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Nestled on the shores of a vast lake and framed by towering mountains, Te Anau is the gateway to one of New Zealand’s most treasured landscapes: the Fiordland National Park. 

We humans have only just managed to skim the surface of this vast mountainous area, leaving its dense rainforest, deep waterways, peaceful valleys, and magnificent glaciers largely untouched. Venturing into the park provides a glimpse of a prehistoric world: just come prepared for both the weather and the sandflies!

You’ll find sprays to repel those pesky, biting insects in every store in town (and elsewhere). Summers can be dry (I didn’t have a drop of rain during my last visit), but in general Fiordland is known for having one of the wettest climates in the country.

There’s an upside, though: without all that rain, the waterfalls would lose their beauty, and Milford Sound wouldn’t have the unique freshwater layer that brings deepwater marine life so close to the surface. 

While most of the activities on offer rightfully focus on Te Anau’s spectacular natural surrounds, I’ve also included a few indoor options for when the rain inevitably sets in! Whatever you’re into, and whatever the weather, Te Anau has plenty to offer.

Fiordland’s Spellbinding Sounds

Captain Cook named them Sounds, but as the name suggests, geographically many of Fiordland’s beautiful inlets are actually fjords (or fiords, if you prefer). Glaciers carve out fjords, while sounds were once river valleys that have since been flooded by the ocean.

Most New Zealand’s fjords can only be reached by boat, and Te Anau is the gateway town for a number of spectacular water-based excursions.

Milford Sound

View of Milford Sound, New Zealand

The most famous of New Zealand’s fjords, Milford Sound attracts up to a million visitors a year despite the long, winding drive to get there. It takes about 90 minutes to drive straight through from Te Anau to the Milford Sound, although you’ll likely stop several times along the way for short walks and photo opportunities.


Many companies offer day cruises on Milford Sound, with a small number of (much more expensive) overnight cruise options as well. This lets you choose based on your budget, the time you have available, and whether you’d rather be on a big boat with a large lounge or a smaller vessel with more chances to be outside on the deck.  

Most cruises follow a route along one side of Milford Sound to the seal colony by the Tasman Sea, and then back up the other side. You’ll see many waterfalls — just how spectacular they are depends on how much rain there’s been, but since it’s often wet in Milford, the chances are good that most will be cascading down the cliffs.

Many of the cruises get right up close to at least one of the waterfalls — so close, in fact, that you can go out on the front deck and get sprayed by it. I got pretty wet even through my waterproof jacket, so it’s definitely best done on a warm, sunny day!

If you don’t have your own transport, or don’t fancy doing the drive yourself, options are available that include a bus from Te Anau or Queenstown. If budget isn’t a concern, you can also take a light plane from Queenstown to Milford Sound, enjoy your cruise, and fly back again: the views are absolutely spectacular!


It doesn’t matter whether you’re an experienced seafarer or it’s your first time in a kayak; with excursions rated from “easiest” all the way to “toughest”, there’s an appropriate trip for everyone on Milford Sound. 

Rosco Kayaking has been taking people on trips at sea level for 30 years now. Choose from a loop around the Sound, a paddle and walk on the Milford Track, or take the epic day safari or kayak and cruise options. 

Underwater Observatory

It’s worth choosing a cruise option that stops at the floating Underwater Observatory in Harrison Cove. There are plenty of informative displays above ground level, but the real magic lies 10m below the surface. 

Walk down the steps and into a watery wonderland of rare black coral, fish, and crustaceans through every window. It’s kind of like being in an aquarium — except you’re the one in the enclosure!

Doubtful Sound

View of Doubtful Sound, New Zealand, at sunrise

Larger than Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is one of those places that should be more popular than it is. Its relative isolation keeps many of the crowds away, however, so if you’re worried about visitor numbers at Milford, this is the option to go for.

Wilderness Cruise

Even on the single-day Wilderness cruise, you get three boat rides and a coach trip all included in the price. From Te Anau, drive south for 15 minutes to the tiny town of Manapouri, where you’ll board your boat and ride across the lake to the power station entrance.

From there, you’ll be driven through some lovely temperate rainforest and over the Wilmot Pass, before dropping down to Doubtful Sound and starting the journey in earnest. 

Cruising for around three hours, you’ll get to drink in the glorious views of waterfalls and cliffs, dolphins, seals — and maybe even penguins if you’re lucky! If you can only manage one water-based excursion from Te Anau, Doubtful Sound is the place to do it.

