Guide to Te Anau

You don’t have to be planning an epic multi day walk into the backcountry of Fjordland National Park to plan some time in Te Anau! In fact, while it is the gateway to some amazing places, it’s a great little town to explore in its own right! Consider this: You can take cheap ferry cruises along Te Anau lake, see glow worm caves (great if you aren’t going to the North Island), check out amazing birds in a free sanctuary, learn about the geological and cultural history of Fjordland National Park, AND have great access to nearby Milford Sound without paying the premium of staying in Milford Sound Lodge.

Top things to do in Te Anau:

Te Anau Glow Worm Caves

Experience the twisting network of limestone passages filled with sculpted rock, whirlpools and a roaring underground waterfall topped off with the incredible bio-luminescent world of glow worm lights. The experience lasts just over 2 hours beginning with a sight seeing cruise across Te Anau lake, a walk through underground tunnels, and ending with the capstone of floating in an underground grotto under a canopy of glow worm “stars” before heading back to the light of above ground. The tours are kept to small groups (with a max of 14 people) and cost around 103 NZD ($67) per person. I would consider this a MUST do tour unless you plan on visiting Waitomo on the North Island. *Make advanced reservations here to ensure availability on your date.

Te Anau Bird Sactuary

Rain or shine, this is a great little nature park to walk around hosting several exotic and even endangered species of birds. We saw owls, parrots, parakeets, and the most incredible of all: the almost extinct Takahē, a flightless bird native to only NZ. When we were there, they had a recently hatched Takahē chick as well. It’s an easy place to walk around in 15 minutes or so depending on how long you admire the birds and get to know their personalities. If possible, try to go close to feeding times at 9:30 AM or 4:30 PM. Guided tours are also possible to be arranged through the Fjordland NP Visitor Center.

Directions: It’s an easy 10 minute walk along Te Anau Lakeshore from the Fjordland NP Visitor Center, or an easy 3 minute drive.

Hours: Dawn- Dusk

Cost: Free, but a 1-2 gold coin donations are appreciated

Te Anau lakeside Walk

There’s a trail that extends all around lake Te Anau to the start of the great walks like the Kepler Track. Walk as little or as much as you want to and if you have a full day but couldn’t get reservations for any of the overnight huts- the Luxmore hut is an excellent full day hike beginning in Te Anau. 

Fjordland National Park Visitor Center

A great stop that can be short or long depending on the weather. They had some great exhibits on the discovery and settling of Fjordland National park as well as exhibits on the wildlife that can be found throughout New Zealand.

Fjordland Cinema

Can’t afford a helicopter tour of Fjordland national park? Don’t sweat it! Playing every hour at Fjordland cinema is a documentary Birdseye view in IMAX of Fjordland National Park. Check with your hotel for a discounted ticket.

A Great Walk!

With 3 world famous multi-day treks in the area to choose from, the area is the perfect launch point. Make sure to check the reservation systems for these great walks as the huts book out very quickly when dates are released.

Milford Sound

Read my post specifically for driving the Milford Sound road and taking a Milford Sound Cruise. If there’s anything you do on the South Island, make sure this place is top of the list. From Te Anau, it is a 1.5-2 hours drive to Milford Sound without additional stops for hikes and short walks. Plan your time accordingly.

Where to stay in Te Anau:

Luxury: Fjordland Lakeview Motel & Apartments $265

For a room with a view on the lake, full studio, and adults only retreat- the Fjordland Lakeview is the highest rated hotel in Te Anau and as great amenities.

Midrange: Te Anau lakefront backpackers private rooms 123 NZD/ $80

*Where we stayed

We had a triple room with kitchenette and private bathroom. We loved staying here as the beds were comfortable and came with really soft blankets, the kitchenette in our room was helpful, and it was nice having a private bathroom. Everything was clean and comfortable and best of all- this hotel IS lakefront so walking around the lake, taking a boat tour, and checking out the visitor center are all an easy 5 minute walk away. 

