There is no denying that Milford Sound should make it onto your New Zealand road trip itinerary. Although at times it can be overrun with tourists, it’s obvious to see why! The views over this spectacular Fjord will take your breath away.
As far as the commercialisation goes, you still won’t find phone reception, tourist shops or Mcdonalds here and I honestly hope it will stay that way. There are two restaurants, a visitor centre, a boat pier, a single airstrip, a campground and a lodge. Yep, that’s it!
I’ve had the luck of visiting it on 9 separate occasions during distinct times of the year and I feel like I could go back at least a few more times and still experience something else. I recently went back and did the famous Milford Track too.
There are a few fascinating facts you should know about Milford Sound before you head out this way.
1. Milford Sound is not a sound!
It’s a Fjord!!! My whole life is a lie. It’s just like the moment when I found that pineapples don’t grow on trees or that Hawaiian pizza is a Canadian invention. Anyway, it is what it is, beautiful nonetheless.
Just for clarification: In geography, a sound is a large sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay, deeper than a bight, and wider than a fjord. I guess Milford Sound just isn’t wide enough.
2. It’s named after a place in Wales!
Yes, that’s right, there’s a Milford Haven in wales, where the European discoverer John Grono was from. I bet it’s not nearly as pretty as Milford Sound in New Zealand though!
Obviously, Maoris – the native people of New Zealand have known about this place long before European settlers (more than 1000 years) and named it Piopiotahi after the piopio bird, endemic to NZ but now unfortunately extinct.
I personally think Piopiotahi sounds way cooler! Don’t you?
3. It rains a lot in here!
Milford Sound sees more rainy than dry days. In an average year, it rains 183.9 days out of 365 which is just over 50%. It is also one of the wettest inhabited places on Earth with 6,412mm of rainfall in an average year.
To put it in perspective for you, sometimes it rains here more in a day than in some countries in a whole year!
But the more rain, the more waterfalls, so embrace it! Many people think Milford Sound is even more beautiful in the rain. I am one of them!
4. Milford Sound is a busy tourist destination!
It gets over one million tourists every year. That’s over 2740 people every day on average. It’s not only New Zealand’s most visited tourist attraction, but it’s also the most visited place in the whole of Oceania!
Note: Fewer than 1% of people end up staying overnight! If I were you I would consider being in that 1%. Sunsets and sunrises here are pretty spectacular!
5. Water can flow upwards in Milford Sound!
You read that right. After heavy rainfall and on a particularly windy day, the water cascading over the mountains has been known to be blown further upwards by strong gales caused by the shape of the inlet (Inlet, fjord, sound who cares anymore! Water is flowing upwards people!!!).
6. Iconic Mitre Peak is more than just pretty!
Due to its apparent resemblance to a Christian’s bishops mitre hat, the signature Mitre Peak was coined. I think Captain John Lord Stokes, who named it, must have had a bit too much rum if that’s what he saw when looking at the peak.
At 1690 m a.s.l it’s one of the highest mountains in the world raising straight out of the sea! It’s also definitely one of the most photogenic points in all of New Zealand.
7. It’s rich in wildlife!
It’s possible to spot seals, penguins, dolphins and even whales in here! It’s also very common to have Kea, New Zealand’s famous alpine parrot, pecking on your car window! Damn New Zealand you’re crazy!!!
I have been lucky enough to spot dolphins in Milford Sound and also some in Doubtful Sound, Milford’s bigger sister.
8. It really is the 8th Wonder of the World!
Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the 8th wonder of the world and he wrote the non-fictional documentary “The Jungle Book”, so he must be right! Who am I to question it!
What’s the best way to experience Milford Sound?
Most visitors to New Zealand choose to visit Milford Sound on a day trip from Queenstown. Whilst it may be a popular and time-saving option, in my opinion, it is not the best one.
If you have a bit more time and are travelling around New Zealand for at least 4 weeks, try to spend one night in Milford Sound. You will be positively surprised how quiet this place becomes after the crowd of daily visitors leave. It will give you an awesome chance to truly appreciate the immensity and beauty of the Fjord.
1. Self Driving
Whilst there is a vast array of bus tours going out of Queenstown and Te Anau, which are the nearest towns I think self-driving is the way to go.
Firstly because the road to Milford Sound is one of the most spectacular ones on the South Island. Secondly, it will give you the freedom to stop wherever and whenever you want. Unless it is on the bend on a curvy mountain road – please don’t do that!
Make sure to stay overnight in Milford Sound, catch the sunset and if you are lucky see the calm Fjord in the early morning with its peaks reflecting in the water.
Due to the limited availability, you may not be able to book accommodation in Milford Sound, in this case, stay the night before in Te Anau, which is the nearest town and head out early to beat all the bus tours heading that way!
2. Fly-Cruise-Fly From Queenstown
There are a lot of companies offering flights from Queenstown to Milford Sound. One of the top providers is Air Milford. With a 100% safety rate and only 5-star reviews, I couldn’t recommend them enough.
Flying so close to the snow-capped Humboldt mountain range and glaciers will forever remain one of my most fond memories from NZ.
Whilst, not the cheapest option, it is certainly the best if your time is limited. You can leave at a sociable hour, do the whole trip in just half a day and be back in Queenstown by early afternoon!
3. Coach-Cruise-Coach from Queenstown or Te Anau
Not everyone can allow themselves to purchase a flight or rent a car. In this case the bus tour is a good option.
The departures are available from either Queenstown or Te Anau and begin in the early morning hours.
It takes around 4,5 hours to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown, then around 2 hours for the cruise and another 4,5 hours back.
From Te Anau, it’s only 2 hours one way. Below I have enlisted a couple of bus tours which I recommend, starting in both towns.
4. Coach-Cruise-Fly from Queenstown
A great way to experience both ways of getting in and out of Milford Sound and not missing out on either one is booking a combo tour. You can choose to take a bus to Milford Sound and then fly back to Queenstown.
It will give you the chance to see all the stops along the way through Fiordland National Park but also see the place from above.
Moreover, it will spare you from spending most of the day on a bus. A win-win if you ask me!
If you are an outdoorsy soul and are feeling more adventurous you can also join a kayaking tour around Milford Sound.
Kayaking will give you a more intimate and less touristy look into the Fjord.
It’s worth mentioning that Kayak and Cruise combos are also available and this is the best option for anyone who is staying overnight in Milford Sound or Te Anau and doesn’t have any time constraints.
6. Overnight Cruise
This is the ultimate in luxury packages.
Not only will it let you be at Milford Sound for sunrise and sunset but Fiordland Discovery‘s boat, a company I highly recommend, also has kayaks, a helipad, an onboard chef, private ensuite rooms and a rooftop hot tub for stargazing. What more could you want?
My experience on an overnight cruise at Milford Sound was one of the most exciting ways to experience this national treasure.
When is the best time to visit Milford Sound?
If I were to pick my favourite season to visit I would pick Autumn (April & May). The rain and wind tends to quiet down and there are fewer crowds around this time of the year
Winter is great too, but a lot colder in the mornings and nights. If you are staying overnight and planning on doing some hikes in the area, please note that the treks may be inaccessible due to avalanche risk or lack of maintenance during the winter months.
Some of the best hikes on the South Island start on the road to Milford Sound e.g. Gertrude Saddle, Lake Marian or Key Summit
Last but not least, there is one dark secret about Milford Sound that you may not hear often. It swarmed with sand flies! These little blood-sucking insects can turn your visit into a nightmare.
Just a few bites can put you into uncontrollable scratching mode. Avoid dark clothes (they are attracted to it) and make sure to take strong insect repellent with you!