If there is one must-do in New Zealand it certainly is going to one of the sounds in Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound probably is the most popular and less expensive choice, due to its easy access by road. Being formed by glacial carving, you will find yourself in a quite dramatic and beautiful landscape and seeing Milford Sound from the water sure is impressive. This is also why most people decide to hop on one of the many cruise boats – it is the quickest way to see what Milford Sound has to offer. Just make sure to check the weather before you go – out of 365 days there are about 180 rainy days.
How to get there?
You start your journey to Milford Sound in Te Anau. Just take the Milford Road and enjoy the wonderful 120 km scenic drive. Access is quite easy by car/road.
Although it is quite hard to choose some favorites here, we think that besides taking a cruise through Milford Sound (we went for the Go Orange one for 45$ per person at 9am), it also is the 120 km long Milford Road which takes you all the way to Milford Sound, which makes the whole journey quite impressive. There are so many pretty sights and nice walks along the way – so make sure to travel with lots of time on your hands. A third thing that really got us was the Key Summit Hike which is part of the famous Routeburn Track. It starts at The Divide carpark (about 85km along the Milford Road from Te Anau) and is an intermediate 3.4km walk which can be done in 3 hours return. The hike gives you great panoramic views over mountains and alpine lakes. On the summit you will also find a self guided alpine nature walk which passes a range of native vegetation.
How long to stay?
There is so much to do and see in Fiordland National Park which makes it hard to decide how long to stay. In the end we decided to stay for one night only. We stopped about half way along the Milford Road to camp on a DOC campsite (Deer Flat) and then left super early the next day to catch the 9 am cruise in Milford Sound. This way we could not only enjoy a pretty cheap cruise, but also got the most out of the drive itself as we had one full day to stop and explore all the sights and about half a day after we finished the cruise. It also is possible to explore Milford Sound during a day trip – either with one of the many tourism companies or on your own by car.
Where to stay?
As mentioned, we stayed at the DOC campsite Deer Flat which was 13 NZD per night/person. There is a box at the entrance where you can fill in your payslip and then drop your money in a box (basic self-registration campsite). A ranger came at night to check that we paid the fee. In case you are not traveling with a camper, Te Anau has a wide range of accommodation (hotels, motels, backpackers’ hostels, home stays and holiday parks). Accommodation is also available at Te Anau Downs, in the lower Hollyford Valley, at Milford and if you are up for it: There also are overnight boat cruises on Milford Sound.
Know before you go!
What to bring? Bring food and fuel! There are no shops or fuel stations between Te Anau and Milford Sound.
Bring insect repellent: Sandflies are everywhere!
Weather There are two weather scenarios which are perfect for a Milford Sound trip: 1) On a clear day, so everything can be seen, although a little bit of cloud hanging on the peak of a fiord looks pretty cool. Or 2) After some heavy rainfall, which creates awesome temporary waterfalls cascading down the steep cliffs. Travel time If you are planning to go from Te Anau to Milford Sound and return, make sure to plan at least 8 hours for the 240 km journey. This will give you enough time to take in the many scenic sights, short walks and you can even think about squeezing in a boat cruise on Milford Sound.
If you do not have much time: A non-stop direct drive from Te Anau to Milford will take you approx. 2 hours.
Avoid congestion Each year over 400,000 people visit Milford Sound (summer season = peak season). Many visitors plan their trip to Milford according to the cruise departure times, so be prepared that this can result in congestion at some of the scenic stops. We were told that especially between October to April it would be smart to either leave Te Anau early in the morning (before 8 am) or later in the morning (11 am) to avoid traffic congestion.
Coaches: Most of the coaches depart from Te Anau between 9 am and 10 am, arriving at Mirror Lakes around 10:30 am, Knobs Flat at 11 am, The Chasm at 12:30 pm and Milford Sound for the 1 pm cruise. So be smart and try to avoid this pulse of traffic to make your Milford Road experience a bit more relaxed.
Mobile phone coverage There is no mobile phone coverage between Te Anau Downs and Milford. Downloads There are two brochures, which we found quite useful for traveling along the Milford Road and in Fiordland National Park. You can buy both of them in the tourist information in Te Anau, but you can also download them for free online: Fiordland Day Walks and Milford Road Map
Doubtful Sound This lesser known attraction can be seen as Milford Sound’s ‘bigger brother’ as it is twice as long. But it takes much more effort to visit and will cost you a lot more, as the only way to reach Doubtful Sound is by water, making it a pretty good adventure and a less crowded experience. You can choose between overnight cruises or multiple day kayaking trips, all starting from Lake Manapouri. Te Anau This small town is also known as the gateway to Fiordland National Park. Here you can book trips, pick up tickets or just get some useful information about the area and the National Park. It also is a good base for doing one of the Great Walks or some of the many other tracks available. By the way this is why you might also hear people calling Te Anau the ‘Walking Capital of New Zealand’. Besides all these things the town has a good choice of cafes and restaurants, giving you the perfect excuse for a short break. Just in case you want to stay a bit longer – there are a good number of water activities to choose from. Lake Te Anau is perfect for boat rides, fishing, water skiing and swimming. Great Walks Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest national park and gives you access to 3 out of their 9 Great Walks. All of the walks have been chosen because of their outstanding beauty and especially in high season you need to book in advance. Just remember, it likes to rain in Fiordland so be prepared!
Kepler Track This track is a circuit walk which starts and ends in Te Anau. It is a three to four-day walk taking you through beech forests, mountain peaks, river and lake shores.
Milford Track This one-way route starts from Lake Te Anau and ends with a grand finale of Milford Sound. Make sure to plan four days for the whole track, which takes you along the Clinton River, through glacier carved valleys, rainforest and past Lake Ada. Along the way you will be able to see New Zealand’s longest waterfall, the Sutherland Falls.
Routeburn Track If you want to surround yourself with some pretty impressive alpine scenery, this track is just the right thing for you. This three-day track rewards you with stunning views of glacial lakes, as well as tussock and herb fields. You can either start the track from the Routeburn Shelter at the top of Lake Wakatipu or from The Divide, about 85 km northwest of Te Anau.
Wildlife If you are lucky you will meet New Zealand’s most devious bird along your journey in Fiordland National Park: The Kea. A Kea is an alpine parrot (by the way it is the world’s only alpine parrot) which often are found in car parks. Sometimes you might even see them ripping rubber seals off cars or playing with windscreen wipers. And if you decide to explore Milford Sound by water, you possibly will meet some fur seals, sometimes even bottlenose dolphins or penguins. Plenty of time in Fiordland National Park? Well then think about doing one of these things as well:
Watch some birds at the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary.
Climb Mitre Peak for a great view of Milford Sound opening up beneath you.
Check out Lake Manapouri and its wonderful walks.
Visit Gunn Country in the isolated Gunn’s Camp.
Do as much walking as you can!