It seems that most visitors to Te Anau stay for a night, do the trip to Milford Sound and then move on. It’s a shame because it’s a fantastic area to spend a bit of time.
The drive from Riverton to Te Anau was on a lovely morning and took in the last part of the South Coast before cutting up north towards the mountains. This meant the opportunity for a short stopover at the wonderful Gemstone Beach and McCracken’s Rest. It is an impressive stretch of coastline with almost endless sand, waves which go on and on, all backed by the silhouette of mountains way in the distance. This was another photography lesson for me, after noticing that I took multiple landscape shots at f4.0 that morning. Idiot.
We made a brief stop for some photos on the way up towards Te Anau with the only proper stopover being at Manapouri for food and coffee. This is a small village – easily missed. There’s a road of farms, a few houses, then a sharp right turn and you’re basically out of the town again. And being so small and that bit further away from Milford Sound, it gets even fewer visitors than Te Anau. However, Manapouri trumps its nearby neighbour with the views.
The view from the waterfront at Lake Manapouri is incredible. Beautiful, crystal clear water with mountains looming just ahead. Most of the B&Bs look to have this as the view to wake up to in the morning, which begs the question why more people don’t stay here over Te Anau.
Manapouri is also a good starting point for a few hikes. Starting these requires a river crossing by water taxi or rowing boat and can range from the 3-4 hour Manapouri circle route, which is a lovely forest walk with a great viewpoint at the top, to the multi-day treks well into Fiordland National Park. The circle walk would be awful after heavy rain but on that day was spot on, and at times there isn’t a sound other than the birds singing.
Rather than the typical flying visit to Te Anau, we stayed for a few days and made it our home to explore the area. First up was Milford Sound and the weather could not have been better. This was on a whim after seeing the forecast for the ever-changeable weather in the fiord was looking perfect. Leaving Te Anau on a cloudy morning, the weather changed quite abruptly to blue sky and stayed like that in the area for most of the day.
Mid-morning at Milford Sound was quiet with views aroud the fiord which more than lived up to expectations. Naturally it is a touristy area but it can’t be missed, and when the sun is out (seemingly a rare occurence) it looks phenomenal. Planes and helicopters were taking off from Milford Sound airport regularly and I’m sure the views from up high are even more breath taking. We stopped for an overpriced and underwhelming lunch at the vistor’s centre afterwards – which is best avoided.
Not far from Milford Sound, in amongst awesome views in the valleys, is the Divide, where the Routeburn Track starts. The hike starts in the forest and eventually breaks the treeline and is under the blazing sun, taking around 1-1.5 hours to summit, with the path eventually splitting to head on to either Key Summit or a longer walk. The view from Key Summit can only really be expressed with a photo…
Te Anau is a touristy area for the obvious reasons. The residential parts of the town are pristine and the central areas look to cater for visitors really well. But it’s touristy without being too much. The restaurants, bars and cafes all look to be busy in the evenings and provide a bit of variety. Cafe Redcliffe was great for snacks, for sitting out in the sun with a beer. The Ranch was okay, and a pizzeria provided just what was needed on a couple of evenings. The town certainly felt touristy compared to the south coast, even Dunedin, but, in hindsight, it isn’t compared to the likes of Queenstown.
The Te Anau waterfront on the west and north sides of the town were quiet each time we visited; lovely, peaceful time often with barely a sound to be heard. And our accommodation (an Airbnb a short walk from town) was bang on, waking up to the sound of a tui some mornings.
This was a great area to simply relax, without the need to rush from one “must see” to the next. It was a great base from which to see Milford Sound, take in a few walks, and even on a duller day, visit an alpaca farm nearby for a tour. They are awesome animals – almost comically docile in the way they stand around and watch, waiting for instructions but never allowing you to come any closer without the promise of food. It was fun to be right up close getting to feed them.
As an introduction to the more touristy side of New Zealand’s South Island, Te Anau was a good one. The scenery was exactly what I had hoped to see, looking incredible in the good weather, and it was a fun, relaxing place to explore, eat and drink. A perfect few days.