There is no denying that Milford Sound should make it onto your New Zealand road trip itinerary. Although at times it can be overrun with tourists, it's obvious to see why! The views over this spectacular Fjord are unique and breathtaking.
As far as the commercialization goes, you still won't find phone reception, tourist shops or Mcdonalds here. I honestly hope it will stay that way.
There are two restaurants, a visitor centre, boat pier, a single air strip, a campground and a lodge. Yep, that's it!
I've had the luck of visiting it on 9 (I think) separate occasions during distinct times of the year and I feel like I could go back there at least few more times and still experience something else. I recently went back and did the famous Milford Track too.
There are a few fascinating facts you should know about Milford Sound before you head out this way.
1. Milford Sound is not a sound!
It’s a Fjord!!! My whole life is a lie. It’s just like the moment when I found that pineapples don't grow on trees or that Hawaiian pizza is a Canadian invention. Anyway it is what it is, beautiful nonetheless.
Just for clarification: In geography, a sound is a large sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay, deeper than a bight, and wider than a fjord. I guess Milford Sound just isn’t wide enough.
2. It's named after a place in Wales!
Yes that’s right, there’s a Milford Haven in wales, where the European discoverer John Grono was from. I bet it’s not nearly as pretty as Milford Sound in New Zealand though!
Obviously Maoris - the native people of New Zealand have known about this place long long long long before European settlers (more than 1000 years) and named it Piopiotahi after the piopio bird, endemic to NZ but now unfortunately extinct. I personally think Piopiotahi sounds way cooler! Don't you?
3. It rains a lot in here!
Milford Sound sees more rainy than dry days. In an average year, it rains 183.9 days out of the 365 which is just over 50%. It is also one of the wettest inhabited places on Earth with 6,412mm on rainfall in an average year. Sometimes it rains here more in a day than in some countries in a whole year!
But the more rain, the more waterfalls, so embrace it! Many people think it's even better in the rain.
4. Milford Sound is a busy tourist destination!
It gets over one million tourists every year. That’s over 2740 people every day on average. It’s not only New Zealand’s most visited tourist attraction, it’s the most visited place in the whole Oceania!
Note: Fewer than 1% of people end up staying overnight! If I were you I would consider being in that 1%. Sunsets and sunrises here are pretty spectacular!
5. Water can flow upwards in Milford Sound!
You read that right. After a heavy rainfall and on a particularly windy day, the water cascading over the mountains has been known to be blown further upwards by strong gales caused by the shape of the inlet (Inlet, fjord, sound who cares anymore! Water is flowing upwards people!!!).
6. Iconic Mitre Peak is more than just pretty!
Due to its apparent resemblance to a Christian's bishops mitre hat, the signature Mitre Peak was coined. I think Captain John Lord Stokes, who named it, must have had a bit too much rum if that's what he saw when looking at the peak.
At 1690 m a.s.l it's one of the highest mountains in the world raising straight out of sea! It's also definitely one of the most photogenic points in all of New Zealand.
7. It's rich in wildlife!
It’s possible to spot seals, penguins, dolphins and even whales in here! It's also very common to have Kea, New Zealand's famous alpine parrot, pecking on you car window! Damn New Zealand you crazy!!!
I have been lucky enough to spot dolphins in Milford Sound and also some in Doubtful Sound, Milford's bigger sister, to the south.
8. It really is the 8th Wonder of the World!
Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the 8th wonder of the world and he wrote the non fictional documentary "The Jungle Book", so he must be right! Who am I to question it!
What's the best way to experience Milford Sound?
Most visitors to New Zealand choose to visit Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown. Whilst it may be a popular and time saving option, in my opinion it is not the best one.
If you have a bit more time and are travelling around New Zealand for at least 4 weeks, try to spend at least one night in Milford Sound. You will be positively surprised how quiet this place becomes after the crowd of daily visitors leave. It will give you an awesome chance to truly appreciate the immensity and beauty of the Fjord.
