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There is a lot of talk about New Zealand must-dos and some are more ‘must do’ than others (we’re talking about you, Wanaka Tree!). A day trip / tour to Milford Sound, New Zealand’s most famous and visited fjord is simply stunning. Any words we write just will not do it justice until you see it with your own eyes (although please don’t let that deter you from reading on…). We would list it as one of our top 5 natural New Zealand experiences.
There are a few ways to visit Milford Sound, including driving yourself to the boat terminal. However, the roads are quite winding so a coach tour / day trip might be your best option.
Milford Sound Tour with Awesome NZ
Most Milford Sound day trips depart from Queenstown but we didn’t fancy the long 14 hour day, so we opted to spend a couple of nights by the lake in Te Anau and get picked up from there which shortens the journey considerably.
We travelled to Milford Sound with AwesomeNZ, as they had good recommendations plus the promise of a glass roof coach and a free lunch onboard the cruise sounded ‘sweet as’ to us. The tour started with us being picked up by a minibus outside our accommodation (we stayed at Getaway Te Anau), before being dropped off in Te Anau town centre to board a much bigger coach. I’d say about 85% of people on board had already started their journey back in Queenstown.
Once onboard we got a lively introduction and welcome from our coach driver (very chatty with lots of dry and fascinating stories – top banter!). We also really enjoyed the novelty of having a glass roof to look upwards and see the trees and mountains above us.
Our first brief stop after entering Fiordland National Park was Ellington Valley. Carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago, this felt like our first real foray into Lord of the Rings country. The landscape was beautifully barren and remote, and the valley floor was golden in colour, carpeted by straw-like tussock grass.
A little further on into Eglington Valley, we visited pristine Mirror Lakes. As the name suggests, the tranquil waters allow a pure reflection of the valley to appear on the water’s surface, acting like a perfect mirror – although a family of rogue ducks had recently made the lake their home, so some of the reflections were a little rippled. A boardwalk that runs alongside Mirror Lake allows you to get good photos and the Awesome NZ bus then picks you up at the other end.
All along the way whilst driving through Fiordland National Park, you’ll see ancient alpine forests and spectacular waterfalls – one of the best is the captivating Christie Falls, in the Upper Hollyford Valley.
Monkey Creek is a glacier fed spring where the water is so pure that you can fill your water bottle up with it and drink it directly from the source! Kea’s (the famous New Zealand bird) roam this particular area and we saw a few swooping around!
En route to Milford Sound, the bus passes through the long, dark Homer Tunnel (‘doh!’), before emerging into the beautiful Cleddau Valley (another quick photo stop awaits after you emerge all bleary eyed from the tunnel). Whilst passing cars the other side waiting to enter the tunnel, we saw tourists taking pictures of more inquisitive keas, who were playing on car bonnets and attempting to steal sandwiches.
Milford Sound tour cruise
The highlight of the trip is obviously taking a cruise across spectacular Milford Sound fjord. In my mind, the only other place that I’ve been to in the world that looks anything like this are the Norweigan fjords.
Your journey starts in the Milford Sound terminal, a hive and hubris of activity, as so many other tour companies and cruises operate out of there. There are a couple of places to get snacks, coffees and souvenirs plus one of the biggest toilet blocks known to man – you then make your way out to the harbour find your allocated cruise-ship.
The ship was easy to find as it was a fluorescent green (Awesome NZ partner with Jucy Cruises for their tour). Once aboard, the first port of call is to get your included lunch, with consists of a Pita Pit wrap (chicken or veggie – the chicken one was surprisingly good), a cookie and choice of soft drink (beers are also available to buy).
Free tea and coffee is also available throughout the trip, which helps keep you warm on the top deck. Once we were suitably full, we made our way upstairs to the top deck, just as the Jucy Cruise left the harbour.
Milford Sound Wildlife
Our first surprise was that within minutes of departing, we were joined by a pod of dolphins, leaping at the front and along the sides of our boat (we all made a dash to the front of the boat to see them up-close). They seemed curious to see us and followed us for several minutes.
We also saw lots of southern fur seals waddling and sleeping on the rocks – they inhabit the fjord year round but don’t seem to pay much attention to the cruise ships. Furthermore, there is the chance to see penguins but we didn’t see any on our trip.
The fjord has dozens of waterfalls running into it, of varying sizes. The most impressive (and second highest) is Stirling Falls, over 150 metres in height (three times higher than Niagara Falls). What is particularly awe-inspiring about these falls is that there is enough room for the Milford Sound cruises to manoeuvre directly below them under the waterfall spray, giving tourists a ‘glacial facial’ (plus I’m sure the boat gets very clean in the process).
One word of warning – if you do stand at the front, you will get very wet so if you have photographic equipment or phones that aren’t waterproof (not just splashproof), definitely stand at the rear of the top deck and watch everyone else get soaked.
Another of Milford Sound’s iconic features is Mitre Peak mountain, on the shores of the fjord and one of New Zealand’s most photographed sites. It’s name derives from the similarity of the mountain shape to that of the mitre hats that bishops wear.
The Journey Home
After disembarking the cruise at the visitor centre, we jumped back on the Awesome NZ bus, ready to return to Te Anau. If you are feeling flush or have recently won the lottery, a quicker way to return back to your accommodation is to book a scenic flight back to Queenstown – we were quite content to return on the bus.
We make our final scenic photo stop at The Chasm. Taking a short walk along a track through tranquil native forest brings you to a series of beautiful waterfalls, surrounded by water-sculpted shaped smooth rocks.
A trip to Milford Sound should be 100% be part of any New Zealand South Island Itinerary. We really enjoyed our day trip to Milford Sound with AwesomeNZ – even if the weather doesn’t play ball, both the drive through Fiordland and the boat trip on Milford Sound are still breathtaking, showcasing the best of New Zealand nature. Let the driver do all the hard work for you – sit back, relax and enjoy – so in summary, it is a rather ‘cruisy’ adventure.
Watch our New Zealand South Island video
Check out our other New Zealand blog posts:
- The ultimate guide to Queenstown, New Zealand
- The best easy day trips from Queenstown
- Best things to do in Franz Josef, New Zealand
- An afternoon of wine Tasting at Gibbston Valley Winery, Queenstown
- How to spend the perfect day in Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
- A Guide to the best things to do in Arrowtown, New Zealand
- 20 New Zealand food and drinks items you need to try
- Delivering post on the Picton Mail Boat Cruise tour
- A tour of Monteith’s Brewery in Greymouth
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Disclosure: We were invited by AwesomeNZ onto their Milford Sound tour, but as always, opinions are all our own. Follow us on Instagram!