Great Coast Road (credit Stewart Nimmo)

Exploring Westport

Want to get away from it all? Lucy Corry recommends Westport.

Driving through the Buller Gorge, on a winding ribbon of a road carved between bush-clad rock and the Buller River, is an excellent reminder to enjoy life’s journeys. But when you get to Westport, the town nestled between the river, the Paparoa Ranges and the Tasman Sea, you’ll find there’s plenty to enjoy at the destination too.

Early Māori lived in this part of the northern West Coast from the 14th century, but European settlers didn’t discover its charms until the 1860s and the discovery of gold in the area. When those glittering days were over, the area became best known for being a rich source of high-quality coal. Westport’s small size (the population is just shy of 5000) means it’s a compact and friendly community. The town has everything an intrepid holidaymaker might need, with the added bonus of big skies, empty beaches and a lush subtropical climate.

WHERE TO STAY

With huge tracts of native inland forest and seemingly endless coast, the northern West Coast (from Punakaiki to Karamea) is the perfect spot to park up and feel at one with nature. The Buller District Council has overnight parking sites dotted throughout the region – but be aware that visitors are asked to limit stays in these places to two consecutive nights (and a maximum of nine nights in a calendar month). If you’re looking for a freedom camping spot close to all the action, Kawatiri Beach Reserve is less than five minutes’ drive from the middle of town and has spaces for up to about 30 campervans.

If you prefer a few more amenities, there’s one full-service camping ground in town and one at nearby Carter’s Beach. Head north past the quirky coast-hugging communities of Granity and Waimangaroa and you’ll come to Gentle Annie, a legendary holiday spot and camping ground set in landscaped gardens at the mouth of the Mokihinui River.

Punakaiki Beach
Drama meets serenity at Punakaiki Beach. Credit: Bare Kiwi

TRAIL MIX

One of the most exciting developments in Westport in recent years – for visitors and locals alike – has been the opening of the Kawatiri Coastal Trail. This family-friendly cycling and walking heritage trail will eventually connect Westport with nearby Charleston (a former gold-mining town that’s reinvented itself as an adventure tourism hub). Three of the nine trail sections are currently open: Pūwaha (a 5.5km stretch through regenerated native bush and farmland from Westport to Carter’s Beach, including an impressively bouncy suspension bridge); Kawau (a 7km path following 500-year-old pounamu and gold trails between Carter’s Beach and Cape Foulwind, with epic views of the Paparoa Ranges on one side and the Tasman Sea on the other); and Omau (a 4km stretch from Cape Foulwind that takes in the historic Cape lighthouse and kekeno (seal) colony en route to Tauranga Bay. There are plenty of spots to stop and picnic along the way whether you’re on foot or on wheels, but please note that dogs aren’t permitted on the trail.

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Closer to Westport, don’t miss a series of dual-purpose walking and cycling trails that follow the Kawatiri-Buller River from the Buller River Bridge to the centre of town and then fork out in various directions through regenerated bush to take you over a floating boardwalk to a lagoon, or to Shingle Beach (a sandy beach at the mouth of the river) or all the way to the Kawatiri Beach Reserve. Dogs are welcome on these trails.

Cliffs of Cape Foulwind
Check out the wildlife at the stunning Cape Foulwind Cliffs. Credit: Charles Brunning
Charleston
Dare to dream at Charleston. Credit: Liz Carlson

WHAT TO DO

Westport’s best attractions manage to make the most of its history and extraordinary natural features. Coaltown Museum offers enlightening insights into the Buller district’s development from gold rush outpost to being the centre of a thriving coal mining industry. Visit here before heading ‘up the hill’ to Denniston, a settlement established for miners working in the Burnett’s Face, Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale mines. While there’s an excellent road in place now, for decades the only way up or down was a bridle path or riding in a coal wagon down the precipitous Incline. Many miners’ wives were so traumatised by their ride up to Denniston via these routes that they seldom left the community at all. It’s a stark, evocative place, with incredible views in all directions.

For a more modern view of coal mining, join one of Outwest Tours’ trips to the vast open-cast mine at Stockton. Outwest also do tours to Denniston, and into the bush of the Awatiri Valley to meet local character Johnny Currie.

Cape Foulwind – where Captain James Cook’s ship was blown off-course by a mean westerly wind in March 1770 – offers a different perspective on history. You can drive to either end of the Cape Foulwind Walkway at either stunning Tauranga Bay or the Cape Foulwind car park. A handy hint for reluctant walkers: the Tauranga Bay end is closer to the cape’s thriving fur seal colony, but make sure you factor in lots of time to be captivated by their antics, especially the babies.


If the seals inspire you to get in the water, local surfing legend Mark Perana offers surf lessons for people of all ages, stages and abilities at Tauranga Bay. If that sounds a bit too taxing, Mark’s partner Leanne Hill offers Westport’s best massages at her Tauranga Bay clinic. And if the one thing you miss when being on the road is a good soak, make sure to book a session in the outdoor bush bath at The Soap Box. Here, tucked into a private spot off the town’s main street, you (and a friend) can enjoy 90 minutes of relaxation in a double bath surrounded by native bush.

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Puwaha section of the trail between Westport and Carters Beach
The trail between Westport and Carters Beach is easy and child-friendly
Surfing at Westport
Surfing Westport. Credit: Jules Anderson

PIES, PICNICS AND PUBS

In its gold and coal rush heyday, Westport’s main drag was alive with pubs. It’s a little quieter these days, but there are still plenty of options for places to wet your whistle (whether you’re looking for a thirst-quenching beer or a mind-restoring coffee).

For great coffee with a side of art, check out Whanake Gallery & Espresso Bar. For great fish ‘n chips, local whitebait and Chinese meals, don’t miss the Buller Café. Come for the old-school dining room with formica tables, stay for the friendly service and generous portions.

For something a little fancier, head towards the seaside endof Palmerston St (just past the huge Mitre 10) to McManus’ Tavern. It might look like a traditional rough and tumble pub, but the food in its ‘Kakariki’ restaurant is the best in town. Chef Emily Lucas is also the talent behind West Coast Pies – premium wild game pies made with local and exceptional pastry. Find these, plus great coffee and other baked delights, at nearby Scarlett & Co, a tiny café operating out of a former petrol station.

If you’ve been out of town checking out Tauranga Bay or Cape Foulwind, don’t miss the Star Tavern – a great pub with a very relaxed garden bar. At Carter’s Beach, locals flock to Donaldo’s, just across from the playground. Stick around for a while and you’ll wish you were a local too.

Westport Chambers (credit Stewart Nimmo)
Westport Chambers. Credit: Stewart Nimmo

Westport Directory

Where to stay

What to do

Eats & drinks

  • Buller Café: 97a Palmerston St, Westport, 03 789 8736
  • Donaldo’s: 23 Marine Parade, Westport, 03 789 7409
  • McManus’ Hotel: 39 Palmerston St, Westport, mcmanushotel.co.nz
  • Scarlett & Co: 25 Palmerston St, Westport, 03 7896653
  • Star Tavern: 6 Lighthouse Rd, Cape Foulwind, 03789 6923
  • Whanake Gallery & Espresso Bar: 173 Palmerston St, Westport 03789 5076

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