Milford Sound, New Zealand
Milford Sound is a classic example of how a picture is worth a thousand words, and yet Milford Sound is notoriously hard to photograph so pictures rarely do it justice. Nestled in the World Heritage Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound has been described as one of the Natural Wonders of the World. Discover the beautiful scenery of this famous fiord, including the awe-inspiring Mitre Peak and stunning waterfalls that crash down into the serene waters. Wildlife such as dolphins, seals and penguins are often seen in their natural environment.
All you really need to know about Milford Sound
1. If it’s not on your bucket list, it should be.
Milford Sound is one of those places that seems to always make it on “Places You Have to See Before You Die” type lists. In fact, it was judged the world’s top travel destination in an international survey in 2008 (Traveler’s Choice World Destination Awards, Trip Advisor). If you need more convincing, Milford Sound is in a World Heritage Area – a combination of Fiordland National Park, Piopiotahi Marine Reserve and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site. That means a lot of people (not just us) think it’s a pretty cool place worth preserving. And finally, if that’s not enough, Rudyard Kipling himself called it the eighth wonder of the world!
2. Milford Sound is actually a fiord, not a ‘sound’.
Geologically speaking, a “sound” is a large ocean inlet, larger than a bay, deeper than a bight and generally wider than a fiord. A fiord is a land feature cut by ancient glaciers. So if you want to get technical, Milford is really a fiord, rather than a sound, but it’s not hard to see how its discoverer, John Stokes, made that mistake when he named it. Thanks to a handful of intrepid explorers, including William Homer, Quintin McKinnon and Donald Sutherland (not the actor!), Milford Sound (known to the Maori as Piopiotahi) quickly became a famous tourist destination in the 19th Century and Stokes’ name stuck.
3. Bring plenty of insect repellant. Trust me – it’s no accident one of the most stunning places on earth is hardly inhabited, by people that is. For some reason, locally brewed insect repellant seems to work better on the sandflies, and there are lots of non-DEET natural alternatives available to try – but bring some of the maximum strength type as well, just in case.
Milford Sound Cruise
The most popular way to see Milford Sound is on one of the many Milford Sound cruises. If you’re looking for a relaxed way to snap some photos, there are a number of Milford Sound cruises you can hop on to get up close to some of the waterfalls around the fiord.
Alternatives to a Milford Sound Cruise: Kayaking and Hiking the Milford Track
When you visit Milford Sound, one of the best ways to take in the colossal scale of the place is from a Sea Kayak (which is what you’d be doing on our Rimu, Tui and Winter Rimu trips). Check out our Sea Kayaking Milford Sound page to see what it entails. For the not-so-fainthearted, Milford Sound is also an epic climbing, mountaineering and base-jumping hotspot thanks to the enormous sheer granite cliffs.
Of course, the other way to discover Milford Sound, Sutherland Falls and some of the impressive surrounding scenery is via the Milford Track. This famous track starts across the lake from Te Anau and finishes at Sandy Point four days later where you’ll board an afternoon boat to the Milford marina, offering a welcome rest to weary legs.
Wildlife in Milford Sound
One could be forgiven for thinking it’s just the awe-inspiring cliffs like Mitre Peak that attract the visitors every year, but there’s also an abundance of wildlife and some ecological gems to be discovered. If you take a cruise or jump in a kayak, there’s a fair chance you’ll see some New Zealand fur seals, a local pod of bottlenose dolphins and even the Fiordland Crested Penguin (‘Tawaki’ in Maori), which is one of the rarest penguins in the world, and dusky dolphins.
If you’re a keen diver, you can explore the deep sea corals that abound the area (with a thick wetsuit). A surface layer of fresh water darkened by plant matter from the surrounding rainforest allows these corals to grow in much shallower water than usual. Milford Sound has a unique underwater observatory to view these corals while staying dry.
Where is everyone?
Now that we’ve painted a picture, it’s appropriate to explain why Milford Sound is not (yet) a tourist highway. As history shows, it wasn’t a particularly easy place to find in the first place and still isn’t particularly easy to get to now. In fact, when Captain James Cook sailed by in 1770, he didn’t even spot the entrance to the fiord. Nowadays, you have to be a somewhat dedicated traveler to take the 4-5 hour drive each way from Queenstown (although on our trips we take this into consideration when we design our itineraries and make the most of other attractions in the area, just so you know). There are, of course, the sandflies we’ve mentioned. It’s also a bit of a gamble with the weather; Fiordland is luscious and green because it gets nearly 7 metres (over 20 feet) of rain every year! Don’t worry about trying to choose a cloudless day though because when the rain and wind is lashing at you sideways and all around you hundreds of waterfalls are miraculously appearing from almost every cliff top, it’s the not such a bad thing. In fact, the word ‘spectacular’ doesn’t really do it justice.
