Milford Sound, Most Beautiful Fjord on Earth.
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Schedule of the Visit.
- 1A Day at Milford Sound.
- 2Discover the Eglinton Valley with the Mirror Lakes.
- 3Enter the Kea's Kingdom.
- 4The Visits to Do Before the Cruise.
- 5Cruises on the Milford Sound.
- 6Secret of the Milford Sound.
- 7Other Ways to Visit the Fjord.
A Day at Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is the most famous fjord in south of New Zealand. Rudyard Kipling, the author of “The Jungle Book” and great traveler, regarded it as the 8th wonder of the world.
Daily, many cruises ships navigate on the fjord to reach the Tasman Sea.
But you need to reach the embarkation deck first. And it is here that I might be useful. I will guide you and you will only have to enjoy the scenery. You can trust me, I know this route as my pocket. We will circulate in the largest national park in New Zealand, where seven meters of rain fall each year.
If the Fiordland is one of the wettest areas of the world, the subtropical forest and mountainous terrain does not facilitate access (check also our guide about the Doubtful Sound).
Apart from the Klondike gold rush of 1886, there has never been many travelers around. With an area covering one tenth of the country, the local population tops out at 48 people only... Nevertheless we will not discourage ourselves. Milford Sound will allow us to admire a wild nature of incomparable beauty.
Far from being a drawback, rain is the cause of a beautiful natural phenomenon.
The same road that winds through the Fiordland is considered one of the finest in the world.
To really enjoy the trip, I recommend a halt at Lake Te Anau. Spending a night on this spot lengthens the duration of the stay, but greatly facilitates access to the fjord.
The weather forecast announces some rain and large clouds, but we don’t care.
Far from being a drawback, the rain is causing an incredible natural phenomenon. This will be one of the main surprises of the visit. I suggest you leave Te Anau around 8am to join the Milford Sound by mid-morning. Along the way I've planned some unique stops that you will remember all your life. If you have prepared sandwiches and packed your raincoat, we are ready to go!
Discover the Eglinton Valley with the Mirror Lakes.
There is only one road to get to Milford Sound. The real difficulty is not to stop every five minutes to admire the landscape, at the risk of missing the start of the cruise.
The landscape of Eglinton Valley is as attractive as the song of a siren.
The hilly landscape is soon surrounded by steep snow-capped mountains. I let you choose the music to listen to during the trip, but the original soundtrack of the “Lord of the Rings” would be appropriate. I'm going to park the car as soon as possible so that we can take pictures. You could move hours in the middle of tussock, this orange-yellow grass that resembles a sea swept by the wind.
A few kilometers further on, the route passes through the famous lakes mirrors. The Earl Mountains are reflected on the surface of calm waters, to the point that we no longer distinguish the original from the copy. But we must break away from this magnificent spectacle. I understand your astonishment! The mountain seems to escape when we move forward. You are not dreaming; this is a natural phenomenon produced by an optical illusion.
The road continues in the forest with sun rays gliding between the branches of trees. Director Peter Jackson chose this enchanting surroundings of New Zealand to represent the forest of the Ents in “Lord of the Rings”.
We're in a hurry actually, but we will have enough time to make the hike to Lake Gunn on our way back. In the meantime, we will join another world filled with beautiful creatures.
Enter the Kea's Kingdom.
The road joins the foot of a mountain long considered impenetrable by travelers. The Homer Tunnel was dug into the rock from 1935 to 1954 at the cost of considerable effort. It is the gateway that leads to Milford Sound.
If you thought the landscape was magnificent so far, wait till you see the other side of the valley.
The road winds through canyons covered with impenetrable forests.
We have 20 km to go. The hike to the Cleddau River will be our last stop before the fjord. The water rushes down into a pit dug by erosion for over thousands of years.
As we retrace our steps, the real owner of the place awaits us perched on the roof of our car.
I am pleased to introduce the Kea, the mountain parrot of the Fiordland. It is well known that this endemic bird species of New Zealand is the most intelligent in the world.
Undaunted, the kea is not afraid of man, and does not hesitate to ask for food. It can also be spotted near the Mt Cook.
The guide that I am implore you not to give in to temptation! Our new friend must retain his ability to survive alone in the wild without human food.
Do not feel guilty, it is not hunger that drives him to attack the wheels. For some reason, this parrot loves rubber and colored materials.
Several of his fellows have joined him, we should leave right now before they do real damage.
