Franz Josef – Seeing Glaciers

Just when I thought New Zealand couldn’t get cooler I was proven wrong. We went from sailing in the sun to mountains and glaciers in one day’s drive. The township of Franz Josef is in the middle of the rainforest, but it also features a massive glacier. It’s is the weirdest oxymoron. Each year the glacier is “retreating” further, i.e. getting smaller, and they placed plaques throughout the walk so you are able to see how significant of a change has taken place. I’m not sure how anyone can say that climate change isn’t a thing while seeing first hand the drastic change that has occurred in just a few years.

The only way to actually access the glacier is with via helicopter. They had scenic rides available to get a bird’s eye view of the area or you could actually access the glacier and do a heli-hike or heli-climb. I was scheduled to do a heli-hike the morning after we arrived. Unfortunately, the clouds that day were not in our favor and they cancelled all flights for safety reasons. We were told this happens 70% of the time and so I guess the odds were not in our favor. We persisted in trying and went to another company and even a neighboring glacier, Fox Glacier, to do the hike there, but no luck. Although, we were disappointed I was extremely impressed by how careful the companies were – it really wasn’t about the money to them. Not being able to go on to the actually glacier was a bummer, but that day consisted of two hikes/walks and seeing the two glaciers – Franz Josef and Fox. It’s not every day you can say you saw two glaciers. 

So I’m adding Franz Josef to my list of places to revisit. 

Accommodation – Rainforest Retreat 

Possibly one of my favorite accommodation stops to date.  There were great vibes from the second we walked onto the property. We were greeted warmly. We had the option to choosing your own roommates. The first night they had a great pizza party deal – I didn’t partake, but everyone that did enjoyed it. Our second night another Stray bus was coming in, as well as a Contiki tour, so it was going to be a party night. We treated ourselves to dinner at Moonson and then had a couple of drinks to pity ourselves for the heli-hike cancelations that day. It was a great night and the best part was just walking back to our rooms. 

The Rainforest Retreat also had a hot tub and sauna to use. It was a nice getaway spot that I would recommend. They had private little cabins, hotel rooms, and of course the backpacker geared dorm rooms. 

Kia Ora South Island

The South Island of New Zealand is probably what you imagine when you think of NZ. If you have a short amount of time (under two weeks) to travel this is probably where you will go. It has some beaches, although not as breathtaking as the North’s; mountains, major cities, and everything in between. The rolling green hills and volcanic views of the North Island are exchanged for mountains and alpine landscapes on the South Island. 

We took the ferry over from Wellington to Picton. It was about a three-hour scenic ride across the Cook Strait. The ferry reminded me of the one from Ireland to England – even featuring a movie theater. I was reunited with some of my travel buddies at the ferry and met the new group. 

After a couple of pitstops, our final destination for the night was Marahau. On the way there we stopped in Picton and Nelson. Nelson is a beautiful costal town known for its sunshine and chill vibes. If I did the route again I would have stopped by for a night in Nelson. This area is part of the Marlborough vineyard region so naturally we stopped for a wine tasting. For $5 we tried 4-5 wines and then if we bought any there was a $5 discount – so as our driver stated, “it was like making money.” My favorite wine at the tasting was surprisingly for me a Sauvignon Blanc. 

After the wine tasting we continued on to Marahau. This is a remote little town on the edge of Abel Tasman National Park. Marahau was so remote that there was no cell phone reception and really poor Wi-Fi. For the first night’s dinner we cooked as a group and with the lack of cell service everyone was hanging out, playing card games, sitting by the fire, etc. It was a lovely evening and a great way to kick off the South Island adventure. 

The next morning we split off into our activities. There was the option to kayak, canyoning, skydiving, or sailing. I was so close to going canyoning and after hearing everyone’s experience it’s on my list for when I get back to New Zealand. I spent my day sailing through the park on a catamaran and then hiking back. We were told we lucked out on the weather and that the day before was unbearably windy. The crystal clear water and views throughout the cruise were stunning. We even saw some wild seals in their natural habitat. The majority of the passengers on the catamaran were fellow Stray travelers so again it was a fun time getting to know each other. After the cruise our group had lunch on the beach and just hung out for a bit before embarking on the hike back. It was honestly the perfect day. Marahau and/or the surrounding town of would definitely be somewhere I could have spent more time in as well (I’m sensing a pattern here). If we are keeping a running list of where I would stay longer on the South Island so far it includes Nelson and Marahau.

Accommodation – The Barn

We were in a remote area, but the accommodation was really nice. There were a block of cabins with six single beds (no bunks yay), a great kitchen/dining area, outdoor space, and even a movie room. Obviously, the best part was that the property really was steps away from the Abel Tasman and this was as close as you could stay. I highly recommend this stop and would gladly stay here again. 

I randomly bumped into two people I had separated with right before Christmas, which was a pleasant surprise. They had hopped off here because they fell in love with the area and I totally see why.

New Zealand – First Impressions

I’ve had “ring in the New Year in New Zealand” on my bucket list since 2015 when I met a Kiwi (someone from NZ) in London. She marveled how awesome the festivals and celebrations were for New Years. Given NZ’s location it’s one of the first places on earth to ring in the New Year. Rhythm & Vines is a known music festival that has the first sunrise of the New Year. So I knew that during my time in the Southern Hemisphere I wanted to spend some time in NZ. I was so looking forward to some adventure. With the bush fires going on in Sydney/New South Wales (“NSW”) I also couldn’t wait for the fresh, open air.

My flight was from Sydney to Auckland, and unfortunately around the time of my flight the volcano erupted about 150 miles off the east coast of the North Island. Beyond a little delay I wasn’t impacted whatsoever, but my friends/family were not at ease. My thoughts go out to everyone who was directly impacted and hope families get answers soon.

I arrived in Auckland in the late afternoon and after checking into my hostel I went out to walk around a little bit. I noticed how small of a city Auckland was and although over 1/3 of NZ’s population lives here it wasn’t overtaken by huge skyscrapers. The city still felt open and when looking out into the distances you can see hills and bodies of water. Here are some other things I’ve noticed:

  • Strangely enough there were so many American fast food chain restaurants/stores that are even missing from Australia (Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, actual Burger King, PitaPit, The Body Shop, Carl’s Jr., etc.), but the chains do not make NZ feel at all like the states or anywhere else I’ve been.
  • I think it’s very quiet even in the busiest places at the busiest times (like business district during rush hour). I think that’s because there aren’t that many people living here. More people live in Sydney or NYC compared to the entire population of NZ (~4.78 million).
  • The rolling hills, beautiful beaches, and so many adventure activities have already won me over. There’s so much to do and see.
  • Compared to NYC and Sydney I find that New Zealand is less expensive so far.
  • The drinking laws aren’t as strict here as in NSW. Everyone is so nice.
  • It’s chillier here than Australia because it’s closer to the equator, but the sun feels stronger.
  • People are really nice. Like kind of catches you off guard by how nice they are.

Travel Plans

I have booked my travel in NZ through Stray Travel. It’s kind of a hands off, hop on/hop off tour company. Their main purpose is to get you from Point A to Point B. Then you choose where you want to stay, for how long, what you want to do, etc. It let’s you be flexible with your travel and totally customize your trip.

New Zealand is made up of two islands (North and South). I’m doing North Island before New Years and ending the year at Rhythm & Vines music festival. Then I will embark on the South Island in January for a few weeks before heading back to Australia.