Milford Sound is a spectacular glacier-carved fiord in the Fiordland National Park on the west coast of New Zealand and is one of New Zealand's most well known scenic attractions. On display is a spectacular combination of mountains, sheer cliffs, waterfalls and marine life. It is the best known of a series of fiords in the park, and the only one which is accessible by road.
Technically, Milford, Doubtful and Dusky sounds are all fiords, i.e., formed by glaciers. They were incorrectly named 'sounds' by Captain Cook, who charted the region in the 1770's, but bypassed Milford Sound on his journeys for fear of venturing too close to the steep mountainsides, afraid that wind conditions would prevent escape.
John Grono was the first European to discover Milford Sound around 1812, and named it after Milford Haven in his native Wales. The fiord was officially renamed Milford Sound/Piopiotahi in 1998, as part of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement with local iwi (Māori tribe) Ngāi Tahu. Overland access was severely limited until the discovery of Mackinnon Pass in 1888 and the formation of the Milford Track. The Homer Tunnel opened in 1954, providing road access to the fiord.
Hailed as the eighth Wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling, Milford Sound has been judged as the world's top travel destination in an international survey. Over 400,000 people visit the sound every year, even though the average round trip clocks in at ten hours from Queenstown. Attempts to halve that time for visitors by drilling a new tunnel linking Routeburn and Hollyford Valleys have been strenuously quashed over the potentially huge environmental impact.
Like the rest of the west coast of New Zealand, Milford Sound receives a lot of rain. Some tour operators argue that the sound is best seen on a rainy day as all the waterfalls can be seen in their full glory. Many recommend seeing it during a sunny day and in the rain, to see both worlds as they are very different and both amazing.
It rains every second day on average, so rainwear is recommended and carry an umbrella to protect photographic equipment. Also as with most of the west coast, insect repellent is recommended as the sand flies here can be aggressive.
Once you make the spectacular journey to the fiord, there are a number of tourist boats and services to take you out to see the sights.
Milford Sound Airport, located at the southeast end of the sound, serves the locality. One of the most spectacular ways to see Milford Sound and its spectacular surrounds is to fly in on a clear day. The flight from Queenstown, Te Anau or Wanaka is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest scenic flights, with unsurpassed views of the mountains and glaciers on route.
There are a number of flightseeing operators that fly light aircraft and helicopters from Queenstown, Wanaka or Te Anau.
Fiordland Helicopters offers a spectacular scenic helicopter flight from Te Anau. Perfect if you are running short of time and want to save yourself the four hour drive. With two landings inside the park boundaries, one high on the Tutoko Glacier if weather permits and the other high above the Sutherland Falls, it's an experience you don't want to miss. Learn some history of the national park from experienced, friendly local pilots and take in a bird's eye view of Milford Sound, Mitre Peak and the Fiordland National Park with it's majestic mountains and breathtaking scenery.
Amateur pilots should get advice before attempting to fly into Milford Sound.
Each year, scores of large cruise ships plying the Tasman Sea call upon Milford Sound as part of their New Zealand itinerary. Due to the size of the cruise ships, which are getting larger each year, more people are getting in to see Milford Sound by sea. There is no grander way to enter a fiord than by sea.
Milford Sound is a cruise-by destination, and as such does not have a dedicated port or terminal for cruise ships. However, some ships anchor in Milford Sound, where passengers are tendered ashore to enjoy tours on smaller boats departing from the visitor terminal or to embark on overland tours to Te Anau and Queenstown organised by their cruise lines.
Milford Sound is commonly seen as part of a sightseeing tour from Queenstown or Te Anau. A day trip from Queenstown can make for a very long 12+ hour day. Don't fall asleep while travelling the Milford Road from Te Anau and miss the stunning scenery visible there, the most rewarding aspect of the trip.
- Many companies operate daily coach tours into Milford Sound. You can include a boat cruise in your itinerary.
- Real Journeys (see "sleep") operates daily coach tours to Milford Sound, connecting with Real Journeys' range of day and overnight cruises.
From Te Anau, it is 120 km on State Highway 94. Allow plenty of time (and fuel), at least 2-3 hours from Te Anau, when travelling to Milford Sound by car. The road winds through some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand as it climbs up to the Homer Tunnel. The Homer Tunnel is a single lane tunnel and, although it has been fitted with traffic lights, you may still experience a wait while opposing traffic clears the tunnel. You may also want to break your journey along the road to take photographs or investigate scenic spots - including Mirror Lakes, views of the Hollyford and The Chasm.
State Highway 94 is a high pass and regularly has icy conditions between June and November. It is also subject to avalanches. All cars must carry chains in winter and the Transit New Zealand information kiosk 8km north of Te Anau will check that you are carrying them and can fit them. High risk sections of the road are marked with a red cross on a blue background and with 'no stopping' signs, do not stop your car on these sections of road. Review the state of the road at Transit New Zealand before departing; if the risk of an avalanche is "high" the road will be closed and if it is "moderate" it may close at short notice. Drivers not experienced at driving on ice and snow might prefer a bus tour.
Milford Sound can also be reached by foot, being the end of the world famous Milford Track, the 'finest walk in the world'. Bookings are essential for this popular 4 day walk, as only 40 independent walkers are permitted to start it in any day (and stay in the Department of Conservation Huts). There is also a more expensive guided walk service where walkers stay at a separate set of huts with better facilities. Catering is provided in this service, and helicopters are used to ferry baggage between the huts.