There are only a few corners to go before reaching the shore. I know of nothing comparable to Milford Sound and even the best pictures do not do it justice.
You can leave me here and take pictures while I park the car. Meet me at the visitor center located 300 m from here. We will soon sail the dark waters of the fjord.
The Visits to Do Before the Cruise.
The huge reception center gives an idea of attendance at the Milford Sound during peak hours. All cruise companies claim an advantage over their competitors. One ship is bigger than another, another more affordable or comfortable ... How to choose?
In reality, all circuits borrow the same route and only the duration onboard is different.
Even cruises offering a night aboard are navigating on the fjord to reach the Tasman Sea before turning back.
I booked a tour organized by Southern Discoveries.
The 75 seats boat is half-full for the cruise at 10:30 AM. My choice is essentially related to the fact that this cruise offers a stopover at the underwater observatory.
Do not forget to buy repellent against the dreadful sandflies!
We have half an hour to kill before departure. Most visitors do not dare to step outside because of the sandflies. These demons are present in all the Fiordland region.
These small midges mercilessly devour the unconscious who venture unprotected into the Fjord. Don’t be afraid, I planned every detail this morning and bought repellent before our departure.
In the past, I discovered a few minutes’ walk which allows to admire the Lady Bowen Falls.
The fall that runs down a 160 meters high cliff, strikes rocks that look like tombstones.
It is time to go on board! Listen carefully the instructions given by the crew. You can enjoy audio commentary during the journey! The sky is overcast, but no rain yet. If the weather turns bad, we’ll just leave the deck for the cabins.
Cruises on the Milford Sound.
About 50 million years ago, this entire region of New Zealand was beneath the sea level. The movement of tectonic plates has given rise to the seabed. Then the giant glaciers gradually dug the rock.
You just need to contemplate the cliffs that surround us to measure the scale of time. The Tasman Sea invaded the valley when global warming has melted the ice, creating the fjord.
The Mitre Peak is on every picture of the fjord. The mountain rises to 1696 m above sea level and takes its name from its resemblance to the miter of a bishop.
Its summit exceeds the ones of “The Elephant” and “Mountain Lion”, the main neighboring peaks.
Two spectacular waterfalls flow into the fjord since the dawn of time.
We have already discovered the Lady Bowen Falls, now we contemplate the Sterling Falls, as famous as the Huka Falls.
The captain maneuver close enough so we can fill a cup of pure water from the falls. If the experience tempts you, take your raincoat and go to the front!
The rain begins to fall and give birth to hundreds of waterfalls. The water that has accumulated in the foam descends along the cliffs and sometimes snatches the roots. Avalanches trees are very spectacular! Don’t be afraid, however, as we are far enough from the cliff.
The closer we get to the sea and the more our chances to spot dolphins increase. There are already ten of them who are racing with the ship.
They are not alone in venturing into the waters of the fjord. The depth of 400 meters sometimes attracts whales. The estuary with the Tasman Sea means that the boat will soon have to turn around. I advise you to watch the rocks on the shore to spot fur seals.
More difficult to identify, the shy penguins tend to dive on our way. If only we could see what is happening below the surface!
Secret of the Milford Sound.
The white coral covers the bottom of the fjord.
Jacques Cousteau considered the Milford Sound as one of the best dive sites in the world. But you may not be motivated to go diving today.
Fortunately, the Underwater Observatory is built on a floating platform. It offers the possibility to admire the fauna and aquatic flora while staying dry.
A spiral staircase joins a circular room equipped with sealed windows, ten meters below the surface of the Fjord.
In a subdued atmosphere, a guide explains the mystery of the dark waters of the fjord.
The first ten meters consist of fresh rain water. The salty sea water, heavier and warmer, is located just below.
This layering filter sunlight and recreates the conditions of the great depths.
Observe the black coral that lines the bottom of the fjord. Its black stems and white branches undulate slowly with the current. The species is 200 million years old and can live up to three centuries. Such a scene usually requires to dive to 70 meters deep!
Not bothered by our presence, strange colored fish come and go near starfishes. They watch us and I wonder who is in an aquarium and who is not? On my last visit, I could observe the passage of a dolphin. But we are not in a zoo, the tour ends in regret and we must return on board. We still have enough time to taste our sandwiches quietly before docking.
Other Ways to Visit the Fjord.
Back at the dock, you will find that the atmosphere has changed completely since our departure. Buses from Queenstown occupy the parking, the center is crowded and the sound of planes in the sky is omnipresent.
