I feel like I’ve made you wait long enough to hear about the first stop on my Contiki Tour so I’m just going to dive straight in…
So, Franz Josef. A small town on the West Coast of NZ, famous for it’s Glacier – aptly named Franz Josef Glacier – and, I’m not gonna lie, not the best place I visited in New Zealand. Don’t get me wrong, it was stunningly beautiful. But it was just so damp and misty and miserable that it was hard to get over-excited about a glacier shrouded in dense mist (even though it did create a beautiful, ethereal affect). However, the miserable weather did not stop us having a whale of a time.
I must admit, as a virgin solo traveler and a first-timer to the whole organised tour experience, the Rainforest Retreat (our accommodation in Franz) was a bit of a shock. Now, I know staying in a hostel, camping etc etc is far worse than staying in a hotel and I am risking sounding like a spoiled brat here but bear with me. There were four of us to a room in Franz, sharing a tiny room with 2 bunk beds and a tiny bathroom. Four girls, one bathroom. It’s already a recipe for disaster (or every man’s fantasy). Anyway, I was reassured by Holly (my Contiki bestie who had been on the tour in the North island) that this was the worst accommodation they’d had so it could only get better from here.
However, the room had 3 major problems. Firstly, the beds were comfy, but they had absolutely no side rail to them. I had to borrow Sophie’s (my other Contiki bestie) luggage strap to strap myself to the top bunk in order to stop myself falling to my death in the night. I kid you not, I was lying there with a luggage strap round my waist, attached to the side of the bed. Holly, on the other hand, opted to strap herself to the bed using her sheet. It was an odd sight to say the least. Secondly, because Franz Josef is so damp anyway, and our room had no ventilation, when we showered the room essentially became a rain-forest. Like, the beds became damp, all our clothes were damp, EVERYTHING was damp and for the whole two days didn’t dry out. That room seriously needed a dehumidifier. Thirdly, the electric heater was attached really high up on the wall so when we turned it on Holly and I (on the top bunks) were toasty warm (actually far too warm), but Sophie and our fourth room mate, Dimitra, were still freezing cold. So, there were Holly and I wearing as little clothing as possible, strapped to our beds (good God when I put it like that it really sounds ridiculously dodgy) and Sophie and Dimitra were freezing cold, wearing as many layers as possible and wondering why the fuck we wouldn’t just keep the heater on. Sophie, bless her, managed to see the funny side and her, Holly and I spent a good 20 minutes laughing uproariously about the total and utter ridiculousness of the situation. Dimitra, on the other hand, did not find it amusing in the slightest and looked horrified as we three cackled away. It’s safe to say she didn’t share a room with us after Franz. But, on the plus side – the rooming experience in Franz really bonded Holly, Sophie and I.
Anyway, the morning after the strap/heater/manic laughter incident, Holly and I decided to seize the day and get out to the Glacier as soon as possible (well, to be honest I didn’t really have much choice as jet lag woke me at 5am but that’s beside the point). The only way to physically get onto the Glacier is by helicopter, and there are various tour companies running helicopter tours onto Franz and Fox Glacier for prices starting from $300 up to $500. My parents did this when they went to NZ and apparently it’s absolutely incredible. However, what the tour companies don’t tell you is that, due to the inclement weather, they only manage to conduct helicopter trips about 50 times a year. Due to safety, if visibility is bad in any case your tour will get cancelled so bear that in mind. There is, however, a way to see the Glacier but not actually get on it – the Glacier walk. There is a shuttle service, costing $12, running about 4 times a day from Franz Josef town to the start of the Glacier walk, and we caught the 8.45am shuttle. I would thoroughly recommend the Glacier walk – it takes you through a stunning valley with waterfalls and streams and incredible scenery right up to the base of the Glacier. For someone who was suffering extreme jet lag, this was the perfect way to clear my head and open my eyes to the extreme beauty NZ possesses. Sure, it pissed it down with rain for the whole walk, but it didn’t matter because it was just so spectacular. Sadly, one day Franz Josef Glacier will retreat so far back you will no longer be able to see it without going on a heli-trip, and one day it will be gone for good so I would recommend going and seeing it whilst you can.
On the other hand, my afternoon was dedicated to thrills. In Franz Josef I had my first ever quad-biking (or ATV) experience and it was hilarious to say the least. We either had the option of driving an ATV or being a passenger on one. And, as a big bunch of us from Contiki were doing it, we all paired up according to who was driving and who was a passenger. I decided to be a passenger (not that I really had much choice in the matter as it turned out that I failed the driving test, which was essentially just showing the guide you could weave the ATV through cones – something I found impossible). Now, I’m not an adrenaline junkie. In fact, most things that go fast, or plummet you or do anything remotely dangerous scare the absolute shit out of me. For this reason, I sought out a driver who would be considerate enough to not be a complete crazy twat and flip the ATV over thus crushing/burning us to death. My friend Mitch stepped up to this task in a very valiant manner, but, despite his careful driving, I still managed to scream my way round the entire track much to the amusement of everyone else taking part. Despite my blood-curdling screams of fear as visions of a burning ATV sprang to mind, I actually had a really good time. And, the added bonus was that it was a great way to see more of the stunning countryside in Franz. At $69 for a passenger ride it was well worth it.
After the quad-biking I really needed something to relax me, and what better way than with a couple of hours at Franz Josef’s hot pools? Our hotel had it’s own ‘spa pool’ but our Contiki tour guide, Monique, warned us not to go in there unless we wanted to catch a horrible disease. So we took her word very seriously and instead opted for the (hopefully) disease-free pools. There are three pools, one at 36 degrees, one at 38 degrees and one at 40 degrees, costing $26 for a standard adult ticket. They’re outside, so initially it’s freezing walking from the changing rooms into the pool, but once you’re in them it’s genuinely one of the most relaxing things I have ever done. The pools are all protected by white canopy, but you can still hear the rain pattering down and there’s greenery around you. After the busyness of the days activities it was utter utter bliss.
We passed an enjoyable couple of hours in the hot pools, before heading out for dinner in Franz town. I’m sorry to disappoint you but, due to jet lag and how knackering my day had been I didn’t get up to any serious partying in Franz Josef – but tales of drinking and debauchery are all to come when I regale you with my time in Queenstown over the next couple of posts.
In summary: Franz Josef is well worth a couple nights stay and I truly feel I did the best activities it had to offer (obviously heli-hiking would have been the very best option but weather cannot be controlled). I wouldn’t stay any longer but would definitely go back, if I got the chance, just to see that beautiful Glacier again. Although I would stay in a different hotel.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, please feel free to leave a comment! See you next week for Queenstown tales!