- Mitre Peak - rising 1,692 metres, Mitre Peak is Milford Sound’s most famous iconic attraction. The mountain is named for its distinctive shape, similar to the mitre headwear worn by Christian bishops.
- Lady Bowen Falls - with almost continuous rainy days, Milford Sound is home to many temporary and permanent waterfalls. The largest permanent fall is the famous Lady Bowen Falls, located at the southeast end of the sound, north of the wharf. Named after the wife of Sir George Bowen, one of New Zealand’s earliest governors, this stunning waterfall drops 160 metres from a hanging valley in the Darren Mountain Range.
- Stirling Falls - created by glaciers situated behind the mountains, Stirling Falls is the second largest permanent waterfall, located on the north side of Milford Sound, dropping 146 metres. Some ships are able to get underneath the falling water, making the falls one of the great highlights of the Sound.
- Spectacular scenery with wonderful wildlife, including dolphins, seals and penguins. Of special interest is the New Zealand glow worm. Watch out for its bioluminescent glow after dark.
One of the most awe inspiring ways to see Milford Sound, is from the water level itself. There are two ways to do this:
There are several boat operators who offer day cruises that pass by waterfalls and local wildlife before going out to the Tasman Sea and re-entering Milford Sound as earlier discoverers did. Most guided tours from Te Anau or Queenstown arrive in Milford around noon, so it is advisable to escape the crowds by going on an early-morning or late-afternoon cruise. If you intend to take photographs, the quality of light is usually better around those times as well.
- Mitre Peak Cruises, ☎ +64 3 249-8110, toll-free: 0800 744 633. Has smaller launches that get close to the shoreline. From $70.
- Southern Discoveries, ☎ +64 3 441-1137, toll-free: 0800 264 536. Runs more cruises, geared towards scenery, wildlife or both. From $70.
- Milford Deep Underwater Observatory. This place can only be reached via one of the cruises. What they are trying to do is interesting, but they charge a lot to see the place and you get a whopping 15 minutes total there. There is not even enough time to look through the displays. $36/18 as an add-on.
- Cruise Milford NZ, ☎ +64 3 398 6112, toll-free: 0800 MILFORD (645 367), e-mail: email@example.com. Specializes in operating smaller boats. Personal and informative crew. From $65.
There is also the option of an extended cruise on Milford Sound - overnight cruises operated by Real Journeys). See Sleep section below.
Your proximity to the water in a kayak just serves to make you feel even smaller, and makes the Sound seem even more vast! The pros of doing it this way are that you get to go places that the big cruise ships cannot, you see a great deal more wildlife (penguins, seals etc.) as you move more quietly through the water, you are part of a small group (between 6 and 8) and so getting more personal attention from your guide, and you get some exercise in the process. Cons are that it is quite hard work and you should be prepared to get cold and wet. A good way of doing this kind of trip is on a 'one day package'. You can be picked up from your lodgings early in the morning (around 06:30) in Te Anau by minibus and driven to Milford, where you're kitted out with all the relevant kayak and safety gear and given waterproof bags to take cameras and food with you. The trip lasts until late afternoon (lunch is taken in your kayaks in the middle of the Sound) and you'll arrive back in Te Anau about 18:00.
There is very, very little 'shopping' in Milford - just a few merchandise items - eg post cards, books, posters, etc. A small grocery shop at Milford Sound Lodge sells many of the basics and is open daily 08:00–21:00 in the summer.
Eat and drink
There is only one place to eat and drink in Milford Sound if you did not bring food in with you, and it is the Blue Duck Cafe & Bar. The cafe offers breakfast and lunch, while dinner is found at the bar. Snacks, drinks, and coffee are also available at the cafe. Montieth's is available on tap. Prices are tourist prices: $8+ for breakfast, $15+ for lunch, $25+ for dinner. Sandwiches are $4-5.
Some cruises run with meal options on board.
Watch out as there are only two lodges in Milford Sound, and one of them is only for those tramping the Milford Track. The one open to all travellers is the Holiday Park (with backpackers) type accommodation, but cosy, and it is very often fully booked.
- Milford Sound Lodge, ☎ +64 3 249-8071. Has new self-contained riverfront chalets (with baths), private doubles or twins and dorm-style bunk rooms. It also has plenty of powered and non-powered parking for camper vans by the river and a number of secluded tent sites in the surrounding forest. Milford Sound's only grocery shop (although small) is here and they can advise you on activities available in the area. Take the linking rain forest walk or their courtesy coach to the cruise departures.
- Real Journeys, ☎ +64 3 442-7500. Steamer Wharf, Queenstown. Alternatively experience a different overnight stay in Milford Sound - on board a boat. Two options include the Milford Mariner (private cabins with en suite bathrooms - 60 passengers) and the Milford Wanderer (twin / double compartments with shared bathroom facilities - 34 passengers). Overnight cruises include dinner, bed and breakfast. Plus exploring by tender craft or kayak. Overnight cruises are not available during winter (Jun-Aug).
Occasionally the road into the fiord is closed due to landslides, or snow fall during winter. It pays to be aware of the conditions, especially if you are driving yourself.
From Milford Sound there are few options for getting out if you are not pre-booked. The only road out leads back to Te Anau and from there generally back to Queenstown (or possibly south to Invercargill). You can book a bus out to either Te Anau or Queenstown. Otherwise there are small planes which operate out of the airport providing flights back to Queenstown (or charters to other destination).