The Milford Sound is visited by 500,000 travelers during the high season.
The concentration is so strong between 11 AM and 3 PM that authorities are now considering the possibility of reducing access to this popular site.
In these circumstances, booking a room in Te Anau is the best solution to arrive before everyone in the morning.
Even so, it is not always possible to avoid the crowd. There is a small airport that can significantly reduce the length of the circuit, but it involves a larger budget. If your budget allows an extra expense, you may spend a night in a ship’s cabin on site. The fjord is almost deserted early in the morning and after 6 PM. You will enjoy the magical bird’s music that occurs at dusk.
Anyway, you cannot simply ignore the Milford Sound. I see no reason to fear the weather. Except in case of fog. Watch the weather, but remember that the rain brings out hundreds of waterfalls.
Do not fear the rain but the fog as it may hide the whole landscape.
If this route has enchanted you, consider following the Milford Track.
Each year, 14,000 walkers travel the 53 km of this great walk. Four days filled with suspension bridges, snow-capped peaks and lush forests. With the highlight being the famous Sutherland Falls, the fifth-highest waterfall in the world falling from 580 m!
Most tourists are unaware of Doubtful Sound. Wilder and bigger than the Milford, this neighboring fjord is to be visited during a one-day trip. If the adventure tempts you, I am ready to guide you through the mountains.
I got to know the Milford Sound through our friend Ben the kiwi, the best travel guide of New Zealand. Ben has kindly agreed to answer readers' questions at the end of each article on Kiwipal.
For my part, I am always happy to hear that my advice was helpful. If you send me your best pictures, I'd be happy to publish them on Kiwipal.
Questions & Answers.
What can I do for you? The most frequently asked questions are about sandflies and the journey to reach the fjord. For the sandflies, there is only one solution: the repellent. For the journey, you should check before that the SH 94 is not closed because of the falls of stone.
- All topics ... 51 answers in total
- How to Reach the Fjord 11 answers
- History and Legends 8 answers
- Cruises and Activities 6 answers
- Milford Track 6 answers
- Accommodation and Restaurants 5 answers
- Weather 4 answers
- Animal Species 3 answers
- Reception and Information 2 answers
- Protection From Sandflies 2 answers
- Excursions on the Way 2 answers
- Homer Tunnel 2 answers
How to Reach the Fjord
- Where is the Milford Sound?
At the South-west of the Southland region, on the South Island of New Zealand. It is part of the Fiordland's 14 fjords, just like the famous Doubtful Sound.
- How to get there by bus?
Naked bus offers a day trip from Queenstown, or just a half day trip from Te Anau.Naked Bus
- Can you give me an itinerary to follow?
I found this map of the Department of Conservation of New Zealand that should be useful.Milford Road Itinerary
- Which road should you take?
State Highway 94 is the only road to reach the Milford Sound. Check out the official website which gives many practical advice.Speed Highway 94
- How is the journey from Queenstown?
This is a 300 km drive with a stopover in Te Anau, the gateway to the Fiordland.
- Is there too much people on the road?
During busy times, there are almost 40 buses that run daily between 11 am and 3 pm. Expect traffic jams at the Homer Tunnel. This is a real problem that could eventually be solved by restricting access.
- What is the distance from Te Anau?
Milford Sound is 121 km from Te Anau (the nearest town).
- Is the road easy to drive?
I remind you that this is not a highway. This is a rather narrow road which often winds during the last section. As nature is grand, travelers roll at their own pace. One must expect other vehicles to slow down when a landscape reveals itself. Let pass those who roll faster than you and be on your guard during the last part of the journey, especially in winter! Statistics reveal that there are many more accidents here than in the rest of the country.
- Are there any petrol stations on site?
There is no gas station on the route and it will be necessary to wait to reach the Milford Sound in order to refuel (gasoline or diesel). Do not bet on luck, and fill up your tank at Te Anau before you leave.
- Can we go there by plane?
Many tour operators offer overflights of the fjord by plane followed by a traditional cruise with a guide on board.
- Are there any other ways to go to Milford Sound?
Other projects are under consideration, such as a 35 km cable car or a new tunnel. But the strong opposition from environmentalists and the astronomical cost (between 100 and 300 million dollars) has blocked all projects for years.
History and Legends
- Why is the national park named Te Wahipounamu?
In the Maori language, this means "The pounamu land". The Pounamu being this green rock that looks like the jade and which you can buy as a souvenir in most New Zealand shops.
