State Highway 6 north of Wanaka takes you through stunning landscape that varies from lakes and forested mountains, and it’s here that you cross the boundary between the Otago and West Coast regions.
Seeing we were in the vicinity of the Blue Pools, a short (albeit absolutely freezing) morning stroll through tōwai forest and fern groves was a given. Barely ten minutes in and you’re greeted with the first swing bridge over Makarora River, then onto boardwalk that leads to the second bridge over the impossibly clear, turquoise water. You may even be lucky to spot a large salmon, or two, leisurely drifting about.
The first sign of civilisation in these wild and rugged parts is at Haast, a tiny township a few kilometres from the coast. Nearing lunch time, I was feeling a tad hopeful in what kind of dining scene Haast could offer. The image of an old country pub or selection of seafood shacks was forming in my mind, but I was dragged back to reality with just one place out of a few that was open that day.
The Fantail Cafe isn’t the type of place that’s out to set anybody’s culinary world on fire. It’s a humble establishment that serves chips with a lot of its lunch dishes, be it blue cod & eggs, steak or the seafood basket. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Unfortunately the two things I really wanted to try weren’t available. Venison stew on toast, and the other, whitebait patties – a dish that’s synonymous with the West Coast.
Ham, cheese & tomato sandwich it was, and a dose of caffeine.
Good thing I was paying attention otherwise I’d have completely missed the “Whitebait Patties” sign further along on the highway . It appeared we hit gold. White gold. Before we knew it I did a u-turn and drove down a gravel road past beaten up whitebait shacks on the banks of the Waita River. Things were in our favour, as well, thanks to the 10-week whitebait season commencing the same day we hit the west coast.
It was time for lunch #2.
At Curly Tree, the Kerr family is now into its fifth generation of whitebaiting, taking pride in the fresh tiny spawning fish they net from the rivers along the wild south Westland coast. We learn that many locals rock on up to their business and buy the whitebait frozen, but patties can also be cooked right in front of you as you chat and learn a thing or two about this Westland delicacy.
A bit of beaten egg, a good dose of fresh whitebait and a hotplate is all that’s required. Can’t forget the slice of white bread, a squeeze of fresh lemon and seasoning, of course. And look at all those whitebait!
The town of Franz Josef draws the crowds for one main reason – the glacier that it’s named after. Walking on the glacier was something we’d done many years ago, so we were really only in town to spend the night.
Others may choose to go walking along many of the trails in this major wilderness area – through forests, dunes and wetlands or immerse themselves at the West Coast Wildlife Centre and spot a real-life Rowi kiwi.
For those that are up for a little nocturnal sight-seeing, grab a torch and do what we did. At the end of Cowan Street – near the Terrace Motel where we were staying – is the start of a gravel road that’s signposted with Tatare Tunnels Callery Gorge.
Between the gate and the first creek crossing is where you can spot many glowworms in the rainforest, free for anyone to see, providing you turn off your torch and allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness. During the day (below) it looks like any regular rainforest, and incase you needed to know, New Zealand’s glowing native fungus gnat larvae aren’t worms at all.
Eating options in the village centre may be sparse but there’s bound to be a menu that appeals to just about anyone. A craving for some good Asian flavours led us to Eighty Eight, a “fusion” restaurant that doesn’t hold back on colour when it comes down to decor.
All walks of southeast Asian can be seen on the dinner menu, from nasi goreng to tom yum goong, with a lemon posset to mix things up a tad.
We were off to a great start with the fish bites (15); some rather tasty pieces of crumbed gurnet that were supposed to come with turmeric mayo. Sadly the condiments we were given were more along the lines of sweet chilli and tartare sauce.
The Thai green curry (21) came with a very mild level of spice and did very little to excite the tastebuds. The fish of the day (27) followed suit in the flavour department. Steamed bits of gurnet that barely tasted of the promised ginger and sesame oil. And being terribly overcooked didn’t make eating it much fun.
We passed on the posset.
