I can safely say without exaggeration that I loved just about every moment of my trip to New Zealand. There’s a spirit to the country that seemed to capture my own. In spite of my Kiwiphilia, there were highs and lows, just as on any trip. One of my favorite days spent in the country though, and the highest of highs was at Franz Josef.
About two and half hours south from Greymouth along State Highway 6 lies the alpine hamlet of Franz Josef. As far as I could tell the only reason for the existence of this town of 300 souls is to take care of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who descend upon the region to explore the nearby glaciers.
The sun had begun to set as I pulled into town, the mountain peaks of the Southern Alps looming high overhead. I pulled into my hotel and set out to explore. Luckily the town is so small everything can be done on foot, a nice added bonus. Even though I did things a little backwards from a normal tourist to this townlet, I’ve rearranged them to show how to spend an amazing day exploring Franz Josef.
Franz Josef Activities
Franz Josef Glacier
Let’s face it, everyone visits Franz Josef for the glacier and with good reason. It’s an amazing sight to behold and most people don’t get many opportunities to explore a glacier. There are many options for glacier sightseeing including: hikes, heli-hiking, mountaineering and helicopter excursions. I wish I had been there long enough for a hiking trip, but my busy schedule didn’t allow for it. What I was able to experience though quickly became one of my favorite adventures of all time – a glacier helicopter tour.
I wrote about the trip in great detail in this post, but helicopter is arguably one of the best ways to see the glacier as a whole. The trip begins with a fly-by of the glacial icefalls, crevasses and neves, all the while enjoying simultaneous mountain and ocean views. Midway through the helicopter lands on the glacier itself and gives guests an opportunity to explore on their own. The second half continues around the striking natural ice sculptures and peaks that make the glacier the impressive sight that it is. This is a not to be missed adventure.
Westcoast Wildlife Centre
For a respite from the cold temperatures and hard core adventure activities, a visit to the Westcoast Wildlife Centre is a great way to spend an hour or so learning more about the natural history of the region. The stars of the centre are two kiwi birds, the national bird and symbol of New Zealand. It’s much more than just an exhibition space though, the centre is home to the incubation and active breeding program for the rarest of the Kiwi – the Rowi. The Rowi is only found around the town of Franz Josef in the Okarito Forest. The facility also brings to life the stories and tales of the people of the West Coast, from the rich history surrounding gold mining and hunting, through the incredible evolution of the Franz Josef glacier itself.
Glacier Hot Pools
Since most of the activities in and around the glacier are fairly strenuous, the Glacier Hot Pools have become a must visit establishment for weary hikers and travelers. The large complex is newish and well designed; modern design and clean lines meld seamlessly with the natural elements. That’s the most amazing part of the complex, how they incorporated the natural rainforest in with the man made pools. There are a series of hot pools, each at varying temperatures, surrounded by native bush and fed with pure local glacier water. Nestled in lush rainforest, the Glacier Hot Pools provide a secluded haven of natural tranquility and really are the perfect way to relax after a long day of adventures.
Franz Josef Dining
For a small town one wouldn’t expect many options for food, but since it is primarily a tourist town, you can spend a few days here and not get bored with the restaurant options.
Speights Landing Bar & Restaurant
Located in the center of town, if there were really a center of town, is Speights Landing Bar & Restaurant. Speights is one of those great neighborhood establishments that’s always open and always has plenty of guests milling about. In the morning it’s the perfect place for a coffee and light breakfast and in the evenings it’s an active bar and restaurant full of tired hikers and alpine tourists. The atmosphere is the real draw to Speights and guarantees a fun experience no matter the time of day.
Blue Ice Café
Situated on the Main Road in Franz Josef, the Blue Ice Café is an easy walk from any hotel, just like most of the establishments in town. Their menu is pretty robust, offering everything from the standard fare you’d expect to see anywhere in New Zealand to the chef’s inventive signature dishes. This is a great choice if you’re not up for a loud bar atmosphere but instead want a quieter night out enjoying great New Zealand food and wine.
Franz Josef Accommodations
Franz Josef really has places to stay for every budget. There are a couple of backpacker hostels, mid-range hotels and higher end lodgings.
I have to be honest, I was a little skeptical as I drove up to the Punga Grove Hotel. I’m already nervous about non-chain hotels and I wasn’t sure what to expect from the innocent looking hotel. Those fears were instantly set aside though when I checked in. The rooms and suites at Punga Grove are gorgeous. My room was modern, well designed and very comfortable. There was even a small kitchen area for breakfast and snacks. The back patio opened out to the rainforest and the fireplace inside had been started before I arrived, adding some warmth to the chilly night. It’s not often that I really love a hotel or would like to stay longer, but both were the case at Punga Grove.
Even though it’s a tourist town, Franz Josef has a great, quirky vibe to it that makes your stay in the glacier region that much more enjoyable. Be sure to explore the glacier, but don’t forget to explore the town as well.