Within New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, lies the country’s most famous attraction, Milford Sound. Fiordland National Park is situated in the southwest section of New Zealand’s southern island and is quite isolated from civilization. In fact, the nearest town (Te Anu) is about 2 hours away, keeping this park much more pristine than others worldwide. Fiordland National Park gets its beauty and magnificent land formations due to its presence on top of the Alpine Fault, the boundary between the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. Combine the uplifted earth with the many glaciers that have retreated, and you are left with this amazing landscape.
Fiordland National Park lies in a section of New Zealand called Te Wahipounamu; this entire area, which includes Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Carved by glaciers millions of years ago, this landscape creates hundreds of waterfalls when its rains and has 2 permanent water falls that cascade hundreds of feet. All of this water eventually leads to the Tasman Sea, part of the southern Pacific Ocean.
Milford Sound is so popular because of its easier accessibility, compared to the other sounds in the park. For example, Doubtful Sound is also exceptionally beautiful with limited visitors, but is only accessible via boat. Milford Sound is the only fiord with road access. Be sure you are prepared for rain when you visit. Milford Sound and the surrounding area is one of the wettest places on Earth.
Even though one can explore Milford Sound by boat or from the air, some adventurous types opt for kayaking in the Sound in the summer (although the Sound is quite large to kayak!) Others spend an overnight cruise here, with 2 days and one night on the water, soaking in the romantic atmosphere and solitude this area offers.
If you decide to travel to New Zealand during their winter (June – August, although snow chains are required in Milford Sound from May to November), don’t take chances driving here yourself. There are slick, steep, and narrow roads all over this area. Rather than get snow chains and suffer anxiety while driving, just hire a tour company to take you there. Let the Kiwis who know the roads and the weather handle the driving!
Since my family and I were visiting Milford Sound in wintry June, we booked a coach and cruise tour with Southern Discoveries. This tour included either a pickup at their visitor center in Queenstown/Te Anu or from your Queenstown hotel, a drive to Milford Sound, an hour and a half cruise, and the ride back to Queenstown/Te Anu/hotel. All in all, our tour to and from Queenstown took about 12 1/2 hours, most of which was spent on the bus. (Milford Sound is a long four hours from Queenstown and a two-hour drive from Te Anu.) The coach and cruise cost was around $190 NZD for adults, $100 NZD for kids 4-14, and $50 NZD for kids 0-3. This included the international buffet onboard the boat. They also offer other food options (a picnic lunch, Obento lunch, or Indian lunch) when booking the tour.
Some tour companies working in Milford Sound offer the option of flying to and from Milford Sound, if the weather is cooperative. It’s much more expensive but it’s obviously faster than driving four hours each way. You can even take the coach bus to Milford Sound and fly home to avoid the long ride home at the end of the day.
We arrived at the Queenstown Southern Discoveries Visitor Center before check in at 7am and the bus loaded everyone shortly after. After picking up a few hotel guests, we were on the road before sunrise.
Our coach bus had about 50 seats, USB chargers, free wifi until Te Anu (the free wifi never worked well for me and after Te Anu there’s no cell service), and a toilet. The bus tour included lively commentary from our driver, a front view camera with its feed displayed on 2 screens, and plenty of windows (including a glass roof) to take in the views.
When I booked my reservation I was incorrectly told that there was a washroom on the bus. It seemed what they considered as a washroom was actually a compostable toilet in a tiny closet with no sink. Our bus driver said to ONLY use it for emergencies since there was no flushing mechanism. We did, however, stop about 2 hours into the trip at Wapiti Bakery in Te Anu for restrooms, food, and drink.
Wapiti Cafe and Bakery was a 20-30 minute stop. The cafe had three or four private restrooms and a sold a wide variety of food and drinks to choose from.
Once inside the national park, our first stop was Eglinton Valley, our first photo opportunity. I had never seen an area like this before, a grassy field next to cloud piercing mountains!
About 15 minutes later we stopped for a short nature hike at Mirror Lakes. We exited the bus and walked on a short trail that showcased a view of the Earl Mountains. This leisure stroll lasted no more than ten minutes, including time to take photos.
From here, we drove to Knobs Flat, where we had our last restroom stop. I was beginning to feel at this point, that there were a lot of stops on this tour, but I didn’t realize our cruise of Milford Sound didn’t start until 1:30.
