“A little town on the West Coast? I don’t have time to go there. I only have three weeks to travel New Zealand.”
If this is you – rewind.
First of all, three weeks is not enough to visit New Zealand. Second: Franz Josef and the glacier region have it all. There are mountains (really big ones) and glaciers. There is also rainforest, lakes and all of that right at the ocean. When this world was created someone up there probably thought: “let’s spoil this place”.
You definitely feel spoiled. Don’t forget to bring some sandfly repellent though. Those little black flies love to bite you. I won’t start a rant, because I’ve already done that in a little video here.
The West Coast region is such a unique place. Just imagine, mountains, glaciers, lakes, forest and ocean all next to each other.
Because the landscape is so diverse in a small space there is a large list of things to do. I’ll give you more than enough reasons to spend a weekend in Franz Josef.
1. Visit the Franz Josef glacier
The main attraction of Franz Josef is of course the glacier. It is 12 kilometres long and beautiful. Unfortunately it has been retreating over the last years. It has one of the fastest melt rates measured anywhere in the world. The glacier still is very impressive though and definitely worth a visit.
There is an easy public walk that brings you close to the glacier. It takes about 1,5h return. I did it when I first arrived in New Zealand three years ago and I didn’t really enjoy it. It was so busy and I wasn’t very impressed. Some tourists can really ruin the experience.
I recently visited it again, this time with Glacier Valley Eco Tours. They take you off the path and you hardly see any tourists. HURRAY! It was seriously amazing how our guide Cliff managed to avoid all those people.
That wasn’t our guide’s only quality though. He knew a lot about the fauna and flora and the history of the place. I understand if you’re a budget backpacker you might want to do the walk yourself; but if you can spare a few dollars I highly recommend going with these guys. You’ll discover secret waterfalls, do cute bush walks, spot wildlife and if you’re lucky he’ll fish a piece of ice out of the river.
There are also other walks nearby the main glacier walk. There is Peter’s Pool that is an easy 15 minute walk and can give you awesome reflections!
2. West Coast Wildlife Centre
A big part of the New Zealand identity is the kiwi bird: that native little bird that can’t fly. A kiwi is small, feathered, nocturnal and unfortunately endangered.
The West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef is a place for you where you can learn about the most endangered kiwi: the Rowi. There are 5 species of kiwi and all of them are endangered. The Rowi is the most endangered one and is found in the Okarito Forest near Franz Josef. At the Wildlife Centre you even get the chance to see a few, in the nocturnal bush walk-through room.
There is also an option for a backstage tour, to learn more about all the hard work that’s being put into the kiwi. You get an interesting behind the scenes look and see the hatching and incubation programme. When I visited an egg had been hatched just the day before! Such a pity I missed it, but it was still great to see where all the magic happens.
The centre works together with the Department of Conservation and they help eggs hatch, trying to get the population up. When the kiwi are strong and old enough (usually 1 year) they are again released in the wild.
Two years ago I was so lucky to join for one of those releases, and it was a really big one. 50 Rowi kiwi were being released and I was allowed to release one as well.
You can read all about via this link: https://theworldisacircus.com/2015/10/kiwis-for-kiwi-an-inspirational-story
3. Glacier heli flight
Flying above New Zealand is always breath-taking. Wherever you go, you will enjoy it. But, and this is a big but, the glacier region is definitely at the TOP!
This is going to sound lame, but I got emotional during the flight. No, I wasn’t crying, but I was so in awe of the nature in front of me. It was unbelievable. I took many photos, but also just put the camera next to me and soaked in the scenery. At the same time I had these weird smiles going on to the pilot and was trying to shout how awesome it was. I think I tried three times, but then gave up because he couldn’t hear me. My intercom was broken – now I’m wondering if that was a coincidence…
Anyway, if you want to do a helicopter flight in New Zealand, you should do it from Franz Josef. I flew with Glacier helicopters and we had just the best pilot. You get so close to the glaciers (you even land on top of one) and you see Mount Tasman and even Mount Cook in the distance. I enjoyed it so so so much and would go there again immediately.
I admit it costs a bit of money, but if you’re wanting to do one expensive activity in New Zealand, do this!
4. Dinner and drink at Monsoon Bar
It rains a lot on the West Coast. It rains up to 2,000–3,000 mm every year. Why do you think the rainforest is so beautiful lush? But when you’re lucky, as I was last time I visited Franz Josef, the sun shines.
