Milford Sound – Scenery Photographers Dream About

Magical Milford Sound

Earl and Livingston mountains along Milford Road; road trip to Milford Sound with Fiordland ToursIn the pristine and scenic Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is New Zealand and its surrounding area’s most dramatic natural attraction. Its captivating scenery boasts: 

  • Ragged misty mountains
  • Glacial valleys
  • Towering peaks that soar to the sky and plunge into the sea
  • Shimmering lakes and fiords
  • Inky waters
  • Both torrential and gentle waterfalls
  • Permanent waterfalls – Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls
  • Dozens of temporary waterfalls
  • Isolated natural beauty
  • Quiet stillness
  • Daunting wilderness
  • Fur seal colonies, crested penguins, whales, bottlenose dolphins, and a birdlife sanctuary

Milford Sound is a marine reserve and World Heritage site, and New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. It is pure natural beauty, carved by glaciers during the ice ages, resulting in incredible scenery and landscapes everywhere you look. Kipling called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.*  While we wanted to go on a sunny day, the locals say Milford Sound is most beautiful in the rain and mist.

Located just off the Tasman Sea on the southwest coast of the New Zealand’s South Island, Milford Sound is remote and spectacularly beautiful. It rarely gets sunny days; there are 200 days yearly of rainfall and at times 10 inches/day. Milford Sound is considered the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, and one of the world’s wettest contributing to its rare and unique beauty.

Milford Sound is the most visited place in New Zealand. From the Milford Sound cruises and Milford Track hike, it draws up to a million tourists yearly.

Cruising Milford Sound

One of many amazing waterfalls in Milford SoundMilford Sound cruises seems to be the biggest tourist draw. We loved our boat trip with Cruise Milford. No matter which cruise company you choose, you’ll see the highlights of the Sound. Highlights include the Glacial Lake, the mountain peaks – Mitre Peak, Mt. Pembroke Glacier, waterfalls – Fairy Falls, Bridal Veil and Stirling Falls, and New Zealand fur seals. If you are lucky, you’ll see dolphin pods, and if luckier – whales, or perhaps the crested penguins. We briefly saw dolphin.

The seals, mostly teenage males and juveniles, populated the rocks. Our Captain brought us very close to the rocks to explain and observe the seal behavior. It was quite entertaining to watch the fur seals staking out the piece of rock, and practicing beachmaster mating behaviors.

While we were invited guests by Cruise Milford, this is a totally independent and honest review based on my own experience.

Cruise Milford

Cruise Milford's Milford Adventurer sightseeing boat, preparing for departureWe joined Cruise Milford for a boat tour of Milford Sound. Upon arrival at Milford Sound after a wonderful tour from Te Anau with Fiordland Tours, guests head to a smaller older boat owned by Cruise Milford. After recent refurbishing, the upgraded boat shows off beautiful wood, nice seating, both restaurant style booths on the main deck, and comfortable lounge seating upstairs. While seating holds 80 people, they generally cruise at 50% capacity to enable passengers to freely move around the boat. Free tea, coffee and hot chocolate are available with a selection of cookies throughout the trip. The boat is clean and comfortable, and it is easy to move around since they don’t pack passengers in, like some of the other operators taking 500 passengers which restricts movement around the boat. Cruise Milford targets an upscale market, like cruise ships and independent travelers.

The captain is informative and witty with his commentary. Commentary, unlike on the larger boats, is not taped; rather it is based on what is seen at the time. Our captain pointed the many waterfalls. Since the boat is smaller, the captain takes the boat up close to some of the waterfalls and wildlife, and drove the boat up and under some of the huge falls on the Sound, something some of the bigger boats can’t do. Needless to say, since it is quite misty, getting wet under the falls is part of the experience. Make sure to have a waterproof rain jacket!

There are approximately 6 companies running cruises, and prices and discounts vary greatly. With the service, comfort, ease of movement, ability to get up close to the cliffs, waterfalls and animals, it seemed well worth the additional cost to cruise with Cruise Milford.

Getting to Milford Sound

Cruise Milford arranged for us to join a tour with Fiordland Tours, the company partnered with Cruise Milford to transport passengers, rather than drive ourselves. What great way to learn about the area, its development, the local economy, farmers, wildlife, and flora and fauna. The Coach tour made the trip to and from the Sound interesting and fun. Our tour guide/driver Terry is full of interesting facts that he delivers in a professional and very entertaining manner. The tour included lunch and encompassed multiple stops to and from the Sound, including some short guided walks through the bush, even tea and scones at a historical camp. All quite interesting and lots of fun.

The owner of Fiordland Tours picked us up and transported us to the bus meeting area. He brought my custom lunch, and Tom’s was in the cooler with the rest of the passengers’ lunches. The comfortable coach seats 16, a small group size. We loved Fiordland Tours, and can highly recommend them.

Personally, we enjoy a mixture of self driving and tour excursions. With a tour, the continual commentary helps us learn more about the area and culture. Terry, our guide/driver made several scenic and historic stops along the way, more than the ones I had read about. If driving yourself, make sure to check out some of the scenic walks and overlooks along the way. Stop at the tunnel entrance and watch the Keas, mountain parrots, show off.

.Kea on car roof near Homer Tunnel towards Milford Sound

While we were invited guests by Fiordland Tours combined with Cruise Milford, this is a totally independent and honest review based on my own experience.

Missed Opportunities

One of many amazing waterfalls in Milford SoundHiking the Milford Track is one of the Great Walks of New Zealand, and it’s most famous for both alpine and fiord scenery. At one time it was described as the ‘finest walk in the world,’ with 14,000 people completing it yearly. With our limited time, we did not hike the track, and instead joined Fiordland Tours with their planned scenic stops and walks along the road to Milford Sound.

