New Zealand

24 Hours in Te Anau

by Layla Turner  |  Published February 3, 2022

A beauty in its own right, the picturesque town of Te Anau is a popular stopover point for Milford Sound cruise-goers and long-haul trampers or hikers. Fiordland is one of the earth’s last natural wildernesses and the quaint township of Te Anau lives in a little pocket of this this enchanting uninhabited region.

Ariel shot of Te Anau town (Photo: Stephen Colebourne via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Situated in the Southland part of New Zealand’s South Island, Te Anau huddles the eastern shore of Lake Te Anau – at 348 sq km area and 61 km long the largest lake in the South Island and the second largest lake in New Zealand. Lake Te Anau is the hub of most of the activity in Te Anau, flanked by dense forest on its western side and serving as a stunning backdrop to the Murchison and Kepler mountain ranges.

The settlement town of Te Anau was developed in 1953, after the opening of the Homer Tunnel and the Milford Road route which connects Te Anau to Milford Sound. The town was named after the lake, and Māori legend talks about a cave on the water full of swirling light. Early accounts of the name meaning ‘Te Anau’ were interpreted as ‘Te Anau-au’, Te: the; Anau: cave; Au: swirling and this referred to a torrent that ran through the mythical cave. The cave was then rediscovered in 1948 and was found to be full of Puratoke (glow-worms), which are now known as Te Anau Glow-Worm caves – a popular tourist attraction.

A scenic view of Lake Te Anau (Photo: Layla Turner)

Fiordland is a rugged expansive of wilderness known as the gateway to Milford Sound – once described as the Eighth Wonder of The World, and is only a two-hour scenic drive from Te Anau. Three of New Zealand’s famed Great Walks – the Kepler Track, the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track – are all also easily accessible from Te Anau, and so the town is popular with hikers who use it as a base when hiking these multi-day tracks.

A remote and rugged region, Fiordland National Park is a waterfall and fiord-filled natural wonder, all gouged out by glaciers thousands of years ago. The formation of this stunning landscape was nothing short of mind-blowing. Also known as a ‘Sound’ – but collectively known as ‘Fiords’ – many long-fingered fiords spider their way from the coast into the ranges. The most well-known are Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and Dusky Sound.

The picturesque surroundings of Fiordland National Park (Photo: Layla Turner)

In the early 1800s Sealers and Whalers formed the first European settlements there, and were very active in the Fiordland area, almost hunting New Zealand Fur Seals to extinction. Since then massive conservation efforts have meant that, today, all of the rocky fiords are once again speckled with resident Fur Seals and Sea Birds. Most of Fiordland consists of hardy granite rocks, and in Maori legend, the demi-god Tuterakiwhanoa is said to have carved the rugged landscape from a formless rock.

Te Anau embraces its rainy wonderland weather which is gifted to it by the climate of the surrounding Fiordland region. Being located in the ‘roaring forties’ means Fiordlands’ fickle weather is often relentless and it is one of the wettest places in the world. Fiordland’s weather is part of what gives Te Anau its individuality, and although the town will receive rain on most days of the year, its soft temperatures and abundance of misty, mountain views make up for it.

Lake Te Anau Jetty at Sunset (Photo: Layla Turner)

Te Anau may not be as well known as its larger neighbours Queenstown or Wanaka, but it has plenty to offer visitors nonetheless. The town’s proximity to Milford Sound and three of New Zealand’s Great Walks helps it attract large number of tourists every year. And in a rural town of only 2,750 residents, visitors will find over 4,000 beds available in the summer months. Even so, Te Anau’s charm often gets overlooked and visitors who add it to their itinerary will certainly be glad they made time to appreciate the serene and captivating vibe of this lakeside town.

