1. Soak at Maruia Hot Springs
Nestled in a tranquil valley, the river-rock-lined mineral pools at Maruia Hot Springs are inky black and gently steaming. The pools are all natural and untreated, which means that the water is filled with harmless, though slightly alarming-looking black algae. Apparently, it’s edible, like spirulina, though we’re not too tempted to try it on our visit.
The only downside to outdoor bathing are the pests of the West Coast: sandflies. Tip: keep as much of yourself under the water as possible to minimise exposed skin. To cool off, there is a 2.4-metre-deep ice-cold plunge pool that I was far to chicken to try out, though apparently it’s very invigorating and a recommended part of the bathing experience here.
Alongside the outdoor pools is an Onsen-style bathhouse. Designed with Japanese minimalism in mind and pleasingly symmetrical lines, the entire end wall is a picture window overlooking the valley, so you can practice a spot of ‘shinrin yoku,’ or forest bathing, alongside your actual bathing.
The pools at Maruia are open 24 hours for resort guests, so if you’re staying on site you can make the most of the cusps of daylight – soaking as the sun goes down and watching the first rays of sunlight inch down from the ridge lines from the comfort of your pool in the morning.
2. Discover the gold mining heritage of Reefton
The little town of Reefton is rich in gold mining history. It was also the first town in New Zealand to get electricity, highlighting the scale and significance of the early gold rush.
Wander down the main street and check out The Bearded Miners. You’ll spot actual bearded miners outside, probably drinking coffee and reading the morning papers. The hut is a replica of a typical miner’s hut – small, dark and no doubt frigid for a large part of the year.
When we stop in, a man in an oilskin vest shows us around inside, then takes a pan filled with rocks out into the sunshine for us to admire. He shows us gold-flecked nuggets, flakes of gold shimmering in iron sand, samples of garnet and copper and explains the difference between gold and pyrite – fool’s gold – explaining that ‘all that glitters is not necessarily what it seems.’
The rest of the main street is dotted with cafés, galleries and an impressive antique shop, packed with curios and vintage items – including a somewhat creepy tray filled with actual glass eyes in different shades and shapes staring back.
3. Go back in time at Shantytown
Visit Shantytown to delve even further into the West Coast’s frontier heritage. Set up as a village-style museum, Shantytown transports you to the early gold-mining days of the region.
Take a gentle stroll through the bush to a gold-panning sluice set in a clearing amongst the trees. Kids will love the opportunity to dip, rinse, dip and swirl the metal pans of gravel to reveal shining specks of gold. Even better, anything they find they can take home in a vial to treasure and show off at school.
The onsite steam train runs trips around the village up to seven times each day, cheerily belching coal smoke as it putters along the original tram line through the rainforest.
You can also explore the village itself, with shops, a holographic theatre that tells the stories of the area, a saloon, a post office, where you can send post-marked letters from Shantytown, plus a pretty church and hospital created in period detail.
4. Walk to Hokitika Gorge
One of the West Coast’s most popular and picturesque must-do’s is Hokitika Gorge.
A short, easy walk will take you through native forest to the unreal hues of the Hokitika River. Caused by sediment suspended in the water from the upriver glaciers, the river is an otherworldly and incredibly photogenic neon blue.
To get to the water, cross the swing bridge – another great photo spot – and wander down to the rocky outcrop overlooking the iconic bend in the river. You may need to wait for your chance to snap the famous shot if it's busy (which it often is.) Tip: try to visit in the morning, as the gorge becomes shaded in the afternoon light, and quite early in winter, so it’s not as good for photos.
5. See Haast by helicopter
For a truly special bucket list experience, take a helicopter flight from Haast. Short, scenic flights are available from the HeliServices depot, based in the small village. You’ll get to experience sublime views over glacial river braids, dense forest bristling with native trees and fly over ridge lines where, if you’re lucky, you might even spot wild Red Deer, Chamois or Himalayan Tahr.
Landing at the hanging lakes is even more spectacular. You’ll soar to the top of a tumbling waterfall to land in a remote, air-access-only alpine meadow next to a hidden lake where you’ll feel like the only people on earth.
Haast Heli also takes hunters into the hills, so if hunting or fishing is your thing, you can catch a lift to spend a few days in some seriously remote parts of this wonderful alpine area.