At over 1.2 million hectares in size, Fiordland National Park is by far the largest national park in New Zealand. It’s beautiful, definitely dramatic and for me – is the epitome of the great outdoors. With so much to see and do, you could easily spend your whole trip in and around the area. One of the highlights of any trip to the park is visiting beautiful Milford Sound.
Contrary to its name, Milford Sound is actually a fiord, not a sound. I talk a bit about the differences between the two in Destinations // Fiordland National Park. You wont really care about difference once you arrive – you’ll just be happy that you are there. As Milford is the only fiord accessible by road in the park, it’s the one where all the tourists will be. And by tourists, I mean the coach loads making their way there from Queenstown. Don’t let this deter you – just be smart in how you plan your adventure as to avoid as much of the crowds as possible. The towering mountains and gushing waterfalls are more than worth it.
Milford Sound can easily be explored in a day trip and trust me, there is no shortage of companies ready to get you there. How you experience it will come down to the length of time you have and your budget. Travellers base themselves in either Queenstown or Te Anau. For those in Queenstown, you have the option of flying over the region to get to and from Milford, taking an organized coach for the 4-hour journey (each way), doing a combo of both – flying in and coaching back (or vice versa) or self-driving.
Because we had plenty of time on our hands and wanted to see more of Fiordland National Park, we chose to base ourselves in Te Anau. From Te Anau, the gorgeous drive to Milford is just over 2 hours (without traffic or photo stops).
Once in Milford it’s all about getting onto the water for your cruise. As with the journeys in, there are plenty of outfitters ready to boat you around the fiord. We chose Mitre Peak Cruises as they have slightly smaller numbers on their boats due to size of the boat and also go the furthest in the fiord. May as well maximize your time on the water when you are there, right?
Here’s a snapshot of our day out at Milford Sound.
// MILFORD HIGHWAY
The Milford Highway to Milford Sound is one of the most scenic in New Zealand. We made our way from Te Anau to Milford town very early for our cruise to avoid the coaches coming in from Queenstown. Given the sheer number of tour busses coming in on our departure I am glad we did. The two-hour drive took us through winding roads, grassy plains and gorgeous mountains.
There are lots of places to stop along the way. Mirror Lakes are popular. It’s here that on a sunny day you can see the reflections of the surrounding Earl Mountains in these little mountain lakes. At Knobs Flat you can learn about the effects of avalanches on Milford Road (is also the last toilet before Milford town).
Enroute you will also get to pass through the Homer Tunnel. The 1.2km tunnel is what connects the Hollyford Valley to the Cleddau Valley – essentially making it the access point to Milford Sound. Be sure to watch the signs and take care as you drive through this feat of engineering. Be prepared for delays if you do not beat the crowds in and out of Milford.
Once through the tunnel there are more stop offs calling you. We opted to stop at the Chasm. A short walk from the parking lot leads you to some pretty cool views of dramatic waterfalls rushing carving their way through the side of the mountains.
Regardless of where you stop off, if you drive, you should think about the following items and plan ahead. There are no fuel stops after Te Anau and combined it’s a 240km return trip. Forget about cellphone coverage – you wont have it. Be sure to bring bug spray to ward off the pesky sandflies. Last but not leas, with tourists wearily driving on the left hand side of the road combined with the need to watch out for avalanches – you can quickly see why this road is one of the most dangerous in New Zealand. Just keep your eyes peeled and enjoy beautiful Fiordland National Park.
When you come to this corner of the world, you simply need to cruise on Milford Sound and soak up Mother Nature. Head down to Milford Sound Wharf, check in at the departures lounge, and away you go.
Our cruise with Mitre Peak Cruises is fairly similar to all the other itineraries available. Over the course of two hours, you will cruise the length of the 16km fiord and pass by lots of the highlights in the area. The captain curates your journey by sharing information about Milford Sound over the loud speaker. It’s very touristy but simply must be done. At least with Mitre Peak Cruises they cap the number of people on the boat at 75 – so it’s slightly less busy on the upper viewing decks than some of the alternatives available.
With a cup of hot cocoa in hand, the ship set off from Milford Sound Wharf and began heading out along the fiord’s southern cliffs. We passed by the iconic Mitre Peak (named so as it’s shape resembles a Bishops hat – a Mitre) and made our way around Copper Point – the windiest area of Milford Sound.
Along the way you will see loads of waterfalls. If it has been raining, the first notable one will be a series of four parallels falls called the Four Sisters Falls. I was too busy taking photos of the rainbow to realize they were parallel – but hey ho.
Fairy Falls and Bridal Viel Falls are next on the list as you continuing to make your way out to the Tasman Sea. The latter is quite impressive as it is tons of smaller falls that vein over the side of the Fiord. As with the Four Sisters, these tend to only be seen after a heavy shower.
On our way to Anita Bay and St. Anne’s Lighthouse – established in the late 1800s at the end of the Fiord, we spotted a rare Fiordland Crested Penguin. Having seen one in Doubtful Sound during a kayaking adventure, I was hoping for some dolphins and whales that tend to frequent the area.
Before hitting the choppy waters of the Tasman Sea, the boat made a U-turn and began heading along the northern cliffs of the fiord via Dale Point. Even though you see the northern side of the Fiord on your initial journey, it is even more beautiful up close.
The boat makes its way past Seal Rock – where you undoubtedly find a handful of New Zealand Fur Seals relaxing in the sun. If you read Destinations // Dunedin, then you will know these guys were almost hunted to extinction – great to see such abundance further along the New Zealand coastline.
The boat also passed by two mountains knows as The Elephant and The Lion due to how they resemble these two wild animals. Underneath The Elephants trunk you will see Stirling Falls. These falls are the second largest falls in the Fiord and are fed by the surrounding glaciers.
As is often the case at some point on the cruise, the captain gets really close to the falls allowing those on the upper deck to get sprayed down. In some cases, the bow of the boat gets submersed – so head the warnings over the loud speaker if you have no intention of getting soaked.
The cruise will pass by the calm Harrison Cove, which houses the famous Underwater Observatory. Some boats offer an add-on to the cruise that lets you disembark the boat and head into the observatory which gives you views of the wildlife and red and black coral the fiords are known for. If you purchased the add-on, make sure they know when you board the boat. We were apparently the only ones on the whole boat who booked it, but they didn’t see it on their roster. Long story short – they never stopped and we had to have it refunded. Bummer.
Before heading back to Milford Sound Wharf, our cruise passed by the gorgeous Bowen Falls. Due to the rains, the waters coming from the Darren Mountain Range were in full force and offered a very impressive final act on our Milford Sound Cruise.
After enjoying our cruise we hopped back in the car and made our way back to the Homer Tunnel. It was around this time that all the coachers were arriving from their 4-hour journey from Queenstown. We only waited about 20 minutes to get our go to exit the Cleddau Valley – and got to admire the gorgeous falls sending us off in style. It doesn’t get more touristy than Milford – but honestly, it’s an adventurer’s New Zealand rite of passage.
NOTE: If you would prefer a less touristy and more authentic sound experience go to Doubtful Sound. Destinations // Doubtful Sound. Having been to both I can say the contrast is fantastic. If you have time on your side, be sure to make the extra trip to get both perspectives.