Peaceful, lakeside Te Anau township is the main gateway to Fiordland National Park tramps and the ever-popular Milford Sound, as well as a pleasant place to while away a few days. It's large enough to have a smattering of good eateries and places to stay, but it's much easier on the liver and the wallet than attention-grabbing Queenstown.
Bypassed entirely by SH1, the often-overlooked Catlins coast is tucked away at the southeastern corner of the South Island, straddling Southland and Otago. Named after a 19th-century whaling captain, it's an enchanting region, combining fecund farmland, native forest, lonely lighthouses, empty beaches, bushwalks and wildlife-spotting opportunities.
This flat and somewhat featureless town tends to inspire ambivalence in its visitors (except for Keith Richards, who famously dubbed it the 'arsehole of the world' during the Rolling Stones' 1965 visit), yet it satisfies all key requirements as a pit-stop between the Catlins, Stewart Island/Rakiura and Fiordland.
If you make the short but extremely rewarding trip to Stewart Island/Rakiura you'll have one up on most New Zealanders, many of whom maintain an active curiosity about the country's 'third island' without ever actually going there. Travellers who make the effort are rewarded with a warm welcome from both the local kiwi and the local Kiwis.
Sydney Opera House, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower – one's first glimpse of the world's most famous sights can stop you in your tracks and immediately insert a lump in your throat. So it is with Mitre Peak (Rahotu), the spectacular, 1692m-high mountain rising from the dark waters of Milford Sound (Piopiotahi).
Formerly a timber-milling town, sleepy Tuatapere is now largely a farming centre that for no easily explainable reason likes to refer to itself as the 'sausage capital of the world'. Those early woodcutters were very efficient, so only a remnant of a once-large tract of native podocarp (conifer) forest remains. Wilderness, however, is not far away.
Manapouri is the jumping-off point for cruises to Doubtful Sound, with most visitors heading straight to the boat harbour for the ferry to West Arm. This leaves it sleepy and somewhat underrated, for not only is Lake Manapouri one of NZ's most beautiful towns, with a backdrop bettering Te Anau, there are ample interesting things to do and local people to do them with.
Magnificent Doubtful Sound is a wilderness area of fractured and gouged mountains, dense forest and thundering waterfalls. Technically a fiord, having being carved by glaciers, Doubtful is one of NZ’s largest sounds – three times the length and 10 times the area of Milford. It is also much, much less visited.
Around 66km northeast of Invercargill, Gore is the proud ‘home of country music’ in NZ, with the annual Gold Guitar Week in late May and early June ensuring the town’s accommodation is booked out for at least 10 days per year. For the other 355 days, good reasons to stop include a notable art gallery, a neat little museum, and the chance to fly in vintage aeroplanes.
Owaka & Around
Owaka is the Catlins’ main town (population a hefty 303), and it's well worth calling in to visit the excellent museum and to stock up on petrol and groceries before continuing on. Pounawea, a beautiful hamlet on the edge of the Catlins River Estuary, 4km to the east, is a much more appealing place to put down roots.