A Milford Sound trip had been on our travel wish list for a long time. But the great distance to get there, involving a long drive or an expensive flight was the main reason we never went there. Further, we always expected we would do one of the Great Walks, and we were waiting until we had more time and felt fit enough.
Enter 2020. There were many places on our travel wish list for 2020. A Milford Sound trip was not one of them. But this year, due to Covid-19, we had to cancel plans and could only travel within New Zealand. As we wanted to see something new and inspiring, Milford Sound sounded like an exciting idea. We imagined the scenic destination would feel like going to the end of the world. We imagined remote untouched wilderness and a Jurassic ambience.
Having travelled extensively in New Zealand for over 20 years, we found many destinations to call our favourites. We have lived on the West Coast of New Zealand (one of our favourites) for the last few years. Jurassic is its middle name. We live on a mountain top retreat in the rainforest overlooking kilometres of coastline. So, we wondered whether we had become so spoiled that Milford Sound would not astonish us the way it does with millions of tourists from all over the world?
We pondered these things from a lakefront room in Queenstown as we researched getting there, where to stay and Milford Sound trip and cruise options.
This post is to help you navigate your way to Milford Sound and to recommend what to see on the way. Most importantly, it is about what we thought of it and whether it is worth a visit!
Visiting Milford Sound & Fiordland National Park
Milford Sound is part of the untouched and rugged UNESCO World Heritage-listed Fiordland National Park. New Zealand’s largest national park is known for its remoteness and ancient wilderness.
There are cruises on Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound. Doubtful Sound has no direct road access and involves a boat trip and a coach ride, so we chose to go to Milford Sound. We liked the idea of self-driving all the way there and exploring the Fiordland National Park on the way.
There is only one road in, passing serene lakes, dense bush, snow-capped mountain peaks and lush valleys.
When to Visit Milford Sound
Milford Sound has the highest rainfall in all of New Zealand at over 6000mm of rain per year. It is why the landscape is so lush and the waterfalls so impressive.
January is the rainiest month, and the waterfalls are dramatic. Additionally, the sunniest and warmest months are January and February. However, if you don’t like crowds, stay away during the school holidays.
Alternatively, a Milford Sound trip in winter is a snowy wonderland adventure. Though, the temperature can get as low 1-2 degrees Celsius. Also, flights may get cancelled, and road closures can occur due to the weather. Further, snow chains are essential if you travel in the winter to Milford Sound.
Also, if you are combining your visit with hiking, note that the hiking season starts in late October through to late April.
How To Get To Milford Sound
The drive to Milford Sound is approximately 4 hours from Queenstown. The long drive, through narrow and windy road through the wilderness, is challenging for drivers not experienced in this terrain. For this reason, many people choose to take a tour.
Day tours depart from Queenstown, or Te Anau, early in the morning and travel by coach. They stop at a few viewpoints on the way, drop you off at the cruise terminal for a 2-hour cruise on Milford Sound and then take you back to Queenstown. This option is easy, and you don’t need to worry about driving.
Alternatively, for those who have more money and less time, there are scenic flights to Milford Sound. The spectacular flight, either by plane or helicopter, over the majestic Southern Alps and Fiordland National Park is a New Zealand highlight for many. Combined with a cruise, it is a mind-blowing experience.
If you wish to book a day tour by coach, or a scenic flight, and take the worry out of driving there are many options. We recommend GetYourGuide for your research, as they have all the tours on the one website.
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How you get to Milford Sound depends on what you prefer. We read many online reviews, and people love the day tour and the scenic flight. We would love to do the flight one day. It would be a different experience and a once in a lifetime adventure.
Ultimately, we love road trips and having control of stopping where we want and seeing what is on the way. Also, we like having the choice to stay longer if we wish to, so we chose the self-drive option for our Milford Sound trip.
The rest of this post is about what to see on the way to Milford Sound and Milford Sound cruise. Additionally, we cover where to stay.
The Road to Te Anau
The first part of the journey from Queenstown is very scenic, with the road wrapping around the lake for the first 15 minutes of the drive. There are a couple of lookouts with fantastic photo possibilities of the magical lake views. The rolling hills and farmland are a pleasant 2-hour drive to Te Anau.
Te Anau is the administrative centre for Milford Sound. There are camping supply stores and charming cafes.
Make sure to get petrol, food and drinks in Te Anau. Milford Sound has no petrol stations, no supermarkets and there is just one restaurant, and one cafe serving light meals at the cruise terminal.
