Milford Sound, Encounter Nature Cruise
On our Milford Sound Cruise, we head towards a waterfall pouring off the edge of a tall granite cliff into the ocean. Fog hangs thick in the air around the mountains, and there is light rain, but it adds to the atmosphere.
Suddenly two huge Bottlenose Dolphins jump up vertically out of the water leaving all passengers on the boat awestruck. This is the magic of Milford Sound, in the Fiordland region of New Zealand’s South Island. It is even better than I had imagined it being.
Milford Sound is one of New Zealand’s most iconic destinations. It is equivalent to visiting The Great Ocean Road on Australia’s South Coast. It is a five-hour drive from Queenstown to a dead end point of New Zealand. Out of the way, but totally worth the trip.
Our Encounter Nature Cruise with Southern Discoveries is two and a half hours long. We will visit three beautiful waterfalls, see dolphins swimming by the boat and seals sunbaking on the rocks.
The first stop is the Fairy Falls. We are told to get ready for a drenching as the boat is going to get quite close to the waterfall. In fact, we get close enough that we are able to fill up a glass of glacial water directly from the waterfall.
Some may say that water does not have a taste, they are wrong. Take a drink of this waterfall nectar and you will realize it is the purest liquid you have ever drunk.
Resuming the journey, we head towards our second waterfall. Along the way, we notice fins in the water. There is a pod of five Bottlenose Dolphins about two hundred meters in front of the boat.
The captain slows the boat down so he does not get too close; however, these curious dolphins come right up to the boat and swim alongside us. It is the first time I have ever seen dolphins, now we get to see them swim alongside the boat for a few minutes, just meters away.
We head off to Anita Bay. This is the point where Milford Sound meets the Tasman Sea. The water is rougher out here, but there is a cloudless blue sky. What a dramatic difference over just a few kilometers that we have traveled. Beyond here, the next land mass is Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state.
On our return trip, the sky has cleared up and the view of the surrounding mountains is incredible. All around there are small waterfalls running down the cliff face into the ocean below.
The captain steers the boat towards the Stirling Falls as he warns us that this time we are going to get even wetter than the previous waterfall. We are offered rain jackets, but I decide to brave the cold water and stand on the front deck of the boat, only covering my camera with a plastic bag.
Half the boat goes under the waterfall, as I get drenched in the icy cold water. Should have taken up on the offer of the proper rain jackets.
On our return leg, a beam of sunlight shines through the mountains, a few more dolphins swim ahead of the boat with the Bowen Falls placed as a backdrop. It is a perfect ending to our morning.
Where is Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is located in the Fiordland National Park in the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island. It is just 72 kilometers northwest of Queenstown over the mountain ranges, however, there are no roads making a direct connection.
The closest town to Milford Sound is Te Anau, which is located 120km to the south. The drive from Te Anau takes 2-2.5hrs, so be sure to allow plenty of time.
Te Anau is another 170km from Queenstown, around a dogleg road, which first heads south, then northwest.
How to get to Milford Sound
Tour companies such as Southern Discoveries offers day trips from Queenstown, which is perfect is if you are short on time, or do not have your own vehicle.
With a campervan, you will drive 170km south from Queenstown to Te Anau. This part of the trip takes about 3hrs and follows Lake Wakatipu with some stunning views.
After Te Anau, you will drive 120km northwest to Milford Sound. The road winds through the Fiordland National Park for most of the way. North of Te Anau there is no mobile phone reception, so make sure to download your booking confirmation first.
Where to stay at Milford Sound?
There are a number of lodges and campsites in the Fiordland National Park. For those with a campervan, try out the Cascade Creek campsite. There are 140 non-powered sites for NZD13 per person per night (pay cash at the camp registration point).
The Cascade Creek campsite is located in a spot between the mountains, an awesome view in the late afternoon. There are basic pit toilets, drinking water available, but no power or showers so come prepared.
There are no reservations for the Cascade Creek campsite. It works on a first come, first served basis.
If you are on a luxury New Zealand trip, there are also a few lodges in the Fiordland National Park. Rooms tend to start at 200 NZD per night and get much more expensive.
For another great NZ campsite visit: White Horse Hill by the Hooker Valley Track
Things to do near Milford Sound
- Eglinton Valley – this open grassy spot is located in the south of the Fiordland National Park and offers a great view of the mountains heading towards Milford Sound. The walk is less than 5 minutes each way from the carpark.
- Mirror Lakes – these lakes provide a mirror image of the mountains on a still day. It is a nice 10-minute stop on the site of the road when heading to or from Milford Sound to Te Anau.
- Pop’s Lookout – a side of the road lookout with views over the valley and river below. This stop only takes about 5 minutes in total.
- Lake Gunn – a great spot for lunch on the way back from Milford Sound. Lake Gunn has calm clear water with a day use picnic area on the northern end. There are also some short hikes around the lake.
- Day Hikes – there are plenty of day hikes in the Fiordland National Park. Check here for a full list of further details.
This Milford Sound Cruise was taken with Southern Discoveries. As always, all opinions are my own.