There are so many things to see and do in New Zealand, and people will always tell you to make it a priority to see Fjordland at the south-western end of the South Island. And for a good reason.
It is just stunning and out of this world! Driving there from Te Anau makes you feel like you’re the only homo sapiens in rugged, untouched, prehistoric wilderness. Just ignore the fact that there is an absolutely perfect tarmac road that you are driving on which, and I am sure Jeremy Clarkson would agree with me here, has been laid there for you to drive the drive of your life. Ever-changing landscapes, from yellow grasslands to mountains and valleys to alpine beech forests.
How to get to Milford Sound
Don’t underestimate the time it takes though to get there from Queenstown where we had our base. It’s a good 5-hour drive. Remember though that there is a part of the route that is winding its way up and down the mountains, and there are probably a fair amount of campervans in front of you depending on the season, so it’ll take quite a while to get there. The best thing to do is to break up your drive a little by stopping for an early lunch or brunch in Te Anau, plus you will stop over and over again to take pictures as you pass through an ever-changing landscape. Also, keep in mind that the road from Te Anau to Milford is sometimes closed due to torrential rain or trees and rocks falling onto the tarmac after severe weather, so check the road status with New Zealand Transport Authority before you head out from Queenstown!
Choose your Milford cruise
We arrived in Milford Sound just before 3 pm and was just in time to hop onto the last cruise boat of the day at 3.15. You have a few operators to choose from, and all have different types of boats, big ones with open decks on top, or small ones with open decks at the front and rear of the boat. We went with Milford Cruize, which was brilliant because there were only 15 people on board and plenty of room for walking around and taking pictures. That was off-season, though. Prices seem to fluctuate quite a bit; it all depends on the season (summer or winter), the time of day and the duration of the cruise. I paid 55 NZD for one of the cheaper, 1.5h cruises, but this has now gone up to 65 NZD, just like many other prime tourist activities in New Zealand have become a lot more expensive over the last couple of years. That may sound a lot to the budget traveller, and it certainly is, but it is also worth it. Every dollar.
Conditions are perfect…
It was raining heavily when we left Queenstown, and we were wondering whether it was worth the long drive at all. I can’t tell you how glad I am that we decided to go there in spite of that. When the lady at the ticket sales office handed us our boarding passes and told us that we were so lucky to come here on a rainy day, I thought she was either being sarcastic or just a really good salesperson. We figured out soon enough though that she was perfectly right – the rain made the waterfalls swell and created more temporary ones.
Another amazing side effect was that the clouds and mist hung around the mountains, and it made the landscape look even more dramatic. Being a Lord of the Rings fan, I could almost see Sam and Frodo paddling away next to the Mitre Peak…
I’m not particularly enthusiastic about cruises in general, although I have to confess this was my very first one, but I can only recommend a day cruise at Milford Sound to anyone. Not only do you get to see the spectacular fjord, with all the waterfalls, Mitre Peak, and really interesting and informative commentary, but plenty of wildlife as well, such as seals, birds, penguins, and maybe dolphins, too. The boat navigates really closely to the waterfalls, so all you have to do is don your raincoat if you’re not wearing it already, hold out your arm and touch them! And if you get soaked, there’s always plenty of free coffee and tea inside to warm you up.
Tips for Milford Sound
Taking a cruise at Milford was one of the best typical sightseeing or tourist activities I have done in New Zealand, and I don’t regret it. There are also cruises that take a couple of hours longer and even overnight cruises. I’d recommend to camp in Fjordland or stay in Te Anau or just outside it for a night or two so you don’t have to rush your Fjordland or Milford Sound trip. The caveat here is that Te Anau is quite isolated and hence prices are a little steeper for food, fuel, and accommodation, hence my suggestion to either camp or stay a little outside of town, such as Barnyard Backpackers. If you don’t have your own transportation, there are plenty of organised bus trips leaving from Te Anau or Queenstown.
If you want to know more about the different packages available, here are the main cruise companies:
Have you taken a cruise on Milford Sound? What did you make of it?