Franz Josef was on the bucket list for New Zealand from the second I was coming to this amazing country. A land where the ocean meets the mountains and the sunsets are mind-blowing? Where do I sign up?!
The west coast of New Zealand is a unique place in the world. Legends say people were too busy looking at the views that they were getting lazy. So the gods introduced sandflies. Pesky tiny flies that harass you for a good portion of the day. They will make sure that you’re not lazing around on the gorgeous west coast beaches.
Don’t let them stop you from visiting the coast though as it has so much going for it. The West Coast Tourism Board was kind enough to invite us (thanks to the excellent organization skills of my friend Lieselot) to their little part of the country so we could explore it to the fullest. Here is my quick guide to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.
Visit the Franz Josef Glacier
The main reason for visiting the area will be and should be the Franz Josef Glacier. Majestically lying in between two mountains with just the tip visible from the ground, it quite breathtaking. While the glacier moves back and forth all throughout the year, it is currently slightly smaller than when you would have visited 20 years ago.
Although it might be smaller than some decades ago, it still is a sight for sore eyes and a must visit during your New Zealand travels.
We were kindly invited by Glacier Valley Eco Tours to join their Franz Josef valley tour that starts in an amazing stretch of rainforest. Our guide and owner of the company, Cliff, took us on a four hour hike around the area in search of cool hidden plants, waterfalls and geological abnormalities. The valley is filled with details that we never would have noticed without Cliffs trained eye.
At one point Cliff jumped and caught us a block of ice in the runoff of the glacier. I never expected that there were blocks of ice floating around in the fast flowing river! Without his guidance, I probably wouldn’t even have gone down to the side of the river bed where it is so much cooler.
What we were most surprised about is the tiny amount of tourist we saw during our walk with Cliff. Pretty crazy as this is a very popular tourist track. Needless to say we were highly impressed with Cliff’s ability to keep all the other tourists out of sight (and out of our photos)!
The big square block of dirt in the photo below is actually a massive block of ice!
If your budget allows it, try to get on top of the glacier. There are several helicopter flights going over the glacier every day and some even stop on top of the glacier. Must be magical!
Visit one of the reflecting lakes at sunrise or sunset
A guide to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier isn’t be complete without sharing one of the many reflecting lakes in the area. While the lakes are beautifully lined with trees, it’s the mountains in the background that give those amazing views. The best time to get the reflections is at sunrise or sunset. As I was still recovering from a long hike in Mt. Cook, I skipped the sunrises and focused on joining my friends for sunset.
Lake Matheson is the most famous lake to photograph, which means that you can expect several other tourists and photographers. If you wish to see something different, camping at Lake Mapourika offers stunning alternative views and jetty photos.
Another great reflection lake is Peters Pool. Check out Nico’s amazing photo of the lake!
Go to the beach for sunset
Sunsets are always at their best on the West coast. The West Coast of New Zealand most definitely does not disappoint. Near Franz Josef, you can visit the Okarito beach (you can camp there as well!). The beach offers the prettiest pink skies on a beach lined with fishermen and the occasional campfire. Check out the nearby Strand as well as Okarita had the prettiest beach houses I have seen in a while. Don’t leave without looking back, the mountains in the background are the reason you came here. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
Fox Glacier also has it’s own famous beach with the mountains in the background. Gillespies beach has several walks around it’s well visited camp ground. The beach is right next to an old gold mining settlement and includes a three hour return walk to the seal colony nearby. Walk one of the shortest walks, the Gillespies Suction Dredge Walk, to see amazing views towards the mountains and make your way to the close by beach after.
Learn about the endangered kiwi bird
Our guide to Franz Josef and Fox Glacier wouldn’t be complete without learning about one of their most endangered birds, the kiwi bird. For those visiting New Zealand for the first time, you might learn that New Zealand’s citizens endearingly like to be names after this bird. They are proud of their flightless national symbol as they should be.
The West Coast Wildlife Centre offers behind the scenes tours where you can find newly hatched chicks and learn more about the kiwi behavior. As the area also has a big yearly rainfall (which I did not notice at all), this is the perfect rainy day activity. In the center you can also view the few kiwi birds couple roaming around so you don’t have to go scouring the forests to catch one. With less than 400 of the Rowi and Haast tokoeka kiwi birds still in the wild, you would be on for quite a chase.
The centre is focused on helping the survival of the birds by raising them and releasing them back in the wild. The Rowi and Haast kiwi doesn’t breed well in captivity so they track the mature birds once released. If one of their kiwis would lay an egg, the team will go into the forest, track the egg down and bring it back to the center. Once the kiwi is born, it is kept in the center until it reaches a certain weight. From that point it is released onto an island without predators so it can learn to forage for food. When he or she is healthy and big enough, they get released in the forests around Franz Josef and the cycle starts all over again.
Enjoy the good food and wifi!
I was surprised by the quality of food and wifi you can find in Franz Josef. The hunt for a workspace (meaning a plug and some wifi) in New Zealand can be quite a challenge. Therefore I was embarrassingly excited when we found so many places with awesome work spaces. Here are a couple of spots that are recommended!
Monsoon Bar at the Rainforest Retreat Franz Josef
46 Cron St
Franz Josef 7886
Offering accommodation to travelers, flash packers and groups, the Rainforest Retreat looks like such a nice place to stay. We ended up having dinner at their Monsoon Bar, as the accommodation was fully booked. Having a pizza at their outdoor bar and enjoying a wine was right what the doctor ordered at the end of our busy days.
Drive back to the East Coast via the West Coast road and catch another sunset
This road from the West Coast to the East Coast (or the other way around) is as scenic as Franz Josef itself. Whether you are driving all the way back or stopping in Castle Hill, try and catch the sunset while in the area!
If you need some more information, make sure to check out West Coast Tourism Board as they have all the information on the coast that you could wish for. Don’t forget to have a look at Lieselot’s blog and Nico’s Instagram for some more inspiration!
Disclosure: We were invited by West Coast Tourism board to discover the area. Glacier Valley Eco Tours was kind enough to provide us with a tour to Franz Josef glacier, Wildlife Centre invited us for a backstage tour and Monsoon restaurant fed our hungry bellies. All opinions are my own, as always on the blog.