Budget: Te Anau lakefront backpackers/ YHA Te Anau $24 pp

The cheapest options are to book a dorm bed here for $24/bed in a 6 bed mixed room. Both hostels are well rated and in convenient locations.

Where to eat in Te Anau:

The Fat Duck- For fancier fare, we really enjoyed eating at the Fat Duck. They have a nice range of menus for both meals and drinks. Their grilled lamb salad was particularly good.

Redcliff Restaurant &Bar – if you’re in the mood for a good burger or great pasta- this place was also delicious.

See my related articles for nearby action:

Complete Guide to Milford Sound

Complete Guide to Queenstown

Complete Guide to Wanaka

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Complete guide to Milford Sound

If you’re visiting the South Island of New Zealand, the number 1 thing that should be the top of your list to do is a trip to Milford Sound. I can honestly say that rain or shine, this is one of the places that really lives up to the hype! There’s just nothing as spectacular as the drive down to the sound through deep glacial valleys, passing hundreds of waterfalls (especially if it’s raining), plunging into a dark tunnel that cuts right through the mountain side, and ending your drive on rocky beach with one of the top 5 views I’ve ever seen. Make sure to plan an entire day for this adventure as there are many incredible stops along the drive, and you won’t want to miss a cruise out to the sea.

Tips for visiting Milford Sound:

  1. Don’t fret about the weather, in fact if it’s raining and cloudy you might get less mountain peaks, but the waterfalls more than make up for it.
  2. Rent a car, drive yourself, book your own boat. There’s so many great stops along the way that tour buses can’t stop at, and the boats you get put on are packed full of people. Do yourself a favor and DIY this day and book your cruise with Mitre Peak cruises if you want a more intimate cruise experience.
  3. If you have the funds book an overnight cruise on the sound, and/or a helicopter flight
  4. Pack some lunch/ snacks for the drive. The only eating option once you’re down there is a mediocre over priced café.
  5. Park in the FREE lot (the first parking lot as you get to the sound) and take the free shuttle to the cruise terminal/ visitor center to save a lot of money on parking.
  6. Plan on wearing long pants and long sleeves or bring heavy duty bug spray. The black sand flies at Milford Sound are no joke- they will leave itchy welts on your skin for weeks and they love the rocky shores of Milford.
  7. The closest place to stay (unless you have a campervan) is Te Anau.
  8. The afternoon/ sunset is the best time to photograph the sound and surrounding peaks. Afternoon/ evening cruises will also be cheaper and less crowded than afternoon cruises.
  9. It’s at least a 1.5-2 hour drive without stopping from Te Anau to the end. Plan your cruise time accordingly.
  10. 100% pack a rain jacket.
A view along the rainy drive into Milford Sound

Which boat tour company to choose?

I can’t recommend Mitre Peak cruises enough. The boat might be the smallest of the Milford Sound cruise boats, but it’s actually the only one designed specifically for the conditions in the sound. It’s the fastest and most maneuverable boat, meaning if foul weather cropped up- it’s going to be the best boat to be on for getting back safely. While other boats can fit 400 people on multiple decks, the Mitre Peak boats max out with around 80 and they specifically try to keep booking at around 40 people to make their tours more comfortable.

The first deck with plus interior. The 2nd deck is outside but half covered

They provide complimentary tea and coffee during the whole cruise, have amazing staff that took group and individual photos for EVERYONE that wanted one in specific spots, and really comfortable lounging seats. No matter where you sit on the boat you’re guaranteed great views, but the 2nd deck was our favorite spot. Like all tours, they take you all the way out to the sea and right up close under 2 waterfalls. (Stirling falls will SOAK YOU TO THE BONE. Only stay out on the bow or back if you desire to be completely wet) We also saw seals AND dolphins on our tour with the crew lingering near the dolphins so we could enjoy watching them for longer. Best of all, their pricing is competitively on par with all the other cruises- so there’s literally no reason to not book your cruise with this company.

Best stops along the Milford Sound Road

While we weren’t able to do either of the must-do hikes along the road due to heavy clouds and rain, we did pull over at multiple small lakes/ turnouts/ valleys to take photos and the Chasm was a fabulous walk even in the rain. So with that here’s my suggested must do stops, but keep in mind, you’ll want to stop in just about every pull out to enjoy this incredible drive.