Our breakfast and coffee needs were taken care of at Full of Beans, also on the towns main drag. There’s just one all day menu at the cafe and breakfast goes as far as muesli & fruit, bacon & eggs, eggs benedict and the two things we ordered.
A full breakfast (18) stodge-fest came my way with fried eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomato and hash browns from a freezer packet and sliced supermarket bread. It was kinda just what I felt like, even down to the sprig of curly parsley.
The pancake eater went for the usual. Pancakes (13.5) topped with fruit and berry compote. A humble arrangement with a generous quantity of maple syrup to play with.
Spontaneity took hold when I spotted the name of this little town on the iPad map I was flicking around. Not knowing anything about Ōkārito, a quick detour to see what went down in this seaside hamlet was in order.
“Where’s the actual town?” I asked.
We quickly discovered we were in the middle of it. A tiny community of less than 30 permanent residents. No shops, no pub – just a beautifully rugged part of the coast with sprawling wetlands, forest and more than enough birdlife to get any avian fan’s juices flowing.
It’s a far cry from what was here in the 1860’s during the gold rush, we learned. Ōkārito was the third largest port on the West Coast and was filled with stores and hotels with enough booze flowing to keep the gold diggers well-lubed.
Not much remains of the old settlement other than a restored school house that’s now a hostel. Down on the wharf visitors can see vintage photos and read up on a little of the towns history. And the view over to the snowcapped Southern Alps is pretty smashing, as well.
Disappointment set in pretty quickly when we pulled over to take a closer look at this place. Why? Because the cafe wasn’t open and I couldn’t sample any of the food. Venison, rabbit, wild pork, even possum pie – although I understand these guys can no longer sell possum pie as it doesn’t come from a government approved supplier. They’ve figured a way around that, however, as you can now “donate” $4 in exchange for one of the pies.
All around the cafe are deer busts and animal pelts, and over in the souvenir shop is a range of products made from possum fur. $4 buys you entry to the museum that shows a video on hunting and there are even caged possums to gawk at.
This place sure is an acquired taste, possum pie, or not.
Another town, another overnighter, and the next place to see our faces is New Zealand’s whitebait capital – Hokitika. Aside from the annual fish spawn-related industry, we quickly learn there’s more to this beachside town.
Art and craft shops are seemingly everywhere including many places that specialise in pounamu – or greenstone/jade – that’s unique to the region. You can even try your hand at carving your own piece.
A block back from the beach is Stella Cafe, a friendly little place that’s a bit different from others thanks to its cheese room. It may not be overflowing with fromage varieties but there’s a decent enough selection to buy and take away.
Both breakfast and lunch menus have all the standard choices with a bunch of house-made extras in the chiller cabinet.
The steak sandwich (21) features a juicy porterhouse slapped in a soft bun with caramelised onion, a bit of Cheddar and garlic aïoli. A BLT & fries (16) is presented in much the same way, with more than enough bacon for a good porcine hit.
Breakfast punters can fill up on many hearty choices like the impressive tower of hot cakes (14). Seasonal – and perhaps a little tinned fruit – makes for a fruitful start to the day. And because the other half would appreciate it later, I tucked into the homemade baked beans (15) topped with an oozing poached egg. For an additional $4 I got some bacon; a wise move as the seasoning in the beans was a tad light-handed.
Not too far out of town on a road that involves a lot of left-and-right turning is Hokitika Gorge. And yet again the water that you encounter takes on an impossibly vivid turquoise colour. It’s a short walk from the carpark through beautiful forest on gravel paths, boardwalks and to a swing bridge over the Hokitika River.
I’m not entirely sure why the town was quiet and had very little people milling about, but wandering its streets gawking at the variety of building styles was a pleasure. Well, for those that like their architecture that is.
A walk along Gibson Quay during whitebait season gives you a bit of a glimpse into how the spawning fish are caught as they head upstream. It’s pretty big business and can fetch up to $100 a kilo for this tiny delicacy.