Places to Stay

Aden Motel

A guest room at Aden Motel (Photo: Courtesy of Aden Motel)

Awarded the Trip Advisor 2020 Travellers Choice Awards, Aden Motel (57-59 Quintin Drive, Te Anau, Fiordland) is a family-owned motel, located a two-minute walk from Lake Te Anau and 10 minutes’ walk from the town. All of its guest units are ground-floor, fully-equipped and range from studio to two-bedrooms, each recently renovated and some with mountain views. Proudly environmentally-friendly, the owners of Aden Motel also keep their accommodation chemical-free and as natural as the crisp mountain-air.

For a more affordable lakefront option, Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers (48 – 50 Lakefront Drive, Te Anau, Fiordland) has a collection of budget accommodation to suit any type of adventurer, including cabins, glamping tents and backpacker rooms. Rooms are comfortable, spacious and modern and the lake-facing lounge has stunning views. The outdoor deck and garden used for barbequing or socialising have a homely ambience. Enveloped by trees and native Tui’s and Bellbirds and a short walk from town, this accommodation is homely and nature-filled.

An interior shot of Fiordland Lodge (Photo: John M via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

For the refined traveller, Fiordland Lodge (472 Te Anau Milford Highway, Te Anau, Fiordland), rests on a small hill on the edge of Lake Te Anau and offers elegance, comfort and privacy in luxury lodge rooms. All rooms expand out onto the lawn and have uninterrupted views of Lake Te Anau and the Murchison and Kepler mountains. The natural landscape is reflected in the lodges’ open architecture and décor, with king-size beds, fireplaces, high ceilings, huge windows and kauri furnishings.

Restaurants & Cafés

A view of Redcliff Restaurant (Photo: Redcliff Restaurant)

For fine dining, try the Redcliff Restaurant and Bar (12 Mokonui Street, Te Anau, Fiordland), which serves up authentic New Zealand contemporary cuisine matched with high-quality local Central Otago Wines. Redcliff Restaurant has been awarded consistently for excellence in their Beef & Lamb standards. Customers dine in an early settler’s cottage setting, next to Lake Te Anau with a rustic and charming ambience, showcasing local memorabilia from Te Anau, Milford Sound and the Lord of The Rings movies. There’s also weekly live music from local bands, which adds to the character of this iconic eatery.

At Sandfly Café (9 The Lane, Te Anau, Fiordland), you’ll discover mountain views and a mellow vibe to enjoy with your flat white. Superbly crafted coffee and delectable sweet treats are the pull factor for this locally-loved rustic café. Salted Caramel Lattes and Cinnamon buns are highly rated among customers and the outstanding view combine to create a unique setting in which to enjoy a coffee and cake. There are ample gluten-free menu options and the fresh, flavoursome breakfast menu entices large weekend brunching crowds.

An exterior view of The Fat Duck (Photo: Courtesy of The Fat Duck Gastropub)

In the heart of Te Anau Township is The Fat Duck (124 Town Centre, Te Anau, Fiordland) a much-loved restaurant serving gastropub cuisine and happy hour drinks. Here you’ll find a casual and family-friendly ambience complete with giant bean-bags to sink into during the summer months. Cold beers are aplenty, and their extensive range includes bational favourites such as Speights and Macs.

Tucked away off the high street and situated in the place of Te Anau’s original and very first Police Residence, Olive Tree Café – (52 Town Centre, Te Anau, Fiordland) is a well-worn, popular Kiwiana style venue serving generous portions of hearty, homemade cuisine and excellent coffee. Much more than a café, expertly cooked Steaks, Lamb Shanks and Eggs Benedict are a few of the winning menu choices here. The friendly staff will accommodate vegetarian and gluten-free options with ease and will even provide made-to-order lunches for visitors going on day excursions. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, with a Nana’s Knitting Corner, local artworks for sale and an alfresco seating area for sunnier days.

Outdoor Activities

Kayaking on Lake Te Anau (Photo: Layla Turner)

Te Anau is known as the ‘Gateway to Fiordland’ leading to the legendary Milford Sound. Fiordland National Park is one of the world’s great wilderness regions, known for its spectacular scenery and as the walking capital of the world. Although the town has corridors that lead to the epitome of the ‘rugged outdoors’, Te Anau itself has many outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, boating, fishing and lake activities.

