Milford Sound Day Trip: The Queenstown Conundrum

Milford Sound Highway Photo

Milford Sound Highway

“Milford Sound… if you’re debating it at all, you just gotta do it.”

This is the advice that Rachel and I received from friends and family countless times before our recent trip to New Zealand.

At first, the phrasing of the statement didn’t make sense to me.  I had known for years that Milford Sound was regarded as one of the top tourist destinations in the world, and that several organizations and individuals, including Rudyard Kipling, had even proclaimed it to be the unofficial Eighth Wonder of the World.

Why would we be debating it?  I thought.

Then, after getting to New Zealand and looking into ways to visit Milford Sound for myself, the question became a little more understandable.

Milford Sound is a fjord – a steep, narrow inlet that has been carved into the earth through glacial activity – situated in the south west of New Zealand’s South Island. Though it is only 44 miles to the north west of New Zealand’s most popular tourist hub, Queenstown (as the crow flies), the steep canyon walls cause it to be accessible by only one road, the Milford Sound Highway, which runs 73 miles due North from the small town of Te Anau.  To access Milford Sound from Queenstown, it is a 178 mile drive, each way.  Given the winding and undulating terrain, it is a drive that requires a full 5 hours to complete.

Milford Sound Highway Photo 2

Viewpoint along Milford Sound Highway

Some visitors to New Zealand are fortunate to have enough time that they can take a few extra days to stay in the small towns in and around Fjordland National Park,  to enjoy Milford Sound and the surrounding area at a much more leisurely pace.

I have found that many more visitors are like me, however, having only enough time in their itinerary for them to get to Queenstown.  It is in this situation that the debate surrounding a visit to Milford Sound comes to life.

Is Milford Sound worth experiencing as a day trip, requiring a 5-hour drive in each direction, allowing only a couple short hours to spend on the Sound?

In my experience and opinion, it is.

When facing the question for myself, I chose to heed the advice of everyone I knew who had experienced a visit to Milford Sound before me, and I made a commitment to visiting it, one way or another.  Since Rachel and I were traveling around New Zealand via mass transit, with Magic Bus, we did not have our own car available to make the trip, so I had to look into options for day-trip  bus tours.

After doing some research, I chose to make the trip with Kiwi Discovery.  It would be 5-hour bus ride in each direction, with a 90-minute boat cruise through and around Milford Sound when we arrived.

Milford Sound Photo

Milford Sound

The drive out to the Sound was spectacularly beautiful, and the bus ride itself really could not have been more comfortable.  It was a relatively new bus that had a glass ceiling, so all the passengers could look up and better appreciate the towering cliffs that line Milford Sound Highway.

We stopped at several viewpoints along the way, to take in the sights of various rivers, waterfalls and canyons.  We arrived at Milford Sound right around 2:00pm, and immediately boarded a large vessel for our cruise.

Our cruise around Milford Sound was 90 minutes in total.  We starting at the inward most part of the Sound and proceeded all the way out to the Tasman Sea, pulling into bays and glancing up against waterfalls as we went.

Because the scenery in the Sound was so spectacular, the 90 minutes that we spent on the boat really went by fast.  Still, it was such a unique and magnificent experience that I felt it was very worth the 10+ hours of travel it required to make it possible, and I’d suggest to the same to anyone else who may be debating it.

Milford Sound Cruise Photo

Backward view from cruise vessel on Milford Sound

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2 Responses to Milford Sound Day Trip: The Queenstown Conundrum

  1. Geoff February 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Nice article Jim,
    It is a continuing issue for debate around the day trip from Queenstown return versus having enough time to stay in a lovely lakeside township like Te Anau and spend more time enjoying the treasures along the Milford Road itself. It is about the journey as much as the destination and for a real quality experience a night or two in Te Anau is of great value.

    • The|Globe|Less|Traveled February 8, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      Thanks for sharing, Geoff. To be clear, I could not agree more that Milford Sound and Fjordland National Park warrant several days, and I would first recommend to everyone to try to allow the extra time to explore those areas. The reality I found on my trip, however, was that dozens of other travelers only allowed enough time to get to Queenstown for 2-3 days, and they could not afford the time for anything other than the day trip to Milford Sound. For those facing this decision (as I was on this trip, unfortunately), I am encouraging them to at least do the day trip.

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