People always ask me what my favorite place in the world to travel to is, and I always give different answers. I play fast and loose with the term “favorite,” if I’m being honest here. I have a lot of favorites. So could you stop asking me to choose?
But when it comes to New Zealand, the wild West Coast of the South Island will always have my heart. Here you have incredible coastlines, huge mountains, ancient forests, weird birds, and no people. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted! I’m sure it’s where I’ll end up living one day.
A three-hour drive north of Wanaka will bring you to Fox Glacier, my-go to West Coast spot. Glacier County is the most dynamic and impressive stretch of the west coast. Here you have two of the most unusual glaciers in the world, Fox and Franz Josef, which stretch down from the back of mighty Aoraki/Mt. Cook to the temperate rainforest below. Two beautiful rivers of ice, these glaciers are just incredible.
Home to the larger town of Franz Josef and the smaller town of Fox, I always stay in Fox because it has a more relaxed, local feel, with a lot of things to do nearby. I’m also good friends with many amazing locals here, who have always looked after me. Even after my breakup, I came here for a few weeks to recover. Fox heals.
From Ōkārito to Fox Glacier is probably one of the best stretches of coast I’ve ever come across. It’s unusual to see huge mountains so close to the sea.
Also, I don’t know about you guys, but even after ten years in New Zealand, I LOVE it when kiwis say the word “glacier.” It sounds so posh to us yanks. Glas-ee-uh. Like “classier” but with a “g” and, well, with a lot more class too.
Sure, I might have gone full native with my flippant use of words like “bin” and “rubbish.” Now I bandy about words like “garage” and “Nissan” like a true South Islander, and I say “wee” way too often. But even I, with all my bravado, have yet to say “glacier” like a local, even though I spend a good amount of time on glaciers. I just don’t think I can pull it off.
I’m so proud that you’ve followed this incredible stream-of-consciousness caption. Thank you. And if you find yourself in New Zealand, make sure you visit one of our 3,000 quickly-dwindling “GLAS-EE-UHS,” especially Fox Glacier, which is both my favorite and most easily accessible over on the west coast. Over and out MAH DAH-LINGS. (I swear I’m done being posh now); someone stop me.
To visit Fox Glacier while on your next New Zealand adventure is guaranteed to delight and surprise. Here are my must-do’s for an adventure here.
1. Go for a heli-hike on Fox Glacier
It’s no secret – I’ve been a fan of Fox Glacier pretty much since I moved to Wanaka. Peaceful yet serene, the town of Fox sits between the incredible Fox Glacier/Te Moeka o Tuawe and the Tasman Sea.
Here you have one of New Zealand’s most impressive glaciers as one of the most easily accessed glaciers in the world, which descends 13 kilometers down to 300 meters above sea level. As far back as the 1890’s Fox Glacier has been highlighted as a major tourist attraction, with the first guided glacier trips beginning in 1928.
Nowadays, we mainly access the glacier by helicopter (glaciers move a lot making their access tricky). Fox Glacier Guides is one of the OG tourism businesses on the South Island; their iconic heli-hikes on Fox Glacier are one of my must-dos on any trip to New Zealand. No experience is required, and they provide you with all the gear you need.
Just the helicopter flight up to the glacier is worth it on its own. Then you spend a few hours exploring the ice with a guide, checking out caves, views, tunnels, and crevasses. It’s so incredible; where else in the world can you do this? Visit Fox Glacier for an unforgettable adventure.
2. Visit Lake Matheson at sunrise
Stillness and serenity are two things I am always searching for in our busy world, yet so often beyond my reach. Except, of course, when I’m on New Zealand’s West Coast, where you can find both in abundance.
I look at the pictures from Lake Matheson and am immediately transported back to this beautiful place. I can smell the damp earthy air, feel the chill creep through my clothes, and hear the quiet birdsong as the day begins. Totally still and peaceful, I have this wildly popular place all to myself.
On a clear, still day, you get uninterrupted views of Aoraki / Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, reflecting in the lake. To visit Fox Glacier and skip this easy walk would be remiss.
3. Search for the rare kōtuku/white heron in Ōkārito
An iconic beach and lagoon, Ōkārito is New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland and home to some outstanding rare birds. 45 minutes from Fox Glacier, Ōkārito was once a bustling port town. Now it’s home to mostly birds, including the rare kōtuku/white heron.
If you love wildlife, you need to make sure to sign up for a morning trip to the famous lagoon with Okarito Eco Boat Tours. It’s the best way to experience the wetlands and their incredible nature. Over 3,000 hectares, Ōkārito is one of the best wetlands you can visit in New Zealand. You see so much on the water, from birds that live and feed in fresh and saltwater environments to wading birds and some of the rarest creatures in the country.
