Pack your bags, and hop on a flight – it’s off to New Zealand, and if you’d like a full itinerary of what to do there you should definitely check out this very excellent run-down over here. (spoiler, we wrote it).
HOW TO GET THERE:
It’s a few hours in the car or bus to see an iconic natural destination on the best of days, and Milford Sound is no different. This baby is located on the south-west end of New Zealand’s South Island, a.k.a almost as far down as you can go. It’s also located in Fiordland National Park, which limits accommodation to just one provider and forbids freedom camping.
Thankfully, one day will let you see the highlights of the national park and the sound, so you can base yourself in nearby Te Anau, a small town of about 3000 people right on a lake – picture perfect!
You can drive out to Milford Sound yourself and take one of the many cruise options for the Sound that are available – but for this day trip, considering you’ll be splashing out on a cruise already we would highly recommend taking a tour instead. Why? It takes about two hours to drive from Te Anau, and at times the road can be very windy. That’s fine, except you’re also surrounded by 360° spectacular views the whole way. To really enjoy it, and not have to drive four hours in a day, just take a tour. More on the benefits of a tour later.
You can also choose to stay at popular adventure-capital Queenstown and drive or do a tour from here – but you’ll be spending eight hours in the car or bus over the course of the fourteen-hour day. For this reason, Te Anau might be your best bet, and the laidback vibes of the town are really nice compared to bustling Queenstown.
TOUR OR SELF-DRIVE?
If you’re looking to save some of that sweet-sweet moolah (NZ is a pretty expensive country after all), you may prefer to self-drive. Lots of people take this option and there’s nothing wrong with it. But, see above re: views.
Let’s be honest: not a lot of people reading travel websites are that big on organised tours (we know tours can feel way too much like herding cattle) but in this case we decided to make an exception: and we’re glad we did. It was much less stressful not having to drive the four hours that day, and way more fun to just enjoy the sights – it felt like a real luxury after driving so much around NZ! Plus, you get a bunch of interesting facts from a local on the way, and you can have a little snooze if ya want.
This is not in any way a paid or sponsored post, but we chose to go with Southern Discoveries. Why them, among all the tour operators? They were cheap! We found them on BookMe, New Zealand’s cheap ticket website, and snagged some tickets for $119 each for the full day – normally $149, but you can get them even cheaper than what we paid. As with any booking, we carefully checked the reviews on BookMe and other websites, and they were great – so it was a comfortable decision to spend that amount of money.
In saying that, there are heaps of providers that will do pretty much the same thing on the day, so just find one that you think is best for you. One of the main selling points of this one for us was entry into an Underwater Observatory – more on this later.
Check out the weather reports in advance: it rains about 200 days a year in Milford Sound, so there’s a chance it may be gloomy. Luckily, we were told it’s gorgeous in both rain and sun, with rain causing heaps of waterfalls to run down the mountains, and sun making it just a glorious day.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON THE DAY
But first, what to expect in this section: this is a play-by-play of our tour, but you could easily adapt the main points to a self-drive itinerary if you decided to take that option.
MORNING: We woke up pretty early, as we were expected at the tour centre on the lake by 8:10am. If you’re staying in a hotel, motel, or backpackers you will get picked up by your front door – but we were at an Airbnb so made the ten minute walk into town.
The bus we took was modern and had USB charging points built into the seats – too fancy for us mere mortals! The bus seated 33 people, which is an okay size for a tour, and we had 26 people total. Our bus driver was Bruce, who had lived in the area all his life and had heaps of great facts and stories, and some really terrible jokes – but I won’t spoil these for you.
You take off on the two-hour drive to the sound, and all along the way Bruce is doing his thing via a microphone – and it’s honestly pretty informative. You can choose to listen along and answer his questions, or just zone out and enjoy the amazing scenery that’s whizzing by the window.
You’ll make a few stops along the way to stretch your legs and see the sights. Our first stop was at Mirror Lake, where you take a five-minute walk along a perfect reflection of the mountains mirrored in the aptly-named lake – they’re really luck they named it so appropriately! If it’s a sunny and clear day this will give you your best view.