Manuka Milford Hiking Adventure
- 14 Days
- South Island
- From US$6199 + tax
If you wish to concentrate on hiking the iconic tracks of New Zealand and like your creature comforts, we’ve crafted this trip just for you. It has a strong focus on New Zealand’s natural history. Our guides have plenty of time to interpret the flora and fauna and explain the geological and social history of the areas you’ll visit. You also have the choice of a selection of the best day hikes Fiordland National Park has to offer, along with an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, or hiking the famous Milford Track in its entirety. The ‘Manuka’ really is hiking New Zealand in style!
Activity level: The 'Manuka' is an active hiking trip, but has options to suit a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience. Typically hikes on the 'Manuka' trip range between three and six hours to complete, with longer hikes on the Milford Track Guided Walk option.
Rimu Ultimate South Island Adventure
- 14 Days
- South Island
- From US$5299 + tax
This is our signature adventure and a great, outdoorsy way to see New Zealand. We’ve been fine-tuning this perennial favourite since 1996 and it’s simply an awesome trip. You’ll explore the most beautiful, famous and little-known places in the South Island – up close and personal – with legendary hospitality and our unsurpassed attention to detail. For a great way to see the North Island too, combine this trip with our 11-day 'Kauri' (5-day 'Kauri' options available).
Activity level: The ‘Rimu’ is one of our more adventurous trips, but has options to suit a wide range of ages and outdoor experience. Typically, hikes on the ‘Rimu’ trip range between two and five hours to complete, with longer hikes available on the multi-day option. If you think you’d prefer a more relaxed pace and shorter one to three hour hikes, we recommend checking out our ‘Kiwi’ trip. Please get in touch with us if you’d like to chat about the various options.
Tui Essence of the South Island
- 8 Days
- South Island
- From US$3999 + tax
This is an action-packed adventure where you’ll explore some of New Zealand’s most iconic and remote wilderness. It works well if your vacation time is limited, since you can fly from North America on a Friday evening, sleep on the plane, and be back at work ten days later to share your photos and stories on Monday morning. For a great way to see the North Island too, combine this trip with our 11-day 'Kauri' (5-day 'Kauri' options available).
Activity level: The ‘Tui’ suits people of a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience, particularly if you enjoy a variety of activities. Typically hikes on the ‘Tui’ trip range between two and six hours to complete.
Kiwi South Island Explorer
- 14 Days
- South Island
- From US$5599 + tax
New to adventure vacations or not quite ready to hang up your hiking boots just yet? On this South Island walking tour you'll experience beautiful, famous and little-known places – taking plenty of time to explore along the way! For a great way to see the North Island too, combine this trip with our 11-day 'Kauri' (5 day 'Kauri' options available).
Activity level: The ‘Kiwi’ suits anyone who enjoys walking and likes to give things a go. The pace is flexible and relaxed with most hikes taking one to three hours to complete on well-formed tracks with some undulations.
Winter Rimu New Zealand Winter Adventure
- 14 Days
- South Island
- US$4599 + tax
May to September is one of the best times to explore New Zealand. Our maritime climate ensures we have relatively mild winters, we’ll almost always have the tracks to ourselves and the snow-capped mountains make an even more dramatic backdrop than in summer – and usually you can get a great deal on flights! Years ago, we adapted our signature Rimu trip to suit the cooler conditions by adding skiing and snowboarding options, along with some of the South Island’s best hikes. This adventure is the perfect excuse to escape the heat!
Activity level: This is one of our more adventurous trips, but has options to suit a range of fitness levels and outdoor experience. Typically hikes on the ‘Winter Rimu’ range between three and six hours to complete, with a longer more challenging hike on the Copland Track.
Takahe Great Walks Discovery
- 5 Days
- South Island
- From US$2999 + tax
Over five days you'll hike on three of New Zealand's nine 'Great Walks', all located in the Fiordland National Park - a UNESCO World Heritage area with mystical coves and dense temperate rainforest. This is a bucket list hiking trip where you need not forgo any creature comforts.
Activity level: The 'Takahe' is a hiking-focused trip, with options to suit a wide range of fitness levels and outdoor experience. Typically hikes on the 'Takahe' trip range between three and six hours to complete.