Whilst there is vast array of bus tours going out of Queenstown and Te Anau, which are the nearest towns I think self driving is the way to go. Firstly because the road to Milford Sound is one of the most spectacular ones on the South island. Secondly, it will give you the freedom to stop wherever and whenever you want. Unless it is on the bend on a curvy mountain road - please don't do that!
Make sure to stay overnight in Milford Sound, catch the sunset and if you are lucky see the calm Fjord in the early morning with its peaks reflecting in the water.
Due to the limited availability, you may not be able to book accommodation in Milford Sound, in this case make sure to stay the night before in Te Anau, which is the nearest town and head out early to beat the crowds and all the bus tours heading that way!
Again there are loads of companies offering flights from either Te Anau or Queenstown to Milford Sound. I personally flew to Milford Sound during winter months with Glenorchy Air and couldn't recommend it enough!
Flying so close to the snow capped mountain peaks and glaciers and seeing the Humboldt mountain range will forever be one of my most fond memories of my year spent in New Zealand. Whilst not the cheapest option, it is certainly the best if your time is limited.
You can leave at a sociable hour, do the whole trip in just half a day and be back in Queenstown by early afternoon!
Not everyone can allow themselves to purchase a flight or rent a car. In this case the bus tour is a good option.
The journey will begin in the early morning hours. It takes around 4,5 hours to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown, then around 2 hours for the cruise and another 4,5 hours back. It's a long day, but you can't miss seeing Milford Sound if you are in New Zealand!!
Bus drivers do stop at some scenic points, like the Hollyford valley or the Chasm, but taking a photo through the crowd of 40 people may be a bit challenging.
A great way to experience both ways of getting in and out of Milford Sound and not missing out on either one is booking a combo tour. You can choose to take a bus to Milford Sound and then fly back to Queenstown.
It will give you the chance to experience the spectacular drive through Fiordland National Park, but also see the place from above. Moreover it will spare you from spending most of the day on a bus.
DO NOT do Fly - Cruise - Coach because the bus drivers on the way out from Milford Sound do not stop at many scenic view points!!!
If you are an outdoorsy soul and are feeling more adventurous you can join a kayaking tour around Milford Sound.
You won't be able to get out all the way to Tasman sea, like the cruises do, but you will certainly get a more intimate and less touristy look into the Fjord.
It's worth mentioning that Kayak and Cruise combos are also available!
5. Scenic Flight
Even if you decided to self drive to Milord Sound and take a cruise around the Fjord, you can still book either helicopter or small plane scenic flight.
They usually last 25-30 minutes. The most popular route is flying from Milford Sound Air Base through the surrounding valleys towards Lake Quill and Sutherland Falls, out to Tasman Sea and back through the Milford Sound all whilst getting very close and personal to the towering peaks!
6. Overnight Cruise
This is the ultimate in luxury packages.
Not only will it let you be at Milford Sound for sunrise and sunset but Fiordland Discovery's boat, a company I highly recommend, also has kayaks, a helipad, an on board chef, private ensuite rooms and a roof top hot tub for star gazing.
My experience on an overnight cruise at Milford Sound was one of the most exciting ways to experience this national treasure.
When is the best time to visit Milford Sound?
I have visited Milford Sound a lot, experiencing all of New Zealand's seasons. If I were to pick my favourite I would say Autumn was the best time. The rain and wind tends to quiet down and there are fewer crowds.
Winter is pretty awesome too, but a lot colder in the mornings and nights. If you are staying overnight and planning on doing some hikes in the area, e.g. Gertrude Saddle, Lake Marian or Key Summit, please note that the treks may be inaccesible due to avalanche risk or lack of maintanance during winter months. Some of the best hikes on the South Island start on the road to Milford Sound.
Last but not least, there is one dark secret about Milford Sound that you may not hear often. It swarmed with sand flies! These little blood sucking insects can turn your visit into nightmare. Just a few bites can put you into uncontrollable scratching mode. Avoid dark clothes (they are attracted to it) and make sure to take strong insect repellent with you!
Legend has it that demigod, Tū-te-rakiwhānoa released sandflies into the area because she didn't want any human presence to spoil, what she thought to be, her masterpiece, Piopiotahi. Good try!!!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.com. I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.