Milford Sound is actually a fiord, having been carved by a glacier.
Like the rest of Fiordland, Milford Sound receives a lot of rain. Indeed, some tour operators argue that the sound is best seen on a rainy day as all the waterfalls can be seen in their full glory. Many recommend seeing it during a sunny day and in the rain to see both worlds as they are both very different and amazing
Carry rainwear. Rainfall here is measured in metres and yards rather than centimetres and inches. Carry an umbrella to protect photographic equipment.
Bug repellants are not very effective. You need to cover every sliver of bare skin and put netting over your head. The sandflies here are evil.
Milford Road to Milford Sound passes through mountain ranges, majestic valleys, clear lakes and lush rain forest. Just before Milford Sound the road travels through the Homer Tunnel, which is 1.2km-long. Although the Homer Tunnel is wide enough for a small vehicle to pass, traffic lights operate during the summer months. The tunnel is a reasonably steep 1:10 gradient running East to West. In winter on the Milford Road avalanches can occur. Be sure to check New Zealand Transport site to double check if the road is open!
The best and most spectacular way to see and experience every thing Milford Sound has to offer is to fly in on a beautiful day. The flight to Milford Sound from Queenstown, Te Anau or Wanaka is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest scenic flights. With unsurpassed views of the mountains and glaciers on route.
Fiordland Helicopters offers a spectacular scenic helicopter flight from Te Anau into Milford Sound. Perfect if you are running short of time and want to save yourself the 4 hour drive. With 2 landings inside the Park boundaries, one high on the Tutoko Glacier if weather permits and the other high above the Sutherland Falls it's an experience you don't want to miss. Learn some history of the National Park from experienced, friendly local pilots and take in a birds eye view of Milford Sound, Mitre Peak and the Fiordland National Park with it's majestic mountains and breathtaking scenery.
Flying yourself to Milford Sound
It's a nine hour return road trip to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown. The road trip from Te Anau is half that time and much of the road trip from Te Anau is drop-dead gorgeous, so you might want to overnight in Te Anau in order not to fall asleep during what, for many visitors, is the highlight of Milford Sound: the staggeringly beautiful journey there.
From Te Anau, it's 120km on State Highway 94. Allow plenty of time, fuel and at least 2-3 hours from Te Anau, when travelling to Milford Sound by car. The road winds through some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand as it climbs up to the Homer Tunnel.
It's important to realise that this road journey is at least as spectacular as anything you will see when you reach road's end and you should allow several hours for sightseeing stops and short walks to waterfalls, lakes and special viewpoints along the way to take photographs or investigate scenic spots - including the Mirror Lakes, views of the Hollyford and The Chasm.
The Homer Tunnel is a single lane tunnel. It was fitted with traffic lights in 2004, so you may experience a wait while opposing traffic clears the tunnel.
State Highway 94 is a high pass and regularly has icy conditions between June and November. It is also subject to avalanches. All cars must carry chains in winter and the Transit New Zealand information kiosk 8km north of Te Anau will check that you are carrying them and can fit them. High risk sections of the road are marked with a red cross on a blue background and with 'no stopping' signs, do not stop your car on these sections of road. Review the state of the road at Transit New Zealand before departing; if the risk of an avalanche is "high" the road will be closed and if it is "moderate" it may close at short notice. Drivers not experienced at driving on ice and snow might prefer a bus tour.
Perhaps the best and most traditional way to get to Milford Sound is to walk the Milford Track. Bookings are essential for this popular 4 day walk. Walkers need to understand that the only reason they can walk the Milford Track in the numbers they do is because the track is serviced by helicopters. So if while on the track you feel like complaining about the noise of aircraft. Remember they are probably taking out all, and I mean all waste products produced by people walking the track. They also bring in supplies for the lodges, carry out Medivacs etc.
One of the most awe inspiring ways to see Milford Sound, is from the water level itself. There are two ways to do this:
There are several boat operators who offer day cruises. Most guided tours from Te Anau or Queenstown arrive in Milford around noon, so it is advisable to escape the crowds by going on an early-morning or late-afternoon cruise. If you intend to take photographs, the quality of light is usually better around those times as well.
There is also the option of an extended cruise on Milford Sound - overnight cruises operated by Real Journeys). See "Sleep" section below.
Your proximity to the water in a kayak just serves to make you feel even smaller, and makes the Sound seem even more vast! The pros of doing it this way are that you get to go places that the big cruise ships cannot, you see a great deal more wildlife (penguins, seals etc.) as you move more quietly through the water, you are part of a small group (between 6 and 8) and so getting more personal attention from your guide, and you get some exercise in the process. Cons are that it is quite hard work and you should be prepared to get cold and wet. A good way of doing this kind of trip is on a 'one day package'. You can be picked up from your accommodations early in the morning (around 06:30) in Te Anau by minibus and driven to Milford, where you are kitted out with all the relevant kayak and safety gear and given waterproof bags to take cameras and food with you. The trip lasts till the late afternoon (lunch is taken in your kayaks in the middle of the Sound) and you will be driven back for around 18:00.
Walks from the Milford Road Highway
The spectacular views on the drive from Te Anau to Milford is, in the view of many, the main reason to make this trip. Several walks are well signposted from road-side parking areas:
There is very very little 'shopping' in Milford - just a few merchandise items - e.g. post cards, books, posters, etc. A small grocery shop at Milford Sound Lodge sells many of the basics and is open from 08:00-21:00.
There is only one place to eat and drink in Milford Sound if you did not bring food in with you, and it is the Blue Duck Cafe & Bar. The cafe offers breakfast and lunch, while dinner is found at the bar. Snacks, drinks, and coffee are also available at the cafe. Prices are tourist prices, $13+ for breakfast, $16+ for lunch, $25+ for dinner. They do sell sandwiches around $5-6.
Some cruises run with meal options on board.
Blue Duck Cafe & Bar has pretty much whatever drink you would like to have available with Montieth's on tap.
Watch out as there are only two lodges in Milford Sound, and one of them is only for those tramping the Milford Track. The one open to all travelers is the Holiday Park (with backpackers) type accommodation, but cozy, and it is very often fully booked.
Many visitors drive in with a campervan or bring a tent. There are a number of DOC camp sites on the highway into Milford.
On arrival in Milford Sound off the Milford Track there are a number of options for getting out if you are not pre booked. After the hitching option the first point of contact would be the Blue Duck Cafe. There you can book a bus or a flight out to either Te Anau, Queenstown, Glenorchy or Wanaka. The Wanaka and Glenorchy option are really only available by air. You can also book a one way bus from the Milford Sound Lodget to Queenstown for $29. Good luck.