No wonder a Milford Sound cruise is one of the most popular New Zealand tours. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Milford Sound is a remote and pristine location and a fantastic day trip. We embarked on a Queenstown to Milford Sound drive on our two-week New Zealand South Island itinerary. We went from Te Anau to Milford Sound: how to get to Milford Sound safely.
Te Anau to Milford Sound: How to get to Milford Sound safely
We took a road trip to Milford Sound on our journey and elected to stay in Te Anau for two nights. Driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound takes four hours. Milford Sound is an essential destination in any New Zealand itinerary. Of couse, it is possible to take a Milford Sound day trip from Queenstown however, it is very remote and we made our decision based on driving times.
The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is a good two hours each way, on the beautiful Milford Sound Road. On the other hand, the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is four hours each way…
As we were driving ourselves, the latter was going to be too much in a single day, return trip. There are various options to see Milford Sound and I have made a bit of a comparison.
What is Milford Sound?
First of all, let me introduce you to Milford Sound… This stunning place is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is officially recognised as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. To give you an idea of its appeal, Rudyard Kipling named it the “eighth wonder of the world”.
Milford Sound is a fjord, created by a glaciation process over millions of years. The fjord runs 15 km inland from the Tasman Sea and is home to many wildlife species: dolphins, seals, whales, penguins and a wide variety of birds. The sound is surrounded by steep rock faces, up to 1200m tall.
Before European colonisation, the sound was populated by Maori tribes who named it Piopiotahi, after the now-extinct piopio bird. For a long time, the sound was overlooked by European explorers, including James Cook, as the entrance to the sound from the Tasman Sea was deemed too small. The fjord was only “discovered” by Europeans in 1812 and due to the remoteness, not much happened there for a long time.
The fjord is one of the wettest inhabited places in New Zealand and the world. Heavy rain is incredibly common there and we were incredibly lucky to get beautiful sunshine after a whole week of heavy rain.
The Milford Sound waterfalls are spectacular, although only two of them are permanent: Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls.
The rest are temporary waterfalls, created by an accumulation of rain on top of mountains. They often create “tree avalanches”, carving a scar down the rock face.
In 1888, the McKinnon Pass was discovered and later became part of the Milford Track, now a world-famous 4-day hike. A road was later built and the Homer Tunnel gave access to vehicles and tourists…
Nowadays, the Milford Sound welcomes between 550,000 and a million visitors each year. The access being a bit of a challenge for this large volume, various infrastructure projects have been suggested, such as an additional tunnel and a monorail. None of these have been approved, due to environmental concerns.
This means that getting to Milford Sound requires some thinking. The main starting points for an excursion to Milford Sound, Queenstown and Invercargill are both four hours away, which makes for a very long day trip.
A great way to discover Milford Sound is by taking a cruise. Of course, there are other things to do in Milford Sound. The Milford Track is a world-famous 4-day hike. A Milford Track booking is necessary to secure your spot as it is very popular. I would have loved to do a day hike but we didn’t have enough time.
Some cruises included a visit of the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory, but we didn’t take this option on our tour.
Te Anau New Zealand
Te Anau is a good base for Milford Sound trips, as the drive is only two hours each way. We didn’t find many things to do in Te Anau and we used it mainly as our base to explore Milford Sound. We were hoping to see the Te Anau Glow Worms but the cave was closed due to heavy rainfall the previous week.
We looked at doing a Milford Sound tour from Queenstown but the distance was too much. We got to spend some time by the lake, which is one of the most stunning New Zealand lakes.
Te Anau Restaurants
We stayed in Te Anau for two nights and we found some good restaurants there. We had our breakfast at the Sandfly Café and our wedding anniversary dinner at The Fat Duck Restaurant, both were very good!
Te Anau Accommodation
There are several motels along the lake foreshore. When I researched my trip, I found that Te Anau hotels were fairly expensive and busy, so I would recommend booking early. We stayed at the Kingsgate Te Anau Hotel.
It was a standard hotel with not too much character but it was clean and the beds are very comfortable.
Driving to Milford Sound
We love driving in New Zealand so we elected to hit the road and drive ourselves to meet our Milford Sound tour. We found driving on New Zealand roads quite easy, even narrow ones near Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula. We really enjoyed this drive but I can share some alternatives as I learned a lot through this experience.
First of all, the road is good. There is good quality asphalt and it is very drivable. We took the drive on a sunny day and it was fine. Things might be different on a very wet day though.
The drive is about 120 km and takes two hours. You drive through beautiful rural and mountain scenery, and you have several places to stop along the way to take some gorgeous photos.