We drove to the Gertrude Valley lookout, where we encountered the intelligent yet pesky Kea bird. These birds are the only alpine parrot in the world and seem to survive with the help of their curiosity. These birds are very smart, even hiding under our stopped bus while it was raining. However, they can cause a lot of problems, pecking at things (car parts, people, backpacks) and constantly searching for food. Because they are omnivores, they have been known to peck through the skin of sheep, eating the fatty tissue underneath, and leaving the sheep with a likely fatal infection. The Kea were not shy and we were told to leave them alone and refrain from feeding them.
After driving through the Homer Tunnel, we saw the dramatic view of The Chasm. With its high mountainous walls and delicate waterfalls, we could tell we were almost at Milford Sound. Ten minutes later, we were dropped off at the Milford Sound visitor center and waited to board our touring vessel. This visitor center has bathrooms, vending machines, and desks for various touring operators. It’s here that visitors can check for information and availability on flying back to Te Anu or Queenstown, instead of the four-hour bus ride back to Queenstown.
Once on board the vessel, those of us who paid for the international buffet lunch were able to eat. You must sign up and pay for the buffet lunch when you book your cruise ticket. Those that didn’t order lunch sat above on the second deck.
Items on the buffet included: salad, a vegetable and noodle dish, roasted vegetables, spring rolls, fish, rice, chicken, ribs, mussels, as well as ice cream (one serving per person), coffee, tea, milk, and water. These listed beverages were available throughout the entire cruise and were free to anyone on the vessel. Southern Discoveries does offer soft drinks, alcohol, and snacks but they are only for sale.
While guests ate lunch, the vessel left dock and headed towards the Tasman Sea. We saw great views of Bowen Falls which falls 525 feet and Stirling Falls, falling 480 feet down into the Sound. Since the boat tour heads out to sea and then returns back the same way, guests are able to see everything twice. The captain of the boat made sure we got up close and personal with the falls at least once, during the tour. If you’re standing outside on deck, be prepared to get soaked.
Due to the large number of international tourists, tour guides have descriptive commentary in multiple languages. There are also multilingual informational sheets on board for foreign tourists which point out the cruise highlights.
Our boat navigated through the narrow Sound and stopped just short of the Tasman Sea. The rain continued to fall and the strong winds whipped the rain in every direction. At this point, I was quite soaked (I was outside but under an awning most of the time) and cold, but it was to be expected as it was winter. For me, the majesty of the untouched and unblemished land was the best part of the cruise.
At one point, we traveled along with a pod of dolphins in Milford Sound. We also got close to a few seals that were resting on rocks. In addition to dolphins and seals, penguins, seabirds, and whales can also be seen here. Due to the constant rain during our tour, we were able to see a plethora of waterfalls cascading down the sides of the mountains.
When our vessel was heading back to the dock, more clouds rolled in. The fog and the clouds created an ominous environment in Milford Sound and blocked all color from the landscape. Because of this, our photos appear to be in black and white!
We arrived back on land after our 90 minute cruise and were allowed ten minutes in the visitor center before departing. Fortunately, the bus ride home was faster, as we did not stop at any sites. The only stop we made was at the halfway point (Te Anu) where we had a 30 minute break at a gift shop and cafe. Once in Queenstown, we stopped at a few hotels to drop people off and arrived back at the Southern Discoveries Queenstown Visitor Center.
Regardless of which tour operator you go with, it’s a good idea to pack the following when visiting Milford Sound:
Obviously going during the winter gives you the advantage of fewer crowds, more waterfalls, but crummy weather. It was pretty spectacular to see Milford Sound in the winter, but I gather it’s more glorious in the summer with blue skies and sun. When the clouds roll in during winter, you can’t appreciate the height of the mountains as much or the vast expanse that makes up this area.
Nevertheless, Milford Sound was certainly a sight to behold. I enjoyed hearing about the history of the fiord, the captains that sailed right by its opening, and the variety of wildlife that have been seen here. I would recommend the Southern Discoveries coach and cruise tour to others, as it was an informative and entertaining day of travel. In fact, the sights on the coach bus tour were just as exciting, to me, as seeing Milford Sound.
As a vegetarian, the international buffet lunch was ok. There were enough non-meat items for me to eat, but the quality of the food was just ok. If you can get the buffet for free (with a promotion), it’s definitely the better route to take. For the buffet, adults cost $20 and children cost $10, but since they only leave the buffet out for 30 minutes, you’re likely not going to get your money’s worth. Obviously it’s a long morning aboard a bus and since there aren’t a lot of options for food, getting food on the boat is somewhat necessary. However, I can’t recommend the buffet for $20.
I hope you enjoy Milford Sound. It’s definitely a “must-see” on any New Zealand tourist’s list!