When the sun is out it is so nice to just have a drink, some food and relax. That’s what my friends and I did at Monsoon Bar, a cosy bar with a nice atmosphere and a great outdoor terrace! The bar has a really nice vibe and a lot of food options.
I also love their cheeky reference to all the rain at the West Coast: “If it rains – we pour”.
We went for a beer, ordered some burgers and pizza and just enjoyed the warm evening sun. Before packing up and getting ready for sunset!
5. Glacier Kayak experience
There is plenty of choice for outdoor activities in Franz Josef. I ticked a flight in the air off my list; now it was time for something in the water.
I decided to go for an early morning kayak session, I stumbled upon the activity via Koru Enterprises and it looked like a cool way to spend the day. It had been ages since I had kayaked, so I was a bit wary when we slid into the water; especially because my kayak partner Raoul had never done this before. In the end it was all-good and we did not capsize. Yay!
The lake was super still and the reflections were still going on (tip: there is a bigger chance on reflections in the morning as opposed to the afternoon).
After an hour in the water we got out of our kayaks and did a little bush walk in the Okarito forest. We were in a little group of 4 and our guide had such a big knowledge of plants. Don’t be surprised if he asks you to eat some plants. Then we went back on the water for about an hour. It was such a peaceful morning and I just wanted to stay in the kayak floating on the water.
6. Lake Matheson
Another lake – and a more famous one – is Lake Matheson. It’s known for its perfect reflections of Mount Cook.
The lake is located near Fox Glacier Village and about 30 kilometres from Franz Josef. There is a little, easy walk around the lake and to a lookout on the water. Beware – it is very popular. But it’s also very pretty, so definitely worth a visit. Don’t be surprised if you see 20 photographers crammed onto the lookout platform trying to take the golden shot.
If you are interested in taking a good photo I recommend you to go early, before sunrise. Take your tripod and find a good spot on the platform while you still can.
7. Lake Mapourika
Lake Mapourika is the same lake I went kayaking on and it is treating us on reflections the majority of the time. There is a cute jetty and some good photo opportunities. Did you know the lake was formed by the glacier? It was filled with glacier water when the glacier retreated. Now it has filled with rain water too, but it was created by the Franz Josef glacier.
The same nature process happened for Peter’s Pool, the little lake I mentioned above, near the glacier.
8. Gillespies beach
Oh my, this is a very pretty area. Gillespies beach is a 40 minute drive away from Franz Josef, and very worth it! Definitely bring the sandfly repellent here, there are quite a few.
You can have a stroll on the beach, enjoy the sunset or do one of the many walks around. They range from 5 minutes up to 3,5 hours. The Department of Conservation gives a good overview on their site.
9. Okarito Lagoon
The Okarito Lagoon is located right at the ocean. It is surrounded by rainforest and home to 70 bird species.
There’s a huge area of shallow open water with the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps peaking in the back. It is actually also a small settlement of 30 permanent residents. My model for the night, the fisherman, was not a resident but a Christchurch man on a holiday.
10. Where to sleep?
There is a lot of accommodation in Franz Josef and surroundings, ranging from basic and cheap to impressive and expensive. If you like to be a bit closer to nature you can go camping. There are quite a few DOC campgrounds around.
These campgrounds aren’t just any campgrounds. They are in nature and often close to a beautiful lake or the ocean. Believe me, they are way nicer than the typical Holiday Park campgrounds.
If you’re visiting Franz Josef I suggest to camp at Lake Mapourika. You have two DOC campgrounds close to each other, called Otto and MacDonald campground. You only pay 13 dollar per person for a night in sweet surroundings. There is a toilet and outdoor, but covered seating area. One early morning I stumbled sleepy to the lake and it looked mysterious.
There is also a campground at Okarito Lagoon, it is not a DOC one but also very nice. The facilities here were so good! You are also very close to the ocean and to the lagoon. Great if you want to do some activities there. The Gillespies beach campground was a bit busier, probably because it is a small one and it is in an incredible spot, right at the beach. You literally walk only one minute and you’re on the beach. There are also heaps of other walks around and oh yeah, you always have the mountains around you!
So that’s Franz Josef and glacier area. I hope this post gave you a bit an idea what to visit and more important that you HAVE to visit it!
Disclosure: Tourism West Coast hosted me on this weekend in Franz Josef, to show the beautiful glacier region. All opinions are, as always my own.