- Why is the place named Milford Sound?
The explorer John Grono baptized this place as a tribute to the natural harbor of "Milford Haven" in Wales.
- Why is the fjord named Piopiotahi in Maori language?
The legend says that the legendary hero Maui after having taught men how to make fire wanted to make them immortal. But he was defeated by the goddess of death "Hine-nui-te-po" and died while releasing into the air a bird (Piopio in Maori). The name "Piopiotahi" means "a single bird" in the Maori language.
- Who discovered the Milford Sound?
The Maori explored Milford Sound around the beginning of the first millennium in search of Pounamu to make jewelry or weapons. Many centuries later, Captain Cook noted the presence of what he considered as a small cove on November 11, 1770.
- Can we beleive the legend of the lost tribe?
Two Maori tribes were involved in hundreds of battles in the region. Only one tribe survived but disappeared in the forest. In 1935, many people still believed that survivors were hidden away from civilization. Nowadays, footprints discovered in the forest revive the rumor again from time to time.
- Who was Donald Sutherland?
This legendary European explorer was the first to settle on the shore of the Milford Sound in 1877. Was this former mercenary trying to escape someone? Had the war discouraged him from living among mankind? Still, after living as a hermit for years with his dog's only company, he eventually married a widow and founded a small hotel. To the first tourists discovering a region that he was the only one to know, Sutherland told stories of sea monsters and lost valleys filled with treasures.
- Are there some gold to be find in the region?
A gold rush started in 1886 following rumors. Nearly 200 prospectors searched the ground in vain.
- What is the meaning of « Wai Maanu », Maori name of the Stirling Fall?
It means "whale resting on the sea". The English name comes from Captain Stirling.
Cruises and Activities
- Which cruise do you recommend?
Real Journeys offers 12 departures per day. Prefer the exit of 2h30 on the smallest boat outside peaks of affluence. It is also possible to stay overnight on board ships equipped with cabins such as the Wanderer or the Milford Mariner. Equally renowned, Great Sights offers the same range of services. In all cases, it is necessary to arrive at least 20 minutes before departure.Real JourneysGreat SightsMitre PeakCruize Milford
- Can we go diving there?
The Tawaki Dive tour lasts 3 hours. An experienced guide will take you to dive twice for 30 minutes underwater.Tawaki Dive
- Does this tour will appeal to children?
If your tour leaves Te Anau, yes without a doubt. But if you arrive from Queenstown the long drive by car or by bus adds a good deal of fatigue.
- What is the entry price for the observatory?
Admission costs $28 per adult and $14 per child.
- Can we visit the observatory without doing the cruise?
No, because it is a marine platform, accessible only by boat. This tour is offered as an option by most cruises companies.
- What is the duration of the observatory visit?
It is a visit of about 30 minutes which may seem short if there are many visitors. I do not recommend you to register for this visit at peak times.
- What is the origin of the Milford Track?
The Milford Track was the first path between Te Anau and the Milford Sound. Partially built by convicts, it took considerable effort for six months. From the beginning of the 20th century, the trek began to attract tourists from all over the world. This gorgeous path has since been considered as the most beautiful in the world by travel guides.
- Quel niveau est nécessaire pour suivre le Milford Track?
A good level of fitness is required, as it is necessary to cross at least 20 km per day on a terrain often difficult. Shelters are often crowded and you have to guard against the sandflies. It is not an insurmountable route (far from it), but one must be a minimum trained and know his limits.
- Where do you sleep at night on the Milford Track?
Huts welcome hikers for the night. They offer running water, toilets and showers. By paying more, you can enjoy more comfortable rooms. Please note that camping is not permitted all along the path.
- What is the best time to follow the Milford Track?
Spring and summer are recommended (from October to March in New Zealand) even if the hike is not closed in autumn and winter. But winter requires a higher training level and adequate equipment, as the shelters are neither managed nor heated, and the trails are not maintained.
- Should I book the Milford Track?
Booking is mandatory and must be done on the website of the Department of Conservation (DOC). As the hike is only open to 40 people per day, you have to book well in advance. The reservation includes the price for 3 nights in the huts. The rate varies depending on the date, and one will usually pay between $50 and $150 plus an optional transportation from Te Anau (about $25).Booking Milford Track
- What are the perfect conditions for the Milford Track?
