Captain Cook passed it by in the late 18th century.
Too bad for him.
Milford Sound is a place on earth where not only is the destination stunning, but the journey to get there is just as breathtaking. Especially the 2-hour journey between Te Anau and Milford Sound.
Cascading waterfalls. Clear blue, mirrored lakes (on still days). Mountains which feel they are peering down, keeping an eye on those driving through below, with snow capping their peaks, even in the height of summer. Beech forests. One lane bridges and a one-lane tunnel that cuts through the mountain.
And that is just driving the gorgeous 100-minute journey (without stops) to get to Milford Sound from Te Anau.
There are signs saying to give it two hours, but I would make it a full day trip.
There’s so much to see, and hikes to enjoy, not to mention the cruising of Milford Sound itself. There’s no rushing this exploration.
You need the time to take in everything around you and I guarantee at least two or three gasps with escape from your lips at the beauty surrounding you. And if you don’t gasp at the beauty, go see your doctor because you’re missing your heart or your emotional capacity.
I recommended you stay in Te Anau overnight. Actually, I would recommend you stay in Te Anau for two nights. Many do a day trip from Queenstown and I just think of what they are missing. Take the day to get to Te Anau, then visit Milford Sound early the following morning. The tour buses (from Queenstown) hit Milford Sound between 11-2, so if you can enjoy the area outside of those times, there’s more opportunity the area without the crowds.
Places to Stop Between Queenstown and Te Anau:
A great place to take in the stunning scenery of Lake Wakatipu. There’s a turn off from the main road that will take you down to Jack’s Point. It’s a dirt track that has a picnic table and it is worthy of a stop. The views are magnificent from here.
The Devils Staircase
This is the road that takes you along Lake Wakatipu to Kingston. There is a safe rest stop to take in the views along this amazingly gorgeous stretch of road that takes in Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables.
Kingston to Te Anau.
The road from Kingston to Te Anau takes in rolling hills and farmland. There is a cycle track that winds its way through the area as well. There are places you can pull over and take in the countryside with the magnificent snow-capped mountains around you. There are also small villages to stop for a bathroom break and grab a coffee. I’d wait until Te Anau for grabbing lunch.
Places to Stop Between Te Anau and Milford Sound:
This is the stretch that is my favourite road to drive. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
The words ‘wow’ will escape your lips more than once, because the scenery is here being of postcard-worthy views. Take it slow because there is plenty to see. The roads are windy too, especially once you pass Mirror Lakes and it will take you longer to get there than you expect because you will want to stop at every opportunity you can.
This is a beautiful walk through the forest, with waterfalls along the well-structured path. It’s part of the Fiordland National park and it’s a gorgeous stroll from the parking lot. There is a two-foot bridge over the Cleddau River and if you’re a photographer, this is a dream.
This is one of my favourite spots along the way. On a still day, it’s one of the most spectacular views you’ll ever see. The lakes show the reflection of the surrounding mountains when the water is calm, but the views, even on a windy day, are spectacular.
Homer Tunnel Entrance
The Homer Tunnel is a one lane tunnel that stretches 1.2 km (0.75 miles) through the mountain into the Milford Sound area. The tunnel is controlled by lights, so there is sometimes a wait to go through. Rather than sitting in the queue, park and take in the snow-capped mountains around you, even in the summer months. There are waterfalls on either side and it’s worth the stroll to see them a little closer.
When you go through the tunnel, it’s eerie with water dripping from the roof. But as you leave the tunnel, your eyes adjusting to the sunlight, those words will escape your lips. It’s a winding road descending the mountain into the valley, and you will want to look at the views around you, so take your time and focus on the road. There are some crazies out there who aren’t focusing and to get help, you have to be airlifted out, so take your time.
Milford Sound Cruise: Recommended – Mitre Peak Cruises
I did a lot of research on the cruise companies and decided it was best to go with a smaller company. I chose Mitre Peak Cruises because the boats are smaller, allowing them to navigate closer to the waterfalls. It also meant smaller groups of people, which meant easier angles for pictures.
I wasn’t disappointed. There were 16 people on the cruise. Yep, 16. It was perfect. Everyone on the cruise had the opportunity to get the photos they wanted. They could sit inside or out…and get drenched when the boat pulled in really close to the waterfalls. The captain placed the bow directly underneath the roaring flow a couple of times. That was definitely my favourite part. I became drenched twice and loved every minute.
Mitre Peak Cruises was a great choice. If there was any hesitation I have in recommending them, it was the reservation process and their slow communication in requesting information. However, once at Milford Sound, it was smooth sailing (no pun intended).
The staff on board go above and beyond. They even turned the boat around when a passenger lost her scarf in the wind, lifting it up and into the water. The staff answered questions and gave information that was actually helpful.
The skipper’s commentary was casual yet educational. I learned not only that Captain Cook skipped the Fiord, due to the structure of the mountains, but I also learned that Milford Sound is misnamed. It’s a fiord, not a sound. Go figure!
Click here to book your Milford Sound Cruise: Mitre Peak Cruises
Where to Stay:
There are a lot of options in Te Anau to stay, which is recommended, over staying in the very-expensive Milford Sound (and options there are very limited). I’ve included everything from basic backpacking accommodation to a luxury stay worth checking out. If you are renting a campervan, you can freedom camp along the Mildford-TeAnau road, but you do need to be self-contained.
