to See and Do in and around Te Anau
Fiordland : New Zealand at its most unspoiled
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
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Motel is very centrally located and is reasonably well
thought of. Nearby is another popular choice, the
Motel & Apartments, noted in particular for its spacious
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
For more information about Fiordland
See this website
for the official Fiordland regional tourism website.
For more information about New
Click the links in the top
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3 Feb 2012, last update
21 Jul 2020