I initially planned on hitch-hiking to Milford Sound, but I eventually decided that I just wanted to sit quietly and enjoy the scenery, and so I opted for the Intercity Milford Sound day tour.
The bus section of my tour was well worth the money – it was easier and less stressful than hitch-hiking and I had a fantastic guide. I was less impressed by the cruise in terms of its value for money as both the information and the tour were relatively basic.
Milford Sound is one of the most talked about destinations in New Zealand, creating impossibly high expectations. But, broadly speaking, I enjoyed the tour and I would definitely recommend that you pay the sound a visit, especially if you’re at all interested in geology.
If you have a pretty decent budget and don’t have your own transport, taking a tour is the way to go.
(Note: Costs and overall ratings of the tour are listed at the bottom of this post)
What is Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is New Zealand’s most famous fiord (also spelt fjord), located on the South Island just outside of Te Anau. Some people argue that the Doubtful Sound is bigger, more beautiful and quieter, but it is difficult to get to and expensive – which fiord you choose to visit largely depends on your budget.
Tip: To quote Wikipedia, a fiord is “long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by glacial erosion.”
Milford Sound consists of steep jagged cliffs surrounded by rainforest and waterfalls. Seals lounge about the rocks, playing and sleeping. Dolphins and penguins can also be spotted, though I didn’t see any when I was there.
You can survey the sound either from the dock, or you can get out onto the water. Cruises and kayaking trips can take you through the stunning scenery right out to where the fiord runs into the Tasman Sea.
However, this is only half the journey as the road leading into Milford is equally interesting and breathtaking with mountainous scenery, lakes and beech forest.
It’s best to take your tour from either Te Anau or Queenstown. Te Anau isn’t the most exciting town in its own right, but it’s a good temporary base if you’re planning on doing the Kepler and Routeburn Great Walks.
The following images were taken on the road to Milford.
Intercity Tour – The bus part of the journey
I took my tour with InterCity for around $120, and the price included both my bus travel and a cruise.
Much to my surprise, I actually really enjoyed my bus tour. The driver was brilliant and seemed to genuinely enjoy his job. From pointing out the mountains used in the Lord of The Rings trilogy, to explaining general facts about the beech forest and wildlife, our driver, Paul, gave a fantastic commentary. If he felt tired of giving the same spiel day in and day out, he didn’t show it.
We also had plenty of time to take photos at each of the stops and the driver ensured that we didn’t feel rushed.
A great moment on the tour was getting to stop at Homer Tunnel where we all managed to get a good look at the hilarious kea birds. A large species of parrot native to New Zealand, keas are incredibly inquisitive and intelligent. It was no time before they began hopping onto the roof of the bus and attempting to hitch a ride through the tunnel!
Tip: Take care if you decide to get off the bus – don’t feed the birds or carry any food out with you.
To truly appreciate Milford Sound, you need to get out onto the water – but it will cost you.
When I took my tour, my boat trip was with the company Encounter Cruise.
Tip: double check that this is the company that Intercity still uses. Tours sometimes change or downgrade the companies that they use.
The Encounter Cruise, like the majority of cruises at Milford, is a relatively pleasant two hour circular tour that takes you out to the beginning of the Tasman Sea and back.
The crew were polite and friendly. The boat stopped at all of the points of interest, resting beside Milford’s seals with expert timing. There wasn’t a single photo that I didn’t have time to take.
The quality of information was generally good. I particularly enjoyed the commentary about the geology of the area, and being shown where the avalanches and snow had made their marks on the fiord.
However, much of the commentary had already been covered with much more enthusiasm and detail by our bus driver, so I didn’t feel that the guide was enough to justify the high price of the cruise. Having said that, if you arrived with a different bus or by your own transport, and hadn’t had that information already, the commentary could prove to be more interesting and valuable.
The “snack” lunch was more than adequate – for a backpacker it was luxurious! It included a ham, cheese and salad baguette/roll, an apple, a kiwi fruit, cheese and crackers, biscuits and a small carton of juice.
The experience was rounded off with the front of the boat being steered underneath a waterfall, which was great fun – just make sure that you have a waterproof with you.
Tip: If you get the chance, go to Milford after it has had some heavy rainfall. The waterfalls are ten times more impressive!
At the time, I felt ripped off with the cruise. I enjoyed it and thought that it was relatively OK, but I didn’t feel that it was worth $70 (the lady in the information centre broke down the costs of the whole tour). If you are really strapped for cash and on a strict budget, you may want to just skip the cruise because there are other amazing sights in New Zealand to spend your money on. Moreover, the sound is not that dissimilar to the fiords that you travel through on the ferry between the north and south islands.
Value for money – if money isn’t a huge issue and you are looking to do Milford Sound in a day, then it’s definitely worth taking a tour.
I have heard positive things about the kayaking tours, but they are expensive. If you just want to get out on the water, the cruise is a safe bet.
If you are looking to experience kayaking in New Zealand and aren’t particularly set on doing it at Milford, I would recommend that you save your money for kayaking in the Abel Tasman.
Time – the trip to Milford Sound takes at least a day. There is a lodge that you can stay in if you wish to spend more time in the area, but I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary – a day is enough to appreciate Milford. For the shortest trip, take the tour from Te Anau.
Scenery – both the road leading up to Milford and the sound itself are stunning. There are mountains, beautiful lakes, kea birds and stunning waterfalls. Some people prefer the Doubtful Sound, but Milford is a much cheaper option.
Weather – as long as there isn’t too much mist and fog, the sound can generally be enjoyed in any weather. Rain only makes the waterfalls more impressive and the low-lying clouds make for moody images.
How busy is it? – Milford Sound is incredibly touristy. Don’t go there expecting to feel like you’re in the midst of nature by yourself, especially in peak season. I visited in autumn and it was packed with buses, cars and visitors. However, I still think that it’s worth the trip.
Costs – The tour costs $119. As Milford Sound is usually on most people’s “must do” lists, it’s probably a price worth paying – otherwise you’ll always wonder and regret not going!
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