Hello all! I recently spent three weeks in New Zealand, two of which I spent entirely in Invercargill. I led a Habitat for Humanity work team to help build a house there… so I’m offering not just my opinion, but the collective opinions of a fairly large and diverse group.
Accommodations: seemed to be quite a few decent motels around town, but we stayed at the YHA Invercargill Tuatara Backpackers. This hostel was an absolute delight, and I would recommend it to all ages. They have a very good café attached in the foyer as well as internet stations you can use for NZ$5 / hour. The café closes at 3 or 4pm, and the internet stations close down when reception closes – I think at 8pm. After that you can use the private terminals upstairs, but they are coin operated and only accessible to guests. The middle floor lounge is very nice and hardly used, with a kitchen on the top floor that is top-notch among hostels. Rooms are a bit bare (in terms of decorations / furnishings)… but they are always kept spotless and straight. Bathrooms are a bit dated with some cracked tiles and such… but again, spotless. Water pressure is great, never had problems with hot water… plenty of space in baths, kitchen, storage… I loved the place. This was the best hostel I saw in all of New Zealand, and you don’t have to be a 20-something to enjoy it – plenty of older folks and married couples stayed there and seemed pleased.
Restaurants: I was amazed that every meal I had in Invercargill wasn’t just decent, they were all good to great. I mean seriously, the quality of food was shocking everywhere… and every cook had such an eye for presentation. Some specifics:
O' Shea's Irish Pub: A tad over-priced, but the food was good, the drinks great, and it had a beautiful old pub feel. If you like Irish pubs, you’ll love this place. Good mix of New Zealand food, Irish pub fare, and some tourist-conscious diversity in the menu.
Canton Chinese: the sign just said “Canton” – it might have had another name however. Went for a big lunch one day… very good, modestly priced, could have fed a horse with all the food we got. I especially enjoyed the giant lazy-susan on 8-person tables… made sharing food super fun and easy.
Louie's: we heard this was the place to go for tapas, but the menu didn’t really seem to focus much on tapas. I was the only one who actually DID get tapas, and I enjoyed mine – very good but not great. Seemed to be about as close as you can get to fine dining in Invercargill.
Vinne's: my favorite restaurant in Invercargill. The meals were downright cheap considering how much food we got. The risotto was to DIE for, and the pasta and fresh seafood were unexpectedly nice. It’s a small place, and the night my group walked in… there was another group of 12 there and we took up the whole place. One waitress and one chef still got all our meals out in an hour… and everything was perfect. Seriously, we had her come out and take a bow.
Hell's Pizza: I thought it was unique to Invercargill until we saw a few more locations elsewhere… supposedly it’s a NZ chain for pizza. Anyway, they seem to cater to a rowdy young crowd (at least in Invercargill) but they do make darn good pizza. I would order take-out (or takeaway as the kiwis call it) but definitely the best pizza I found in town. They had one that’s really popular with several meats and bbq sauce… amazing.
The Fat Indian: Indian cuisine, I didn’t go but most of my group did. They all came back raving, it’s this tiny little place hidden in the alley next to the Tuatara, but modestly priced and they loved it.
Thai Dee: Same as above, I didn’t go but the group came back very pleased and with a low bill.
We ate at other places too… like those Turkish places you seem to find in every New Zealand city. The one on Dee St. looks nicer and has a friendlier owner, but the one near the Starbucks has better food. Kiwis seem to REALLY like mayonnaise, every sandwich place, notably Subway, went very heavy on it. Oh, and they put hard-boiled eggs on a lot of sandwiches too! There were plenty of options within the CBD… if you’re staying at the Tuatara… there are at least 20 good choices within a 4 block walk.
Nightlife: Go to a bar or go see a movie… not much else to do. The movie theater is REALLY nice though!
Things to do: Bluff was great but it’s windy and cold up there! Southland Museum was a bit small but worth a visit (especially to see the Tuataras!). Queens Park is amazing if you get a nice day to walk around. If you’re a Burt Munro / World’s Fastest Indian fan be sure to check local hardware stores… I can’t recall which one, but his original bike and the movie replica are hidden in one of them! I think they are being moved into a soon-to-be-completed museum dedicated to that event however. Oh, and go see the Habitat house on Mavora Crst!
Things to not do: Don’t get run over by a teenager driving their pimped out car on Dee St… the fake street racing they do is hilarious but dangerous to pedestrians!
Overall: Invercargill is a great but often overlooked city! The weather can be miserable and change quickly a lot of the year… but I can’t really complain about more than that. I would recommend it to people looking to have a “base camp” for exploring Southland… Stewart Island, Bluff, the Catlins… all easy day trips. So bring your rain coat… but don’t miss this pleasant little place!