When it comes to Covid and tourism, there are two stats I’m certain I’ll never forget: The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island – a densely forested, sparsely populated, mountainous slice of world-beating scenery – has seen a whopping 16-percent of all businesses close since the beginning of the global Covid-19 pandemic. 16-percent. That’s one out of every six businesses gone.
But more than that, try to get your head around a reported 62-percent of all jobs on the West Coast having being lost compared to the first quarter of 2020. These numbers of 16 and 62 are so crazy that you’re either going to assume you misremembered them, or as is the case with me, unintentionally tattoo them to your brain.
So that’s the bad news. The good news? The Trans-Tasman Bubble is now open! This will make a huge difference and already there are some hotels reopening and workers returning. The other good news? The West Coast is still just as stunning as it was before the global pandemic and there’s arguably never been a better time for Kiwis to discover a part of their own country that most have never seen.
I was lucky to be travelling through the South Island last winter to film a soon-to-be-aired travel show, and while it wasn’t my first sojourn up the West Coast, it had been years since I’d done it. In New Zealand you can get used to Insta-worthy road-trips, but the West Coast blows my mind every time.
Part of it is down to those rainforests. With most of New Zealand’s virgin lowland forest cover consigned to the history books, the lush slopes that gently rise from the Tasman Sea on their way to becoming part of the alpine spine of the Southern Alps makes for some jaw-dropping road-tripping. Ancient trees dwarf your car and other than the wheels beneath you and the tar-seal ahead, there’s a sense of a prehistoric land completely unchanged.
It’s this feeling of scenery that isn’t just visually off the chart, but is so fragile, so precious and ultimately so rare that makes a West Coast holiday so different and so special. It’s also at the heart of what Franz Josef’s Rainforest Retreat is all about.
I can remember staying at the Rainforest Retreat in my mid-20s when your options were limited to budget and not-quite budget. I couldn’t believe a place so affordable could be in such an awesome setting and I vowed I’d return one day. I made good on that promise, but what I didn’t predict was that the Rainforest Retreat would one day expand into luxury without forgetting its roots.
As in, these days the Rainforest Retreat lets you hunker down in everything from backpackers to flashpackers to midrange to bonafide luxury. With deluxe treehouses added to the property in 2017 – including two-bedroom apartments with private spas – Franz Josef’s Rainforest Retreat really is the ultimate in financially accessible eco-luxury. Highly recommended, whatever your budget.
Location wise, on your doorstep aren’t just countless lakes and bush walks, but the world famous Franz Josef Glacier. If you’re game, there are options to helicopter over the glacier and to even touch down for picnic lunches on the ice.
Slightly further afield, an hour and 40-minutes up the road from Franz Josef is the 3000-strong town of Hokitika. 3000 doesn’t sound like much, but these days it represents approximately 10-percent of the entire West Coast population. It’s when you comprehend just how few people actually live on the West Coast – a mere 30,000 – that you also realise why they’re so economically dependent on international visitors.
There are some tourist towns in the North Island – where four million out of New Zealand’s five million people live – that have done better than expected despite Covid because of entrenched domestic tourist spending patterns. But a remote part of the South Island that’s gone gangbusters for decades almost solely because of foreign visitors? To say it’s been tough in the era of Covid is an almighty understatement.
Government support packages to one-side, book yourself a flight to Hokitika and discover a launchpad to the West Coast that has plenty of attractions in and of itself. Hokitika is famous for its thriving art scene, some grand old architecture and its wild west history as a gold-mining boomtown back in the 1860s. It’s also close to the startling cobalt blue waters of the Hokitika Gorge to the south and the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki to the north. And throughout the area are some sensational bush walks.
One of those walks has you up in the canopy on a raised steel platform at the West Coast Treetop Walk. As I wrote in a recent NZ Herald article, “most of the 2012-built raised-steel platform is 20m above the forest floor, but a separate spiral staircase leads you to a 47m high lookout. Roughly the same height as a 15-16 storey apartment building, the views encompass the dense canopy jumble of rimu, miru, kamahi, mataī, kahikatea and tōtara trees as well as the Southern Alps, nearby Lake Mahinapua and the Tasman Sea”.
Click here to read more, including why I absolutely loved staying at the Hokitika Firestation Apartments. From my NZ Herald article:
“Beyond just the firepoles, the five suites of the Hokitika Firestation Apartments are decked out in ornaments such as fire ladders, hose nozzles and classic fire helmets. Everything – including naming each room after a former station fire chief – is proudly retro and there’s even an old mid-20th century fire-engine guarding the downstairs suites”.
I’m a sucker for quirky, historic hotels and the Hokitika Firestation Apartments has a theme and they fully run with it. It’s both fun as well as being high-end. Location-wise you’re on foot to everything in the CBD, but you’ve also got fully-equipped kitchens if you want to do your dining in your room.
Read more in my article about the apartments, as well as further recommendations of what to do in and around Hokitika. And book yourself a trip! The West Coast needs us and even with the bubble now open, you’re still bound to get some great deals.