Te Anau is much more than a launchpad to Fiordland. Lisa Jansen lingered to sample the trails, tastes and tours around the glacial lake.
The small town of Te Anau in Southland is best known as the gateway to the world-famous Milford Sound. However, those who spend a few days in the town will quickly see that it’s a vibrant destination in its own right.
The town, which just over 2700 people call home, is one of those places that offers something for everyone. Whether you like champagne breakfasts and helicopter rides, or prefer nature walks followed by a beer at the pub, you will find it here.
Most people arriving in Te Anau will see the lake before they notice the town. At 344km2, it’s the second-largest lake by surface area in New Zealand (only Lake Taupo is bigger), and it’s the largest lake in Australasia by freshwater volume.
CRUISING AND PADDLING
Surrounded by green hills and steep mountains in the distance, Lake Te Anau is a stunning sight from anywhere around the lakefront, but if you really want to experience it, you need to get on the water – and not just look at it.
Several operators offer tours and cruises, including the popular glowworm cave tour and the sailing trip on the historic ship Faith. If you prefer to be your own captain, you can hire a kayak, paddleboard or pedal boat and explore at your leisure.
BIKING AND WALKING
If you want to keep your feet dry and stay on land, you can take in the lake and surrounding scenery on two wheels or on foot.
The most popular track runs along the lakefront. From the town centre, you can turn left or right and follow the trail for several kilometres. Around town, cyclists might want to use the road, but after a few hundred metres, the path is generally wide enough for cyclists and pedestrians to share it safely – and it’s mostly flat, so is suitable for all fitness levels.
Cyclists wanting to cover more distance will love the Lake2Lake trail, which takes you from Lake Te Anau to Lake Matapouri. The 28km (one way) trail is well maintained and rated Grade 2 (easy).
Matapouri offers several restaurants and cafes, making it an excellent place to refuel before starting the return journey.
Walkers are spoiled for choice in Te Anau. The famous Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, starts just outside town. The three-day loop is well worth considering for keen hikers, but there are also great options for day walks. From the Control Gates carpark, you can follow the Kepler Track either north along the lake or south along the western bank of the Waiau river. Just walk as far as you want, before returning the same way. For a bit more of a challenge you might consider hiking up to Luxmore Hut. It takes moderately fit hikers about six to seven hours return, and on a nice day the views are worth climbing over 900m elevation.
To combine a walk with taking in the area from the lake, a great option is to take the water taxi to Brod Bay and walk back to town from there. It’s about 10km, but mostly flat.
MEET SOME LOCAL BIRDS
The Te Anau Bird Sanctuary is the place to see some of Fiordland’s special birds that are difficult to spot in the wild.
The sanctuary is home to several takahe, kaka, Antipodes Island parakeets and ruru/morepork, and you might see a range of other local birds.
Entry is free for self-guided tours, but donations are much appreciated and needed to keep the sanctuary going. There are also daily feeding time tours at 10.30am ($10 per adult). To join a tour, you must buy a ticket from the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre.
TAKE TO THE SKIES
If you have ever wanted to experience New Zealand from above, Te Anau is the perfect place to do it. Fiordland is one of the most untouched areas of New Zealand, and many parts are only accessible by helicopter or plane. This means you can experience a part of our country you can’t see any other way. Choose from helicopters, planes or the seaplane, to look down over the stunning Fiordland National Park.
To get an aerial view without having to leave solid ground, visit the Fiordland Cinema for one of their daily screenings of the half-hour movie Ata Whenua – Shadowland. Filmed mostly from a helicopter, it will take you on an unforgettable journey through one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on earth.
TAKE IN THE TOWN
One thing is evident from the second you arrive: it’s a tourist town. In the small centre, you will find everything travellers could ask for: restaurants and cafes, shops for travel and outdoor gear, two supermarkets, souvenir shops and more. It’s well worth taking a stroll, browsing through the shops and treating yourself to a nice meal or coffee.
WHERE TO STAY
Although there aren’t any designated freedom camping spots in Te Anau, RVers are spoiled for choice in terms of campgrounds. Getaway Te Anau gets excellent reviews and is easy walking distance from the town centre and lake. Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park and Fiordland Great Views Holiday Park are a bit further from the centre, but offer beautiful scenery and also get great reviews.
There is also an NZMCA park and two POPs, so no matter what your preferred accommodation looks like, you are likely to find it in Te Anau.
For further information about Te Anau and things to do in the area, spend a bit of time online or visit the Fiordland iSite Visitor Centre at 85 Lakefront Drive. Many tour operators also have information centres in town where you will find helpful people happy to answer questions.