Eglinton Valley

53km along the Milford Sound Road from Te Anau

An easy and quick stop with lots of parking just along the roadside. The entire route is photogenic, but there’s something about this valley with towering snow capped mountains surrounding and a tranquil river ever changing as it makes its way through.

The Divide – Hike to the Key Summit

This is a great stop to hit the facilities and break up the drive. If you’ve got a clear day, the hike to Key Summit is a must do hike and offers an elevated perspective on the surrounding glacial valleys- and isn’t too challenging of a hike. From the summit, you’ll have great views of the Routeburn track (which bonus, you’ll walk a short portion of) and Hollyford Valley, even glimpsing Lake Marian across the way in a high hanging valley. This is a popular, graded hike though, so don’t plan on having it to yourself.

Hike Info

Trailhead: The hike begins at the Divide stop along Milford Sound Road, starting on the Routeburn Track as it heads to the Lake Mackenzie Huts.
Distance: 5 miles/ 8 km roundtrip
Elevation gain: 1389 feet
Time: 3 hours

Not Marian lake, but one of the many “short” lake stops you can make along the drive
Marian Lake Hike

Just past the Divide on Hollyford road is the Lake Marian carpark. Rain or shine this hike ends in a beautifully reflective lake and odds are you’ll have it to yourself. You’ll also get to experience crossing a very photogenic swing bridge and enjoy views across to Key Summit and the surrounding valleys. Be warned, while the first part of this hike is rather easy, the trail steeply gains up toward the end to reach the hanging valley and will require good balance and potentially use of your hands.

Distance: 4.4 miles
Elevation gain: 1434 feet
Time: 3 hours

The Chasm

If you aren’t much of a hiker but still up for a nature walk, the chasm is a fantastic 15-20 minute loop walk through vivid green rain forest culminating at a rushing river that drops steeply down into “the chasm.” Rain or shine, this walk doesn’t depend on expansive views and offers a unique look at the tree canopy and rivers that make up the rainforest of Fjordland National Park.

*There are no facilities at this stop.  

Where to park at the end of the road

Once you pass the Milfrod Sound Lodge and Piopio café, the next left turn is into the free lot. (It’s right along side the river and hard to miss) Then you’ll pass the turn in for the Airport and see another parking lot across from the visitor center/ another small café. The parking lot there has packing machines that cost us $27 (41 NZD) for 4 hours- and there is a minimum of 3 hours that you have to pay for (if you are doing a cruise). The free parking is only a 10 minute walk and has a free shuttle as well. (Save your money)

A map of the facilities and parking at the end of Milford Sound road

You can’t drive down to the cruise terminal but it’s a pretty 10 minute walk or so (part of it covered if it is raining) with several little photogenic beaches along the way. The shuttle also goes to the terminal so no matter which parking lot you park in, you can catch the shuttle if you need to down to the terminal. Once in the terminal, find the specific cruise desk you want to do and either exchange your online voucher for tickets, or purchase once there. From there they will load you onto the boats and sail away you go.

Don’t stand out in the open under Stirling Falls unless you want to get thoroughly soaked
Another tourist boat getting thoroughly soaked under Stirling Falls
Only Milford Sound can make a massive boat look so small
Views at the beginning of our cruise- where the sound meets the freshwater river
A view from the sea looking back into the sound.

Bonus: While the scenic boat cruise is a must do, you should also consider the short and easy walk from the info center down to Sandfly point. (10-15 min each way) It has some of the best unobstructed views of the sound while keeping your feet firmly on solid ground. Just be sure to bring your bug spray if you’re in shorts or short sleeves.

The awesome view of at Sandfly Point. Stirling Falls in view
Sandfly point from the trail.

Where to stay near Milford Sound:

Te Anau lakefront Backpackers– A great budget friendly spot in Te Anau, 1.5 hours from Milford Sound

Articles for the surrounding area:

Guide to Te Anau

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