Overnight Cruise

As good as the day cruise is, if time and budget allows, the overnight version is even better. If you fancy spending hours in stunning natural surrounds with barely another human in sight, dining on exceptional food, and rocking to sleep in a comfortable berth, you’ll love the Doubtful Sound one-or-two night cruises. 

The trip includes chances to fish for your dinner, kayak around on your own, and learn more about the animals, plants and geology of the sheer 1000m-high cliffs covered with trees and ferns.

A handful of companies offer the overnight cruise, but I’d recommend Fiordland Expeditions, who I took an overnight cruise with a few years ago. The smaller boat and friendly, knowledgeable crew made for a relaxed vibe, and climbing up on deck to the sun peaking over the nearby mountains the following morning was an unforgettable experience.

Dusky Sound and Preservation Inlet

Looking for a proper sailing experience that takes you about as far from civilization as you can get? Sail for seven days on a trip that takes you from Manapouri down the windswept west coast to some of the most isolated places in the Fiordland National Park.

This trip traces Captain Cook’s route along the NZ coastline — but unlike that 1773 voyage, you’ll eat spectacular food and have many chances to get off the boat and explore the beaches and rainforest along the way. An onboard nature guide helps provide context for all of the remarkable sights on offer.

The voyage finishes (or starts — your choice) with a helicopter ride back to base. Spaces are limited, so book well in advance if you want to experience this trip of a lifetime.

Stunning Hikes

The Fiordland National Park has spectacular hiking opportunities, from short walks to multi-day challenges. The Department of Conservation Visitor Centre in Te Anau has information on all the possibilities, but here are five of the best.

Milford Track

The Milford Track is probably the most famous of New Zealand’s premiere Great Walks. Starting with a boat ride to the top of Lake Te Anau, 54km (34 miles) might not sound like a lot to walk over four days, but trust me, the weather and geography provide plenty of challenges over that distance!

You’ll want to be fit and well-equipped before you try it. There are full-on alpine and river crossings, rainforests, and waterfalls — and be warned — you’re likely to get both wet AND sunburned on this tramp. Climbing to a maximum height of 1154m (nearly 3800ft) at the top of Mackinnon Pass, it’s definitely not a track to be underestimated.

Keep your eyes peeled as you journey through the Arthur Valley: you may just get to see some pateke (brown teal). The rarest ducks on the NZ mainland, pateke were released in the valley as part of a conservation programme back in 2013. 

You have two accommodation options when tackling the Milford track. Walk independently and stay in Department of Conservation (DOC) huts or take a guided tour and stay in private huts along the way. You’ll need to book a long way in advance with either choice, especially in the peak season (October to May) — this is a very popular hike.

Routeburn Track

The 33km (21 mile) Routeburn Track is one of the easier Great Walks, although you still have to be reasonably fit to tackle it. It’s a one-way hike, and it doesn’t matter which end you start from, Queenstown or Te Anau: you’ll have a spectacular drive or shuttle ride to get to the track either way.

From the Queenstown/Glenorchy end, the track winds through native beech forests and out onto the Routeburn Flats. It then climbs over the Harris saddle and makes its way through the mountains down to The Divide on Milford Road. 

There are several huts and tenting options along the route, which allow trampers to take between two and four days on the walk. Again, it’s best to book your bed or campsite well in advance during the busy season. 

Because of where the roads go, it’s a nearly four-hour drive between the start and end points of the track. If you’re driving your own vehicle, you’ll likely want to arrange a car transfer from one end to the other — a few companies offer it.

Kepler Track

Kea at Luxmore Hut, Kepler Track, New Zealand

Finishing up the trifecta of Great Walks in the area, the Kepler is arguably the one that’s the easiest to get to and from, and the one with the most impressive views. Starting and ending just outside Te Anau, this four day, 60km (37 mile) loop climbs well above the tree line to 1300m+ (4300ft), with spectacular vistas over two lakes: Manapouri and Te Anau.

I was extremely lucky when walking the Kepler in February, with clear, sunny conditions every day. That is very much not the norm in this area, but if you happen to get similar weather, this will one of the most memorable walks you do in New Zealand. If you aren’t as fortunate with the weather, it might be memorable for a different reason!

Along with the expansive alpine views, beautiful rainforest, and stunning lakeside beach at Moturau Hut, another highlight of the Kepler is the likelihood of seeing a few cheeky keas, New Zealand’s endangered alpine parrot. Keep an eye on your stuff when they’re around, though — they’re likely to take a very close interest in it!

Lake Mistletoe Walking Track

Looking for something a little shorter (and easier)? The Lake Mistletoe track is ideal for families and begins at Te Anau Downs, 30 minutes drive from the township on the Milford Road. The walk meanders to a pretty lake and through a wetland that’s home to many water birds and other wildlife.

