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Te Anau - and the Fiordland region it is part of - is perhaps New Zealand's most under-appreciated region (in terms of international tourist visits).

Areas of stunning beauty in an exquisite unspoiled natural setting evoke a very 'atmospheric' (some would say 'spiritual') aura to the region.

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What to See and Do in and around Te Anau

Fiordland :  New Zealand at its most unspoiled

Looking across Lake Te Anau, Fiordland

Lake Te Anau is the South Island's largest lake, and is in the middle of the Fiordland National Park, a World Heritage designated area of outstanding national beauty.

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links in the right hand column for more articles.


Te Anau is a place that too few international visitors spend much time in.

For sure, it is a small town and with little night life and limited dining opportunities, but if you wish to see areas of outstanding and pristine natural beauty, then you'll be delighted if you choose to spend a couple of nights in the Te Anau area.

Being as how you are probably going to be visiting Queenstown anyway, adding some time in Te Anau is relatively easy to do and well worth while.

Why Visit Te Anau

Most people will see Te Anau only very briefly as they drive through the small town on the way between Queenstown and Milford Sound.

A quick flash through does the town and the area it is located in insufficient justice.  There are several wonderful things to see and experience in the Te Anau area, and you could readily spend two or even three nights in Te Anau, taking in the major sights.

Te Anau is in the Fiordland region of New Zealand, and Fiordland itself is part of the massive 2.6 million hectare (6.4 million acres or 10,000 square miles) 'South West New Zealand' World Heritage region as an area of outstanding natural beauty - there had previously been multiple almost adjoining World Heritage areas in the south west of the South Island, and it seems UNESCO (who administers the World Heritage program) decided to simply lump them all together.

Getting to and from Te Anau

Most people will probably drive to Te Anau, and most people will drive either from Queenstown or Dunedin; even if these are not the places you start your journey from, they are probably places you'll pass through on the way to/from Te Anau.

Queenstown is 170 km (105 miles) from Te Anau.  The road is somewhat windy, so allow two hours or slightly more for the journey.

Queenstown is 290 km (180 miles) from Dunedin.  Allow close on four hours for that journey.

The last 58km (36 miles) of your journey will be the same, no matter where you come from - from Mossburn you'll continue west on Highway 94.

There is a small airport at Te Anau (city code TEU).

You can also travel to Te Anau via Intercity bus service, but not via train.  The nearest train station would be Christchurch.

Where to Stay in Te Anau

The small town of Te Anau has a population of about 2,000 - 3,000 local residents.  Reflecting the importance of tourism is that this small town has about 4,000 beds for guests in a mix of hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, farm stays, hostels, and just about any and every other type of accommodation option.

There's not much in the way of up market accommodation, with one notable exception.  Three miles out of Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound is the deluxe Fiordland Lodge.  This is a lovely place in a beautiful location, albeit with extravagant prices to match the extravagant quality of the experience.

Closer in to town there are a number of rather generic 'institutional' type hotels and motels.  We usually like to stay in motels while traveling around New Zealand - typically a motel unit is more spacious and may have some cooking facilities too (albeit with the tradeoff being there is probably no on-site restaurant).

Radfords Lakeview Motel is very centrally located and is reasonably well thought of.  Nearby is another popular choice, the Fiordland Lakeview Motel & Apartments, noted in particular for its spacious units.

Most of the other motels are of generally good quality, and you can evaluate them based on their Qualmark ratings.

A word of warning - if you're booking into a lake view property, do be certain as to if you are being guaranteed a room/unit with a lake view or not.  In a few cases, properties might have rooms facing in the opposite direction as well, and while they may be okay, they are probably not the experience and view you were expecting.

How Long to Stay in Te Anau

In reality, and whether it is fair or not, Te Anau is generally perceived as a 'B' level rather than 'A' level destination in New Zealand, and most people run out of time before spending sufficient time in the A level places, so few people spend as much time in Te Anau as they should, due to what they perceive as other 'better' places to spend more time in.

But if you do decide to stay in Te Anau, the minimum would be for two nights and ideally you should consider three nights.