The Milford Sound tunnel (or Homer Tunnel) is quite spectacular!
But here’s the thing: on paper, it seems perfect. However, the reality of the trip can be a little different. We found the road to be quite busy. We came across lots of tourist buses and campervans. When you are in a car, these can be a little cumbersome…
Also, we were shocked at times by the inexperience and poor driving skills of some drivers. The tourist buses are fine and everyone drives pretty fast, around 100 km an hour. At some point, we followed another car who kept overtaking other cars, including in bends with no visibility of what might come the other way. It was quite bewildering, and after a while, we thought this guy’s luck would eventually run out… We felt obliged to overtake him to save ourselves from being potentially involved in an accident.
On the way back, we came across a long line of cars and campervans, nothing too unusual. Another campervan decided to overtake as many other vehicles as he could, and came to face… me!
Thankfully, he managed to get back in his lane quickly (we have to thank the other drivers for that) and there was no accident. But it was close…
So, even if you are an experienced and reasonable driver, it’s hard to rely on others being the same…
Finally, when we got to Milford Sound, we missed out on the last spot in the free carpark… This carpark is half an hour’s walk from the visitor’s centre and that was fine by us. But, the car in front of us was let in and we were turned away… We had left Te Anau a tad too late…
We had to leave our car in the very expensive car park near Milford Sound visitor centre and even there I think we took one of the last spots. We ended up paying $50 0r $60 for four hours… Milford Sound parking can be quite expensive!
This was a less than welcome surprise and it led us to think that the tourist buses may have it right. We could have picked a transfer or a cruise and transfer package and it would have been just as good… We also noticed that the buses stopped at the same photo spots as we did…
It would have been less stressful and made less of an impact on the environment…
Milford Sound Boat Cruise
Choosing the best Milford Sound cruise can be challenging. Indeed, there are several cruise operators in Milford Sound, some have bigger boats, some have smaller boats. We chose a smaller boat with an optional lunch, with Southern Discoveries.
The Milford Sound Nature cruise departed at 12pm so we chose to have the lunch, which was really only a sandwich and a few other snacks. It wasn’t really worth the extra $20 but that wasn’t the point of the cruise.
The size of the boat, and the size of the group onboard was fine. We had a wonderful experience visiting the sound. We got close to the sheer rock faces, learned about the temporary waterfalls and unique flora.
We also got close to a seal colony resting on rocks. I’ve seen those on several occasions, including on Bruny Island and Kangaroo Island, but I’ve never been so close to them…
The really fun part of a Milford Sound scenic cruise is when the boat sits under the waterfall for a few minutes. I managed to save my camera from disaster but it was close! Thankfully, we were provided with waterproof clothing but it’s still a very wet experience.
We also got to drink the water… Yes, this is some of the purest water on earth and completely safe to drink. It had a mild brown tinge but tasted delicious and fresh!
If you are looking for a Milford Sound cruise from Te Anau, I can recommend this tour. This is an excellent option to visit Milford Sound in a small group with an experienced guide.
If you don’t want to drive, there is a great tour option from Te Anau.
Milford Sound Scenic Flights
As I mentioned before, Queenstown is a popular starting point to visit Milford Sound but it’s really far away. The return drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound takes eight hours. Personally, I wouldn’t want to spend this amount of time on a bus for a two-hour cruise…
We had already taken a long drive from the West Coast and wanted to manage our driving fatigue.
A great option is to take a scenic flight and a cruise from Queenstown. Yes, it’s more expensive but a much more comfortable and exciting day… And, you get to see Milford Sound from the skies, which is an incredible privilege…
If you are into helicopters like I am, you can add this component as well. This tour combines a plane transfer, a cruise and a Milford Sound helicopter ride…
Finally, if you love flying and don’t need a cruise, this tour will show you around both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. I haven’t tested a Milford Sound overnight cruise but the one we did on our honeymoon in Doubtful Sound was incredible.
Milford Sound Accommodation
If you are looking for where to stay in Milford Sound, you won’t have a lot of options. Milford Sound Lodge is the only option. In high season, it gets booked up quite quickly.
You can also book campervan sites with Milford Sound Lodge but there are no tent sites.
Milford Sound Day Tour
There are various options to see Milford Sound. If I was to do it again, I wouldn’t hesitate to leave my car in Te Anau and accept the comfort of a tour bus. When the road is busy, it’s probably the safest and most sustainable way to do it.
Best Day Hikes in New Zealand
2 Weeks in New Zealand South Island
Have you visited Milford Sound? How did you travel? Tell me in the comments below!
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