Exploring the Glaciers

Ask at the visitor center about the schedule for nature lectures, slide presentations, and guided walks — and see the excellent Flowing West movie at the Alpine Adventure Centre, Main Street, Franz Josef (tel. 03/752-0793), or at Fox Heli Services, Alpine Guides Building, Fox Glacier (tel. 03/751-0866). It runs daily continuously from 10:30am and it will take your breath away.

The visitor center administers the alpine and tramping huts available for overnight hikers, and keeps track of trampers and climbers as well — it is essential to check conditions and register your intentions before setting out. The center's displays give a complete rundown on the formation of glaciers, the movement of ice, the mountains, the history of the region, and more.

Sightseeing at the glaciers can be as costly or as inexpensive as your budget dictates. Several options can put a rather unfriendly hole in your budget, but these are among the most spectacular travel experiences in the world and are therefore worth every cent. If you'd rather, there are plenty of self-guided walks in the area, many of which give good views of the glaciers.

The silence of any fine morning in glacier country is ruptured by the frenetic buzz of helicopters, but it's one of the best ways to see and appreciate the natural splendor of this area. Equally amazing are the guided glacier walk or the heli-hike, which combines both.

The choice of what to do may not turn out to be as agonizing as you think — the weather could very easily decide for you. To say that the weather here is unpredictable is an understatement, and even when it appears fine and sunny on the ground, conditions up on the glacier may preclude a helicopter landing. If your time is short, take the first flight available lest you miss out.

Several operators offer glacier hikes. The Helicopter Line (tel. 0800/807-767 in NZ, 03/752-0767 in Franz Josef, or 751-0767 in Fox Glacier; www.helicopter.co.nz) is the biggest heli-tourism operator in New Zealand. Its most popular trip is the 30-minute twin glacier option with snow landing for NZ$315. Mention you saw them in Frommer's and you'll get a 10% discount when booking direct. Glacier Helicopters (tel. 0800/800-732 in NZ, 03/752-0755 in Franz Josef, or 751-0803 in Fox Glacier; www.glacierhelicopters.co.nz) has a 30-minute twin glacier trip with an 8- to 10-minute névé landing (atop the glacier) for NZ$315. They also give Frommer's readers a 10% discount when booking direct. Fox and Franz Josef Heliservices (tel. 0800/800-793 in NZ, 03/751-0866 in Fox Glacier, or 752-0793 in Franz Josef; www.scenic-flights.co.nz) also offers a comprehensive range of flights, with a 30-minute flight including a snow landing going for NZ$245. Remember that flight routes and snow landings are always weather dependent and at the pilot's discretion.

Another option that everyone raves about is the heli-hike, which you can do with either the Helicopter Line (on Franz Josef or Tasman glaciers) or Fox Glacier Guiding  44 Main Rd., Fox Glacier (tel. 0800/111-600 in NZ, or 03/751-0825; www.foxguides.co.nz). If you have deep pockets and love adventure, set NZ$450 aside for Fox Glacier Guiding's Flying Fox Heli Hike ($425 per child). They fly you to a glacier level of about 2,600 feet to spend up to 3 hours exploring spectacular ice formations. The helicopter then returns to pick you up. It's suitable for all fitness levels, but does require some agility.

Franz Josef Glacier Guides, 6 Main Rd., Franz Josef (tel. 0800/484-337 in NZ, or 03/752-0763; www.franzjosefglacier.com) offers glacier valley ecotours for NZ$79 for adults, NZ$65 for kids (no children 5 and under), ice climbs for $575, and heli-hike options from NZ$459.

Last but not least, Mount Cook Ski Planes  (tel. 0800/368-000 in NZ, 03/752-0714 on the West Coast, or 03/430-8034 at Mount Cook; www.mtcookskiplanes.com) offers a fabulous-value specialist experience. This is New Zealand's only fixed-wing glacier landing, and when you land up on the snow and the engines are switched off, you're in total silence. This makes for a very different experience compared to a helicopter glacier landing. The twin glacier excursion takes 30 minutes and costs NZ$350 for adults, NZ$260 children 5 to 15. The 50-minute Glacier Magic trip costs NZ$435 for adults and NZ$330 for children. This one will give you fantastic close-up views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, from both the eastern and western sides of the Southern Alps.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.