Milford Sound is consistently rated as one of top attractions to visit in NZ’s South Island. But it’s also quite polarizing, as the day trip from Queenstown is quite an undertaking, and the area is widely considered to be one of the rainiest places on earth (average of 182 days of rain in a year – yes, better than Vegas odds that it’ll rain when you visit!). Despite these stacked odds, Milford Sounds still attracts nearly a million visitors to its remote location every year. Bad weather aside, here are some pro tips to heed when you’re visiting Milford Sound.
Rent a car and stay overnight at Te Anau. Though several tour operators in Queenstown will offer day trips to Milford Sound, this usually means waking up around 4 or 5 in the morning, and sitting in a car / bus for 4-5 hours. To make matters worse, you have a 50/50 chance of encountering rain, with no real option to “try another day.” You also can’t stop whenever you want, and you’ll be on someone else’s schedule. There is a better way. Step 1 is to rent a car, even just for a couple days (assuming you aren’t already in a sweet campervan). A quick search on Google maps will reveal a small lakeside town along the Queenstown-Milford route called Te Anau just ~1.5 hours away from Milford Sound. This means being able to enjoy an extremely charming town, have breakfast at a reasonable hour, and avoid spending an entire workday’s worth of hours in transit. With a private car as well, you can stop by breathtaking landscapes such as Eglinton Valley and Homer Tunnel.
Book a cruise on a smaller boat. I can’t stress this enough as it really made the experience so much better. Milford Sound has a number of cruise operators offering a range of experiences at varying price points. And although companies like Real Journeys, JUCY, and Go Orange offer attractive price points at $30-40/person, understand that you’ll be on board a giant ship with hundreds of other people. This limits how close the boats can get to the iconic waterfalls and also results in a terrible picture-taking experience, as hordes of tourists will climb over one another to get the “best view” at select points throughout the cruise. I highly recommend you pay up a bit more ($50-60/person) and go with Mitre Peak or Cruise Milford – which operate ships with less than 50-people on board on average. These ships are much smaller too, so can visit places in the Sound that the larger boats cannot.
Pack a telephoto lens. This is obviously applicable only to those avid photographers out there looking to capture their experience. While most of the cruise can be photographed using wide-angle lenses (like I used), or other standard lenses, there are certain sightings during the cruise that necessitates a telephoto lens. First, there are seals hanging out on boulders at the water’s edge, but due to regulations the boats cannot get too close. It would’ve been awesome to capture these sleeping creatures in greater detail. Another instance is for photographing the waterfalls. Now, if you heeded my second advice and booked a cruise with a smaller ship, you’ll certainly get VERY close to the waterfalls to experience it in all its glory, but this also means your lens will quickly accumulate water drops that prevent you from taking a clear photo. With a telephoto lens, you can easily snap photos of these falls as the ship pulls away.
Setting aside these pro-tips, Milford Sound really is worth the visit. The brilliantly clear water, hulking cliff sides, and the crisp mists from the towering waterfalls all help to create an unforgettable experience. Although we got lucky with the weather, I’ve heard that Milford Sound is unique in that the rain and cloud will create a mystic ambiance that undoubtedly create a unique experience on its own.