Experiences You Should Have
Milford Sound Drive & Cruise in New Zealand: Podcast Show Notes
I interviewed Lynn Smith who is an avid traveler; you should check out her website for travel tips!. She blends a love of independent adventure travel, history and the natural world with over 40 years of experience as an award-winning writer, photographer, creative designer, and producer. When I asked her about what is that one experience that others should have, she enthusiastically replied, self-driving the Milford Sound Road and going on the Milford Sound cruise in Fiordland, South Island, NZ.
Why Travel to New Zealand and head to the Milford Sound in Fiordland New Zealand
Lynn chose the South Island of New Zealand for the adventure. The Milford Sound Road is one of the top drives you can do in New Zealand and there is beautiful scenery around every corner. It represents untouched, solitude, and peaceful quiet majestic landscapes and is an experience you should have. In Fiordland lies the ‘Southern Alps’ and these mountains are world famous! There are only 4.9 million people in New Zealand while California has over 35 Million people. Really a third of the country is a National Park and it is incredibly wild.
The Experience: Self-Driving the Milford Sound Road
Lynn and her family started their adventure in Queenstown, New Zealand and rented a car to get to Te Anau. Queenstown was a zoo, but it quieted down once they made it to Te Anau. There is only 1 highway leaving Queenstown to get to Te Anau (tay-an-o). They have a wide variety of accommodations, restaurants, food trucks, and is world famous for being the gateway to Fiordland National Park.
There are 3 famous hikes in Fiordland, but the mountains there are like the Alps or the Rockies. You need to be fit to go out on treks.
That said, you can see a lot of scenery in the South Island of New Zealand without having to hike for days. The Milford Sound Road is a beautiful, scenic road that is an experience to remember. Most people fly into Queenstown and hop on a giant tour bus to get to the Milford Sound (which is the gem of New Zealand), however, Lynn recommends to drive it yourself, take your time, as you head to visit the crown jewel of Fiordland, Milford Sound. The road to Milford Sound consists of one road, highway 94. As it curves around mountains, valleys, and stunning scenery, it takes you to a completely new world.
The day visitor can make numerous stops along the only road that cuts through the mountains and valleys in the untouched Fiordland landscapes. From the endless vistas of Eglinton Valley featuring eye-popping scenery used to create the Misty Mountains in the film Fellowship of the Rings, to lookouts over the surrounding mountain ranges, one can take walks along clear rushing creeks and through mossy beech forests to waterfalls and cascades, mirror lakes and tumbling, icy cold rivers. All this in one full day from Te Anau, vs a 14 hour day of riding a bus to and from Queenstown with a couple of quick stops along the way!
Top Stops to Check Out on the Milford Sound Sound Road, NZ
Knobs Flat is a perfect place to take a break in between Te Anau and Milford Sound. You’ll want to leave early in the morning from Te Anau to beat the tour buses. Make sure to check out the Milford Sound Drive Guide to use as your go-to guide.
Mirror lakes is a perfect stop about an hour away. The valleys, mountains, and skies were simply stunning. You will want to hit Mirror Lakes in the morning for the perfect light (and to see the mirror effect). The mirror effect goes away in the afternoon. It’s a temperate rainforest and has over 240 days of rain a year and the weather constantly changes there. If you can catch it on a sunny day, you can look into these deep crystal clear lakes and it’s hard to tell where the lake begins and the sky ends. There is no garbage, trash, plastic, it’s easy to walk down the boardwalk 100 feet or so and is wheelchair friendly. The buses do stop here, so hit it up early.
There were no fumes in the air, no buzzing of cellular phones (no cell service), no voices, just sounds of the river and sounds of a rushing river from ice melt. Cascade Creek is absolute perfection.
You’ll drive through a mossy forest, lowland, creeks, little bridges and the rivers and creeks come tumbling and rushing down. As you come around a corner you see a valley that feels like it goes on forever, Eglinton Valley. You’re driving along the edge of Southern Alps, and when you overlook Eglinton Valley, all you want to do is get out of your car and get into the vast expanse of wilderness. There are no snakes, bears, nothing to sting to bite you. Lynn and her family did not want to leave Eglinton Valley.
Each of them separated and each sat in the grass and enjoyed the stillness and magnitude of Eglinton Valley.
End of Milford Sound Road in Milford Sound, NZ
To be expected, Milford Sound Road ends at Milford Sound, the Crown Jewel of New Zealand. You’ll go through Homer Tunnel on the way to Milford Sound.
You’ll get a glimpse of Mitre Peak as you get into Milford Sound, and it made everyone stop in their tracks. It looks like a witch’s hat almost. Mitre Peak and the mountains behind it show a jaw-dropping view as you look over the Fiord.
Day Cruise at Milford Sound with Mitre Peak Cruises
You could hop on a boat with hundreds of other people, or you could go with Mitre Peak Cruises that only has around 40 guests. You can cruise down the sound for a few hours before you get to the Tasman Sea. In this area, if you time it right, you might see seals, porpoises, and whales. There are numerous waterfalls that fall off of towering mountains and is simply majestic and as Lynn puts it, eye-candy everywhere. The cruise is very accessible and is a great activity to check out if you have limited mobility. Check out this great video from Millennial Monster.
The Best Time to Visit Fiordland, New Zealand
Summer trekking season is a very busy time to visit (December-February) and it’s more expensive due to increased airfare and accommodation prices. By early March the Fall has started, which means cooler weather and more storms over the mountains. The best time to visit Fiordland, New Zealand and go on the Milford Sound Road is the last 2 weeks of February to avoid the extreme and rapid weather changes in Fiordland.
How Far In Advance Should You Book Your Trip to Fiordland?
Visitors should book at least 6 months in advance. Lynn booked the best AirBnBs a year in advance due to limited selection and was lucky to get in. There are a few places to stay and there are no real towns beside Te Anau and the tiny berg of Manapouri nearby. Wifi and mobile service are extremely limited due to being in the wilderness, so it’s highly recommended to book well in advance.
Costs to Visit Milford Sound
Lynn’s average nightly stay in Te Anau was around $60 a night per person (speaking US dollars). There were some cheaper AirBnb’s, however, they didn’t have wifi, and they needed access to wifi on their trip. Budget accordingly for food and cruise ($80 for the cruise). It’s not a tipping culture, but if on a smaller boat, then it’s nice to tip the captain, but tipping is not common.
Driving Rental Car Info for Visiting the South Island, New Zealand
If you rent your car through EZI, they will pay you $1 a day to transfer their car to another city/airport. They have posted schedules on their site. If you don’t want to be on a timeline, then you will need to rent a car and can get a good car for around $50 a day which includes insurance. They probably won’t take your insurance from another country so budget accordingly.
In February 2019 it was about $2.60 per liter (around $8 a gallon).
All vehicles are right-drive vehicles and you will be driving on the left side of the road, so remember to look right and left! The roads are well paved, but you can get into gravel roads if doing adventurous hikes. You do not need a 4X4 unless your specific plans call for one.
Another Activity You Should Check Out: Helicopter Ride from Te Anau to Luxmore Hut
Head up to the Luxmore Hut on the Kepler track via helicopter from the lake in Te Anau. You could spend days hiking to get to the top, or you could give yourselves more time to explore and take the easy way up. This is typically a two-day hike or a 20-minute ride. Wait until you get there to make arrangements based on weather.
Headed to the North Island of New Zealand? – Find out about Rappelling in a Glow Worm Cave