I visited Franz Josef recently while travelling with Stray - an adventurous New Zealand travel company with flexible Hop-On Hop-Off guided bus routes, and it was one of the top highlights of my time in the South Island.
Due to the exciting must-do activity I just had to do and unpredictable weather, I ended up spending five nights there and it didn't take long for the cosy town to begin feeling like a second home.
Franz Josef is a destination that should be on everyone's South Island road trip and this guide shares my recommendations and top tips for visitors, including that incredible South Island activity I stuck around for that was totally worth it!
ABOUT FRANZ JOSEF
Franz Josef is a true gem on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island and worth staying for a couple of nights at least, at any time of the year.
Known for its stunning scenic surroundings where glaciers meet the rainforest, it's an incredibly picturesque place to visit and a nature-lovers dream, to say the least.
There are many beautiful hikes from short to long and Kiwi-typical adrenalin-pumping activities on offer to make your time in Franz Josef especially memorable.
The Franz Josef Glacier is the biggest drawcard and doing a Glacier Heli-Hike is the number one activity to do there.
WHERE TO STAY
Rainforest Retreat is the perfect place to stay in Franz Josef. It's located just off the main village street, making it secluded but in close walking distance to every local activity, including the Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hikes which is literally one minute away.
At the feet of the Southern Alps, the property has magnificent mountain views and is nestled amongst native bush, making it the ultimate base to unwind and explore from.
For backpackers, travelling families, flashpackers and campervanners - they have cheap and cheerful Dorm Rooms, Motel Park accommodation, a Holiday Camp Site and even Deluxe Tree Huts and Lodges to suit everyone's needs and budget.
Onsite, they have a fantastic restaurant and bar Monsoon with daily Happy Hour specials, a great menu, fireplace and pool table, as well as a large outdoor spa pool, shared kitchen and laundry facilities and any tour information you might need.
The staff are incredibly friendly and happy to help with any local tips or information you might need to make your stay a great experience.
WHAT TO DO
As mentioned, the top activity to do in Franz Josef is the Glacier Heli-Hike and trust me, it is worth every single cent! It's the steepest and fastest moving glacier in New Zealand and it's truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and an #NZMustDo.
Beginning at the Franz Josef Village glacier base, you will be briefed with all the tour information you need and get geared up with everything provided for you, including jacket, pants, gloves, boots, socks, crampons etc.
Then you get to experience a fun helicopter ride with the most amazing scenery that lands on the glacier itself.
Once all set with your crampons on, you are then guided on an incredible three-hour hike on the glacier by your professional and friendly guide.
They show you through the best and most beautiful parts of the glacier and tell you a lot of interesting facts and history about it as well.
Of course, there is plenty of time to take some Insta-worthy shots and soak in the magnificent surroundings around you.
I found the hike to be not too challenging, it is quite easy-going as you move at a fairly slow pace to be safe. The three hours spent on the ice went by so quickly - probably because I was having such a great time!
I was so glad to have stayed behind in Franz Josef to do it. My tour was cancelled due to high winds three days in a row, but on the fourth day, it was perfect conditions!
The weather is very hard to predict so I would advise being flexible with your dates if the Glacier Heli-Hike is something you really wish to do.
Glacier Thermal Hot Pools
If you do the Heli-Hike the entrance to the Glacier Thermal Hot Pools at the base is included in the cost, otherwise, you can pay separately.
Surrounded by rainforest, it's the perfect way to relax and rejuvenate after an exciting day of adventuring. There are three natural hot pools with different temperatures to suit any preferences.
They also have private spas, showers, lockers and even massage facilities onsite to make it an ultra experience.
Scenic hikes & walks
Franz Josef is spoiled for beautiful hikes and walks. If you may not be able to afford the Heli-Hike you can still hike pretty close to the glacier to get a good view of it.
The start of the hike carpark is 5 kilometres from the village centre. To save your legs until the real hiking begins, there is a shuttle bus service that will pick you up and drop you off at your accommodation for $12.50 both ways.
The hike to the glacier is 1.5 hours return plus there is a beautiful mirror lake walk that is 20 minutes return. You can also do a guided tour if you choose which you can book through Franz Josef Glacier Guides. You will learn a lot more about the area, walk through lush rainforests, get close to the glacier and get taken to a hidden waterfall.
|Spot some local wildlife - the native Kea is protected on the West Coast|
Those are the main activities that I enjoyed myself but there are so many other great ones on offer too including:
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
There are a few little bars and eateries around the township for you to take your pick, but one that I especially enjoyed eating at was Rainforest's own on-site restaurant and bar Monsoon.
From 7-9 pm they have happy hour specials with $5 beers, house wines and cocktails which you can enjoy on their deck for sunset or in front of the cosy fireplace.
They also have an excellent dinner menu where they specialise in gourmet woodfire pizzas, and their burger was one of the biggest and best of my life!
Another great option that I frequented for lunch is The Landing (a popular spot for a drink also). Our Stray bus driver recommended it to us and they do great food there and coffee and cake.
I had their soup of the day and eggs benedict (at different times), both dee-lish.
Summer is peak tourist season in New Zealand and the Heli-Hike is extremely popular and busy. If you're around during the shoulder months, why not go then? There is just as much chance of flying in winter as there is in summer and it's not too cold at all, especially when the sun is shining. I went in early June and it was a warm 13 degrees up there.
As mentioned earlier, I would recommend staying in Franz Josef for at least two nights if you are wanting to do the Glacier Heli-Hike. The weather at the top of a mountain is super unpredictable and tours can often be cancelled at the last minute.
If doing the Heli-Hike make sure to wear a pair of pants/trousers that aren't jeans. Jeans aren't allowed on the ice, nor are selfie/GoPro sticks. Wear your own thermal layers underneath and bring your sunglasses, everything else is provided.
If it's a wet day (as it often can be on the West Coast), grab an umbrella and browse the cute souvenir shops in town or bunk up in the local cinema to kill a few hours.
I was travelling the South Island with Stray's Ron Pass - a 2-3 week route that explores the best parts of the South Island, including Stewart Island!
More information about my incredible time travelling with Stray is coming very soon on the blog, stay tuned!
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Is hiking a glacier on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!