Many of the people that catch the whitebait do it for their own personal consumption, but others make a living of it, and it’s hard to miss the numerous whitebaiting sheds at the mouth of the river.
As the sun set over the driftwood-strewn beach we hit the town to see what was open and what we felt like eating. Not a great deal was happening in downtown Hokitika so choosing a place was made easy.
Easier still when I spotted something on the menu at Fat Pipi Pizzas. Whitebait pizza, anyone?
They may not be the wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas I have a soft spot for, but the thin and crispy specimens here are no slouches, either. Even if some of the topping choices are a little typical.
Now, that whitebait (26) pizza. Unlike all the other pizzas that can be ordered as medium and large, the whitebait variety only comes as a medium, at the price of a large. No big deal, really. Especially when there’s 110g of whitebait mixed with egg spread onto the base with mozzarella, capers and garlic butter.
And the flavour? It has an unmistakable white fish flavour that works really well on a pizza, especially with a spritz of fresh lemon.
The Punk! (20) is another tasty choice. This vegetarian-friendly pizza is topped with feta, spiced pumpkin, caramelised onion and coriander pesto. A few cashews provide a little more crunch.
Heading further up the rugged coast brings you to Punakaiki, a coastal hamlet that’s a perfect base for national park access and a bunch of outdoor activities the area offers.
Its major attractions are geological in nature, as you’d expect, with the Pancake Rocks and the Blow Holes being the big draw cards. Opposite the entrance of the 20-minute walking loop is the Pancake Rocks Cafe, a place where I so happened to find the best macchiato on the trip. There’s typical New Zealand cafe fare up for grabs like pies, wraps, lolly cake and cut sandwiches; something to fill up on before hitting up the Visitors Centre next door to plan the days outdoor activities.
Less than an hour up the coast is the port town of Westport. Some come for the seal colony at Cape Foulwind, others may visit for the Coaltown Museum. This pair, however, was only in town to grab a bite.
In a place we knew next to nothing about, it literally came down to slowly driving down the main street to see what cafe or restaurant caught our attention. Not the most effective way to gauge a towns dining scene, but something tells me we lucked out with the end result.
The Town House can be found at the north end of the main drag up in the more industrial part of Westport. What used to be a Workingmen’s Club has been transformed into a smart restaurant and lounge bar with an Art Deco vibe.
Booths, patterned wallpaper, wood panelling and floorboards make for a dining space that’s easy on the eye.
The lunch menu took on a bunch of international edibles like gyoza, quesadillas or Cantonese style pork ribs. Everything sounded tempting.
A contemporary hand was dealt with the börek (12) – a feta-filled parcel resting on a flavour-packed tagine of tomato, tender chunks of lamb and spinach.
It was a toss-up between the pork ribs and Kentucky fried venison (16) for me. You can see what I went for. Deep-fried to medium doneness, the soft batter on the nubs of venison seals in the juiciness of the meat, and a tomato & sweet chilli relish enlivens it even more.
With food that good it was a given that we sample desserts. A rather enormous dark chocolate mousse (15) is presented in a thin chocolate cylinder, joined with poached rhubarb and ginger crumble.
The pear & ginger sticky date pudding (15) may not have been sticky at all, but its light and warm fluffiness was enough to satisfy. An orange Cointreau syrup boozed things up a tad and a ginger semifreddo was the perfect accompaniment.
The next nights accommodation was a 2.5 hour drive from Westport, and it was in Reefton that we stopped to stretch the legs, take a walk and switch driving roles.
Yet another town built on gold mining, Reefton has enough historic charm to keep visitors busy for a little while, gawking at it’s beautiful old buildings that date back to the late 1800’s.
Shops, antique stores, tearooms and cafe’s line the main street, and there’s even a replica miners hut in the centre of town.