If you have time, stay in Te Anau and visit the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, as well as the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary.
What to See On The Way to Milford Sound
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound begins by losing mobile phone coverage within a few kilometres of Te Anau. Additionally, there is no WiFi at Milford Sound, though you can purchase it from Milford Sound Lodge or Milford Sound terminal.
The magic begins as soon as you lose phone coverage. The drive along Milford Road takes approximately 2 hours. Though, we spent a further 3 hours on stops to view waterfalls and take photos. Everywhere there are photo opportunities and adventures in the wilderness. Whether you want to see waterfalls, lakes or lush valley and epic mountain vistas or to go on hikes, the natural wonders abound. Forge your own path and stop where you fancy.
For more information, on recommended stops on the Te Anau to Milford Sound drive, see next week’s post.
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Where to Stay in Milford Sound
Freedom camping is not allowed in Milford Sound. However, there are several DOC campsites along the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound. They are inexpensive, but the facilities are minimal.
There is only one place to stay in Milford Sound – Milford Sound Lodge. You can stay in a cabin or the campground.
We stayed in a powered campsite, as we had just equipped our van for travelling and sleeping. We declared it one of the best campgrounds in New Zealand. The camp setting in the rainforest, and the sunset colours in the camp was surreal. Also, to our delight, there were many birds, and we had close encounters with keas.
Many people who drive to Milford Sound choose to say in Te Anau. There are many options from cabins, backpackers, motels and 4-star accommodation. Some offer stunning lake views. Also, there are many cafes and restaurants in Te Anau.
Check out options at booking.com and start planning your Milford Sound trip. We use them to book all our accommodation because of the diversity offered.
Milford Sound Cruise
A Milford Sound cruise is on the bucket list of many New Zealanders and international visitors alike. The glacier-carved fiord is 15 kilometres in length and enclosed by steep cliffs.
We spent quite a bit of time researching the boats. Unless you wish to add an overnight cruise, a kayaking tour, a guided hike or underwater observatory visit, all the boats take the same route and the same amount of time. So it is up to you which boat appeals to you the most. Some do include lunch.
GetYourGuide has many options under the one website. Research for your trip and make a Milford Sound trip your next holiday!
The cruise starts with one of the highlights of the cruise, Mitre Peak. As our trip was in spring, there was still snow on the peaks, which make for an extra element of scenic.
There were waterfalls everywhere. Some of our highlights were the permanent waterfalls Stirling Falls & Lady Bowen Falls. But Fairy Falls & Bridal Veil Falls, which is the same height as Niagara Falls, were just as imposing. And we felt lucky it had recently rained, yet it was sunny on the day of our trip.
As we glided through the calm water of Milford Sound, we were in awe of the towering mountains, sheer cliffs and rocky formations formed over 600 million years ago.
As we said earlier, we wondered if anything would impress us as we had been to so many wondrous places.
But if we weren’t impressed by the otherworldly landscape, the wildlife stole our hearts. To see the bottlenose dolphins playing in their natural habitat was a delightful occasion. We saw fur seals lazing on rocks, and we glimpsed the rare yellow crested penguins.
What We Thought of Milford Sound
And regarding our pre-trip concerns about Milford Sound dulling in comparison to what we have on the West Coast of New Zealand?
It’s an interesting question. The West Coast bush is a temperate rainforest with subtropical vegetation, as opposed to alpine. Dense forests and spectacular coastlines with wild seas are what give it a Jurassic feel.
But the fact that we live in this paradise did not diminish our Milford Sound trip, as we thought it would! The experience we had of finding it exciting, spectacular and epic, considering we live somewhere that is just that, suggests a lot.
Additionally, we have travelled through the fjords of Norway and many grand rivers and lake cruises around the world. We have not found any comparable in magnitude or epic features to Milford Sound. And, out of all the waterfalls in New Zealand, Milford Sound had some of the most majestic ones we have seen!
We consider the drive to Milford Sound a dazzling road trip and the cruise one of the best in the world. Whether you live in the city, or a small town with flat farmland, or the fjords of Norway, or the West Coast of New Zealand, you are going to be amazed in wonder at the extraordinary Milford Sound.
So in conclusion, the Milford Sound trip and cruise are a once in a lifetime journey. If you have come to New Zealand for a once in a lifetime trip, make sure you do not miss it! If you live in New Zealand, you must visit this natural wonderland at least once in your life! Milford Sound is one of the highlights of the many natural wonders that New Zealand has to offer!
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