Like most other parts of my self-guided road trip through New Zealand, there are certain things that I wish had been easier to navigate along the way, which is the reason why I’ve written this blog; to provide an easy-to-read budget travel guide to make your trip planning easier, and to give you some tips and tricks for making your own itinerary!
So, if you’re driving through New Zealand’s South Island, you definitely have to make the trip to Milford Sound – a fiord in the southwest of New Zealand’s South Island and (in my opinion) the most spectacular natural attraction in the country, with Mount Cook as a very close second.
Boat cruises – during the day or overnight – are an excellent way to experience the Sound. Adventurous types might also like to head out sea kayaking, diving or seeing Milford Sound by helicopter overhead.
Where to Stay
Many people visit the Sound on a day trip from Te Anau or Queenstown. However, the small village of Milford Sound also has *limited* places to stay, so pre-booking is advised. There is a hotel nearby the boat dock called Milford Sound Lodge, which also serves as a campsite for RVs and camper vans.
From here you can walk a short distance to the ferry (about 15 minutes), or take the public shuttle from the parking lot at Sandfly Point, just next door to Milford Sound Lodge, which runs every 20 minutes. Note: it is called Sandfly Point for a reason… these little biting pests will make your life hell if you don’t wear bug spray and appropriate clothing.
The advantage to staying the night in Milford Sound is that you can take your time waking up in the morning and not rush to make it time for your boat tour. There are many boat tours, but I recommend that for all tours and accommodations you should plan to book in advance.
There are private “rooms” at Milford Sound Lodge, which are more like tiny cabins with total privacy and a riverfront view for $100 NZD/night, or powered sites for your RV or camper van for $50 NZD/night with full access to the communal kitchen and living room. There is also a restaurant and bar in the hotel if you feel like treating yourself!
How to Choose a Boat Tour
This part was difficult for me. For some reason, whenever I went to Google search for Milford Sound boat cruises, I was only given a few options to decide between. The cheapest price for a basic two-hour cruise through the Sound was around $120 NZD per person. However, after picking up a brochure in the Christchurch airport, I ended up finding a significantly cheaper option; Jucy Cruise Milford Sound.
Jucy is one of the top competing camper van rentals in New Zealand, and also offers hostel accommodation in some bigger cities, as well as cruise ship tours in Milford Sound. This boat tour cost only $63 NZD! Half the price of the other boat tours, offering the exact same itinerary and amenities.
There are tours running all afternoon, with the option of transfer to and from Te Anau or Queenstown, including a lunch from Pita Pit on the cruise itself. This full package is more expensive, as the drive is quite far between cities, which is again why I suggest to spend the night in Milford Sound.
Jucy Milford Sound Boat Cruise
Be sure to get to the gate about 15 minutes prior to departure to check in. There are 3 decks on the boat to choose from – two indoor decks with tables and seating, and an open-air top deck with seats. This is by far the best place to get a good view, but it does get a little windy, so dress appropriately!
Even in the summer, Milford Sound is very exposed and acts as a sort of wind tunnel from the Tasmanian Sea. The location is very far South, with the Arctic Sea just south of the island, so the temperatures can still be a little chilly even in the hottest months of the year (December – March.)
The captain will be navigating the cruise over a loud speaker, giving you a ton of interesting facts about the Sound. He’ll pull the ship up right under a massive waterfall, allowing you to step out onto the bow of the boat to get a “glacial facial” as he called it. Make sure you have a raincoat and a waterproof phone case if you’re outside on the boat, and hold onto your hat!
There is complimentary coffee and tea on the boat, and the option to buy beer/wine, baked goodies, and they even have a fully functioning Pita Pit restaurant on board for lunch!
After the cruise, take a walk through the wetlands along the “Milford Foreshore Walk” and read up on a bit of the history yourself. This is a 30-minute easy, flat loop walking along the boardwalk before the majestic Milford Sound. Keep an eye out for the national bird, the reclusive Kiwi! One tour guide informed us that he has been in New Zealand his entire 30-year life and had never seen one.
Head back to your camper-van site to relax for the rest of the evening, or hop on the road for a three-hour journey back to the town of Te Anau or Queenstown.
A Few Fun Facts
Milford Sound is not actually a sound
It’s actually a fiord. Sounds are formed when a river valley is flooded by the sea, whereas Milford Sound was formed by the erosion of ancient glaciers.
It is one of the wettest places on Earth
Milford Sound has rain 190 days of the year. The highest recorded rainfall on a single day is at 10 inches! September, October, November and December are the wettest months in Milford Sound, with an average of 18 days of rainfall in a month.
But don’t let that stop you from visiting! Milford Sound is even more magical when the rains come. It amplifies the already powerful waterfalls and creates hundreds of temporary ones which cascade down the cliff faces.
Milford Sound is just a small part of a massive National Park
‘A cherished corner of the world where mountains and valleys compete with each other for room, where scale is almost beyond comprehension, rainfall is measured in meters and scenery encompasses the broadest width of emotions’.
This is how the author of the book “The Story of Fiordland National Park” described this stunning corner of the world. Established in 1952, Fiordland National Park is over 4650 sq. miles in size, and encompasses mountain, lake, fiord and rainforest environments.
There are a number of other scenic sights to see in the park, including Doubtful Sound – Milford Sound’s neighbor known as ‘the Sound of Silence’, a remote, lesser traveled fiord and home to one of the southernmost populations of bottlenose dolphins, Mirror Lakes, and Lake Gunn.
Prepare to unplug
Not that you need a reason with all there is to see in the surrounding nature, but you will be forced to stop looking at your phone for a minute and really enjoy your surroundings because there is NO cellphone coverage or WiFi in the majority of the Fiordland National Park. You can pay for WiFi at Milford Sound Lodge, but you’re advised that it’s expensive and has a very poor connection.
The Traveling Yogi