The Lewis Pass Road takes you through stunning mountain scenery and alongside the winding Waiau River. What I thought was a storm cloud far off in the east ended up being a massive smoke cloud from a grass fire on the Mount Tekoa foothills. Pretty spectacular, mind you, and worthy of a quick stop to get a few pics.
Known for its thermal pools and alpine scenery, the resort town of Hanmer Springs was our next overnight stop. Not that we came close to immersing ourselves in the thermal pools or great outdoors.
Drinks at the pub, more like it. Saints seemed like the only watering hole in town, and aside from one other table, we were the only ones interested in sipping beers and watching the sun set. Quiet night at the pub, methinks.
It would’ve been easy to settle into the pub but I had other plans. At the top of town is Malabar, a gorgeous little restaurant owned by a couple that decided to move from Mumbai to little old Hanmer Springs. From the warm crackling fire to the warm and welcoming service, this is one gem on the Hanmer dining scene.
Onion & spinach bhagis (16.5) presented as a golden tangle of sweet onions, perfectly crisp and packed with flavour. Some tomato & chilli dipping sauce injected a lovely tang to the bhagis.
Taking the innovative Asian route this restaurant is known for, the pan-seared scallops (24) were nothing short of divine. Sweet, plump and juicy, the scallops are served over sticky pork belly with crunchy pickled spring onion. The magic touch came with a light sprinkling of Earl Grey salt.
Our main courses were unmistakably Indian – such as the chicken tikka (18.5) simply lined-up on the plate and garnished with pickled red onion and squiggle of pomegranate reduction.
The other – street style butter chicken (28.5). Served on the bone, the tender bits of chicken take on the deep richness of the creamy sauce. Very tasty, even if it had a high price point.
Breakfast offerings were very sparse, but thanks to spotting the Powerhouse opposite the pub we had drinks at the evening before, we already knew where to go.
Good coffee, great selection of house-made cakes and a hearty breakfast menu can be found in this cafe that fills what was once a hydro-electric power station.
Scrambled eggs (17.5) with bacon satisfies the better half as I tuck into a steaming bowl of kedgeree (18.5). A little rich for my early morning stomach, but I relished every spiced grain of rice in this salmon-heavy dish. Not only was there cold smoked salmon, but generous chunks of hot smoked salmon were flecked throughout. And that oozing egg made things all the better.
There was a little back-tracking up through the valleys and Southern Alps, with a morning pit stop at Springs Junction; a locale that’s little more than a place to refuel the car, grab a bite or stay the night.
The Alpine Motor Inn Cafe is the only place in “town” that you can buy food and a drink and stepping into its doors is akin to stepping back a few decades. I have a bit of a soft spot for old cafeterias that have “tray tracks” at the food cabinets. You’ve gotta love nostalgia.
Pre-made rolls and sandwiches, pies, cakes and slices are the go at this relic on the junction of two state highways. Eat inside beneath the leadlights, or out in the fresh valley air and sunshine.
It’s trees, valleys and more trees north of the junction, and the town that hosted us for lunch was Murchison. Driving from one end of town to the other would probably take 30 seconds, so you can imagine its size already.
Two pubs, a museum, a couple of places to grab groceries and a few other places of interest for anyone breezing through town.
Those of us that have a penchant for bric-a-brac and dust collectors may find Somebody’s Treasure a bit of a gold mine. There’s a dazzling collection of pre-loved bits and pieces, antiques, stuff for the kitchen and home. Miraculously I left empty-handed.
In the centre of town next to the Commercial Hotel is the Vault Cafe, taking residence in the former historic Bank of New Zealand building.
At the centre of the cafe is the robust vault that once held the fortunes of local gold miners and growing community. Today it’s an additional room where you can sit and enjoy your coffee and a bite from the small menu.
The food options are fairly slim – think burgers, sandwiches and soup – but it didn’t take long for me to gravitate to the homemade pies in the cabinet. It was venison pie for me, served with a little tomato relish. Great chunks of tender meat and delicious flaky pastry. The apple slice was pretty special, as well.
All other posts from this South Island trip –