With its spellbinding landscapes and uniquely off-grid appeal, it’s no wonder that Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most popular travel destinations. Most people will spend a day in Fiordland National Park just marvelling at the picturesque fiord and its incredible features. If you’re keen to experience this fantastic gem for yourself, here’s what 24 hours in the area will typically look like.
The majority of Milford Sound’s visitors choose to either take the bus or drive themselves from Queenstown to go on a day cruise. If you’re coming from that direction, you need to allow for at least five hours of travel – more depending on traffic – and expect to arrive around late morning to early afternoon. Another option to consider is going to Te Anau the day before, spending the night in the township and then driving to Milford Sound in the morning. This will help you cut your travel time by a couple of hours.
Pro tip: Pack lunch for the day. While there is a cafe at the local Information Centre, you might not have time to stock up on food/provisions before you depart on your day cruise.
The best way to see all of the area’s natural wonders in a limited time span is to embark on one of Milford Sound’s iconic cruises. These are timed to coincide with the average visitor arrival times. Many tend to depart just before noon, after 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. There are also morning cruises that cater to those who spent the night in the village. Cruises differ slightly in price and duration (one to three hours are the norm) and might feature additional perks like on-board restaurant/cafe facilities or combo deals for other attractions nearby. You’ll also find some overnight options around, but the day trip is where you’ll get to relish all the local highlights, including Mitre Peak, a series of permanent and rain-carved waterfalls (cruises are known to go right under these!) as well as various points of interest for wildlife lovers.
Those cruising with Southern Discoveries can add this interesting attraction to their itineraries – a combo package is available for all their trips except for very the last cruise of the day. The Underwater Observatory is the only one of its kind in New Zealand. It’s like a ‘reverse aquarium’ that allows the resident marine critters to roam freely in their natural environment while the spectating humans are confined to a glass-lined viewing area some 10 metres (32 feet) under the sea. Tours usually run for around 45-60 minutes and will showcase some of Piopiotahi Marine Reserve’s rare black coral and an array of colourful fish species.
This is when you’ll want to check into your accommodation and unwind. Milford Lodge is located just 1.5km (1mi) from the Boat Terminal, and is the only accommodation provider in the area. During the summer, the company offers a regular shuttle service that takes visitors from the terminal to the lodge; in winter these are only offered upon request or prior arrangement. There are various bedding options for visitors, ranging from self-contained chalets to powered campervan sites.
Pro tip: Book your rooms well in advance, especially if you’re coming during the high tourist season (i.e. October-April).
The main thing to note is that, while the lodge has some cooking facilities for budget-conscious travellers there are no supermarkets in Milford Sound. Needless to say, if you’re choosing to self-cater, you’ll need to bring provisions with you. Otherwise, the lodge has its own cafe and restaurant where you can kick back, relax and enjoy a nicely cooked meal.
The great thing about being in a place not that’s largely secluded from all things urban and commercialised? There’s absolutely no light pollution! So the best thing to do on a clear and bright night is just sit outside and stargaze. Watch as the fiord becomes engulfed by darkness, only to light up again as a starlight showcase comes into view. How’s that for a memorable end to a day of sightseeing?
This is your time to get close to nature at your own pace. Grab yourself a hearty breakfast at the Milford Lodge and get set for a morning in the great outdoors. There are two great options to choose from here: a paddling expedition of Milford Sound’s inky waters or a self-guided walk along the shorter trails in its vicinity.
Pro tip: If you’re an experienced scuba diver, here’s another water-based activity to put on your radar: Descend Milford Sound offers guided scuba-diving tours and dive training.
The three main Milford Sound kayak tour operators are Southern Discovery (the same company that does the cruise/Underwater Observatory tours), Go Orange and Rosco’s Milford Kayaks. Each will offer something slightly different, from self-guided trips (which you need prior paddling experience to do), to a selection of morning tour options around the fiord.
Not everyone has the time or the hiking experience to tackle the famous Milford Track. But there are quite a few shorter walks for the active souls wanting to get the most of their surroundings. Choose between the Milford Sound Lookout Track and Foreshore Walk for a 30-minute loop through the lush forested areas – you’ll get to enjoy some marvellous views of the village and its surroundings along the way. For a longer, but highly accessible trip, try the three- to five-hour Key Summit Track, which is a stretch of the multi-day Routeburn Track that’s easy enough for a child to handle.
Now it’s time to hit the road. But don’t think the attractions end here. There are loads of noteworthy stopovers you can make along the Milford-Te Anau Road, ranging from short walks to a collection of incredible hidden waterfalls and secluded valleys just waiting to be discovered. Highlights include the Mirror Lakes, Eglinton Valley, Knobs Flat, Cleddau Valley and the powerful Chasm waterfall.