Farewell Spit reaches out from the far north-western tip of New Zealand's South Island into the Tasman Sea, creating the northern boundary of Golden Bay. It's a narrow sand bank that's 16 miles long at high tide and 19.5 miles long at low tide, but less than one mile wide at its widest. It's an internationally renowned bird sanctuary and breeding ground, and is on UNESCO's "tentative" World Heritage Site list.
Independent travel to Farewell Spit is limited to a small area at its base, around the Puponga Farm Park and Cape Farewell. To venture further along the spit, travelers must join a guided tour.
What to See and Do
Birds, wildlife, and beaches are the main reasons to visit Farewell Spit. Plus, visiting the northernmost tip of the South Island is a modest bucket-list adventure.
- As independent visitors are allowed on the first 2.5 miles of Farewell Spit, it's possible to visit just for the beaches. The Tasman Sea side of Farwell Spit has white-sand beaches, whereas the Golden Bay side is more muddy and tidal, with a huge tidal range of up to 4.5 miles. Be aware that Farewell Spit is often very windy, so this is more of a place to enjoy a brisk beach walk than to lounge in the sun. Wharariki Beach, reached via a short walk over private farmland at Puponga Farm Park, is certainly one of the most dramatic beaches in the whole country. Visit at low tide and you might see fur seals playing in the rock pools. Horse treks also operate along Wharariki Beach.
- Cape Farewell is near Wharariki Beach. It's the northernmost point of the South Island. The cliffside views are dramatic, but keep kids close as the fence doesn't stretch the whole way and it's often very windy.
- More than 80 bird species have been recorded on Farwell Spit, particularly migratory birds and wetland birds. Species that can be seen here include little blue penguins, godwits, Australasian gannets, oystercatchers, dotterels, sandpipers, herons, and black swans. The godwits, despite their unassuming appearance, are especially impressive as they migrate all the way from Alaska every year.
- Fur seals can also be seen all along the spit, from the rockpools of Wharariki Beach to just lazing in the sun further down.
The Different Tours of Farewell Spit
Most of Farewell Spit is administered by New Zealand's Department of Conservation due to its importance as a bird habitat. Only one company has permission to take tourists to Farewell Spit, so that makes planning easy. Farewell Spit Tours operates from Collingwood, and take visitors out on large four-wheel-drive buses designed to drive on the sand.
Farewell Spit Tours offer three types of tour: the classic Farewell Spit tour, a tour to see the gannet colony on the spit, and a tour to see wading birds. Bird enthusiasts will especially enjoy the bird-themed tours, although even the general tour allows you to see some birds and wildlife. The general tour lasts for about six hours and goes all the way to the decommissioned lighthouse near the end of the spit, where you can stop for a tea break.
The timing of the tours depends on the tides and the season. As some of the birds found at Farewell Spit are migratory, they can only be seen at certain times of the year.
How to Visit Without a Tour
If you don't want to join a tour but still want to experience something of the spit, independent visitors are permitted on the first 2.5 miles of the spit and at the Puponga Farm Park. Cape Farewell and Wharariki Beach can be reached from the parking lot at Puponga, so are easy for independent visitors to get to. There are a number of short walking trails around the Puponga park that offer great views of Farewell Spit and Golden Bay. Just be mindful of the fact that the park crosses private, working farmland, so pay attention to any signs saying where you can and cannot walk.
Where to stay
Takaka (population 1,300) is the biggest town in Golden Bay and offers the widest range of accommodation options. There are backpacker hostels, motels, guesthouses, and campgrounds. The Shady Rest is a particularly lovely boutique guesthouse in a century-old home on Takaka's main street. They serve fresh-cooked breakfasts, there's a cozy common lounge with a fireplace, and there's even an outdoor bathtub.
A 20-minute drive further along State Highway (SH) 60 is Collingwood (population 235), which also has some peaceful hotels and guesthouses. Zatori is a great option as there are rooms to suit various budgets (from bunk-bed dorms to private rooms with ensuite bathrooms) and the common lounge has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Collingwood Estuary.
Collingwood is closest to Farewell Spit, and is where tours leave from. Many travelers opt to stay in Takaka though, as there are more places to eat, drink, and shop.
How to Get there
Whether you take a guided tour or go it alone, you'll need your own vehicle to get to Golden Bay and Farewell Spit. A limited number of private shuttles run between Nelson/Motueka and Golden Bay, but these are primarily for trekkers embarking on the Heaphy Track in the Kahurangi National Park.
From Nelson city, Takaka is about a two-hour drive (around 1.25 hours from Motueka), while Collingwood is about another 20-30 minutes along SH60. From Collingwood, the Puponga Farm Park is about another 45 minutes' drive.
The drive over the Takaka Hill from Riwaka/Motueka is slow and winding. It is the only access road to Golden Bay, so if there's an accident or bad weather, the road can be closed. If you're traveling with anyone who suffers from motion sickness, take your time driving over the Takaka Hill and take advantage of the rest spots, such as at the Ngarua Caves or Hawke's Lookout.