Elisabeth Easther explores the striking natural beauty of this West Coast gem.

Where is it?

On the West Coast of the South Island, 148km south of Greymouth.

Origin of name: Named in 1865 for Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria by the German explorer Julius von Haast. Although local Maori preferred the infinitely more poetical Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, which translates as "the tears of Hinehukatere".

Legend has it: The name Ka Roimata sprang from a tale about the great beauty Hinehukatere. She loved climbing in the mountains and one day persuaded her lover, Wawe, to go up with her. Wawe wasn't half the climber she was, but such was his love he'd have followed her anywhere, only an avalanche swept Wawe down the mountain where he perished. Hinehukatere was heartbroken and her tears flowed down the mountain, freezing to form the glacier.


Population: Three hundred and twenty permanent, with more than 250,000 visitors stopping by each a year.

Town slogan: From the mountain to the sea.

Town mascot: Got to be the glacier.

Gorges: The area used to be known as Waiho Gorge, because the main road's bridge goes across the river. When the bridge was first built the foolhardy could fly a small aeroplane beneath it, while now you can almost touch the river from the bridge, because of the shingle coming down the gorge.

Famous locals: The Graham brothers, Peter and Alex, were the first to guide visitors on the glacier back in about 1906.

Nailed it: Back in the day, guests would leave their boots outside their door overnight and the Grahams would drive hobnails into them to act as crampons, so the next day the visitors, decked out in bowler hats and tweed suits, could admire the sights.

Best website: glaciercountry.co.nz or westcoastnz.com.

Source of pride: The amazing backdrop — the town looks up at the Southern Alps and it's just five minutes to the mountain and 20 minutes to the beach.

Town fiestas: The South Westland Triathlon just keeps getting bigger. This year was the first Waiho Showdown, a charity boxing event that the locals hope will become regular.

Here for a short time? Most people will take a trip up to the glacier — you'd have to, wouldn't you?

Winging it: The West Coast Wildlife Centre is home to the rowi, the rarest kiwi in the world, and their breeding programme is working to bring them back from the brink of extinction.

Two out of three: Interestingly, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are two of only three glaciers in the world that change climate zone. The other one is in Patagonia.

Best place to take the kids: Take them kayaking with Glacier Country Kayaks — choose from two- to three-hour trips which include a paddle to the kiwi sanctuary on the far side of the lake.

Best park: Franz Josef backs on to Westland Tai Poutini National Park, which is just one big playground.

Playground: There's a small one by the community centre where kids can let off steam.

Best toilets: There are fully-automated facilities in town, although if you head up to one of the alpine huts, Centennial Hut is the loo with a view — leave the door open and look out to the glacier while you spend that penny.

Best walk: Alex Knob Track climbs up the valley's walls and takes about eight hours return, although it's temporarily closed after the big April storms. There's a shorter walk to the terminal face if you're in a hurry or check out the Tartare Tunnels where your efforts will be rewarded with glow worms. That's about 30 minutes each way, but the tunnels are up to 200m long so take a torch.

Best view: The lake, on a calm day, is like a mirror. Stunning.

Best place to pull over: Okarito, 20 minutes north, is the most beautiful beach. Stop to stretch the legs and admire the views all the way up to the Southern Alps.

Best swim: Glacier Hot Pools in town is perfect for a steamy soak or try the lake during the summer months when it warms to quite a pleasant temperature. The rope swings will make you feel like Tarzan.

Art gallery: Te Koha Gallery sells beautiful jade and woodcarvings. You can even take a lesson and carve your own jade pendant.

Tops for coffee: The Aviators Cafe is the place to go — they do wicked lunches, too.

Best bakery: Picnics Bakery is a European-style bakery run out of a garage, and they've designated Saturday as Doughnut Day, which is understandably very popular.

Best food: For five-star food check out Te Waonui. The Landing is also great.

Wet your whistle: Start at The Landing, move on to The Blue Ice Cafe, then trot over to 88 before letting your hair right down at the more rowdy Monsoon Bar.

Best mountain biking: Across Country Quad Bikes rents out bicycles for pottering around town, or check out the downhill tracks 5km north of town. It's not an official trail, but locals will point you in the right direction.

Best adventure: Take an Ice Explorer tour — chopper up to the glacier, walk around for about three hours, explore the crevasses, then fly back down to town.

Hot to trot: Go on a horse trek for amazing views from the saddle. Whether you're a novice or an expert, you can choose from one-, two- or three-hour rides.

Wildlife: The kiwi sanctuary on the backside of the lake is brilliant, while in the wild, you'll see deer, Himalayan tahr, chamois and lots of goats.

Safety warning: Respect all safety instructions and follow the rules — the barriers up the glacier are there for a reason.

Visitors say: Wow, wow, wow.

Locals say: You said it.

Thanks to Dale Burrows from Glacier Country Kayaks for sharing the wow.