Typically you'll arrive in the afternoon of the first day and night's stay.

We suggest making the next day a full day self-drive excursion to Milford Sound.  You would stay in Te Anau for a second night at the conclusion of this day of touring.

The next day could be a tour to Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound, with another overnight stay at the end of the day.  This would be the third night in Te Anau.

Most people would then choose to leave Te Anau and travel on somewhere else.  But if you wanted to spend a day relaxing in the beautiful scenery, and potentially enjoying some of the other activities offered in the region, then you could definitely add another day or more to your time in Fiordland.

What to See and Do in Te Anau

The focal point of Te Anau is its lake - Lake Te Anau - the largest lake in NZ's South Island.  Look over to the other side, and you are looking at extremely remote and almost unexplored country, much of which is protected reserve in which people are not allowed to visit.

Rumors occasionally appear, even nowadays, of the existence of presumably extinct creatures like the Moa (an ostrich-like flightless bird unique to New Zealand which reached a height of up to 12' and a weight of up to 500 lbs) but hunted to extinction for their feathers by Maori settlers, some hundreds of years ago.

Indeed, talking about the Maori settlers, there have also been rumors of 'lost tribes' of Maoris, living somewhere in the Fiordland region around Te Anau, undiscovered by modern man.  (Personal note :  I remember as a child in the early 1960s listening with eager fascination to a radio serial 'The Lost Tribe of Te Anau' that told a story about such a group of Maoris - the fact that the serial was produced by the person who was simultaneously NZ's leading producer of radio drama and also my father being mere icing on the cake!)

So there's a lot of atmosphere and aura around the Te Anau area.  It is a gorgeous inviting location on a sunny summery day and can be greatly appreciated as such.  But it is at its moodiest and most evocative when misty and overcast.  The mysteries come down from the hills and bush and reach almost into the town itself.

What follows are the 'big three' sightseeing activities you should consider during time in the Te Anau area.

Day Tour to Milford Sound

This is the most essential of the activities to experience in this area.  Although there are a number of tour operators that will drive you to Milford Sound and back, we recommend you drive yourself in your rental car.  If you drive the route yourself, you can stop along the way as you may wish, taking some of the spectacularly beautiful short walks into the nature and bush directly off the road (they are clearly signposted).

Yes, you definitely should go on some of the short trails off the road to some beautiful sights nearby.  It is a lovely journey to Milford Sound with much to appreciate.  Perhaps the most popular sight are the Mirror Lakes, almost halfway to Milford Sound from Te Anau, on the left hand side of the road.

A highlight of the route (and there are many highlights) is the Homer Tunnel, a one to two lane (!) tunnel with unlined (granite) rock walls, and steeply sloping down towards Milford Sound.

At some times of year traffic is controlled, so for 15 minutes or so traffic can flow in only one direction, then for the next quarter hour or so only in the other direction; at other times of year traffic can go both ways simultaneously.  These days the tunnel floor is sealed, and the interior is lit, but only a decade or two ago it was unsealed and unlit - that was an amazing experience going up or down the tunnel like a miner into a mine.

Ask where you're staying if the tunnel is operating on alternate turns or bid-directionally so you know how to plan your travel time to meet with whatever you have planned upon reaching Milford Sound.

The road was formerly gravel and unsealed for much of the way but now it is a good quality sealed road, albeit somewhat windy and hilly en route.  You are required to carry chains in your vehicle during an extended winter season each year, whether or not you might actually need to use them.  They can be rented from most of the garages in Te Anau.

(As an aside, if you look at a map, you'll see that the road to Milford Sound passes very close to the road that goes north-west up from Queenstown to Glenorchy and beyond.  There have been plans mooted to build an 11 km/7 mile tunnel to create a short-cut route from Queenstown to Milford Sound, reducing a 9 hour roundtrip journey to probably under 4 hours.)

(As a second aside, there are also plans for an ambitious cross-country multi-mode route from Queenstown to Te Anau, involving ATVs, catamarans and a monorail.  Wow.  A great plan, but we're not too sure it will ever proceed.)

At Milford Sound there are several different options to cruise the sound all the way out to the Tasman Sea and back.

