Try to allow more than a day in the region to increase your chance of clear weather. Otherwise, put your rain gear on and get out in it: Walking in the rain forest, or in those massive glacial valleys with waterfalls roaring down the sheer sides, is a special experience. Annual rainfall here ranges from more than 120 inches at the coast to an incredible 16 feet on the alpine summits. Huge volumes of snow are dumped each year, feeding the 140 glaciers. The snow is compressed into ice on the névé, or head, of the glaciers (New Zealanders say "glassy-urs"), then moves steadily downhill under its own weight. The best known and most visited glaciers are Franz Josef and Fox. If, however, you're driving through on a cloudy or wet day—quite likely!—you will get no idea of the size of the mountain ranges looming beside you. The main stopping places are small settlements near Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, the latter slightly larger. Both towns have solid tourist
infrastructures. The summer tourist rush means you should make reservations in advance for lodgings and restaurants, and in winter some places close. Check ahead. The glaciers are currently receding, but it's still possible to walk along the glacial valley for 20 or 40 minutes to viewpoints of Fox Glacier, although access might be closed depending on conditions. From the township drive about five minutes to the glacier car park. DOC rangers check conditions daily and post warnings about rock falls, ice dams bursting, and river surges. People who have ignored these warnings have died as a consequence. (Guided walks can be booked to walk farther in both glacial valleys, even if the ice has retreated it's fascinating to learn about the power of the rocky terrain left behind.) If self-driving, be wary at the car park of the mischievous kea (kee-ah)—mountain parrots—that may delight in destroying the rubber molding around car windows and eating left-open lunches. Their beaks are like can openers. Kea are harmless to humans, but don't encourage them, or potentially harm them, by feeding them. Alternatively, you can drive from Fox township, toward the coast on Cook Flat Road along the broad Cook River flats, and after about 4 km (2½ miles) enjoy a roadside view of the glacier (weather permitting).
There are other options for glacier viewing, especially if you're really keen to actually touch the white stuff. You can fly over them in helicopters or planes and land on the stable névé, or hike on them with guides. Remember that these structures are always in motion—an ice cave that was visible yesterday might today be smashed under tons of ice that used to be just uphill of it. Likewise, some of the fascinating formations that you see on the surface of the glacier were fairly recently at the very bottom of it higher up in the valley. Danger comes with this unstable territory; guides know the hazardous areas to avoid.
For the most part, flights are best early in the morning, when visibility tends to be clearest. Summer may be warmer and by far the busiest season, but there is a great deal more rain and fog that can scuttle flightseeing and hiking plans. In winter, snow doesn't fall at sea level in Franz Josef or Fox; in fact, in winter this area is a lot warmer than the snow resort towns east of the Southern Alps. Skies are clearer, which means fewer canceled flights and glacier hikes, and more spectacular views.
Whatever the season, spare just 22 minutes to see Flowing West, a stunning movie about the glaciers shown on a giant Helimax screen. You'll take an armchair ride from the peaks of Aoraki/Mt. Cook, over the glaciers and rain forests to the Tasman Sea. See it at the Alpine Adventure Centre, Franz Josef, several screenings daily (NZ$12).
Outside the town of Fox Glacier, the walk around Lake Matheson leads to one of the country's most famous views. A walking trail winds along the lakeshore to where the snowcapped peaks of Aoraki/Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman are reflected in the water. Allow at least three hours for the complete walk from town to the "view of views" and back. The best times are sunrise and sunset, when the mirrorlike reflections are less likely to be fractured by the wind.
Traveling south of the national park, the road continues through grand natural landscapes. Look for the forest-framed views of Lakes Paringa and Moeraki, then 2 km (1 mile) or so south of Moeraki the ocean view over the rock stacks at Knights Point. (A lookout platform here was damaged in a 2013 storm, but the view remains!) Farther south, between Moeraki and Haast, be sure to stop and explore the walkways, wetlands, and beach at Ship Creek. There are few places where ancient rain forest grows so close to the coast as it does here. And check the waves—Hector's dolphins are sometimes seen surfing close to shore. Sand flies here can be voracious, so bring insect repellent and hope for a windy day (there are fewer sand flies in winter). For weather conditions and other current information visit the Fox Glacier Visitor Centre, and Franz Josef Glacier i-SITE Visitor Information and DOC Centre, both on State Highway 6.
West Coast Wildlife Centre. Whether you make it to Okarito to see the rarest kiwi, Rowi, in their natural habitat, the opportunity to see firsthand the Department of Conservation's successful breeding program of this species is quite special. The West Coast Wildlife Centre is a public-private partnership helping to build up the threatened kiwi population. Kiwi eggs are taken from their nests and incubated and hatched at the Centre, safe from predator animals such as stoats and rats, then the chicks are raised in protected nursery areas and released back into the wild once they are able to defend themselves. You can simply wander through the Nocturnal House to see a few Rowi on display (wait a few moments on entering to let your eyes adjust to the deep gloom—these guys are truly nocturnal). However the best option is to join the Kiwi Backstage Tour to witness the incubation and rearing program—and if your timing is lucky, perhaps a hatching chick. There's also a gift shop, café, and free Wi-Fi. Corner of Cron and Cowan Sts., Franz Josef, 7856. 03/752–0600. www.wildkiwi.co.nz. NZ$30; NZ$50 for Backstage Pass Tour.