Glacier Country: The Destination Guaranteed to Keep Kids Away From Their Devices

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What every parent wants: A vacation that keeps kids entertained and away from their devices. Quality time, family memories and something new to spice up the vacation are all must-haves on our list, so head to a new place this summer: Glacier Country on the west coast of the South Island.

Beyond the list of helicopter rides to Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, you might be surprised to know that Glacier Country is a family-friendly vacation destination with a myriad of activities. What we loved the most was the ability to take our three year old on all of our adventures, including kayaking.

Nathan (8) and Kipton (6).  What every parent wants: A vacation that keeps kids entertained and away from their devices.

Jennifer Parkes/Supplied

Nathan (8) and Kipton (6). What every parent wants: A vacation that keeps kids entertained and away from their devices.

land of glaciers

Although it may take a bit of time to get here (it’s a five-hour drive from Christchurch or 3.5 hours from Wānaka), once you get to Franz Josef Township, in the heart of Glacier Country , all attractions and entertainment are just minutes away. walk from your accommodation. Even the township of Fox Glacier is only a 25 minute drive away.

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Children tasting wild bush tucker.

Jennifer Parkes/Supplied

Children tasting wild bush tucker.

Francois-Joseph Wilderness Tours

Glacier Country is full of some pretty special people, but Dale from Franz Josef Wilderness Tours is the one who ignited our bond with this land. Dale plays the humble Kiwi who walks in and does mahi. His passion for Franz Josef was simply inspiring.

We took the scenic cruise and walking tour of Lake Mapourika from Dale and were able to experience the most untouched wonderland. A walk to an island on a trail (cut by Dale himself) took us to kiwi burrows and some beautiful viewpoints, but what the kids connected with the most was tasting the wild bush tucker like horopito (a peppery tree that can add a citrus spice to your cooking).

The family on the scenic cruise on Lake Mapourika

Jennifer Parkes/Supplied

The family on the scenic cruise on Lake Mapourika

We were regaled with Maori legends, where the children learned about why the kiwi was chosen as the flightless bird and about the history of the area. What we thought was just a delightful cruise and ride on the lake left us with a deep attachment and desire to be kaitiaki of this land.

Franz Josef Wilderness Tours also offers stand-up paddleboard and kayak tours, as well as rentals to explore Lake Mapourika on your own.

Tunnels of Tartarus.  No child can say no to exploring a dark and spooky cave.

Jennifer Parkes/Supplied

Tunnels of Tartarus. No child can say no to exploring a dark and spooky cave.

Tunnels of the Tartars

Arm yourself with a headlamp, a raincoat and shoes that can get wet because you are going on your caving adventure. If you find it hard to get the kids excited for a walk then this one is for you because what kid can say no to exploring a dark and spooky cave.

This 3.6 km round-trip walk begins in the township of Franz Josef and climbs gently through the bush before opening into a steep gorge. Short and steep stairs will take you to the tunnels of Tartarus where you can go deep into the rock. Turn off your lights and see if you can spot any glowworms as well.

If that whets your appetite for family walks, also try the Callery Gorge Track (80 minutes round trip) or the Franz Josef Glacier Walk (the viewpoint is 30 minutes round trip).

Okarito Lagoon is the perfect place for beginner kayakers.

Jennifer Parkes/Supplied

Okarito Lagoon is the perfect place for beginner kayakers.

Okarito Kayaks

Adventurous activities with toddlers and preschoolers can be hard to come by, so I’ve got the best news for you. Okarito Kayaks has adapted its double kayaks to include a third seat, perfect for your youngster. I was beyond thrilled to learn that we could finally take our family of five together on a kayaking adventure.

Okarito Lagoon is the perfect place for beginner kayakers. Hunt the rare white heron in the large open lagoon before being transported to jungle-like wilderness in the multitude of hidden waterways.

Okarito Kayaks runs guided tours or opts for a two-hour rental like we did, which is great for young families. Say hello to Barry for us and tell him we sent you to try one of his homemade cookies too.

Fox Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier’s underrated little brother, Fox Glacier, should not be forgotten. Much quieter and more relaxing than Franz Josef and home to one of New Zealand’s most photographed lakes, it’s not to be missed. With only 30 minutes between these small towns, you can choose your base to explore the whole region.

Brunch at the appetizing Lake Matheson Café.

Jennifer Parkes/Supplied

Brunch at the appetizing Lake Matheson Café.

Matheson Lake

Enjoy the early rise of the children and a morning walk to Lake Matheson. On a clear day, this popular reflection lake is everything it’s meant to be. If the weather is calm you may be lucky enough to see the amazing reflections of Aoraki/Mt Cook and Horokoau/Mt Tasman shimmering in the lake. It’s the perfect place for a family photo.

Reflection Island’s main viewpoint is only a 35-40 minute walk away, or take the entire 90 minute loop to work up an appetite for brunch at the mouth-watering Lake Matheson Café. The Wanderers Grand Breakfast is a hearty offering, while those who like it sweet should say yes to waffles.

Sunset over Gillespies Beach.

Jennifer Parkes/Supplied

Sunset over Gillespies Beach.

Gillespies Beach

A sunset like you’ve never seen before is what you’ll get at Gillespies Beach. While a sunset over the horizon is a West Coast highlight, what makes this sunset simply amazing is the eruption of light you might see over the mountains.

I vividly remember watching the kids running on the beach in the last blazing light and just by chance I looked over my shoulder. What I discovered was the whole mountain range bathed in pink and orange, illuminated by the setting sun.

If you want to spend more time here, try the 3.5-hour round-trip walk to the Galway Beach Seal Colony or explore some of the rich history of gold mining on the Miners Tunnel Track.

With questionable cellphone reception here, kids will have no choice but to get back to nature. Build structures with driftwood, play rock games and bask in nature. Don’t forget the insect repellent.

The mountains bathed in pink and orange from Gillespies beach.

Jennifer Parkes/Supplied

The mountains bathed in pink and orange from Gillespies beach.

Explore the glaciers

A trip to Glacier Country wouldn’t be complete without a close-up of the glaciers. Families with young children can opt for a scenic flight with a snow landing, but if you have older children, this is where the fun begins.

Exploring the Fox Glacier on a helicopter ride is one of the best sightseeing experiences I’ve had in the country. First helicopter trip – tick! First walk in crampons – ticking! No experience is required and children from 9 years old are welcome. The ever-changing nature of this glacier means no two days on the ice are alike.

Take the family for a leisurely walk on the glacier, explore the vivid blue ice caves and intricate details of millions of years old ice. Or, if you’re up for a challenge, take your teens on the ultimate glacier experience: ice climbing. There’s nothing that says “family ties” more than clinging for dear life to an overhanging wall of ice.

Where to stay in Fox Glacier: Bella Vista Fox Glacier offers stunning one-bedroom units sleeping up to four (plus a travel cot if needed), steps from local restaurants and the nearby Glowworm Walk. Unlimited wi-fi is certainly appreciated for uploading all those great family photos.

Where to stay at François-Joseph Glacier: The Franz Josef Top 10 holiday park offers plenty of entertainment with its bouncing cushion, trampoline and playground. They offer accommodation for a range of budgets.

Families after a more luxurious stay will appreciate the Deluxe Spa Treehouse at the Rainforest Retreat. Sleeping up to six people, these two-bedroom treehouses have their own private spa pools and well-equipped kitchens including an oven and Nespresso machine.

Stay safe: New Zealand is currently under Covid-19 restrictions. Face coverings are mandatory on all flights and public transport. Proof of vaccination and vaccine exemption may be required in some public places under the traffic light system. Follow the instructions on covid19.govt.nz.

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