Te Anau – the gateway to the Fiordland National Park – is only 2 hours drive from Queenstown. Situated on the shores of Lake Te Anau, one of the great Southern Lakes, this lively and pretty lakeside community bustles with cafés, shops, accommodation and activities. Te Anau is the nearest town to Milford and Doubtful Sounds as well as having the famous Milford and Kepler Great Walks on its doorstep.
The name Te Anau is of Maori origin (Te Ana-au), meaning ‘rushing waters in a cave’ but the caves were only rediscovered in the 1940s. At 12,000 years old, the caves are relatively young and are still being formed by water action. These days they’re famous for the glowworm grotto deep inside. More about that later…
Day 1: An easy 30 minute stroll from the centre of town along the lake, you’ll find the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary. It’s a small non-profit organization that focuses on nurturing injured birds and actively breeding the near-extinct Takahe birds. We got there for 10.30am when the DOC ranger feeds all the birds and gives a very informative talk as you walk around with her. They have four Takahe birds (there are only 375 left in the world). It was amazing to be in the pen with them and the, very passionate, ranger allowed my two eldest children to feed them. It was a wonderful experience for them, being able to get so close to one of the rarest birds in the world.
The tour took about 45 minutes, in which time we were involved in feeding the Kaka and Kereru, Paradise ducks, Antipodean Parrots, Yellow Crowned Parakeets and (to the kids disgust) treating the elderly Morepork owl to some cut-up mouse! The Ranger gave a fantastic commentary on the individual birds and the history of birds in New Zealand. Entry is by donation and it’s definitely worth checking the feeding times before you go so that you don’t miss out on getting up close and personal.
We walked back along the lake to the tune of a three-year old whining about his tired legs and empty tummy. The promise of yummy food when we got back into town didn’t disappoint.
Habit Foods is a custom built, locally owned, food trailer creating ‘Kiwi kai with an Asian twist’. Given that it has only been open a year and has already jumped to the top spot on Trip Advisor, we were keen to meet Jo and Ryan, the owners, and give this place a go.
The menu literally made your mouth water! Even though I had been studying the menu for days in preparation for our visit, I still couldn’t decide what to have, everything looked delicious. Whilst I was confident that my husband and I would devour our food I was less confident about the kids. Whilst not fussy eaters, I was worried that the blend of ingredients, most of which were new to their pallets, wouldn’t go down well. I was also concerned that names such as ‘Bambi’ and ‘Hoppy’ and ‘Feathered’ might put off my animal-loving five year old.
I needn’t have worried! In the end, the big kids (aged 3 and 5) shared a ‘Porky’ (Pork Belly, Miso cucumber, crackle and coriander) Bao and some Smokey BBQ fries with Aioli. It was all gone in seconds. I can confidently say that I have never seen our kids enjoy food as much as they did here. My husband opted for the ‘Hoppy’ (Confit Hare leg, pickled shiitake, coriander, candied cashews) which our one year old happily helped him eat and I went for the ‘Bambi' (Wild Fiordland Venison, pickled beetroot and peanuts) which I wasn’t sharing with anyone. The Bao’s (steamed buns) were fresh and filled with great flavours and all locally sourced ingredients. Vegetarians and Vegans don’t miss out on the goodness either as there were a few yummy options for the non-meat eaters. The service was quick and friendly, and the price was brilliant value ($12 or $14 with fries). We’re literally counting down to our next visit. I’ve already decided that I want the Vietnamese loaded fries and a Quinoa salad … Oh, and maybe the Brekkie Bao too seeing as we’re always up at the crack of dawn…!
After filling our tummies we took a short drive to Lake Manapouri for a kid-friendly walk along Frasers Beach. Nestled amongst the Kepler Mountains, Turret Range and the Hunter Mountains, it’s great for families, with picnic and swimming spots (in the warmer months) and stunning scenery. The views from the beach, especially at sunset, are awe-inspiring.
Just remember to take your insect repellant with you. We forgot and ended up being attacked by sandflies. One of the kids little bites left my daughter’s arm twice the size and sore for days.
So, note to self – antihistamine and repellant go a long way down this neck of the woods!
On the way back to Te Anau we stopped at Rainbow Reach swing bridge. What kid doesn’t like scaring their parents by jumping on a swing bridge and running across it as fast as they can?!
One of the beauty's of Lake Te Anau is the lack of light pollution. That evening we all sat down by the lake and gazed up – the sky was magnificent; I don’t think the kids had ever seen so many stars!
Day 2: The next morning, my five-year-old daughter and I took a cruise across Lake Te Anau with Real Journey's to see the Glowworm caves. What an experience! Upon arrival at the Cavern House, we learnt about the life-cycle of the glowworms as well as the history of the caves. We were then led by our guide, and his torch, on an exploration of the caves by footpath. The water-sculpted rock formations were like nothing my daughter had ever seen, and accompanied by the sound of the rushing underground river, was a walk she’ll never forget.
The guide then led us to a small punt and a group of ten of us, silently floated through the caves marveling at the shimmering illumination of thousands of tiny glowworms. It was magical! Before the 30 minute cruise back to town, we were treated to hot drinks, a short presentation and video and a chance to walk around the bush which normally you need a permit to be in as it is a conservation area for the Takahe.
I would recommend this to all families, however if you have a child who is scared of the dark, or loud noises, then perhaps it’s one to save for a later date. I’m not sure our three year old boy would have enjoyed it quite so much as we did!
While we were off looking at glowworms, my husband took the other two little ones to Sputnik Playground, which is in the middle of town. I can confidently say that this one rates as the number two playground that we have had the pleasure (ahem) of hanging out in (behind the amazing Margaret Mahy playground in Christchurch).
We didn’t have time this year, but last year we spent a day on the stunning Kepler Track (one of NZ’s great walks). With a 9 month old, two year old, four year old, nine year old and a husband with his leg in a frame following a major operation, we decided to cheat and get a head start with the Kepler water taxi. The boat took us across the lake to the walking track. You can’t beat a walking track that’s been built with the purpose of showing off the very best features of Fiordland.
A number of New Zealand’s hiking trails first came about out of pure necessity – they followed old Maori greenstone trails or pioneer routes. In stark contrast, the Kepler Track was custom-built for pure hiking pleasure. Its alpine vistas, rugged high country, deep gorges and tall beech forests make the Kepler one of our favourite NZ Must Do’s.
The kids were in heaven. The walk took us about five-six hours and behind every rock or mossy tree stump there was a fairy or hobbit. At every beach we had to build dens out of driftwood and every pebble we found had to be constructed into a tower!