TE ANAU, New Zealand – Some of the places we pass through in our travels forever become part of the tune to which our lives will march. For me, Te Anau— a tiny little town at the bottom of the south island of New Zealand — is my ear worm. Fate or happenstance found me doing a homestay there during an extended study abroad in high school. The place took seat in my memory as a sort of jeweled and distant utopia to which I ever endeavored to return.
When I was given an opportunity to take my mother for visit last March, I knew it was my chance to assure her I had not, in fact, “abandoned” her in the midst of some 15-year-old fit of teen angst — “running off” to this wild unknown on the other side of the planet. Rather, I had quite possibly discovered paradise on earth, to which I could now treat her as a vetted expert. Good thing she wasn’t too hard to convince.
Te Anau is the gateway to some of the South Island’s most incredible natural gems (which is saying a lot for a country as gorgeous as New Zealand), including Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park. Unfortunately, the stunning surroundings mean that many visitors simply breeze right on through the tiny town itself on their way to Queenstown or to Milford. Too bad. Bias notwithstanding, Te Anau very much deserves its own status as a destination. The town is a clown car of fun, offering a number of thrilling outdoor activities disproportionate to its size: scenic boat cruises and prop-plane flights, diving, fishing, coach tours, golf, four-wheel driving, and hunting. To say nothing for the annual Tartan Festival over Easter weekend! Bring yer kilt and TSA-compliant bagpipes, and get yer best Scottish on with the locals.
No matter when you go, here’s how to make the most of a three-day trip to this corner of paradise.
DAY 1: CAVES AND KAYAKS, BRIGHT WORMS AND DOME ISLANDS
The star attractions here are the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, incredible wonders of nature found within a limestone cave system across the lake from the town. Mum and I caught a boat ride with Real Journeys, sailing out beneath what seemed to be a perpetual rainbow over the Murchison Mountains (theories surmise it might just be painted there). We headed off across the steely waters of the glacial lake and to the cave entrance, the wind buffeting our hair from where we stood on the deck. Guides led us into the magnificent underground passageway, where waterfalls tumbled over finely polished stalagmites. We checked to make sure our phones were on silent as we hopped into little tin boats and let the guide pull us across the underground lake, Harry Potter-style.
When they snapped off all the lights, far from being plunged into darkness we were instead treated to a sparkling constellation of tiny blue stars overhead. The glow is actually produced by the backsides of thousands of little beetle larvae, illuminated by the same bioluminescence found in fireflies and jellyfish. Together they create one of the most impressive displays of any living creature — especially considering they’re, well, worms. We leaned our heads back to take in the twinkling expanse in the gentle quiet of the cave. Alas, one young visitor in our group erroneously thought he could pass gas in our aluminum boat undetected – the reverberations of his flatulence echoed off the cavern walls, frightening the little worms and plunging the entire group into laughter-riddled darkness.
A kayaking jaunt on Lake Te Anau was the perfect way to spend our first afternoon getting up close to the magnificent scenery that we’d passed on the way to the caves. Oddly, there aren’t any public kayak rentals on the lake (hello, business opportunity), but I borrowed some from friends. Visitors without a local hookup, or who are unwilling to bribe that cool couple from Dunedin who brought their own kayaks into lending them out for the day, can book intimate boat charters. The lake is large and can get rough, so checking the weather and minding the waves are critical. Always go with someone else, even if it’s your mum, who enjoys using her paddle to splash you in the face more than employing it for forward movement. Lake Te Anau is technically not a lake but a rare inland fjord, carved millions of years ago by a Type-A glacier that needed everything in life to be smooth and polished, leaving behind funny little dome islands very cleverly named The Dome Islands. They look like something right out of Avatar and are worth poking around. Mum and I are hardly the romantic types, but enjoying the sunset from the water was simply stunning.
Day 2: MOUNTAIN TRACKS AND FLIGHTLESS BIRDS
We’d spent so much time on watercraft our first day that we were swaying in our sleep, so we decided to stretch the poor legs that had traveled 20 hours on a plane to get here (#worthit). We hit up the spongy trails of the Kepler Track, a 60-km loop through lush alpine forest to the top of Mount Luxmore. The trailhead is a mile from town, out by the golf course. Many visitors do a day walk out to Brod Bay, a curving inlet of Lake Te Anau with a gravel beach and picnic facilities. It’s about three hours round trip. Don’t forget the bug spray! The sand flies are vicious. Maori legend says that the gods set these biting insects upon the land to keep man from sticking around too long and destroying its beauty. The little buggers had a distinct preference for me over my mum. I’m not sure what I did to offend the gods, but their methods are very effective.
If you’re the serious backpacking type, you can do the full 3-4 day hike to the top of Mount Murchison and camp out in the Luxmore huts (advance bookings are required in high season). Or, for the really hardcore adventurer, you can train for the annual Luxmore Grunt and run the whole track in one day. I will wave at you as you jog by.
The misty green forests are home to a remarkable array of unique, ground-nesting bird species, including the shy, flightless kiwi and the cheeky alpine parrot, the kea, infamous for ripping the rubber lining out from around your car windows and cackling diabolically as they crash to the pavement. We didn’t get to see either on our trek, but we did enjoy the presence of some very vocal fantails and forest robins, which got this bird nerd in the mood to visit more of my feathered friends. The Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, located on the way back into town from the trailhead, is an outdoor aviary that houses some of New Zealand’s most unique species, like the takahē, a prehistoric-looking, flightless bird once thought extinct. We were lucky enough to glimpse the mournful native owl, the morepork, glowering at us from inside his dark little house. Entry to the family-friendly park is free, and there are picnic facilities overlooking the lake.