The pinnacle of visiting Fiordland or Te Anau is undoubtedly embarking on a Milford Sound Day Tour and Cruise (Te Anau Visitor Centre or Milford Sound Visitor Terminal). Dependent on where you stay, some cruises will include the two-hour drive from Te Anau, which will take you through the dramatic scenery of Fiordland National Park. Visitors will be enthralled by mist-shrouded majestic mountains, snow-capped peaks, tawny tussock-lined valleys and endless sparkling waterfalls that punctuate the mountains.

While cruising the length of the fiord out to the Tasman Sea, you’ll stop at points of interest such as the majestic Mitre Peak, which is surrounded by the spectacular high waterfalls of Stirling Falls, Bowen Falls and countless smaller, shimmering waterfalls that tumble on all sides of the fiord. Ancient, primeval forest hugs the mountains and perched on the rocks you’ll glimpse Fur Seals, Penguins and native Sea Birds. Wild dolphins often swim playfully in boats’ wake.

Milford Sound has an isolated grandeur, yet beautifully prehistoric ambience, making the traveller feel they are in one of the last true wildernesses on earth.

Mitre Peak at Milford Sound (Photo: Layla Turner)

The Kepler Track (Start point – Kepler Track car park, at the southern end of Lake Te Anau) is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks but an option for a shorter half-day hike. It’s a 9.5 km scenic return walk via the ,,same track and is around three hours in duration. Follow the Waiau River terraces through red and mountain beech forest, and moss-covered ancient trees. Along this section of the track, there are many stunning views of the forest and the Waiau River, a swing-bridge to cross the river to Rainbow Reach and great fishing opportunities.

Visit Te Anau Bird Sanctuary (Lakefront Drive, Te Anau, Fiordland) for a peek at the flightless, prehistoric-looking Takahē bird and many other New Zealand native birds. The Sanctuary is run by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the DOC Rangers offer daily guided tours around the bird enclosures. The Takahē is the main drawcard, as in the 1800s this indigenous bird was twice, declared extinct. After an extensive search effort, the Takahē was rediscovered in 1948 in the Murchison Mountains, near Lake Te Anau. The Takahē Recovery Programme now helps manage numbers of Takahē and keeps them in predator-free natural environments.

You can also see the Kākā, a beautiful native forest parrot, plus Paradise Shelducks, and visitors can join the free daily guided tour to watch the DOC Rangers feed the resident Takahē each morning. Although free of charge, gold coin donations are both encouraged and appreciated, to help support the Sanctuary’s work.

The flightless Takahē (Photo: Harald Selke via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

For an up-close experience of Lake Te Anau and the surrounding forests and mountains, jump on a Beach to Bay Jet Boating Tour (84 Lakefront Drive, Te Anau, Fiordland.) Kickstart your adrenalin and spin around Lake Te Anau on a thrilling jet boat experience, taking you across picturesque Lake Te Anau, towards Dock Bay. On the ride, you’ll see the staggering Murchison Mountain range that rise 1400 metres above the lake, and marvel at the ancient beech forests that blanket the shores. Skimming the pristine lake whilst absorbing the region’s fascinating history from your knowledgeable guide is a perfect way to spend an afternoon on Lake Te Anau.

Take a cruise to the western side of Lake Te Anau, as part of a trip to the Te Anau Gloworm Caves (Visitor Centre, 85 Lakefront Drive, Te Anau). On the shoreline, hidden beneath the mountains is a network of subterranean caves. The journey is explored both on foot and by small boat, meandering through the underground caves, observing how the driving waters have chiselled the rock formations. Eventually arriving at the ‘glow-worm grotto’, where you’ll experience the incandescence of hundreds of tiny glow-worms illuminating the vast darkness. It’s truly an enchanting sight and an experience not to be missed.

Te Anau Glow Worm Caves (Photo: Larry Koester via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)