During my first week in New Zealand, I made it a habit to ask every Kiwi the following question: “If you could only recommend one place in your country, what would it be?”
The answer by a long shot? Milford Sound.
Of the dozen or so people I asked, maybe 10 of them recommended this glacially-carved masterpiece in the South Island. So I knew I had to go.
One of the first things I learned about Milford is that it technically isn’t a sound; it’s a fjord. That’s because it was formed by glaciers, rather than a sea flooding a river valley. Potato, po-tah-to; suffice it to say it’s a gorgeous waterway surrounded by 6000-foot cliffs covered in lush greenery.
A variety of cruise companies offer tours of the fjord; I chose Southern Discoveries because they offered the longest cruise, as well as the opportunity to add on a brief kayaking trip.
Since I was staying in Te Anau after finishing the Kepler Track, my only real option was their Discover More Cruise, which lasts eight hours and costs $159 NZ (~$115 US). Because I added the kayaking portion, it cost $269 NZ (~$194 US) and lasted 11 hours. If you have a car and can drive to the fjord, you have a lot of other (and cheaper) options.
Getting from Te Anau to Milford Sound
Around 7 am, a friendly bus driver named Reese picked me up from the YHA where I was staying. After collecting eight other passengers, we set off for the Sound. Reese was jovial and informative, sharing lots of fun facts about the areas we passed through. Along the way, we made five stops to stretch our legs and take photos. In total, the drive took about three hours.
Cruising Milford Sound
Once we arrived at Milford Sound, we boarded a large catamaran to start our cruise. Reese recommended we grab our complimentary lunches early, as the view would get better as the journey progressed. My vegetarian lunch was hearty and tasty.
Though the Lonely Planet said we should hope for a clear day, I was perfectly content with the rainy weather we experienced. I mean, it rains more than 22 feet per year here!
Personally, I prefer to see a place the way it normally looks — rather than in “ideal” conditions. (I feel the same way about guys at bars: let’s see what you REALLY look like so I can make an informed choice.)
Overall, it was a beautiful and relaxing trip. I mean, you’re cruising around looking at waterfalls gushing down from cliffs more than a mile tall. What’s not to like?
On two separate occasions, our skipper even drove us directly underneath a waterfall. Pro tip: Don’t take photos during these little excursions. Your camera will get wet, and your pictures will suck… Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.
For me, the highlight of our trip was when a pod of inquisitive Hector’s dolphins joined us. These dolphins, endemic to New Zealand, are tiny: average length is 3-5 feet! They swam alongside our boat, playing in our wake for nearly 30 minutes — promptly making everyone forget about the waterfalls and fjords towering over us.
Kayaking in Milford Sound
Once the two-hour cruise was up, our small group of kayakers got outfitted as the rest of the passengers visited the Milford Discovery Centre.
Southern Discoveries recommended we bring a change of clothes, and I second that. I was kind of surprised to see they don’t provide you with sprayskirts OR waterproof pants for the kayaking portion; since the water is cold, I feel like they should.
Though I liked being out on the water, our kayaking guide was a total snooze fest. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt (since he was — how shall we say it? — fairly pleasing to the eyes), but he was uninformative and unenthusiastic. I guess I might be, too, if I had been paddling around the same little cove for several years.
Having worked for a kayaking company in Alaska, my standards may be unreasonably high, but this tour didn’t meet them. Though I think Southern Discoveries does a great job with their cruise, I wouldn’t spend an extra $100 to go kayaking with them.
If kayaking is your thing, you should probably opt for a tour with a specialty outfitter. (I heard great things about Rosco’s Milford Kayaks.)
Visiting the Milford Discovery Centre
Once our kayaking tour was done, our small group had the chance to visit the Milford Discovery Centre & Underwater Observatory. Because of several factors, many unique species of flora and fauna live in the sound. Visiting this center, which is an underwater room surrounded by glass, allows you to see them without diving. Not every tour visits here, which is another reason I’m happy I went with Southern Discoveries.
As our naturalist explained, “This is not an aquarium. Well, it kind of is: only you are the ones in the tank.”
I generally think zoos and aquariums are a terrible idea, so I really liked that idea. Maybe we can put all the SeaWorld execs into a tank next?
The Bottom Line
Visiting Milford Sound was an excellent experience, and well worth a stop while you’re in New Zealand’s South Island.
Your best option is to find transportation to the Milford Sound and grab a tour from there, as it’s much more affordable than getting transportation from Te Anau or Queenstown.
As far as tour operators go, I’d highly recommend Southern Discoveries for a friendly and convenient overview of Milford Sound. I liked that I got to do a bit of everything on their tour and would surely cruise with them again.
Have you visited Milford Sound? Would you like to?