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The South Island of New Zealand is spectacularly beautiful with mountains leading right down to the ocean. The west coast drive is amazing. We recommend that our clients take a couple of days to see this region. From Stonefly and Owen River Lodges, the drive all the way to Queenstown is about eight hours, but we always suggest an overnight at Franz Josef or Fox Glacier to make it a comfortable two-day journey with lots of time for hikes and photos along the way.
A second option to access the coast is from Christchurch. There’s a daily scenic train that traverses the Southern Alps departing in the morning and arriving in Greymouth around lunchtime. A car can be picked up there for the drive. Speaking of Greymouth, it is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Owen River Lodge and a nice place to stop for lunch en route to the glaciers. We went to Speights Ale House, which has great sandwiches, fish and a french-fry fix (we needed that!). Speights is one of the original breweries in New Zealand dating back to 1876 when it was established during the gold rush. They have a wonderful variety of beers. We recommend Gold Medal Ale.
We then made our way another two hours to Franz Josef, a funky tourist town dedicated to the glaciers in the area. We stayed at Te Waonui Forest Retreat which is the nicest hotel in the region. The staff was super accommodating and eager to please. The hotel has natural hot spring pools, spacious and comfortable rooms and it is right in town so you can walk to all of the nearby pubs and stores. On the culinary front, however, we felt that the hotel was over-ambitious with a five-course tasting menu. We suggest that our clients only do the bed and breakfast package and then dine out at one of the pubs or cafés. The town has an eclectic international mix of hikers, ice climbers, tourists and adventurists.
The South Island has 3,155 glaciers of at least one hectare and they are studied in conjunction with other countries on climate change. The two largest glaciers in this area are Franz Josef and Fox. At 13 kilometers, Fox Glacier is the longest of the awe-inspiring New Zealand west coast glaciers. At its head, soaring peaks of more than 10,000 feet dominate the vista. These include Aoraki (Mt. Cook) and Mt. Tasman. This mighty moving river of ice falls a little more than 8,000 feet on its journey from the base of the Southern Alps to the west coast. The second biggest of the west coast glaciers is Franz Josef Glacier, at 10 kilometers long. The Franz Josef Glacier flows in a northwest direction and travels over quite a steep gradient.
New Zealand’s west coast glaciers are amazing and probably the most accessible glaciers in the world, as they terminate amongst the temperate rainforest just 250 meters above sea level. This special mountain environment forms part of the South Westland World Heritage Area. We hiked at both locations prior to traveling down to Queenstown.
The drive both days provided amazing mountain vistas and dramatic ocean scenery with remote beaches and crashing waves. We stopped in Haast for lunch at a great small cafe. One of the world’s most unique food trucks was there as well where we enjoyed some coffee on what was by far the nicest weather day we experienced on the South Island.
Queenstown awaits us and we look forward to our three nights there!
By: Mike Jr. and Kristene Fitzgerald