There’s a touch of another era in Invercargill/Waihōpai. The city was founded in the 1850s and the streets are still lined with many of the beautiful Victorian, Edwardian and Art Deco buildings that were constructed then and during the years following. But there is another reason travellers come to New Zealand’s southernmost (and westernmost) city: it’s close to some incredible natural wonders, including a multitude of coastal landscapes.
One of those, easily accessible on a day trip in the rental car from Invercargill is Te Anau, the gateway to the rugged Fiordland National Park. These alpine ranges and islands surrounded by lakes and ocean covering 1.2 million hectares were created thousands of years ago by the movement of glaciers. Now this area is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, Te Wāhipounamu, which means place of the greenstone (the Māori people came here to gather takiwai, a unique form of local jade). In the north is famous Milford Sound, but if you only have a day to explore Te Anau there are still plenty of ways to take in its dazzling beauty.
The town of Te Anau is about a two-hour drive in the rental car from Invercargill. If you want to make the most of your day in the wilderness, get up early and make sure you arrive in time for the 9am departure with Fiordland Historic Cruises aboard Faith, a 1935 wooden motor-sailer that has travelled all over the world. For the next three hours, you’ll explore South Fiord from the water then take an easy walk through the forest to Hidden Lakes. When you’re on the move, there’s time to explore the ship or help hoist the sails.
If you want a shorter option, Cruise Te Anau offers a one-hour Bay Cruise that takes in the highlights and history of the region. It’s the perfect way to take in the million-dollar views when you’ve got a few other activities on your agenda.
Less like gliding, more like hurtling is the way you might describe a tour with Fiordland Jet. On an exhilarating jet boat ride, you’ll travel down Waiau River and around Lake Manapouri. While there’s plenty of speed involved, there are also times for tranquillity as you take in the unique fauna, look for trout in the river and hear about Māori culture and the region’s history.
A lake cruise takes you to one of the brightest attractions in Te Anau, the Te Anau Glow Worm Caves. These caves have a river running through them – not to mention, an underground waterfall – but by far the stars of the show are the luminous insects, observed during an underground boat ride in the darkness.
This is undoubtedly one of the best places in New Zealand to park the rental car and take on a multiday hike. There’s the South Island’s most famous tramp, Milford Track, which takes four days to complete, as well as the Kepler Track (four days) and the Routeburn Track (two to four days).
Luckily, there are short walks that reveal the region’s natural beauty, too. If you don’t want to eat up the day, drive 20 minutes up the road to the Fiordland National Park Lodge to explore the Lake Mistletoe track. You’ll hoof it over a bridge and through some woodland before coming up to the lake, with mountains in the background. The end of the loop follows the road back to the lodge, and it only takes about 45 minutes.
Want a bigger challenge? Even further north, about an hour’s drive from Te Anau, the Key Summit Track is about 7km return and although you gain about 450m in elevation, the path is never very steep. Choose a clear day and you’ll traipse through lush forests and past waterfalls before you climb up to the summit with snow-capped mountains and lakes all part of the view. Give yourself three hours or so to complete what is, essentially, the beginning of the Routeburn Track.
Only about 3,000 people live in Te Anau, but there are a couple of must-visit spots. The first is the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, where you can see all sorts of rare and unique feathered creatures, including takahē, a big flightless swamphen, and kākā, a large parrot related to the even rarer kea.
Speaking of birds, you’ll also want to visit the Fat Duck for dinner before you head back to Invercargill. This gastropub is casual and welcoming, and the menu features a range of New Zealand produce, including green-lip mussels, venison, salmon and high-country lamb.
Ready to make the most of your day trip to Fiordland? Hire a rental car at Invercargill Airport before you go.