anticipation of eventually making this trip, so it was well out-of-date, really. I mean, the Catlins and the Southern Alps aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but prices change and businesses change or close, as we found out in Greymouth. I’d marked down to visit the Railway Hotel for a down-home dinner (apparently they did a standout BBQ where $5 got you sausages and all-you-can-eat salad, with steak add-ons available) but when we walked in, the pub food was moved into a separate fancy-pants restaurant. Sigh.
I also got a copy of the Great Kiwi Motorhome Guide from the library before we left and photocopied some of the pages. You may find the information on things like how to empty the wastewater and toilet cassette handy later on when you’re staring all the gear in the face.
Other things to bring on your campervan trip…
Car charger for your phones – we alternated between recharging our phones and having the GPS plugged in. It all worked out well
Playing cards – you’ll need to entertain yourself in the evenings, and even if your camper has a TV, odds are you won’t get reception. I also loaded up my iPad with ebooks (yes, I gave it a try, at last) but didn’t end up using it much as I didn’t want to drain it too much
Jandals/slip on shoes – never go amiss
ON THE ROAD
Shop for food frequently.
The campervan’s tiny fridge didn’t hold a whole lot, so we were shopping every couple of days. Down south I saw lemons for 80c a kg, via a sign on the side of the road. And we picked up a huge box of grapes in Invercargill for only $2 (Thursday night is apparently sweet deal night at Pak n Save). But in Queenstown we saw tomatoes going for $20 a kg (even in Auckland they never reach those prices at the height of winter, and tomatoes were back to $7 a kg when we got back). Beef was also more expensive than chicken or lamb, for some reason.
And prepare to pay for water – drinking straight from the campervan tap may not be the best idea. After all, you’re literally filling your tank through what’s more or a less a garden hose, though I definitely had more than a few swigs through our kitchen tap toward the end of the trip and didn’t feel any ill effecs. We went through a ton of 2 and 4 litre bottles from the supermarket, and I once filled up my bottle at Milford Lodge (glacier water is pure as it gets, right?).
Fill up your tank strategically.
Fuel was also pricier. Somewhere in the centre of the South Island between Greymouth and Kaikoura, we passed a petrol station where the price boards for petrol and diesel read, respectively, ARM and LEG.
It’s always cheaper in the larger centres, and can vary between stations – in Greymouth alone we saw a range of about 3c difference. And opt on the side of safety – you don’t want to risk running empty in the middle of nowhere.
Aside from that, go with the flow and have fun!
There’s a nice culture around campervans. A lot of people wave from their oncoming campers as you drive past one another.
Yet you’re self-contained, so that privacy is lovely to have. We really only interacted with two Hawaiian women, who were on our cruise and kayak tour in Milford Sound (both work on cruise ships, one as an engineer and one as party planner, and were also driving around in a camper like us) and three young Aussie guys in Kaikoura (who were amazing enough to immediately offer to cover our costs when it came time to pay the charter skipper and we didn’t have cash on us. Their website had Visa plastered all over it, in my defence! We then drove straight to an ATM in order to reimburse them. Trust between travellers…).
I imagine you could make a pretty sweet life for yourself with a camper. I could definitely have done it for a lot longer. (I may have enjoyed the wearing of the same clothes for three days in a row/the non brushing of the hair a little too much, and taken it too far.) There are some free dump stations around (and I don’t mean rubbish, though that’s pretty easy to dispose of) and most, or all, also have free potable water taps.
That really only leaves you with electricity to worry about, and we went up to four or even five days once without plugging into a power point to charge up. You only need to power the fridge (though if you want to use the microwave or any power points, you do need to be plugged in at a powered site at a park or, I don’t know, somebody’s house using a very long extension lead).
It definitely took a little while to get used to the toilet. In all honestly, I didn’t eat much while away – I wasn’t working out body or brain – and was probably dehydrated to boot (except for in Southland, where I was gulping water every few minutes. SUCH DRY AIR). I normally have what’s politely referred to as a ‘healthy appetite’ so I was probably on my equivalent of a starvation level diet. Eventually, though, you get used to excreting into a tank that lies below the camper, and to emptying it every few days (T shouldered that burden unflinchingly). As for the shower, I only used it once. It’s easiest to sit on the loo while showering – that’s how cramped the cubicle is – and the pressure is ridiculously low. All my other showers were taken in the facilities of holiday parks.
A breakdown of our NZ South Island road trip costs
What you really want to know: The cost of a campervan trip around the South Island of New Zealand!
Our campervan cost less than $60 a day (not much more than a rental car would’ve!) However after hearing more info when we arrived to pick it up, we paid for the Value Pack, which was about $30 a day on top of that. Sounds like a rip off, right?
It was the right decision for us. Here’s why.
We needed to carry snow chains (luckily we didn’t end up needing the, but we well could’ve). Those would’ve been $50.
They also would have nickel and dimed us when we returned it, anyway with diesel road taxes, registration costs, etc. That would’ve probably been another $50 or more.
And as it turned out, the driver needs to be the person whose name is on the booking, and any additional driver incurs a charge. I only have a restricted licence, and it’s for automatic cars. T was always going to be the sole driver. I’m not sure what the charge is for that, but I think it’s also at least $50.
But most importantly, which I didn’t extract from the original fine print, is just how limited the insurance is. If anything, anything at all happens, you are liable upfront. Even if it’s not your fault. Even if it’s an Act of God (you’re on the hook for those, too, and on the off chance another big Canterbury quake struck…). And each incident is charged separately. So the $2700 bond/excess would be doubled if there were two instances of damage, and so forth – and my travel insurance only extended to $5000. Honestly, I was quite rattled, so paying the extra money to reduce our liability to zero for any and all incidents was worth it for peace of mind. Some random marks did appear on our hood toward the end of the trip, but luckily they scratched off with a little effort – I think they were branch scrapes.
Anyway, to the numbers!
I set a budget of $3000, but didn’t end up tracking our spending closely – or at all, to be quite frank. Once you add in our flights the total came to: $3649.
Here’s a more detailed breakdown…
Transport – flights, campervan and fuel – made up half of that. But that also included accommodation, seeing as we were living out of the camper (we stayed at three paid holiday parks which cost us a little over $100). Food and groceries cost a little more than if we’d been at home (about 10% of the total) and the few activities we did (Milford cruise/Queenstown skiing and snowboarding respectively/Wanaka museum and activities) added up quickly to roughly 25%.