Another short drive and you’ll step off at The Chasm. It sounds like a James Bond novel, or a really terrible game-show on afternoon television, but this is absolutely gorgeous. It’s advertised as a twenty minute walk, but I think they knew people would stare open-mouthed at the amazing gushing water for at least ten minutes, because the walk itself is actually really short.
The Chasm’s main drawcard is rocks that have been carved by the running water over centuries to create incredible moon-like holes in the rocks. The sheer power of the water is just fantastic, and it’s enough to make you feel pretty insignificant (so if you have an inferiority complex maybe just stay away.)
AFTERNOON: Next stop is the main event: Milford Sound. You’ll enter a giant cruise centre on a dock, with heaps of different vendors around. Stretching out in front of you is the beautiful views of the Sound – but you wanna see them up close. Jump onto your booked boat and sit back and relax (or scamper up and down between the open-air-but-freezing top and the enclosed-but-a-bit-more-boring bottom).
Your skipper will navigate you around the area, and unlike other popular tourist water attractions you’ll notice there are hardly any other boats around: it’s pretty quiet out on the water, and this really helps with maintaining its serenity. Coast along, and be taken up close to waterfalls causing rainbows to be reflected upon the rocks, see seals as they nap on boulders in the sun (side-note, did you know they eat their own body weight every three days?) and head out to where the Sound meets the Tasman sea into choppier waters. If you’re lucky on your journey, you may just encounter a pod of dolphins – or whales have been known to make a very rare appearance).
At one point the boat will near one of the larger and more-permanent waterfalls, and they’ll let you get right up and close while being on top of the boat. Ladies and gentlemen, you will get wet on this ride. But, if you’d rather stay dry you can stay in the warmth of below: but it is truly an experience to feel the freezing cold spray of melted glacier on your face.
Our tour included a picnic lunch, which was surprisingly generous. In a cute brown-paper bag we had a yummo sandwich, pack of chips, kiwi fruit, biscuits, apple, chocolate and cheese and crackers. There was also unlimited tea and coffee on board, so a sweet deal all-in-all.
Finally, you’re dropped off at the Underwater Observatory – we’re not certain, but we are pretty sure this is unique to Southern Discoveries tours – the staff were definitely wearing the same uniform. You do not want to miss this. This is a building anchored on to the rocks next to the mountains that drops below the water and provides a full and uncensored view of the sea life outside. You could be mistaken for thinking it’s an aquarium, but it’s entirely natural and that’s what makes it so special.
It’s also the only one of its kind around. You see, Milford Sound water is a marine reserve, so nothing can be built into the water, and you can’t even technically anchor a boat to its sea-floor. Then the surrounding mountains are part of the national park, and you can’t build in a national park. But this marine reserve? It’s anchored to rocks that are part of no-mans land – the tidal area. Technically not marine reserve or national park, so when they built it 20+ years ago they got away with it. Sneaky, right?
You descend 60 steps to get into the viewing chamber and it was truly cool. We saw huge schools of little fish, and huge schools of bigger fish. Really strange wildlife, and black coral, which only grows in the area. Here’s a thing: black coral is actually white. Why? You’ll have to go there to find out (eyyyyyy).
You’ll spend about an hour here, but we could have stayed forever. Our tour guide at the observatory was super informative, and really passionate about what we were seeing – some of the fish we were seeing he was even more excited about than we were. When time’s up, another boat will pick you up and take the short distance back to the harbour, where you can jump back on board the bus to head home.
A few stops on the way home at some pretty terrific picture points, but by this point everyone is pretty tired. Bruce-the-tour-guide-bus-driver seemed to know this too, and stayed relatively quiet on the way home. As he dropped each group off at their hotels he would jump out of his seat each time and give them a handshake and warm smile as a goodbye – what a classic gentleman. We got back around 5pm, making for a full day out.
SHOULD YOU DO IT?
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Whether you take a tour or self-drive, this was one of the highlights of our New Zealand trip, and is an amazing day out.