After all that hiking and birding, booze was in order. I don’t know how others travel, but mum and I are all about rewarding a full day’s walk with some of the fine local vintage New Zealand has to offer. The Fat Duck was our favorite for meeting up with old friends, and Olive Tree Cafe provided further reward in the form of homemade desserts, including gluten-free options.
DAY 3: ADRENALINE RUSHES AND SWEET REWARDS
If you have another day, have a fantastic adventure on the brand new grade II bike trail currently being completed between Te Anau and Manapouri for a fantastic adventure. The trail is not yet fully finished (estimated 2018), but there was plenty of track already open to satiate our inner explorer before our backsides doth protested. We felt a bit like the Fellowship of the Ring, blazing forward into the soaring greenery of Lothlórien on our two-wheeled steeds. There are loads of places in town to rent a bike. (At Te Anau Mini Golf & Bike Hire, you can even get in a round of putt-putt when you pick up your velocipede.) Extreme types will want to try the many mountain biking tracks nearby.
The best meal in town is at Redcliff Café, so to celebrate our final day, mum and I treated my host family to a dinner featuring all of Redcliff’s most delicious specialties: smoked local venison on pumpkin puree, wild hare over white bean confit, rosemary lamb cutlet, and roasted kumara (a local species of sweet potato). We sipped wine and played giant Jenga on the back patio and talked about how little the town had changed in thirteen years, much to my relief. The area around the town served as a backdrop for some of the famously beautiful scenery in The Lord of the Rings films, and in true film geek fashion, I had mum check out the memorabilia inside the café bearing autographs from the likes of Orlando Bloom and Ian McClellan, who dined in this superb establishment while in town.
While the more renowned nearby sites of Miford Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Queenstown have plenty to offer, this is the place to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the busy tourist circuit — and the bros on the slopes. The tranquility and humble beauty of wee Te Anau provides a real taste of the laid-back, Southland local life, a breath of the cleanest air to ever fill your lungs, and a whisper of the pristine magic of New Zealand’s remarkable landscapes.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
The most common way to get to Te Anau is through Queenstown (ZQN), which has a bustling tourism industry and lots to see and do. From the Queenstown airport, you can catch a Traknet bus or rent a car for the two-hour drive down to Te Anau. A scenic flight from Queenstown is an option for those who wish to arrive in style.
The town is very accessible on foot and by bike, especially with all the new trails cropping up. Tourism is the main industry here, so there are plenty of buses and water taxis available for getting around to such attractions as Milford, Doubtful, and Manapouri. For those seeking more independent sightseeing, renting a car or campervan is recommended.
Where to Stay
There are approximately thirteen sheep for every human inhabitant in New Zealand, and just about as many beds available in the various boutique hotels, motels, and holiday parks of Te Anau. A bed and breakfast is the way to go to truly experience the cozy ambiance of the village. Te Anau Lodge, a former convent with a history dating back to 1936, has the most character. It has a sweeping, manicured garden reminiscent of the elegant lawns in a Downton Abbey episode with gorgeous views of the mountains and lake. Other top-rated spots: Dunluce and Bella Rosa.
When to Go
As one of the closest land masses to Antarctica, the South Island experiences cold winters, especially up in the mountains, and temperatures can vary pretty widely within the span of a day. Pack lots of layers! Rain is also frequent on the west coast of Southland no matter the season, so a good waterproof jacket and shoes are crucial. (They get more than 100 inches per year. That’s how it stays so lovely and green.)
While there really is no bad time to travel to New Zealand, peak travel months are December-February for summer activities like hiking and biking, and April-August for winter activities, when the slopes are packed with skiers and you can catch a boat to go whale and penguin watching. Advance bookings for all hotels and activities are strongly recommended during these months. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds and higher prices, March and November are the quietest months. Active Adventures website has helpful infographics with tips about peak times for different activities like southern lights and migrating whales, as well as when to get the cheapest flights.
While tipping is not mandatory in New Zealand, tips are always welcome if the service has been exceptional, though not at the 15-20 percent rate Americans are used to. As a tourist town, the restaurants have more of a tipping culture than other places in Southland, so leaving an extra fifty cents or dollar on your tab will always be appreciated.
Though it can certainly be a hopping place during peak travel seasons, it never becomes a party spot like neighboring Queenstown. A quiet, relaxed town where folks are conscious of their neighbors, visitors are expected to help keep the place clean and be respectful of the gentle pace of local life. Of course, if the rugby is on, you can head down to Moose Lodge and get ebullient with the locals.
What to Pack
New Zealand is all about the outdoors, so prepare accordingly, including bug spray, good shoes, and the aforementioned rain gear. Te Anau and the surrounding area are also places of unparalleled tranquility, soaring landscapes, and some of the last, pristine pockets of wild space on the planet. So truly, the less you bring here, the more you will leave with.
For Your Bedside Table
Essential New Zealand Short Stories, by Owen Marshall, is the perfect accompaniment to your time here, providing morsels of insight into the country beyond the bungee jumps and jet boats. From the provinces to the cities, the remote landscapes to journeying overseas, Marshall's stories paint a vivid picture of life on the island and a poignant understanding of his fellow countrymen. In some stories, he skewers the locals with sharp and sly comedy. Others have an elegiac sadness or a grim reality, though always an insightful exploration of human emotions.
Also terrific: The Luminaries, the Man Booker Prize-winning novel set in the 19th-century gold rush by Eleanor Catton.