Visiting Milford Sound?
Good for you, you’re on your way to an experience of a lifetime. It is arguably the one place you are supposed to see as a tourist on the South Island of New Zealand (and after two weeks there, I would argue for it). Our experience kayaking the Milford Sound was nothing short of incredible. However, experiencing the sound is so much more than just being on the water. For us, it was the whole expanse between leaving the nearest town to arriving at the water’s edge.
Where to begin – Queenstown or Te Anau
There are a couple of different ways you can orient yourself and access the sound. Outside of chartering planes from most anywhere in New Zealand, its accessible by bus or car. One of these is to make a home base in Queenstown. You can either drive the roughly 4 hours to Milford Sound yourself or hire a tour company from here. There are many companies operating in Queenstown for this, all varying in options in terms of time and luxury.
The other option is to start in Te Anau, the last and only town before the remote stretch of Milford Sound begins. This is the only place for gas, food, and any other supplies you may need for the 119 km drive out, so stock up here if you are not going with a tour. We spent a night there, mainly because we were too tired to go the whole way after a day of winery hopping around Queenstown, but the campsites are nothing special if you don’t need to spend a night.
The infamous Milford Road
Milford Road is the epitome of what you are preached to about the whole time you are driving in New Zealand: the roads are windy, narrow, and downright dangerous, but they also boast some of the most beautiful scenery you have ever seen in your life. Google maps estimates the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound to be 1 hr 45 minutes. It’s not. It’s longer, much longer, and should be. This road should be taken slow, very slow.
If you are not concerned with driving the at times treacherously windy and narrow roads, still do not rush because it is mind blowingly gorgeous. Stop, take pictures, hike, and breath in the glorious mountain air. We did the highly recommended Key Summit track. A roughly 3-4 round trip hike along the Routeburn Track (one of the great walks), the summit has spectacular views. If you have time, take the short detour down to the first track hut to get a feel for what it could be like to hike one of these famous multi-day treks.
Staying in Milford Sound
If you don’t want to take a tour out of Te Anau or Queenstown and are uninterested in doing a same day round trip yourself from either place, you can stay at one of the only two options at Milford Sound: Milford Lodge and Mitre Peak Lodge. We chose Milford Lodge since it is the only one of the two with camp sites to park our campervan.
If you don’t need to be that close or are trying to cut costs, there are 7 cheaper DOC managed campsites between Te Anau and the sound, but the closest one is 44 km to the sound. With a 7:45 a.m. start time on our kayak tour, we opted to stay closer and pay the extra. Milford Lodge grounds are stunning, the facilities are some of the best we saw, and the night we stayed they hosted a free talk on penguins from a local scientist who studies them. We would definitely stay again!
You made it to the sound – now what?
You did it! Navigated the roads, didn’t run out of gas, and presumably have a billion pictures from your trip in. Now it’s time to determine what activity to do. Aside from the great walks, most of what you want to do in your time in Milford is be on the water. There are countless cruises that spend hours, a full day, or even multiple days and overnight on the water.
If we had more time/money in the budget for it, we would have opted for an overnight cruise. These often dock and let you hike/kayak in more remote settings. As mentioned about, we chose the kayaking and loved it. The last option is to charter a plane or helicopter to take you out joy riding for a few hours or full day. I am scared of flying on normal sized planes/in normal weather conditions/without giant towering mountains, and this is definitely the priciest choice, so much to my relief we skipped it.
Walk the Milford Track
One of our few regrets from our New Zealand explorations is that we did not book a Great Walk. The DOC manages these world-renowned multi-day hikes, and they have the reputation of being some of the best in the world. The most popular is the Milford Track which ends on the sound itself. When we go back, this is on our must do list!
Tips for visiting Milford Sound:
- There is no cell service on Milford Road between Te Anau and the sound. WiFi is accessed by satellites and VERY expensive with no guarantee it will actually work. Make your calls/send your last emails before you head out and tell someone your plans/when you expect to return. You WILL be cut off completely from the rest of the world.
- Enjoy the above! It is very uncommon in this day and age that we have the opportunity to be cut off, and it is as disorienting and glorious as you’d imagine it would be.
- Always the driving. Be prepared to drive further and longer than you had originally anticipated. Also, depending on the season, there is always a possibility of road closures.
- Stock up on supplies before heading out! There is nowhere to do so after Te Anau. There is an information center that sells coffee, water, and snacks at the sound, but it is very expensive.