Is Milford Sound worth a visit? How do I get there? Is it better to drive or join a tour? These were some of the questions we asked when planning our self-drive road trip to South Island, New Zealand. We hope that our sharing will help you in your trip-planning.
Milford Sound, carved out from ancient glaciers, is adorned with towering peaks and cascading waterfalls. It is widely considered to be one of the most scenic places in the world. It’s no surprise that the famous novelist and traveler, Rudyard Kipling, calls it “The 8th Wonder of the World”.
‘To Drive or Not to Drive’:
Getting to Milford Sound requires advanced planning. Here’s what we gleaned from the locals we spoke to.
- Wet. Wet. Wet.: Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world, averaging 186 days of rainfall in a year. This makes the winding roads through the hilly region wrought with risk of landslides, fallen trees and flood. A recent flood in February 2020 caused scores of tourists to be stranded overnight as the incessant rain caused the river to swell.
- Highway 94: State Highway 94 the only accessible route to reach Milford Sound. It is a 250+ km of narrow, winding highway that meanders through the hills with tunnels and single lane roads due to ongoing roadworks. Needless to say, driving along this winding road gets riskier when night falls. Moreover, being the only accessible route to Milford Sound means also that this road gets really busy (think locals, tourists, trucks etc.) during peak tourist season (esp. Summer). Many tourists have missed their cruise departures because they fail to anticipate the jams along this route.
- No Signal and Internet!: Tourists who plan to self-drive to Milford Sound should plan for the possibility of getting stranded in this hilly region without any means of communication as data signals and WIFI tend to be weak. Road works to install new-generation fiber optic cables to Milford Sound have been delayed by the pandemic and we were told may take few more years to complete. Local residents and drivers hence carry satellite phones to establish essential communication, especially in adverse weather.
- Where to Join a Milford Sound Tour? So weighing the risks, we’ve decided not to self-drive to Milford Sound but to join a ‘Coach and Cruise’ Tour so that Daddy can relax and enjoy the trip too. The next decision is to decide where from. There are 2 options: from Queenstown or from Te Anau. The one way drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is about 4 hours so the coaches pick up passengers in Queenstown as early as 7am. After the cruise ends at 5pm, it’s another 4 hour drive back to Queenstown. This can be an extremely long day for families with young kids.
- To reduce the travelling time sitting inside the coach, we decided to self-drive 2 hrs from Queenstown to Te Anau, spend a night in 5-star lakefront accommodation, Radfords On The Lake, Te Anau before joining the Milford Sound Tour with Southern Discoveries. We took advantage of our stay in Te Anau to explore the Glowworm caves as well.
Milford Sound Coach and Cruise Tour
Technically, Milford Sound is a fjord but it’s spectacular nonetheless (reminded us of our trip in Norway!) Our Coach and Cruise Tour operated by Southern Discoveries, was booked via Klook from the comfort of our home. We boarded a glass-roofed coach from Te Anau at 9.30am and were pleasantly surprised it came with free WiFi and USB charging ports. The coach was very clean and comfy. All of us could relax and listen to the commentary during the drive to Milford Sound Ferry Terminal.
Here’s sharing some insights of the Cruise:
- Wet. Wet. Wet: Be prepared to get wet on the cruise. Not only are you visiting one of the wettest places on earth, the cruise actually brings us up close to at least one of the majestic waterfalls. Hence best to come prepared in water resistant jackets or with a ponchos. Having a water resistant gadget to capture videos and photos will be quite essential too.
- Windy Windy Windy: One of the highlights of the cruise is to go to the open deck to take in the stunning scenery. However it is very very windy. Scarves, beanies, caps and small gadgets can be blown off with virtually no chance of retrieval. Either have them securely strapped to your hands or wound safely around the neck. Consider yourself warned.
- Motion? While waters on the fjord is generally not too choppy, the ferry resembles one from our local ferry ride to nearby Batam, and can be susceptible to some moderate waves generated by the weather. So for those who are sensitive to motion sickness, best to come prepared with medication.
- Warm Up and Chow Down: The cruise does offer free coffee and tea to passengers (good!) and for a small fee, they do provide a simple picnic lunchbox which comprises of cookies, sandwich and muffin. This is helpful especially since there is no snack stops along the coach ride.
- Sights and Sounds All Around: The coach ride with Southern Discoveries was really pleasant. It stops as some key scenic photo spots for us to stretch our legs and catch some stunning local sights. The glass-roofed coach gave us a slightly more immersive experience admiring the scenery whilst on the go. The driver also provided very useful commentary. Worthy experience!
Dana writes: Have a read at what the daughter thinks about the Milford Sound Tour:
“Some of the most memorable spots that we stopped en-route to take the cruise were the Mirror Lake, where we took beautiful photos of the mountains’ reflections in the lake and the Monkey Creek where we spotted the Kea, an endangered bird in NZ. We also drank alpine water from the creek which was absolutely refreshing.”
“During the cruise, I spent most of my time on the Upper Deck enjoying the fresh air and cool winds. My family members occasionally joined me to take in the view. My favourite part of the cruise was when the boat went extremely close to one of the huge waterfalls, and I got splashed, which according to a local myth, say would make us look 10 years younger! I did feel more youthful after the refreshing sprays of water! I would highly encourage you to purchase the meals as well when booking the cruise, as the journey is pretty long, and all that sightseeing made us hungry. I made a friend on the cruise, Grace who hails from Auckland. Grace suggested more places to add to my growing list of places to go to in New Zealand. Overall, the Milford Sound Cruise is definitely one that you cannot miss!”
Milford Sound stands out as among one of the most beautiful places we have visited as a family. The Southern Discoveries Coach and Cruise Tour through the towering peaks and sailing on the emerald green waters is truly a beautiful way to know New Zealand. Highly recommended!
FREE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR OUR READERS!
- You may download this EXCEL Spreadsheet where I’ve included the 11D Itinerary for you to customise your NZ road trip according to your family’s travel preferences.
- Feel free to use this interactive
Till the next trip, Kia Ora New Zealand. We shall return!