One of New Zealand's oldest ports, Westport sits at the mouth of the mighty Buller River. Once a boomtown for two separate gold rushes, it's now a quiet little hub (population 3,100) for the local farming and coal industries, plus the rapidly expanding adventure-tourism niche. It's an interesting place to stop before heading south toward Punakaiki and the glaciers or north to remote Karamea and the Heaphy Track; the best of Westport is out of town, either on the coast or up the rivers. The iconic Westport look is breaking white-capped waves, blue sea, seals, rocky outcrops, and acres of flax and wetlands, although there are several striking art deco buildings along the main street. Stop by the little Coaltown Museum at the i-SITE Visitor Centre on Palmerston Street to learn about the town’s coal mining history. Or treat yourself to a real, hands-on underground coal mining experience in the original Banbury Mine, on the Denniston Plateau, 18 km (11 miles) northeast of town and high on a mountain plateau. A museum, information panels and actual machinery details life in this lonely outpost from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Carving a living from the rich seams of coal in the surrounding tussock-covered hills, the miners and their families had to struggle with wild weather, isolation, and primitive conditions. Your best option here is to book the Denniston Experience that guides you into the Banbury Mine, the oldest and longest-running mine, that has been reopened for visitors. A popular historical novel about these coal mining pioneers and their families, The Denniston Rose, by New Zealand writer Jenny Pattrick, details the area and the harsh colonial lifestyle.
The Westport i-SITE Visitor Centre can also provide information on Karamea and Kahurangi National Park.