You can do the track as a loop, but that means walking back alongside the main road once you get to the other end. It’s short enough (1.3km return) that you’re better off just returning the way you came, and avoiding the traffic altogether.

Lake Gunn Nature Walk

If you’re heading to Milford Sound (or even if you’re not), it’s worth stopping at the trailhead for the Lake Gunn Nature Walk. A roughly half-hour (1.4km) loop track through mossy red beech trees and along stony beaches, you’ll get to see plenty of forest and water birds and the usual stunning scenery of this region, on an easy, well-defined path around the lake.

Tip: if the weather is good, be sure to take the short side track to the stony lake shore for some great photos of the nearby mountains.

Te Anau Magic

While Te Anau is best known as the gateway to all of the remarkable activities in Fiordland National Park, there’s plenty to keep you happy in and around the township as well. You don’t have to go far to find something fun to do.

Glowworm Caves

Imagine a small boat floating on still waters surrounded by pitch-black dark. All is silent, everyone holding their breath… and then the light show begins. First one, then a few more, and suddenly, thousands of tiny stars surround you. 

These are New Zealand glowworms — not actually worms, but tiny larvae of the native fungas gnat — and this is Te Ana Au, the spectacular 12,000-year-old limestone caves on the shores of Lake Te Anau. 

Only accessible via a tour due to its remote location, you’ll cruise across the lake, wander along a short bushwalk, and view the informative displays at Cavern House. Then it’s time to take a deep breath and join your tour guide, who’ll take you through the limestone passages and onto the boat where you’ll float into that hidden grotto of stars.

Harder to get to and with smaller groups than the glowworm caves in Waitomo, you’ll have a much more relaxed and enjoyable experience. Arguably, it’s the best place in the country to do it.

Punanga Manu o Te Anau Bird Sanctuary

New Zealand is home to a fantastic variety of rare native birds. Even though many are endangered thanks to introduced predators like rats and stoats, you’ll still find some in the wild, especially on offshore islands or fenced sanctuaries. 

One such spot is the Te Anau bird sanctuary, a peaceful place set back from the lakefront near Ivon Wilson Park, and open from dawn to dusk. 

Entry is free, though donations are always welcome. They’re essential, in fact, to help with the conservation programme and keep the birds fed, healthy, and able to breed.  Wander past the aviaries and enclosures at your leisure, admiring native kākā (parrots), parakeets, native ducks (whio), and morepork (tiny owl) — not to mention the many wild birds fluttering in the surrounding trees. 

The stars of the show at Punanga Manu, however, are the takahe — and don’t they know it. Thought to be extinct until a wild population was found in the nearby Murchison mountains, there’s now 400+ of these large, flightless birds around the country.

Bringing the takahe back from near-extinction is an enormous challenge, and the Te Anau birds are part of the recovery program. The best time to see them is feeding time (9.30 a.m. in summer, 10.30am in the winter months, but you usually can spot them scuffling through the tussocks in their enclosure at any time during the day.

Float Plane

If you’ve never taken flight from the water before, Te Anau is the place to try it. There’s something truly magical about the experience of skimming along the water and suddenly finding yourself flying above it!

Operating Fiordland’s only seaplane service, Wings and Water flies many routes over the most spectacular Fiordland scenery. You can choose a forty minute flight over Doubtful Sound, a plane/jetboat combo, and more.

If you like a bit more adventure, there’s also Mystery option, which lands at remote lake beaches — the kinds of places you’d never get to by car, bike, or foot. Not only will you get some stunning lake and mountain photographs, but you also get the thrill of an extra take-off and landing. 

Homer Tunnel 

Reversed sign saying

Even if you don’t make it all the way to Milford Sound, it’s worth driving as far as the Homer Tunnel. 

Here’s why: 

  • Without the time pressure of a cruise departure, you get to stop as long as you like at the Mirror Lakes. Mornings are the best time to visit: that’s when the lakes are mirror-flat and showing off their stunning mountain reflections. 
  • There’s time to admire the golden Eglinton Valley, and enjoy some of the picnic spots along the way.
  • If you’re heading off on a day hike, you’re probably going halfway there already, because many of the national park hikes are accessed along Milford Road.
  • There’s a good chance of seeing kea when you stop at the tunnel entrance. Any day with kea is a good day!
  • You’ll get a glimpse into the conditions faced by the men who built the tunnel in this formidable landscape. Scramble around the rocky slopes and check out the the memorials to these hardy individuals, including those who died on the job. This is avalanche country, too, and if you’re lucky enough to find one, it’s surreal to walk on its snowy remains.
  • You can stretch your legs at the Lake Gunn Nature Walk (mentioned above) along the way.

