I love discovering unexpected gems during my travels. While exploring the West Coast and all its stunning, coastal scenery, I came across Hokitika, a charming beach-side location residents literally call “the cool little town.” I could not agree more!

Hokitika turned out to be a pleasant surprise both times I had the chance to visit. The first visit was for lunch with my two German friends and the second time was for some beach fun with Carolina. All of us were struck by this town’s vibrant culture and charisma as we tasted its food, observed its art, and learned about its golden history.

Lunch in Hokitika

Birgit, my road trip buddy, and Verena, another German woman we met at our campsite, circled through the roundabout into the small town ahead. We immediately turned toward the beach noting the artsy shops and cafes we passed on the way through the town center. We’ll have to come back for lunch.

The beach was to our left as Frogger (the car rental) hopped over speed bumps and pulled into a parking space. There in front of us was a tall driftwood sculpture spelling out the town name. Apparently the sculpture was created by an artist named Don Neale who recreates the sign out of driftwood every year.

This is a town with a lot of pride, I thought to myself.

The sun pleasantly kissed our skin as we propped against huge driftwood tree trunks dispersed on the beach. I attempted a dip in the ocean, but the water was cold and the waves were too strong. After brief attempts by all of us, we had already worked up an appetite.

 
 

We chose Stella Café & Cheesery because of the umbrella-covered seating out front. The café was dark inside, but the display case was brightly lit full of options. None of us could make up our minds so we chose three different dishes to share.

I chose a savory mushroom pie with a crust that flaked off and melted in my mouth. Yum!

Driftwood art contest

When Carolina and I visited again a week later, we stumbled upon one of Hokitika’s famous yearly traditions—a driftwood and sand beach sculpture contest!

Watch the video I found about the event:

Since 2002, “Driftwood and Sand” has brought the community together to imagine all sorts of creative figures out of the natural elements washed up on the beach.

The West Coast beaches are particularly known for being littered with the remnants of the native bush growing along the coastline. Branches and whole trunks are flushed out by the rains and beaten down by the ocean until tides bring them back to the shores. The event puts these gnarly building materials to use, brings the community together, and gets people thinking creatively.

Sculptor, Donald Buglass started the event back in 2002. Every year he makes a contribution of his own, setting the bar high and inspiring others to participate. Here was his contribution with Anne Daniel at the 2015 event:

Flax weaving is a traditional Maori practice to make baskets, containers, mats, and other items. Donald demonstrated this weaving method in the scales of his giant eel sculpture. I also got to watch a woman on the beach weaving what would become a blanket for her “150 years of bedtime stories” sculpture. She told us, “It’s hard! I’m trying to remember how to do it!” Her sculpture went on to win in the Heritage category.

Local sponsors offer prizes to winning artists, including cash prizes to overnight stays in upscale lodges. Multiple categories and sponsors means lots of opportunities for winning prizes at this popular event.

When we were there walking along the beach, the sculptures were clearly nowhere near the judging stage. They were all in the process of being finished since registration had opened only a few days prior to our arrival.

The following are a few pictures I pulled off the event’s Facebook page. We were already well on our way on the rest of our adventure when these were completed, but I thought you might like to see the final Driftwood and Sand products:

They’re just so cool!

Environment and history

The event offers many other activities especially for children. The Blue Penguin Trust sponsors “Penguinville,” a subsequent contest for children to build houses for blue penguins on part of the beach. Mansions to little huts can be built as long as natural materials are used and the basic needs of penguins are met.

There’s also a “Gold Rush Town” section meant to remind children of the historical significance of Hokitika.

Much of the West Coast boasts its historical significance in gold mining. This can be seen is numerous locations where old mining equipment and other reminders dwell.

Hokitika was the capital of the west coast gold rush in the mid-1800s. The town ranked first in New Zealand in the number of vessels coming to port and in the value of its gold exports.

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I really enjoyed this stop. I learned a lot about this small town in a short amount of time simply because of this one event going on. Hokitika is, indeed, a cool little town. I can honestly say I would love to go back there for this event and even stay to participate if I had the chance!