This is a stunning cruise on such a grand scale it is quite impossible to appreciate the sheer size of the almost one mile high sheer cliffs towering up, and the sound that in places is a mile across.  Even massive ocean liners such as the QE2 look small when they sail up to the foot of the sound.

It is advisable to book a cruise in advance, and the lunch cruises are particularly popular.

There are also day hiking options, other tours around the area, flightseeing options, helicopter flights, kayaking, and even an underwater observatory that takes you down 35 ft below the surface of the water.

Due to a phenomenon known as 'Deep Water Emergence' caused by a layer of fresh water on top of the salt water, deep sea species of fish live unusually close to the surface in this area, allowing you to see specimens you might never see - in the wild - anywhere else.

Day Tour to Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound

Not far from Lake Te Anau is another lake of similar natural unspoiled beauty - Lake Manapouri.  A typical tour takes you first the 13 miles to Manapouri, and a launch trip takes you across the lake.

At the other side, you visit a hydro electric power station.  This is more interesting and unusual than you might first expect.  You go by coach deep into the bowels of the earth, via a 2.1 km (1.3 mile) spiral tunnel descending down through the rock, and emerging  to visit the underground hydro-electric power station that is powered by the water flowing out of Lake Manapouri.

After that, you'll travel over New Zealand's most expensive road (in terms of construction cost) - Wilmot Pass - and then down to Deep Cove at the start of Doubtful Sound, the deepest of the Fiordland's 13 fiords.

Its beauty is gentler than that of Milford Sound, and there is quite a different feeling in Doubtful Sound, where you are very conscious that you are incredibly far from civilization and its effects.

The tours like to stop the launch at one part of the journey, and you end up perfectly silent, apart perhaps from a slight lapping of water on the side of the boat, and maybe some bird calls in the distance.  But there are no sounds (or sights) of human civilization anywhere around you.  Such pure natural virgin bush forest.

This is a wonderful day tour that might sound similar to the Milford Sound experience but in reality is very different - so, yes, it does make sense to do both tours.

Because the tour requires you to travel across Lake Manapouri by boat, you can't do the tour in your own car, you need to participate in one of the organized day tours.

The Te Ana-au Glowworm Caves

On the far bank of Lake Te Anau are a series of living caves (ie they are still being carved out by the rushing waters that pass through them - they are only about 12,000 years old) known as the Te Ana-au caves.

These were discovered in 1948, and nowadays can be visited via launch from a jetty in downtown Te Anau, with scheduled tours departing several times a day.

Similar to the Waitomo Caves (which are not so much 'living' as the Te Ana-au caves) there are myriads of tiny glow-worm creatures lining the ceilings of the caves.  When the lights are out, the caves and the water beneath shimmers from their bio-luminiscence.

After a cruise across the lake, you are given a presentation about the caves and the glow-worms, then you go for a reasonably easy/accessible tour through the caves before returning.

Tours last about two and a half hours.  We usually do the evening tour - that allows us to squeeze another experience into a day as well as a visit to either Doubtful or Milford Sound.

Being as how it will always be dark in the caves (other than for the lights provided inside, of course), whatever the time of day or night, you're not really missing out on anything by doing a tour of the caves at night.

Other Things to See and Do

There's a lot more to see and do in and around Te Anau.

Some people travel to Te Anau as a starting point for one of New Zealand's famous multi-day hikes or treks.  The best known of these would be the Milford Track, and a not quite so well known one is the shorter Hollyford Track.

In both cases it is necessary to book for these walks well in advance (often six months or more during the most popular times).

As for other activities, there are plenty to choose from.  Jet boating (but the Queenstown jetboating is probably better), bike riding, boating and canoeing on the lake, fly fishing or hunting, scenic flights, scenic walks, kayaking, an underground trout observatory, a wildlife park, and probably lots of other things too.

For more information about Fiordland

See this website for the official Fiordland regional tourism website.

For more information about New Zealand

Click the links in the top right of this page for additional helpful information about travel to and in New Zealand.

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Originally published 3 Feb 2012, last update 30 May 2021

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