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Often touted as the most accessible glaciers in the world, Fox and Franz Josef enjoy the added distinction of forming part of Westland Tai Poutini National Park and Te Wahipounamu South Westland World Heritage Area.
The longest of the West Coast glaciers, at 13 and 11 kilometres respectively, these mighty moving rivers of ice drop almost 3,000 metres, or a little under 10,000 feet, on their journey from the Main Divide to the Tasman Sea, around 30 km away.
Up until a couple of years ago, both glaciers were advancing, and although they’re retreating now they’re still much longer than they were in the 1980s.
Unsurprisingly, the glaciers are significant drawcards for visitors, most of who stay in the twin glacier townships of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier.
Combined they just about fit on a postage stamp, and this is just one of the charms of New Zealand’s ‘tourist hotspots’ – even in peak season they’re more of a murmur than a throng.
Franz Josef is the bigger of the two, but they’re equally good bases from which to explore the glaciers and the many other attractions in the area.
At Franz, the cheapest and easiest way to get up close to the ice is on the new walk- and cycleway, completed in 2011 and the first purpose-built, shared-use track in a New Zealand National Park.
‘Te Ara a Waiau’ starts at the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre, and meanders through native rata forest to the walkway car park, where bicycles must be parked, too.
The glacier walkway continues from here to the rope barrier, from where you can enjoy views up into the ice. It’s 8km in each direction – 2 hours return by bike; allow a good half-day on foot.
To get past the rope barrier and on to the glacier itself, various guided walks are offered by Franz Josef Glacier Guides.
Or if the piggy bank’s looking healthy, you can always splurge on the ultimate: a helicopter ride or scenic flight. Bookings can readily be made from the township.
But there’s more to this area than icy mountains. In fact Franz Josef is within cooee of a couple of our favourite West Coast attractions, one of which is Okarito Lagoon.
New Zealand’s largest unmodified coastal wetland, its shallow waters are a feeding ground for white heron (kotuku) and royal spoonbill, along with around 70 other bird species.
If you’re remotely inclined to kayaking, getting out on the lagoon is a must-do activity, and it couldn’t be easier with Okarito Nature Tours, based opposite the historic wharf and boat ramp. There are guided trips (2 hours to half days), and freedom rentals, too.
Another must-do of the area is the White Heron Sanctuary Tour, based out of Whataroa, 30-km north of Franz Josef.
Not only do you get a wilderness safari involving a van, two different boats and a tractor-wagon (!), you get a chance to clap eyes on the remarkable wildlife of the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve which includes the kotuku on their nests, October to March.
It’s an unforgettable experience. On the way there, or back again, take a dip in Lake Ianthe – just don’t’ spend too long hanging around in your swimmers. There may be the odd sandfly about. (Did we say may be?)
This is just the tip of the iceberg (or rather glacier) when it comes to the attractions of Franz Josef, so if you’re coming for the first time allow several days if you can. The town has everything you need to make your stay enjoyable.
Franz Josef has a permanent population of around 330 people, although a constant flow of visitors makes it feels much busier, especially along the main road where the bulk of booking offices and hospitality lies.
There’s a perfectly acceptable range of bars, restaurants and cafes, as well as a couple of smart new attractions – the Glacier Hot Pools and the West Coast Wildlife Centre, home to a Kiwi breeding-programme.
Being campground fanatics, our first choice for accommodation is, of course, the Franz Josef Top 10 Holiday Park, around 10-minutes walk from the town centre.
It’s just far enough away from the relative hubbub, and situated in open space to make the most of the grand mountain views.
Although the holiday park has been here for quite some time, it has undergone a substantial revamp in the last six years – expanding from one hectare to more than five, with vastly improved grounds and facilities.
It now stands as a shining example of a contemporary holiday park.
Near the entrance to the park is a mini-village of built accommodation, in varied architectural styles (love the old cottage!). There’s all shapes and sizes, and a ‘bed for every budget’.
Further away from the highway, the campers’ area is spacious and attractive. The campervan hard pads are set into nicely landscaped bays complete with picnic tables.
There are a couple of dedicated tenting areas in the quietest corners of the park, set upon grass in better shape than most folks’ lawns.
In fact, the grounds overall are less like a park and more like a garden, with everything clipped and shaped, and well planted throughout with a mixture of youngish trees and flowerbeds.
The area around the barbecue pagoda is a joy in bloom.
The main facilities block is big, modern, and well designed for busy times with no reason to bump elbows in the kitchen or bathroom.
Other facilities include a small but cheerful games room, television lounge and internet kiosk.
The reception area is exceptional, although between the comfortable sofas, the television and toy box, visitors are probably reluctant to head off outside.
It makes a great waiting room for those travellers waiting to set off on their adventure activity, many of which can be booked from the holiday park office.
There are also bikes for hire, so here’s your chance to explore that new Waiau Pathway.
The holiday park’s managers are Richard and Lorraine, whom we encountered hard at work in the office.
Lorraine is a true-blue local, fourth-generation Franz Josef. Richard, a builder by trade, was born in Hokitika, and despite having been in Franz 42 years still doesn’t consider himself a local.
Although they recently sold the park, it still takes up a good portion of their time, as does running their farm. ‘I always used to say I had a 5-star holiday park and a 1-star farm,’ says Richard. As big fans of New Zealand’s wonderful holiday parks, we’ll raise a glass to that.
Franz Josef Top 10 Holiday Park, 2902 Franz Josef Highway, West Coast.
Tel: 0800 467 897, 03-752 0735;
Read Bennett & Slater’s story about Fox Glacier.
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