The swing bridge over Hokitika Gorge

Five essential experiences in Hokitika, New Zealand

A small, historic town in New Zealand's South Island, Hokitika is the perfect place to learn about the fascinating history of the West Coast. There are many stories from this part of the country, and you can hear about the ship wrecks, gold miners and pounamu hunters who once lived here.

First settled in 1860 during the West Coast gold rush, Hokitika was an important river port, however, many ships were wrecked on the treacherous Hokitika Bar, a sandbar that shifts with the tide. In 1866, Hokitika was the largest settlement in New Zealand with a population of over 25,000, and more than 100 pubs.

Nicknamed the Cool Little Town, modern Hokitika is an artsy place, with historic buildings and interesting sculptures. The Arahura River, which enters the sea just north of Hokitika, is a traditional source of pounamu (greenstone / jade). In town you'll find galleries specialising in pounamu jewellery and art works, which make wonderful gifts or souvenirs. Here are some of the things to do in this quirky town.

The Hokitika sign made of driftwood

1. Admire the driftwood sculptures on the beach

If you haven't noticed that Hokitika has a quirky, artistic side, take a walk to the beach, which runs alongside the town centre. This isn't somewhere that sunbathing comes to mind. The sea is often wild, with driftwood strewn up the beach.

The driftwood has been fashioned into pyramids and sculptures, with a large "Hokitika" sign made from driftwood at the entrance to the beach from the town. There is even an annual driftwood competition which runs each summer, showcasing the best sculptures.

The swing bridge over Hokitika Gorge

2. Marvel at the turquoise waters of Hokitika Gorge

Pick your path to the Hokitika Gorge and marvel at the turquoise waters and thick native forest. Like many of New Zealand's beautiful lakes, the water in the gorge is coloured by sediment from the glaciers, giving it a distinctive turquoise colour.

Stop for a quick photo, head down to the river or take an easy 2km walk through the bush and over a swing bridge with wonderful views of the gorge. The loop takes about an hour to complete and is suitable for children.

The turquoise colour is brightest around midday, however there are are fewer visitors early in morning or late afternoon. Try to avoid visiting after heavy rain as the water can look grey instead of blue.

Reflections of the Southern Alps in Lake Kaniere

3. Swim in a glacial lake

If you have the time, visit a glacial lake while you're in Hokitika - there are two reasonably close to the town. Lake Kaniere is about half hour out of Hokitika and makes a great stop on the drive back from the gorge. Take a picnic and relax by the water. Then head around the lake, back to Hokitika, stopping at Dorothy Falls, a cascading waterfall, on the way.

If you're looking for a closer option, take a walk along Lake Mahinapua, just 10km south of Hokitika. It's a lovely spot to spend a day and is particularly good for children with safe swimming. Both lakes are worth visiting all year round, but are particularly beautiful on still days, when the Southern Alps are reflected on the surface of the water

Glow worms in the dell in Hokitika

4. See glow worms lighting up the trees

If you want to see glow worms but don't have the time or inclination to wander through caves, the Hokitika glow worm dell is for you. Just minutes from the main road, the towering dell walls surround you on three sides with what looks like thousands of twinkling fairy lights. It’s a truly magical sight.

To see the glow worms, you need to visit at night. The darker, the better, so wait for at least an hour or two after sunset. If you want to avoid the crowds, go as late as you can. Just keep in mind, it only gets dark around 10pm in the summer. It's also best to take a torch.

A North Island brown kiwI

5. Spot a kiwi at the National Kiwi Centre

While there are perhaps better kiwi sanctuaries in the South Island, this is still a great activity if you're travelling with small children. New Zealand's national bird can be very hard to spot, and you're guaranteed to see kiwi at the National Kiwi Experience Centre.

Children also have the opportunity to see eels and even feed them, and there are also tuatara and crayfish on site. You can also see shoals of whitebait at certain times of year. The centre will keep the family amused for an hour or two and is a great option on a rainy day.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 4 November 2022

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New Zealand

Famous for its natural beauty, New Zealand is a wonderful destination for travellers with a bit of an adventurous streak. A safe and accessible country, you'll find a huge range of activities to keep you busy, particularly if you enjoy the outdoors.