New Zealand is an exquisitely beautiful country.
Exploring the South Island, you’ll quickly realise why it was chosen as the location for the Lord of the Rings filming.
New Zealand’s rugged landscape is straight out of a fairy tale.
It’s even home to a place that’s considered the eighth wonder of the world for its spectacular and untouched beauty.
It’s hard to put into words how just incredible the Milford Sound is.
It’s the number one attraction in the South Island with daily cruises in the sound, as well as tours running from Queenstown.
Just about everyone we knew who had been to the sound said it was the most beautiful place they’ve ever been, and still- we questioned if it was worth visiting.
Located 3.5-4 hours each way from Queenstown, visiting the sound in a single day can make for a very long trip.
And, while it’s possible to stop in between to break the trip up, or camp in the sound itself, doing so requires time.
With only six days to see the best of the South Island, we questioned if taking two days out of our itinerary was the right choice- especially since there was so much else we wanted to see and do.
In the end, we decided to go for it- even if it meant we’d be exhausted from all the driving.
And now, looking back, I can’t believe we almost didn’t visit the sound- it was one of the best parts of our trip to the South Island.
It is unquestionably one of the most amazing places in the world.
We booked a 10 am fjord cruise, reasoning that would give us some time to explore other parts of the sound in the afternoon on our drive back to Queenstown.
To make it there for our morning cruise, we drove out from Te Anau early morning.
On our ride out, the weather was cold, windy and rainy. In fact, we later learned on our way back to Queenstown that a snow and ice advisory had been issued for the sound, beginning shortly after we left.
Back to our drive: Heading through the final mountain pass, we emerged to blue skies and calm waters.
Talk about mountain magic.
We could not have asked for better cruising weather.
Our cruise was booked with Mitre Peaks- their boats are MUCH smaller than other operators, so you’re able to get closer to everything. They’re also the most eco-friendly and conservation minded provider, which was important to us for exploring such an astounding natural wonder.
Cruising the fjord lasted about two hours, and was picture perfect scenery at every bend.
You’ll see soaring limestone cliffs on either side of you, and towering snow capped mountain peaks, including Mount Mitre.
The fjord has two waterfalls- Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls, both fed by glaciers. On our visit, we were lucky to see so many other streams of water flowing down the mountainside, created by the recent rainfall.
Our ship sailed right up to and underneath several of the bigger falls.
In addition to stunning scenery, we also were fortunate to spot rare penguins, tons of seals, and cruised out to where the fjord meets the Tasman Sea.
There are often dolphins in the fjord as well, but our boat operator told us they’d spotted them only the day prior, and it’s not common to see them on consecutive days.
Another reason I loved cruising with Mitre Peaks?
Our guides were so friendly- one of them spent a lot of time talking about his lifestyle, which I found fascinating. He has tribal ancestry, lives 110 km from cell service (or regular Internet access), and hunts / free dives for all his food.
Perhaps one of the best things about visiting the sound is that it’s so much more than a fjord cruise.
On our drive back to Queenstown, we stopped several times for short hikes, and to revel in lookout points.
We allotted ~2-3 hours for these one-off stops, but found ourselves wishing we had more time.
A few of our favourite stops in the sound:
- The Chasm: A must stop, both to walk in giant fern and moss covered woods, and also to admire mountain parrots, a gushing river and stunning rock chasms
- The Tunnel: We were lucky enough to be stopped here for a light, during which time, a few kea (mountain parrots) landed on our car. Felt so fortunate we got to see these beautiful birds close up
- Mirror Lakes: A beautiful serene stop, where you can see a tranquil pool of water reflecting mountains in the background
- Eglington Valley: Gorgeous, expansive valley
- Tutuko Bridge: Beautiful river and valley views
- Hollyford Valley Lookout: A deep valley and snow capped mountains in the distance- swoon
- There were a few other places we stopped, essentially, whenever something caught our eye, so be on the lookout as you’re driving
As far as getting to the sound–
You can take a day trip from Queenstown, although be prepared for it to be long, and for stops in the sound to be limited. I’ve heard Awesome NZ is among the best providers if you’re not renting a car or not set on driving yourself, because they make a few quick stops en route to the cruise, and have glass-top coaches.
We self-drove, stopping in Te Anau overnight. Driving ourselves made the most sense for flexibility, but also because we were also on a week long road trip.
If you have the time, I’d recommend spending another night in Te Anau to break up the drive back, and so you have more time in the sound.
Must Knows for Visiting the Sound
- There’s no cell service from Te Anau to Milford- zilch. It’s only one way in and out, so you can’t get lost, but be sure to look up stops, and download podcasts, etc. before you head in
- Also, no petrol- fuel up in Te Anau
- No food or drink, bring your own
- If camping, reserve in advance- campsites are limited and tend to book out quickly
- Bring bug spray (the sandfly problem is real), and sunscreen
- Check travel advisories constantly- especially before you leave, as road closures can happen at any time. We used NZ Transport Agency, which it seemed like was updated fairly regularly
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