Heli Hike

If you’re longing to try one of the Great Walks but don’t have several days to spare, taking a heli-hike is a great way of experiencing it. Best of all, you don’t have to carry a big backpack to do it!

In one day, you’ll get to fly over Lake Te Anau and the Kepler track before landing at the Luxmore Hut. From there, you get to enjoy the stunning views and unique alpine landscape with a knowledgeable local guide, before tackling the 1200m/3900ft descent to Brod Bay.

You’ll get a taste of the Kepler, a spectacular helicopter ride, and a boat trip from Brod Bay back to Te Anau at the end… and still be back in town in time for dinner!

Cycle Trail to Manapouri

It’s taken a long time to build the Lake2lake cycle and walking trail from Lake Te Anau to Lake Manapouri, but it’s finally getting close to completion. Now, at last, there’s just one short section remaining where cyclists, runners, and hikers still have to travel along a road. 

The scenic grade two (easy) track begins at the Fiordland Visitor Centre and runs beside Lake Te Anau and the Waiau River for 19km before petering out. The track restarts 4km further down the road, taking you the final six kilometres to Lake Manapouri.

The full return distance of a little under 60km is too much for runners and walkers to tackle in a day, but if you can’t get picked up at the other end, there’s also the option of a roughly 25km (16 mile) loop that crosses the swing bridge at Rainbow Reach and returns via the first/last section of the Kepler Track.

Rainbow Reach Swing Bridge

Spirit Lake and wetlands on the Kepler Track in New Zealand

Speaking of that section of the Kepler track, it’s a popular spot for those who want to stretch their legs without having to tackle the entire hike. The 10km section from Rainbow Reach back to the control gates is definitely one of the easiest parts of the trail, but still winds through plenty of lovely shaded beech forest.

Park your car in the large Rainbow Reach carpark, cross the Waiau River on the long, narrow swing bridge alongside, then wander back along the track through the forest for as far as you care to go. You can also head in the other direction, through forest and wetlands to Spirit Lake and finally the beach at Moturau hut: it’s a roughly 12km return trip.

Jetboating on the Waiau River

Waiau River, near Te Anau

Prefer to speed along your rivers rather than walk beside them? Fiordland Jet offers a great set of jetboating packages on the winding Waiau River. Standing in for Anduin in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the powerful river carves a spectacular path through ancient beech forests from Lake Te Anau to Manapouri and beyond.  

You can choose the Wilderness Trail (a jetboat-only package), or combine your boat trip with another adventure; how about a heli-jet adventure or jet’n’fly combo with the Wings and Water floatplane (above)? You can even choose your own jet boat experience with a customised package; your driver will take you wherever you care to go.

Ivon Wilson Park

The lovely 35-hectare Ivon Wilson Park is a beautiful place for walking and mountain biking through its many trees and wide-open spaces. Close to the lake on the outskirts of Te Anau, the park is named after its founder — one of Southland’s early environmentalists, he collected many of the 5000 trees himself.  

Children can get a free fishing licence from the nearby DOC visitor centre and fish in the small lake (Lake Henry) that sits inside the park. 

Te Anau sits right on the edge of a vast, temperate rainforest, so it does have its fair share of wet weather. If you’re looking for an inside activity, there’s a couple of great options available.

Escape Room

Te Anau Escape Room has two fantastic 60-minute Fiordland-themed puzzles to solve.

Wild Moose Chase: In 1910, some enterprising hunters released American moose into the Fiordland wilderness. They disappeared into the forest, never to be seen again. Are there still wild moose out in the woods today? 

Blast From the Past: Are you as hardy as Fiordland’s pioneers? Do you have what it takes to survive the perils that came with building the Homer tunnel? It’s time to find out! 

Fiordland Cinema 

When you’re looking for a rest from the day’s adventures (or a respite from the rain!), Te Anau has a cool little cinema tucked behind a trendy bar in the centre of town. As well as an evening mainstream movie, Fiordland Cinema shows two local video experiences several times daily. 

Atu Whenua takes you on a sweeping ride over parts of the Fiordland wilderness that are inaccessible even by foot. Deer Wars recounts the heroics of the helicopter hunters in the 1980s when deer numbers threatened to cause an ecological disaster in the National Park’s forests and mountains.

Main image via Kamrul Arifin/, other images via author

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