Don’t ski but love the idea of getting out into the mountains on a cruisy winter break?
You may not want to climb a mountain but if you’re after pure alpine air, inspiring scenery, and time out to rest, refresh and recharge, then find your fill with a Franz Josef stay.
Away from the ski resort crowds, this friendly little tourist town is the gateway for easy adventures and blissful relaxation in an uncrowded wilderness: twin glaciers, alpine peaks, mirror lakes, ancient rainforests, wild beaches close by.
To make it easy, here are our top tips on how to enjoy two memorable days in Franz Josef.
Local tip #1: Winter is a wonderful season in Glacier Country. Days are often still and mild — while it snows on the mountains, you’re also practically at the beach. Literally, 20kms from a wild West Coast beach.
Local tip #2: Beyond the famed glaciers, Franz Josef is a lively hub for a full menu of active or relaxing activities. Think walking and hiking, mountain biking, skydiving, kayaking, boating, fishing, wildlife tours, outstanding scenery, hospitable dining, forest bathing in hot tubs, not to mention a luxury spa.
Local tip #3: Heli experiences are weather dependent so, if you want to get up on a glacier, a 2-day stay will increase your weather window. Several operators offer a guided heli hike (combining a helicopter flight with a hike on the ice), or a scenic flight over the mountains with an optional glacier landing. Allow 4 hours for a heli hike; less for a scenic flight (20 to 30 minutes).
Local tip #4: It’s winter quiet right now but it won’t be long before international tourists are back in town to enjoy this bucket list destination. In the meantime, there are some enticing off-season package deals for experiences and accommodation so get in while you can.
For a beautiful romantic experience, check into your Rainforest Retreat. Spoil yourselves with a stay in a Deluxe Treehouse hidden in the trees. Soak your cares away under the stars in your private spa pool, wake up to birdsong in the trees and a generous breakfast basket, and join the fun in the evening at Monsoon Restaurant. You’re within easy walking distance of a choice of cafés, bars and activities.
Alongside the treehouses, Rainforest Retreat has accommodation to fit every other travel style from family motels to self contained cottages, cabins, backpacker units and a dedicated area for motorhomes and campervans; on-site facilities include Monsoon restaurant bar, spa tubs, sauna, laundry, and mountain bikes.
Check in at Franz Josef Glacier Guides or Fox Glacier Guides for a thrilling on-ice experience; a scenic helicopter flight up and over the glaciers, landing on the ice for a hike across this ever-changing icescape. There’s no experience required, just moderate fitness for up to 2 hours exploring this ethereal blue wilderness of incredible icy formations caves, arches, and pillars.
Let Franz Josef Wilderness Tours take you on a personalised true wilderness experience with a scenic boat (or kayak) trip across gorgeous Lake Mapourika (10 minutes drive north of Franz Josef) and an exclusive guided walk in the Ōkārito Kiwi Sanctuary. Framed by the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps, untouched misty rainforest and the mirrored waters of the sheltered glacier-created kettle lake, this is a photographer’s dream outing.
Beyond Lake Mapourika and off-the-beaten-track, Ōkārito is a picturesque coastal village on the shores of Ōkārito Lagoon and beside the Tasman Sea. The lagoon is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland and a haven for around 80 species of wildlife. There are easy walks, kayaks to hire, wildlife tours and a fascinating history to discover.
After a day outdoors, Rainforest Retreat guests can refresh with a sauna or a hot spa (book your spot ahead) or, for a luxurious spa treatment, book in at Amaia Luxury Spa at Scenic Hotel Franz Josef; then refuel at Monsoon Restaurant + Bar (winter openings are from 4.30pm).
Either take it slowly this morning, then head out towards Fox Glacier township for a leisurely brunch at Lake Matheson Café or get up early enough to catch the sunrise over the lake. On a calm, misty winter morning, the classic mountain reflections of Aoraki/Mt Cook and Mt Tasman are at their breathtaking best. The café is open daily from 8.30am.
As per Day One above, glacier heli hikes begin at either Franz Josef or Fox villages.
Subject to weather conditions, Franz Josef Glacier Guides runs tours at 8:30am (check in 7:30am) and 11.00am (check in 10.00am);Fox Glacier Guides runs tours at 8:50am and 11:50am (check in 10 mins before tour). The full heli hike experience takes around 4 hours.
Take a mountain bike out for a spin on one of the trails around Franz Josef, or wander into the West Coast Wildlife Centre to spot some rare and precious rowi kiwi — the rarest of all kiwi species — and get an insider’s view of the amazing conservation work happening in the South Westland region.
Follow that up with a relaxing session at Waiho Hot Tubs — the hot new leisure activity at Franz Josef. Settle into your private wood-fired tub for a blissful soak under a misty canopy of lush rainforest, as you listen to the birds in the trees. Pure magic, rain or shine, and even more romantic under a star studded night sky. BYO drinks and snacks, too.
Sad but true. Poor Alice May Parkinson got herself into a spot of bother back in the day (the early 20th century), did prison time and became a suffragette cause. Now her granddaughter has resurrected her story in a cosy restaurant filled with mementoes and serving delicious New Zealand comfort food — think spareribs, braised lamb shanks and beef cheeks.
Fly into Hokitika (via Christchurch from Auckland or Wellington) or take the spectacular TranzAlpine train journey from Christchurch to Greymouth. Pick up a rental car and follow scenic SH6 south to Franz Josef: 1hr 40mins from Hokitika, 2hrs from Greymouth.