The west coast of the South Island, has to be one of my favourite spots in New Zealand. There is an indescribable feeling about this place that just makes you happy inside. It is very remote and a lot of people don't really get to really enjoy it just focusing on the main "tourist" sites.
One of the main tourist spots (which are very worthwhile) are the Glaciers. Franz Josef is the larger glacier and is about a 1-1.5 hour return walk to the terminal face of it from the carpark. It is very interesting going here different years as you get to see how the glacier changes. Although sadly its not for the best. Both of these are seriously shrinking and retreting up the valley.
|Franz Josef Glacier (or what is left)|
Fox Glacier was my favorite, but when we last visited seeing the massive change in shape and appearance due to retreating was heartbreaking. However I would still recommend the glacier hikes here. It may be smaller but if you do the glacier hikes you will get more "ice time", and it is definitely an interesting trek. It is also much closer to the carpark which allows people easier access to it.
The towns associated with the glaciers, are fairly decent places to stay in the area, although Fox tends to be a bit cheaper. If you are short on the cash. MacDonalds campsite about 10 mins drive north of Franz Josef is an excellent campsite on the foreshore of Lake Mapourika, which makes for excellent "showering" facilities. Also home to some lovely black swans.
|Beach section of 3 mile lagoon trek|
The next most visited place on the coast is probably the Monteith Brewery in Greymouth or the Pancake Rocks near Punakaiki. Both are recommended. The tasting after the tours is great, and the walks around the rocks are also fun times.
|Kayaking up Okarito River|
But the best places on the coast are the ones no one really hears about. Okarito is one such hidden wonder. Here you can go kayaking, fishing, and stay at a beautiful coastal town. Not to mention it is one of the last places (other spot is in Karamea) in the world to see the white herons (see the back of $2 coin for this bird). These birds are much bigger than expected even if you don't get too close. Also of interest here is the Three Mile Lagoon trek. If you time it right you can go along the old road on the way to the lagoon, and return via the beach on the way back (recommend this way around for less up hill). If you had more time and a tent you could also continue onto the Five Mile Lagoon. This area is steeped in Gold mining history, in fact, the trek, is along the old road! Also take the time to visit to the kiwi habitat.
|Oparara Arch. 50m wide, 200m long.|
Karamea National Park is north of Westport and you will need to make a special journey to get here but it is well worth it. There are some amazing and the largest arches made by rivers in NZ. And the peacefulness is quite worth it. In addition it seems to be the capital for pukekos and wekas (native birds)! As this place is out of the way the people that live here are very colourful.
Hokitika Gorge is a decent drive inland from Hokitika town, but the variation in the gorge waters are quite interesting with some great rock to go with it. Bring your insect repellent though.
Mount Aspiring National Park is tricky, as technically it is part of the West Coast but the only way to access it easily is from Wanaka. This park is amazing and has some of the best day and longer walks in the country. The variation in colour of the landscape is fantastic. Rob Roy Glacier is of particular mention. Just 4 hours of awesome.
|Mt Aspiring National Park, part of Rob Roy Glacier trek.|
The best way to experience the wild west is slowly. There are so many little nocks and crannys to explore, short and long walks, things to taste and try, experiences to go on (some free), and places to stay (e.g. gillespies beach, copeland valley, lake paringa, haast etc...). Don't rush it.