The most popular destination in New Zealand, Milford Sound is known as the eighth wonder of the new world. And it really is stunning.
Milford Sound is located in Fiordland National Park in the southwest part of the South Island – the area home to 14 (you guessed it) fjords. Apparently Kiwis got creative by altering the spelling of fjord 🙂
So what are fjords? They’re valleys carved by glaciers, and then flooded with water from the sea. These particular fjords began forming more than 100,000 years ago. Mountains line the fjords, with thousands of waterfalls rushing down their sides into the water. The more it rains, the more waterfalls exist at the moment!
Speaking of rain…
One piece of advice to avoid disappointment – If you can, plan to be flexible around the weather. Fiordland gets the most rainfall in all of New Zealand, and is even one of the rainiest parts of the world. Since it rains more than 200 days of the year, go ahead and set your expectations that you’re not likely to experience the sunny, lush, green version of Milford you see on Instagram. You might if you’re lucky, but consider yourself fortunate if you get a slightly foggy “mystic” Milford without rain.
When we arrived in the evening, we couldn’t even see the top half of the mountains because they were covered in so much fog. It literally poured the entirety of the next day. We had planned to leave early in the morning on the third day, but opted to rearrange our schedule since the weather was supposed to clear up. We booked a scenic cruise only the night before after looking at the forecast.
Stay at Milford Lodge
If you want to stay in Milford Sound, you only have one option – Milford Sound Lodge. Book early! We stayed in the Holiday Park, but they have rooms for rent and a surprisingly good restaurant (the only food in the area, so I’d suggest making dinner reservations!). There are a number of DOC campsites a little further out, or if you’re up for a two-hour drive in and out, you can stay in Te Anau.
Doubtful Sound vs. Milford Sound
Fiordland does take quite a bit of effort to get to. You can take a very long day tour from Queenstown, or a shorter journey in from Te Anau, the official gateway in. We did them both, and thoroughly enjoyed them! Honestly, they look pretty darn similar. If you have limited time, just choose one!
If you don’t want to do all your own driving, I’d suggest Doubtful. To get there, you’ll have to book a tour via Te Anau or Manapouri that takes care of your transportation. We opted for an all-day Kayak Tour from Manapouri, which was absolutely amazing!
However, I will say that much of the tour was just getting there – a one-hour ferry, followed by another hour bus ride down to the sound. We were concerned about freezing out on the water since it was rainy, but the company (hey, Go Orange Kayaks!) we used supplied everything from thermal base-layers, to waterproof jackets, spray skirts and hats! We had three hours of kayaking in a group of six. Our guide was awesome and took tons of pics for us on my iPhone (protected by a $100 waterproof case – worth it!).
We regrouped and started the two-hour journey from Te Anau in to Milford Sound. This drive is supposed to be AMAZING. But because of the rain, we didn’t get to see it in all its glory until the way out. You’ll stop at a one-lane tunnel for maybe up to 10 minutes, but the upside is that you can take in the views. AND see Kea birds! They’re the world’s only alpine parrot…and rather cheeky. They landed on our campervan, and are known for stealing food from visitors!
That night, we celebrated NYE at Milford Sound Lodge’s restaurant (Brett snagged the last reservation!) and continued the “party” in our campervan. SO different from how we’re usually ringing in the new year, but a welcome change! New Year’s day was quiet as well, as we hid from the downpour playing cards (and doing laundry) in the lodge.
We finally got out on the water again the next day, aboard a breakfast cruise. The time that suited us (earliest departure) was on bigger boat – but the best value for the money. We saw seals on Seal Rock, and got splashed by Stirling Falls, one of the permanent falls that remains no matter the amount of rainfall.
All in all, we had an amazing time and were so glad we were flexible with our time so we were able to actually see Milford without fog. Well worth it!