The Ultimate Way to Experience Milford Sound
3 day, 2 night itinerary allowing you to experience Milford Sound from every perspective.
Fly from Queenstown to Milford Sound
Cruise through the fiord
Stay the night
Sunrise kayak trip to the waterfalls
Afternoon kayak and Milford Track hike
Stay the night
Drive back to Queenstown along the Milford Road
Milford Sound has to be right up there with one of the world’s most spectacular places to visit. The raw beauty of the fiord and surrounding temperate rainforest are what draw more than half a million visitors to the region each year, but despite this it has an immense sense of remoteness and isolation.
The journey to Milford Sound is just as remarkable as the destination itself. I’ve spent a fair bit of time here and while there are a number of ways to reach the region, we thought we’d cover the ultimate way to discover Milford Sound – better than what any local tour brochure could offer.
Here’s how it goes:
Departing from Queenstown – one of the world’s most scenic airports, we flew over the baron Coronet Peak and across the sunburnt backcountry of Central Otago. The flight path then headed westward over the strikingly-blue Lake Wakatipu and lush farmland of Glenorchy and Paradise.
It is here where you cross the Humboldt Mountain range and enter the world-heritage listed, Fiordland National Park – an untouched world filled with jagged peaks and wide-open valleys. This is where I started to gain a true sense of the scale of the landscape below us.
Our pilot pointed out the Milford Road below, at which point I felt a huge sense of relief that we chose the 40-minute flight option as opposed to the 5 hour drive from Queenstown!
We flew beside ancient glaciers and thundering waterfalls, before the landscape opened up and we were welcomed to our first glimpse of Milford Sound. The plane began its descent, creeping closer toward the icy fiord below giving us a great view of the permanent waterfalls that call Milford Sound home.
While it may come with a higher price tag, this is definitely worth considering if you are planning on visiting Milford Sound. There are also day trips which include a drive in along the Milford Road by coach, a cruise on the fiord and a fly-back option – see more at www.milfordflights.co.nz.
Spend the night in Milford Sound
It’s quite a journey into Milford Sound, so if you have the opportunity I highly recommend staying a night or two to make the most of your trip in there.
We spent two nights at the Milford Sound Lodge – which offer modern chalets that look out to views of the mountains or river, or dorm-style rooms which come at less of a hefty price tag.
There is a café onsite, or you can bring your own food in and cook in the communal living areas. The facilities were all quite clean and modern.
Milford Sound would have to be New Zealand’s most remarkable sea kayaking destination.
This was our favourite way to explore the fiord, as seeing everything at sea-level was much more of an immersive experience.
The scale of Milford Sound is never properly conveyed in photographs. It isn’t until you are on the water and looking directly up at 1600m sheer cliff edges that you gain a decent understanding of how gigantic the walls of the fiord actually are.
We got up before dawn and headed down to Deep Water Basin to meet the Rosco’s Milford Kayaks team. (Fun fact: Rosco's is New Zealand's longest established owner operated sea kayak company!)
The Sunriser Classic gave us a good amount of time on the water and covered more of the fiord which allowed us to get up close to some waterfalls and spot more wildlife.
The Milford Track Walk & Paddle was a shorter kayak trip around Deep Water Basin and focused more on the hike which was exactly what we were looking for!
The trips were led by a super-informative guide who taught us more about the region and shared interesting facts along the way.
As we entered the fiord Mitre Peak remained cloaked in a thick fog, although as we crossed the main channel it began to clear – leaving us astonished at just how large the scale of the cliffs were. Luxuriant mosses, ferns and other plant life that makes up the temperate rainforest clinged to the side of the mountains and we were able to see where it had occasionally given way in a ‘tree avalanche’.
We spotted NZ fur seals on both trips, they casually swam beside us or enjoyed a nap as they floated on the surface alongside the rock walls.
The team provide plenty of warm and waterproof clothing to help protect you from the rain and mist from the waterfalls. We experienced a little drizzle as we crossed the fiord, but were lucky enough to escape the heavier downpours that Milford is so famous for.