The kōtuku was almost hunted to extinction, with only four nests left by 1941. Considered somewhat stable, there are now around 100 to 120 birds left.
4. Stay at the Rainforest Motel and dine at Betsey Jane
Everything about Fox Glacier makes you feel welcome. Very much a small town with a homey vibe, Fox has plenty of spots to hang up your boots and chill out with friends.
My go-to accommodation is the Rainforest Motel, owned by a local family who is wonderful. Cozy and with everything you need, you can walk everywhere from here. Betsey Jane is a new restaurant nearby where I always end up for dinner.
5. Watch the sunset on Gillespies Beach
It’s hard to imagine that 150 years ago, during the Gold Rush, Gillespies Beach was home to eleven stores. Nowadays, it’s a long, black sand beach home to some seals.
Twenty kilometers west down a gravel road leads you to Gillespies Beach. The perfect place to watch the sunset, it’s one of my fave spots to go for a wander when I’m in Fox. Even in winter, it’s amazing to visit Fox Glacier
While you can’t see much of Fox Glacier itself from the center of town, the further you drive out of town towards Lake Matheson and Gillespies Beach, the better views you get of the Southern Alps.
6. Keep an eye out for kea
I will never not love the kea – New Zealand’s naughtiest bird.
Our rare alpine parrot, the kea usually are only found up in the mountains and at higher elevations. However, Fox Glacier is one of the only towns where kea descend to. Chaos usually ensues. In Fox, locals have learned to lock their rubbish bins and store things away from where kea can destroy them. Hunted near to extinction a century ago because of their destructive nature, their population is only starting to grow back.
Usually, guests on the heli-hikes will see kea flying around the glaciers, occasionally even landing on the ice. Beautiful yet cheeky, make sure your backpacks are zipped, and your things are hidden away when kea are about. I’ve seen them throw tramping boots off a cliff. Do not feed them.
7. Explore the ancient rainforest around Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier sits within the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Covering 1,320 square kilometers, it’s one of my favorite national parks in New Zealand. More than just big mountains and beautiful glaciers, the park encompasses some of New Zealand’s last preserved native temperate rainforest.
One walks into the bush in Fox will make you feel like you stepped right into Jurassic Park.
The valley around Fox Glacier is amazing, home to ancient podocarp rainforest. You can walk up the south side of the valley to get a glimpse of the glacier as well as New Zealand’s largest active landslide, Alpine Gardens, which has destroyed the old north side road, and walk to the glacier face. It’s a good reminder of how active nature can be and how little we can control it.
You can also go up on a guided e-bike and hike trip with Fox Glacier Guides to get the full scoop on the area, checking out secret spots.
8. Visit the kiwi sanctuary in Franz Josef
The rowi and the Haast tokoeka are the two most endangered kiwi in the world; with less than 600 of each bird remaining, you can only find them in this one corner of the West Coast. Rowi are only found around Ōkārito, while the tokoeka kiwi are found only around Haast.
The West Coast Wildlife Center runs in collaboration with DOC, and you can visit and see some of these kiwi up close and personal at the center or on one of their backstage tours. The largest kiwi hatching facility on the South Island, they work on conservation around these rare kiwi.
In the wild, because of predation, these kiwi are incredibly vulnerable, with 9 out of 10 chicks not surviving. Conservation workers remove the kiwi eggs from the wild and bring them back to the center. Here they hatch safely and are then raised before being released back to where they were found once they are big and strong enough to defend themselves.
9. Carve your own pounamu
Everyone I’ve met on the coast over the years has been amazing, and Jan is no exception. I’ve known her for a long time, from her days in Franz Josef. Now she runs her own studio, Te Koha, just out of town, where you can carve your own pounamu/greenstone. I’ve made many pounamu necklaces here with Jan over the years, most of which I have gifted to loved ones. While most people choose to carve the iconic green pounamu, I tend to choose the stunning aotea stone, which is often a beautiful shade of blue. ‘
Found in colors ranging from cloudy light green to deep emerald with different markings, pounamu was considered so significant by Māori that the South Island was named after it, Te-Wai-Pounamu meaning “the waters of greenstone.” It is treasured by Māori because it is strong and beautiful. It’s also a sign of power or status, as well as being considered sacred.
Of all the activities in the area, carving pounamu with Jan is often everyone’s favorite experience. It’s a beautiful way to bring back a piece of New Zealand home with you.
It’s never been a better time to visit Fox Glacier. Have you been here before? Is this the kind of place you’d visit? Share!