While we did not scuba dive at Milford Sound, it is rated one of the best dive sites in New Zealand with underwater treasures like black coral forests. If diving is your sport, consider diving in Milford Sound.

We did not know about the Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory. It is an opportunity for non-divers to view the sea at 10 meters under the glacier. It is both a Discovery Center about the area and an underwater observatory, akin to a museum. What’s different is the underwater observatory, where people are contained 10 meters deep in a controlled environment, while the sea life in its natural environment is free to come and go. It seems to be an add-on for most tours; if interested ask your tour company or ticket agent. .

Accommodations for Milford Sound

There are several choices…

  1. Few accommodations exist at Milford Sound, and nicer rooms are pricey. The main reason to stay overnight in Milford Sound is for diving. Plan to stay at Milford Sound after diving to minimize risk of decompression sickness caused by travel over the high mountain passes on a return trip.
  2. Queenstown is where most people stay. If you refer to my article on Routeburn Track from Glenorchy, it is clear why I don’t recommend it. In addition, it takes 3.5- 4 hours by car, and 5.5 hours by bus from Queenstown.
  3. We chose a small town, Te Anau, which is 1.5 hours by car or bus. There are motels, a few hotels, cottages and campgrounds, and a few Airbnb options in Te Anau. (Contact me in Reply section below and request Airbnb coupons.)

Te Anau is a small town on a large lake surrounded by mountains. It is lovely to take a day drive from Queenstown along scenic lakes, mountain and farmlands to stay in Te Anau. Stop at scenic overlooks, and relax at local cafes to enjoy the scenery (I liked the ambiance and friendliness at River Café), talk to the people, and get to know the culture of the area.

Upon arriving in Te Anau, there is enough to fill the rest of a day.

  • Check out shops, restaurants and other activities in the cute town
  • Sign up for your trip/tour to Milford Sound
  • Visit the bird sanctuary – See the rare Takahe
  • Walk along the lake

Te Anau Downs harbourSleeping in Te Anau offers a restful night in the peaceful quiet countryside. Awaken refreshed to take the 1.5 hour tour/drive to Milford Sound, where you’ll pass through unspoiled mountain landscapes, crystal clear lakes, the Homer Tunnel, and more.

Conclusion

If going to New Zealand, don’t miss a trip to Milford Sound. At some point during this excursion, treat yourself to a guided tour to learn about the history, the flora, fauna, sea life, local Maoris and more. It’s well worth it! And wear or take layers; it can be cool and wet, but that won’t disrupt your experience.

To see more of New Zealand’s great sites, check out our other reviews here –https://adventurousretirement.com/blog/category/new-zealand/

*Archived 19 June 2006 at the Wayback Machine. From the National Geographic Photo Galleries. Accessed 20 October 2007.

21 thoughts on “Milford Sound – Scenery Photographers Dream About

  1. We did the Milford Track hike (guided)in 2002. It ends at Milford Sound and was a wonderful experience—just enough of a physical challenge, beautiful scenery, no dangerous animals, and a warm, dry place to sleep each night. I wrote a blog post about it if you’re interested. Just search for “the finest walk” on Boomeresque.

    • Suzanne, I will read it. There are only 2 indigenous mammals native to New Zealand – 2 bats. All other mammals were brought in by the Maoris and the Europeans. That is why there are no dangerous animals.

  2. I was in Milford Sound earlier this year. Like you, we stayed near Te Anau, but we drove ourselves to Milford Sound, stopping at the places you mention like Eglington Valley and The Chasm. I found the Chasm in particular quite astonishing – lots of photo opportunities here as well as at the Sound!

  3. I’ve been enjoying your New Zealand posts, since we will be traveling there later this year. There’s so much to see, but Milford Sound is, of course, in our plans. That makes your info on your cruise particularly useful right now!

    • Great! So glad it is helpful. My next post is on Stewart Island. Stay tuned because I have at least 5 more coming on New Zealand.

  4. David and I did a fly/cruise to Milford Sound from Queenstown a few years ago. The approach in a light plane was fantastic – the view just breathtaking. We were a little underwhelmed by the cruise but maybe that was just a case of our expectations being too high. We got a sunny day, which as you say is quite rare. If I was to offer one piece of advice on Milford Sound it would be to try to arrive before the tourists buses from Queenstown and Te Anau do so you get the place a bit more to yourself.

  5. There’s a Milford in Pennsylvania about 90 minutes by car from where I was born. That Milford is also part of a fairly mountainous region. In fact, most American states have a Milford.

  6. What a nice, informative piece about visiting Milford Sound. I like that you included some of your ‘missed opportunities,’ too, so that our future planning can take all the options into account. When I go to New Zealand…!

  7. Fiordland National Park in New Zealand is spectacular!! I appreciated the detailed information in case I am ever fortunate enough to make the trip! And your photos are beautiful!

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  10. My two companions and I selected an overnight cruise on the Doubtful Sound, south of Milford Sound, more wild and less visited. Kayaking and swimming were two options. In the morning, the captain turned off all engines, so we could experience complete silence, except for the sounds provided by nature — we could see and HEAR the waterfalls, and hear many birds. (Unfortunately, for me, my roaring tinnitus nearly ruined the experience.) And the buffet meals, including roast beef and leg of lamb and about 50 other items, were the best meals we had in New Zealand!

    Wendy, nice meeting and chatting with you and your husband in Wellington’s Zealandia!

    • Nice to hear from you. I have heard wonderful things about Doubtful Sound. It also sounds like your cruise was for meat eaters or do they carter to non-meat eaters too?

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