For my second installment of destinations, I’ve invited my friend and colleague Colin Mairs to write. He’s a native Scot but recently moved to New Zealand with his wife (who is from Mexico). We traveled together in Turkey a few years back and had a lovely time, he’s a sweetheart and easy to spend time with. I asked him where his favorite place is in New Zealand.
Take it away Colin!
What’s that Sound? It’s Milford Sound! Ba-da-boom!
In New Zealand’s South Island, five hours drive from Queenstown, is the ultimate bucket-list destination: Milford Sound.
Whilst I am not a huge fan of the term “bucket-list” (I have no idea why anyone would write a list on a bucket), Milford Sound is a top bucket-list destination within a major bucket-list country. It is one of the world’s most stunning natural beauty spots and a place that is truly evocative of the natural beauty of New Zealand. No wonder it attracts over half a million visitors per year!
I must say that the drive to Milford Sound is just as stunning as the destination. This is one day of your trip that you definitely don’t want to be cat napping. The scenery ramps up a notch with every mile as you make your way from Queenstown to Te Anau, then onwards into Fiordland National Park.
Whenever I used to be asked what is the most naturally beautiful country I had visited I would reply honestly: Scotland. That was until I made the drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound.
If you are self-driving allow plenty of time for this trip as you will want to stop often. Estimate 4 hours driving, plus 2 hours of combined stopping time on the way. Be sure to arrive in plenty of time for your cruise, which you should pre-book.
Your day from Queenstown to Milford Sound would look something like this:
7.30am – Depart Queenstown for Te Anau.
Bathroom break at Te Anau.
Into Fiordland National Park. stopping at signposted sights along the way.
1.00pm – Arrive at Milford Sound and check in for cruise.
1.30pm – Depart on cruise.
3.30pm – Return from cruising.
Drive back to Queenstown, or take the option of a 45 minute scenic flight back.
7.30/8.00pm – Approximate time of arrival back in Queenstown (if driving).
To make it a more relaxing journey consider sleeping the night before your Milford Sound visit, or that night, in Te Anau.
The Eighth Wonder of the World
The English author and poet, Rudyard Kipling, who wrote ‘The Jungle Book’ and my favourite poem ‘If’ ’, visited here in 1891, aged 24 years old and said he considered Milford Sound the 8th wonder of the world – quite an accolade from Mr K.
The road is well signposted and there are various short walks at places like Mirror Lakes (the clue is in the name),
and The Chasm; a short loop walk where the main attraction is the natural sculpture of solid rock carved out by centuries of gushing water.
You may also encounter some cheeky kea parrots. If so, DO NOT feed them. They are smart birds and have learned that silly humans = free food. They are not violent or aggressive but are cunning pickpockets and are well known for thieving snacks from tourists’ backpacks.
Stop to fill your water bottle at a stream with clean natural water. Now you are really experiencing 100% Pure New Zealand!
On the road to Milford Sound you’ll feel at times as though you are the only one around in a vast wilderness, but upon arrival it can feel like New York’s Grand Central Station – travellers from around the world pile from coaches and cars onto sightseeing boat trips.
The feeling of isolation soon returns however, as the crowds disperse on separate cruises and each follows a different route out onto the Sound.
When is a Sound not a Sound?
That could be taken as a rather philosophical question, but the answer in this case is: when it’s a Fjord. Although the English name for this place labels it as a sound; a large sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay, it is actually a fjord; a narrow sea or ocean channel between two bodies of land. It was named by explorer John Grono in 1812. Perhaps feeling a little homesick for his native Wales, he named it for the Welsh port town of Milford Haven.
When is a Fjord not a Fjord?
When it’s a Fiord! In New Zealand we have adopted the Norwegian term, but have anglicised the spelling.
The Maori people (the first people of New Zealand) named the fiord ‘Piopiotahi’ which translates as ‘the place of the single piopio ’ (a thrush-like native songbird which is now extinct). This name relates to the story of the death of Maui, demi-god and mythical ancestor of the Maori and other Polynesian people. After Maui’s death a single piopio flew here in mourning.
Stories and facts like these will be shared by your guide on the cruise. I recommend the Real Journeys 2 hour Nature Cruise to really get a good feel for Milford Sound. Other companies offer shorter cruises but after coming all this way you really want to get a decent amount of time on the water.
After cruising out as far as the mouth of the fiord/sound and gazing across the Tasman Sea, you U-turn and make your way back. A highlight is the up-close-and-personal with a waterfall. As the boat approaches the waterfall and the guide tells you that we are going under the waterfall and you may get wet. Trust them that you are going under the water and you will get wet!
My favourite part of the journey is always watching the people that are trying to take selfies with the waterfall behind them and then realise oh we are getting closer and closer and oh! this is wet. Oh! this is a real waterfall and we are really going under it and then they run with excited screams. Aaaaahhhhhh…..
Milford Sound is actually one of the wettest places on earth, with an average and 8 metres / 26 feet of rain per year! Yep, that’s 26 feet per year. So don’t be surprised if it is raining when you visit. If it’s sunny that is a bonus; who doesn’t love sunshine and blue skies? But if it’s raining, rain + huge granite cliffs that don’t absorb water = stunning waterfalls!
Should I fly back?
How much money did you save up for your vacation? Do you want to make this bucket list visit even more bucket-listy? Fly backs from Milford Sound are some of the most amazing experiences… but not cheap. Around US$300 for a one-way 45 minute flight from Milford to Queenstown in a fixed-wing plane. If you’ve saved a decent splurge fund this is a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Milford Sound feels like the end of the earth. There is one road in and one road. Whilst the road back is still stunningly beautiful it is a repetition of the experience on the way in.
All photographs by Colin Mairs except Mirror Lakes and The Chasm by Jocey K, and Kea by Bernd Hildebrandt, sourced from Creative Commons.
Colin Mairs is a Rick Steves tour guide in his native Scotland but now lives most of the year in New Zealand, where he also runs tours as Mondumo Small Group Tours. You can join him on tour to Milford Sound! Check out www.mondumo.com for full details. The tour visits Milford Sound on Day 8 of 14. Contact Colin: email@example.com