The West Coast of the South Island is a rugged coastline much like the Northwest US. It is constantly battered by storms coming off the Tasman Sea. The cold air rushing in rises quickly up the steep mountains and deposits large quantities of rain and snow all year.
As you may gather, the weather is often bad. We experienced our first stretch of bad weather liked to while making our way up the West Coast and it effected our impression. Many people we to after said that it was the most memorable place on their tour but we didn't share that experience.
We stopped only at Fox Glacier with hope of getting a plane or helicopter up the glacier but the weather wasn't good and the ceiling was low so we passed. We did climb around the bottom and got a good look from below. A guided walk onto the glacier was proceeding as we approached and it gave a sense of scale to the glacier.
The Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers are unusual because the run down very close to sea level and they are growing. The make it so far down because they drop so steep and because there is so much snow falling above.
We stopped at he Pancake Rocks and had a walk around. This park is a popular stop for tour buses as well as most tourists passing by. It is an interesting a rugged bit of coastline. The paths are well developed and take you out over rock bridges and out to the very point over the Tasman Sea.
The walk takes about 15 minutes and it is well worth it as long as you don't get trampled by fellow tourists.
The next stop for us was Shanty Town. Shanty Town is a funky private recreation of a gold mining town that dotted the area 100 years ago. It is filled with rustic junk in a recreated town presented as a kind of living museum. It is popular with local school kids who dress up and spend a day in the town studying like they would have in the period.
There is a restored steam train on a short track. It takes passengers up the hill 2 or 3 times a day. About half way up is a lumber mill and a gold panning area.
The gold pans are presented with the dirt in them and some instructions on panning techniques. Every one finds gold, about the same amount even. It is a remarkable coincidence. The park is well run and the staff is friendly, it has a family atmosphere. If you have the time we recommend a visit.