The drive north from Franz Josef glacier puts you right back on a section of New Zealand's gorgeous State Highway 6 also referred to as The Great Coast Road (not to be confused with Oz's Great Ocean Road). This winding drive's transition from ice-capped mountains to lush jungles to rugged ocean cliffs deservedly earned it a spot in Lonely Planet's list of the world's best coastal drives.
Just over two hours into the drive, we came upon the fishing city of Greymouth where over 40% of the west coast's population lives. This is a great spot to load up on fuel and food if continuing north, as options tend to become few and far between. We decided on the delicious Speight's Ale House located in a beautiful, historic brick building just across the street from the Grey River. They serve a great variety of hearty meals that they help you pair with one of their award winning beers. After a thick clam chowder and a Speight's Gold Medal Ale, we were ready to continue north.
The coastal vistas only got more impressive as the road continued. Signs started boasting "Penguin Crossing" but we unfortunately missed these tuxedoed fellas as they are most common from July to November in the early morning or late afternoon. In just 40 minutes from Greymouth, we found ourselves at one of the west coast's iconic hotspots: the Pancake Rocks. We were a little wary at first when we saw dozens of cars and a full-scale gift shop across the road but realized it was all worth it once we started the 20 minute loop through these super unique rock formations. Try to aim your arrival time around high tide and you will hopefully be rewarded with awesome breakers crashing against these stacked flapjacks and (bear with me) impressive blowholes.
Our trip then took us another 30 km north to the often overlooked town of Charleston. This post-mining community used to hold more than 15,000 inhabitants and more pubs than private residences but has since dropped down to under 300 permanent locals (and no pubs). However, we were there for the quiet but rugged coastline and stunning limestone caves of Paparoa National Park. Our Airbnb at the rustic (and completely off-grid) Pyramid Farm certainly matched the serene and rural setting. The generous and fascinating host, Don (and his dog named Dog), also provided us with the most delicious honey known to man which he harvests right behind the house. For more substantial food, we would recommend the very local spot simply named Jack's that doubles as a camping ground and producer of the best pizza we had in New Zealand. There's no official address but watch closely for their wooden sign on your left about 5 or 10 minutes north of the town...and definitely don't let the drinking locals on the front porch deter you from the towns sole watering hole.
After talking with Don and other locals, we learned that most Kiwis prefer the impressive Nile River cave system of Paparoa over the more advertised (and touristy) Waitomo Caves of the North Island...and we totally understand why. *Also note that Waitomo does not allow any sort of photography, unlike the caves in Paparoa* We teamed up with the sole tour company in the area, Underworld Adventures, for an absolutely unforgettable day. Underworld suited us up with full wetsuits and caving gear before sending us out on an old mining train deep into the jungle. Each person then grabbed their own inner tube before trekking up to the entrance of the cave. The next few hours were spent touring through the colossal caves and forests of untouched stalagmites and stalactites.
Once we made our way into the deeper chambers of the cave, we finally put those inner tubes we had been carrying to good use with a NZ activity we'd really been looking forward to: BLACKwater rafting! The same underground river that hollowed out these caves still rushes through and we jumped into it, tubes in hand. Now the real kicker was that, once the water started pulling us along, all headlamps were turned out and we were guided by the galaxies of glowworms that hung from the ceiling above us. Now we're talking about millions of faintly glowing stars that combined to create one of the more surreal experiences we've ever had. Who even knows how long we floated down the pitch black river watching the light show above us before the river dumped us back out into the heart of the jungle for us to float our way back to the train. Absolutely amazing!
We were still recounting how awesome the caving trip was the next morning when we hit the road to make the drive across the island to Christchurch. While not the most direct route, we chose to make our way back to Greymouth and head over the Southern Alps via the highly-recommended Arthur's Pass. It certainly did not disappoint. The road cuts through the heart of the snow-capped mountains, along rushing turquoise rivers, and dumping you out into humbling glacial plains. Get your arms (and stomach) ready for plenty of switchbacks along the way but there are great coffee shops on either side of the range to keep you fueled and ensure that you are awake for all of the amazing scenery out the window.
We were a little surprised when we arrived to Christchurch to find that the country's third most populous city felt...deserted. The 2011 earthquake this city experienced killed 185 people and demolished much of the central town. This tragedy was still very evident as we wandered around Cathedral Square and the surrounding blocks of reconstruction. However, the resilient people of this city have far from given up and there are signs of a hip local community growing from the destruction. Delicious spots for breakfast/brunch like The Villas can still be found near the Canterbury Museum and great drinks and nightlife are alive and well across town at Revival Bar. We even found some incredible Mexican high-end cuisine at Tequila Mockingbird and its budget sister next door, Bueno Cantina. However, our favorite find was the Sunday afternoon concert series "Lazy Sunday" held in the botanical gardens featuring impressive musicians from all across New Zealand.
A couple nights in Christchurch felt about right before dropping off our car and catching a bus up to Picton, the port for jumping a ferry to the North Island. As we had come to expect, the drive itself was beautiful as we rode by rugged beach towns and seal colonies before jutting inland through the wineries responsible for NZ's infamous Sauvignon Blanc. The little town of Picton blended a bit of both sceneries with most of it's activity condensed into one main street facing the mountain-ringed shore. There isn't a strong restaurant scene in this humble town so we were content making our own dinner and watching the sun set around the quiet bay for our last night on the South Island.
This was the last of our adventures on the South Island of New Zealand -- there's SO much more to explore (which just means we have to go back, right?!) Who is coming with us next time? Also, have any of ya'll been caving or seen any crazy glow worms?