For the rest of us, here are my recommended stays in Te Anau:
Luxury Stay: Radfords on the Lake
While I’ve never stayed at Radfords, I’ve heard some amazing things about it. It looks beautiful and the views are amazing from its location. It’s worthy of my luxurious option for sure.
Mid-Range Stay: Lakeside Motel and Apartments
The stay here was beyond expectations. I stayed at the motel, which is a part of the holiday park. The views from the motel room were beautiful. I’m sure staying in the holiday park are worthy too but this is the mid-range option after all.
The main bedroom has its own spectacular views of the lake, as does the living space.
The only weird part is the kitchen. It’s meant for one to be cooking with no assistance, but then, you could always eat out. There are plenty of choices in town.
Budget Stay – Barnyard Backpackers
Don’t be put off by the name. About 10kms south of Te Anau is the Barnyard Backpackers. It’s a great budget option.
There is a communal kitchen inside ‘the barn’ with fridges, stoves, coffee station, tables etc… and basic cabin-type rooms, just down the hill from ‘the barn’, which have an ensuite.
The rooms (and ‘the barn’) have spectacular views of the Fiordland National Park and you can watch the sunset dip behind the mountains, and the weather change as it crosses the mountain range.
I will warn you – the rooms get warm in summer. There are windows but limited ones open. You’ll find people moving chairs outside and enjoying the views in the twilight instead. And why wouldn’t you?! There is heat provided for the winter.
There is also limited WiFi, which is available up in ‘The Barn’ and service is limited – but you can get a signal ironically when you are standing outside enjoying those views!
The bed is comfortable and the bathrooms are clean. What more do you need?
Where to Eat in Te Anau:
I’m going with the budget in mind here because New Zealand is expensive. You can buy groceries in Te Anau (see below) for when you are staying in self-contained accommodation, which is the most prevalent option in Te Anau. (You’ll see a lot of campervans stocking up here.) I didn’t eat a lot while in Te Anau, mostly because I stocked up in Queenstown, each time I stayed in Te Anau, but there are lots of options around.
Ironically, coffee is cheap in New Zealand, comparatively to Australia. Maybe that’s because they say they invented the ‘flat white’ and want everyone to enjoy it? Hmm.. not sure, but for $NZ 4.50, you can get a ‘big-ass flat white’ to keep you going for the day.
The pizza tastes as amazing as it smells. There is also gelato… do I need to say anymore?!
Really delicious pies that are worth the stop. They have a lot of options for pies. Although there are not a lot of places to eat. It’s worth picking a pie up then head to the lake and find a picnic table. Enjoy the eats and the views.
Milford Track Half Day Guided Walk.
Departing from Milford Sound, it is a short boat along the Arthur River through lush rainforest to Giant Gate, where you will walk 11km return on a mainly flat track. It’s suitable for all abilities and the groups are at a maximum of 12 people.
Book your Guided Walk Here: www.tripsandtramps.com
If you’re up for a multi-day hike in New Zealand, this is the place to begin – or end.
The Visitors Centre in both Te Anau and Queenstown will provide track conditions and updated weather conditions and you can book the Track Huts here as well – but be warned, they book out months in advance.
Other Stuff to Note:
Distances in New Zealand take longer to reach than usual. I don’t know if that’s because of the winding roads, the number of tourists on them or because there are so many places to see/do from Destination A to B. The point is, when planning, add more time to it. You won’t regret it.
There are two grocery stores in Te Anau but the main one is Fresh Choice. You can buy everything from hiking/camping meals to fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, bakery etc… even alcohol. The smaller of the two grocery stores is Four Square on the main street, but you’ll find it more expensive. You can pick up your main supplies in Queenstown if you wish – there is a ‘Fresh Choice’ and a ‘Countdown’ (aka Woolworths in Australia) near the airport.
Oh boy. Expect to pay out the whazoo for petrol because, well you’re going to need it and there are great distances between petrol stations…and they know that. In January 2018 I paid $NZ 2.18/litre, or $8.26.gallon for 91 grade (and this was everywhere on the south island, not just Te Anau.) The GOOD news was that the guy inside gave me 8 cents off per litre, since I’d purchased over $40 worth of petrol.
It cost around $65NZ and I was at about quarter of a tank on my rented Toyota Corolla when I filled up. That’s not enough to make it back to Queenstown or to get to Invercargill. On a full tank, I had driven from Queenstown to Milford Sound and back to Te Anau on that tank of petrol, just to give you an idea.
What do the “Rumble centreline” posts mean?
I wondered about these signs the whole way when driving from Queenstown to Kingston. I thought they may be related to earthquakes. (Yeah, I wonder about my thought processes sometimes too.) In fact, they are strips on the road to help prevent drivers from running off the road or straying across the centreline.
“Consisting of raised ribs spaced at regular intervals along the edge of a road or down the centreline, they can be felt and heard when car wheels cross over them. The rumbling effects as a wake- up call for drivers that they are veering out of their lane.” (https://www.nzta.govt.nz/assets/network/operating/safely/doc/rumble-strips-info-sheet.pdf)