Ultimate Hikes is a company that owns its own luxury refuges. The company ensures the transport of your backpack between the stages and prepares your meals. In other words, you only have to walk with or without a guide. Of course, this "luxury" comes at a high price, which is $1740 per adult and $1540 per child from October to April.Ultimate Hikes
Accommodation and Restaurants
- Can we stay there?
The Milford Lodge is the only hotel on site. Its access is indicated by a post sign before the parking entrance. It has a dormitory and 16 rooms with views of the fjord.Milford Lodge
- Is there a restaurant on site?
The Blue Duck Café is the only restaurant close to the Milford Sound. You can even buy raincoats and repellents to protect yourself from the Sandflies. The food is not so bad but you choose the Fish'n chips.
- Can we do some shopping there?
The Milford Lodge has a tiny shop that sells the basic food and some travel memories.
- Can we camp on site?
There are about ten campsites spread along SH 94, but none at Milford Sound.
- Why should I stay in Te Anau?
Firstly, because the lake is beautiful. Secondly, the visit to the glowworm caves of Te Anau is worth a visit. Thirdly, because it is the closest town to the famous Milford Sound.
- How is the weather?
It rains two days out of three, but the weather is not particularly cold. In summer the average is 18 ° C and 12 ° C the rest of the year. In fine weather, you will see the snow-capped mountains. A little mist adds to the magic of the place, contrary to a thick fog. During the cruise, it is especially the wind that must be feared, but you can shelter in the cabins when it blows too hard.
- What kind of clothes should we bring?
As usual in New Zealand, several layers of light clothing will do the trick. The raincoat is imperative even if you expecting beautiful weather. Approaching cascades without waterproof clothes, means to get soaked.
- What is the best time to come?
It should be remembered that the majority of visitors arrive from Queenstown around 11 am and leave in the middle of the afternoon. Therefore, it is necessary to arrive outside this period to avoid the crowd.
- Can we plan a visit during winter?
Yes, but you will need to have chains in your trunk (even if it does not snow). You risk a fine of $750 otherwise. Chains can be rented at most gas stations of Te Anau for around $20. The main reason being that the road is dangerous especially at the level of the Homer Tunnel, with ice on the road during winter.
- Is there a chance to see a kea?
Yes, even though there are only a few thousand parrots of this species endemic to New Zealand. The Kea perfectly understood that man is a strange kind of animal, walking in a group with food in backpacks. I insist on the fact that it is strictly forbidden to feed them, because the survival of the species depends on it.
- Are keas dangerous?
The kea is not a pigeon or a domestic animal. It does not attack the man, but you risk a deep cut if you have the absurd idea of feeding him by handing him some food.
- What kind of dolphin are swimming in the Milford Sound?
These are essentially Big Bottlenose dolphins.
Reception and Information
- Where is the Milford Sound iSite?
The closest iSite is in Te Anau on Lakefront Drive. It welcomes travelers every day from 8:30 am to 6 pm from November to April, and from 8:30 am to 4 pm from May to October. There is no iSite at Milford Sound, but you can ask questions to the various cruises companies on site.
- Do they charge for parking near the Milford Sound?
Parking is free.
Protection From Sandflies
- Should we fear the sandflies?
These microscopic sandflies are a source of endless itching. The Maori regarded them as the guardians of Milford Sound. There is a very effective repellent on sale everywhere. You will learn much more by reading our Doubtful Sound article.
- When to use repellent against sandflies?
I recommend putting the repellent before you even leave the hotel. Do not wait to get in the car to do it. The sandflies will be present all the time as soon as the rain stops. Quite often, visitors invite them into their vehicles without even noticing it.
Excursions on the Way
- Does the Lake Gunn's trek worth the try?
The charm is largely due to the forest that must be crossed. There are no fewer than 700 varieties of plants and trees, including the famous Totara which can live a thousand years. The Rimu, a hundred-year-old tree which grows up to 40 meters are surrounded by giant ferns and covered with moss. The view of the lake is at the height of the entire region: exceptional.
- How long is the trip to the chasm?
It takes about twenty minutes to reach the point of view.
- How is the Homer Tunnel crossing?
The road is very narrow over 1.2 km in total. Alternative traffic has been introduced to avoid accidents. Turn on your lights and stay tuned. Beware of glare by returning to daylight. Last detail but important: the crossing is free!
- Why is the tunnel so narrow?
The rock is particularly hard and the 1,2 km structure begun in 1935 was only completed in 1954 after several abandonments. During the work, three men were even killed by avalanches.
On the Country Map
Milford Sound is located in the Fiordland, a region of South Island.
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