Occasionally in life we get the chance to experience the extraordinary; something which inspires us and challenges our definition of beauty. The town of Franz Josef and its surrounding areas is one of those epic places and a must see during every traveller’s visit to New Zealand.
I hope this blog inspires Kiwis who have never been here, travellers to return, and those considering (or not considering) a visit to follow the winding forest roads to the foot of the Franz Josef Glacier to experience it for themselves.
Franz Josef Glacier
Surrounded by forest covered rolling hills, so densely packed with native trees and incredible Ponga ferns you feel after arriving that you’ve stepped into a natural heaven. Look up and you will see the hillside framed by an electric blue glacier, slipping down the hillside and filling streams with water so fresh you can drink. Had I not seen more of New Zealand I would question why Franz Josef took an uneven share of the natural beauty however, New Zealand is coast to coast paradise and a testament to why so many travellers end up working or living here, simply unable to bring themselves to leave.
The locals took great delight in telling me we were lucky with the weather but as I looked up at a sky full of deep blue and felt the kiwi sun roasting my skin, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
The journey began on the TranzAlpine train, a scenic 4.5 hours from Christchurch to Greymouth as we travelled past a veritable salad bowl of glacial lakes and stunning vistas before travelling on by rental car for a further 2 hours in order to arrive at the glacial foothill town of Franz Josef. We booked through Thrifty Car Rental who I DO NOT recommend, I booked at one price which had mysteriously increased as if by corporate magic when we picked the car up – not impressed!
We stayed at 10 Cottages which is in my humble (yet well-travelled) opinion the only place you want to stay in the town of Franz Josef. Cute chalet style bungalows surrounded by New Zealand ferns, right in the centre of town and yet an extremely peaceful location. Each room comes with a double and single bed and the uninterrupted mountain views from the veranda more than pay for themselves. But the thing with the 10 Cottages which sets it apart from the rest is the personal touches. The friendly service and knowledgeable advice is refreshing and rooms come with a television, microwave oven and a few practical little touches such as kitchen roll, washing up liquid and bug spray. The manager Logan takes great pride in the grounds which results in a manicured wildness – the perfect place to relax. When I return, and I certainly will, my first choice lodging will be 10 Cottages.
So why did I travel for many kilometres to get here? What made the journey worthy and filled my camera memory card? Well there is a gigantic glacier that looms majestically over the town -that helps. Actually it helps a lot and Franz Josef is widely regarded as the gem of New Zealand’s West Coast Glaciers. The first night was spent eating fresh calamari in Annie May’s restaurant (take benefit from 10 Cottages’ 10% discount voucher) and as an after dinner aperitif we manoeuvred the pitch black bush trail just a short walk from 10 Cottages, to see the glow worms like nature’s fairy lights – incredible! It’s peaceful and silent except the cracking of stones underfoot but once the torches went out these illuminated glow worms magically reclaim small pockets of darkness.
The crowning glory of our trip to Franz Josef is naturally the glacier, cascading down the mountainside. We booked with Franz Josef Glacier Guides which is the only company to directly operate the helicopter rides into the glacier base. We booked onto the 3hr Glacier Heli-Hike and what can I say; from start to end they were brilliant. As we ran through a safety briefing and suited up with all equipment provided, they took great delight in explaining how lucky we were with the weather. Our guide Sam (originally from Darjeeling, India) had a relaxed yet informative style that I expect from a kiwi, without the over-enthusiastic guiding I’ve seen elsewhere.
With 5 per helicopter we left the ground like a dragonfly, swept around and made a beeline for the glacier whilst enjoying sweeping views of the Southern Alps as we turned, flying close to the mountains and frozen earth below. From the air, planet earth is immense, so raw with pristine glacial scenery it is one of those moments when a camera and lens struggles to really do it justice. It’s a rare day I ever stop and put my camera down, especially my Leica V-LUX camera but on occasion, I had to simply take in this spectacle through my own human lenses.
Following our on- the- ice landing and fitting crampons, we surveyed our playground for the next two hours hike. Navigating the icy mountainscapes and climbing through holes in the ice was so incredible. There isn’t much more I can say about the two hour hike that can’t be summed up with the striking images below. I love my Leica!
After returning the borrowed equipment, Franz Josef Glacier Guides do two things to show their customer service goes above and beyond and to round off this incredible experience. They gave us free access to the Glacier Hot Pools which is a must do and a great way to rest our weary bones in the evening as we bathed in a series of varied temperature pools. The second was a gift goodie bag. I have to admit, working in the travel industry that when I see goodie bags it makes me cringe as typically they are terrible. But…listen to this…the goodie bag contained the following; sunscreen to protect against the harsh New Zealand sun, a DVD of the glacial experience, Moro bar (an awesome kiwi chocolate bar) and lip balm for sun reflection, bottle of water and all in a reusable bag.
Another perfect way to explore the surrounding area is by hitting one of the many trails on offer. We hiked the Okarito Trig Trail which is about a 25 minute drive from the town, and 1.5hr round trip with sweeping views of the Okarito Lagoon, bushland and rugged beach coastline. Take mosquito spray and get away from the crowds – you’ll be very impressed!
After a few hours soaking in the hot pools, it truly could be called a most perfect day. Whilst relaxing in 38 degrees pristine water, I overheard a young English traveller saying “Its times like these you know you’ve made it”. It was the perfect end to a perfect day exploring a small town with glaciers, forest, hot pools, glow worms and lakes. Seriously what more could you ask for?
Happy travelling folks!