What do you think when you hear “fjords”? Most likely – Norway. But did you know that you can also find them down under? The South Island in New Zealand is home to the magical Fiordland National Park. Many believe that this is actually the most beautiful region in this country. We found our beloved place somewhere else, however, Fiordland, particularly Milford Sound and Lake Te Anau, left us speechless.
FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK – A FEW FACTS
Fiordland National Park is the largest national park in New Zealand, located in the south-eastern part of the South Island. It is famous for its extremely picturesque landscape shaped by glaciers and, as the name implies, full of the fjords.
Tip: if you love mountains, there is the Milford Track waiting for you – 53.5 km of hiking through Fiordland National Park. It’s one of the so-called Great Walks, which include also eg. the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. There are a few huts waiting for hikers on the way (free camping is prohibited). Access to the trail is strictly limited in summer season (more here). Only 90 people each day are allowed on the trail and the permits sell out quickly even a few months before the planned departure date!
MILFORD SOUND OR DOUBTFUL SOUND?
Many visitors to Fiordland National Park want to see the fjords first. The most famous places are the Milford Sound and the Doubtful Sound, which, despite the name, are not sounds… but fjords of course. What is the difference between these two places?
For a long time, it remained a white spot on the map. James Cook, the most famous explorer of the New Zealand’s coast, was afraid of sailing there. He saw only a narrow passage between the mountains and decided to skip sailing into the fjord as a changing wind could potentially prevent him from escaping back to the sea. In fact, Milford Sound’s exploration began in the 20th century. This incredibly picturesque fjord quickly became known as “one of the 8 wonders of the world” and Milford Sound cruise till now is the most popular tourist attraction in New Zealand.
What else, besides the beautiful views, is so unusual in this place? Although the water in the fjord is mostly salty, the upper layer consists of fresh water. It is thanks to the frequent tropical rain, falling into the bay also in the form of waterfalls, rinsing tannins from plants along the way. Water with tannins, falling into the fjord creates a little sun-proof layer. Effect? At the depths of 10 meters, you may see deep-water black corals (which are actually white here). Usually, they are spotted at 75 meters below sea level… If you want to see them live, visit the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory.
Remains a bit in the shadow of a more famous friend. Why is this sound doubtful? The same James Cook, was afraid to enter the fjord (again!) because he “doubted” that sailing was possible there… Nowadays, due to lack a bit complicated access, there are far fewer tourists than in the Milford Sound. It’s a popular spot for kayaking trips (although regular cruises are also organized), and the fjord itself is famous for its large population of bottlenose dolphins. If you are looking for something less touristy, visiting Doubtful Sound may be a good choice for you.
ON THE WAY TO THE MILFORD SOUND
Due to some time constraints, we decided on Milford Sound cruise only. We just couldn’t skip one of the most popular destinations in the world! We bought the tickets in the morning in Te Anau and started our 2-hour long journey to the harbor!
Tip: in Milford Sound rain falls very often and the weather tends to get worse in the afternoons. We took a Milford Sound cruise departing at 2 pm and everything was ok (I checked the weather forecast in the morning), but it is always safer to choose a morning cruise. Is it worth booking tickets in advance? We were not in the highest season, and we had no trouble finding a free spot on the boat – unfortunately I don’t know how the situation looks during the peak season.
The road leading to Milford Sound is beautiful. The landscape varies from wide meadows full of whio ducks, through glacial lakes and eventually turns into rocky mountain peaks. Here you can also encounter several spectacular waterfalls. Honestly, you have to stop every 15 minutes, get off the car and take another magical photo! If you are going to Milford Sound by car, plan in advance how much time you need to get to the port. Google Maps shows that the Te Anau – Milford Sound route will take you max. 2h, but adding all the stops for photo shoots will make it much longer. One thing I can recommend you: take photos on the way back (yes, I know it’s hard to resist such stunning views!)
Tip: A few km from the Milford Sound, there is a one-way tunnel… better add about 30-40 minutes to your planned itinerary time as you may wait in line to enter.
MILFORD SOUND CRUISE
Once you reach the harbor, you will immediately spot the Mitre Peak. Do you recognize it? This is the most famous symbol of this place, it is also among the most photographed peaks in New Zealand. The name of the mountain is related to its shape, which (supposedly) resembles a bishop’s miter…
Tip: beware of little vampires – sandflies! Unfortunately, Milford Sound is famous for them. Apparently, some people are more prone to them and it looks like there are no super effective repellents 🙁
The Milford Sound cruise takes about 2 hours and the boat sails for 15-km until reaches the Tasman Sea. We had exceptional luck with the sunny weather, so we spent the entire cruise enjoying the views and relaxing on the upper deck like the local fur seals…
SPECTACULAR VIEWS OF FIORDLAND
What impressed us the most? Waterfalls! Although after every rain the Milford Sound turns into one big waterfall itself, there are two “permanent” ones – Lady Bowen and Stirling Falls. The first one is truly amazing, falls down with a wide cascade straight into the depths of the sound…
However, our experience with Stirling Falls was much more exciting. This waterfall is in the middle of the fjord, and it turned out that our captain can move the boat the closest to the waterfall, from all the captains of Milford Sound… So he sailed – like 2 meters from the waterfall! As you may think, everyone was soaked to the bone after all 🙂
On the way back from our Milford Sound cruise, long white clouds appeared above the fjord. No wonder why in the Maori language, New Zealand, Aotearoa is a “country of a long white cloud”… It is a pity we had to return to Te Anau, we could admire such views forever.
Tip: even if you are staying elsewhere, stop at Te Anau for a while. The lake is beautiful, especially at sunset!
How much time do you need? Taking into account that the Te Anau – Milford Sound round trip takes about 4-5h, it is best to spend 1.5 – 2 days here if you travel by car. On the second day, plan a trip to Doubtful Sound. If you plan to wander the Milford Track – it takes 4 days.
Where to stay? If you are planning to see Fiordland National Park, we recommend you to stay in Te Anau. I wouldn’t recommend you staying in Queenstown and making a round trip to Milford Sound and in one day – you will spend 9-10h in a car. Te Anau has a very broad accommodation options – a large selection of cheaper and more expensive hotels. We stayed at the Te Anau Top 10 Holiday Park, just next to this lake and it was really great – they even have a big jumping pillow! 🙂
Fee: Milford Sound cruise prices vary slightly between companies, usually you’ll pay NZD 50-80 per person, depending on the departure time. We went on Jucy Cruize, cause we rented a car from Jucy, so Michal as a driver paid 50% off the ticket price 🙂
GETTING TO FIORDLAND
By car: Te Anau is the main “departure point” in Fiordland, you can reach it in 2h from Queenstown or 2h from Invercargill. From Te Anau to Milford Sound, there is only one road – no. 94 (about 2-3h way one way, depending on conditions), with the limited mobile coverage and the no gas stations on the way (“emergency” one is located at the Gunn’s Camp, very distant place; the second one, next to the harbor at the fjord) – refuel in advance! Here you can check if the road is open.
By bus: you can go on all day bus trip to Milford Sound from both Queenstown and Te Anau (depending on the company, location and departure time from NZD 115 to NZD 180 per person, incl. Milford sound cruise)
By air: you can easily get to Milford Sound from Queenstown by plane! There are various options – flight/cruise / flight or flight to the bay, but they are not cheap – about NZD 380 for the flight alone or NZD 500 incl. Milford Sound cruise.
Have you ever been to Milford Sound cruise? For more our adventures in New Zealand, click here!
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