The region can receive up to 7 metres of rainfall annually, which helps fuel the spectacular waterfalls that tumble down the vertical cliffs of the fiord. While there are two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, the rain from the night before had brought many temporary waterfalls to life – which was truly one incredible sight.
They recommend going early and I can see why. We were treated to perfectly still conditions as we set out across Deep Water Basin and headed toward Lady Bowen Falls. The boat traffic also picks up later in the morning so it was nice to get some time with the fiord just about to ourselves.
No prior experience is necessary for the trips although for your own benefit, a decent level of fitness will help!
It was a pretty incredible feeling kayaking right up against immense peaks that rose directly out of the depths of the ocean, making this experience one that I highly recommend you try for yourself.
We didn’t have enough time to set out on any of the Great Walks, although there is an excellent solution for those of you who want a taste of what they offer and that can be done in half a day.
Rosco’s Milford Kayaks offer an epic 5 hour trip which involves paddling over to Sandfly Point (the starting or finishing point of the Milford Track), a short hike along the track to the spectacular Giant Gate Falls and then returning back along the track and across the river by kayak.
This part of the track covers a number of top rated highlights including walking alongside the Arthur River, viewing Lake Ada and my favourite – the Giant Gate Falls.
The track is well-formed and has an easy, mostly-flat gradient. Our guide knew so much about the region and gave us insight into the local flora and fauna found along the track.
I must have been to Milford Sound more than 20 times now, although this has to be my top pick for those looking for something different to do in the area. Nearly everyone that visits the fiord jumps on a boat cruise, although being able to get out and do some paddling and hiking makes it even more of an unforgettable adventure.
The boat journey began by cruising past the iconic Mitre Peak, before making its way through the 16km fiord and out in to the Tasman Sea. There was a cool breeze that picked up as the sun started lowering toward the horizon so we cosied up in a prime position, a warm alcove that looked out toward the front of the boat.
The skipper was very informative, highlighting points of interest along the way and even getting us close to seals napping on rocky outcrops and right underneath some cascading waterfalls. A few brave souls chose to stand out on the front deck as the skipper neared the boat closer to the cliff walls and they soon became soaked by the spray of Fairy and Stirling Falls.
A pod of bottlenose dolphins even joined us for a ride along the bow wave – apparently this is quite a rare occurrence so we felt pretty lucky to spot them.
On the whole, I enjoyed the smaller boat sizes with Mitre Peak Cruises, it felt like we were escaping the crowds of large tour groups which were hanging around the cruise terminal which was another bonus.
The Milford Road is rated one of the world’s most spectacular alpine roads. It offers a breath-taking journey alongside sparkling lakes, through paddocks filled with sheep, dense rainforest and wide-open valleys. It takes around 5 hours from Milford Sound to Queenstown (or vice versa), depending on how often you stop to check out the points of interest along the way.
Luckily, my brother had driven into Milford Sound on the same day we flew in so we hitched a ride with them on the way home to Queenstown.
Some of my favourite stops along the Milford Road are:
This beautiful valley has been carved out by glaciers, leaving steep sides that fall into a flat floor.
This is my favourite place to get a shot of the Milford Road itself. The road winds into towering mountains of the Upper Hollyford Valley. They also say to fill your drink bottles up from the creek here, as the water blesses you with ‘eternal youth’.
At an altitude of 945 metres above sea level and running 1.2 kilometres in length, the one-way road tunnel allows access through sheer rock to Milford Sound. The tunnel is manned by automated traffic lights that let traffic safely pass from end-to-end.
This stop offers a short loop track that is a good opportunity to stretch your legs after the long journey. It takes you through temperate rainforest which opens up into a spectacular rock chasm and waterfall.
So there it is – our recommendation for the best way to experience Milford Sound!
One thing is for sure – no matter how you get to Milford Sound or what the weather is like on the day, it will be a truly majestic sight and will help you realise how it has become known as the eighth natural wonder of the world.
Spend at least one night in Milford Sound
Cover up! Sandflies are New Zealand’s curse and they are everywhere in Fiordland
There’s no cell reception in Milford Sound, which gives you a great opportunity switch off from the digital world and truly experience the peace and serenity of the region