Hidden inside of New Zealand’s South Island lies the majestic and dramatic landscapes of Milford Sound.
Few who witness its glory leave unchanged. You can never catch Milford on a bad day, either; gloomy weather only enhances the jagged carvings of the mountainside.
Located at the tip of Fiordland National Park, Milford is the only fiord in New Zealand you can drive into. You can either drive yourself from Te Anau or Queenstown, or you can hop on any bus or shuttle offered.
Whether you walk, drive, fly, or cruise in, the wonders hidden in Milford Sound await.
Discovering Milford Sound/Piopiotahi
Like many places in New Zealand, the origin of Milford Sound has a Maori myth and a European background.
According to Maori legend, Milford Sound was discovered over 1,000 years ago. At the time, the Maoris named the location Piopiotahi after the now-extinct native bird, the piopio.
The ancient Maoris visited the area to collect pounamu, or jade. They believed the Maori god Tu-te-raki-whanoa shaped the Fiordland coast, with Milford Sound his finest creation. With a prayer and an adze, Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved out the serrated mountainsides we gawk over, including the ever-popular Mitre Peak.
It wasn’t until 1912 that European settler John Grono discovered the cove and renamed it Milford Sound.
Since then, however, much debate has arisen over whether it is a “sound” or a “fiord.” A “sound” is created by a river, whereas a “fiord” is created by a glacier. Initially, Grono believed the rivers from the many waterfalls created the mountains, giving the impression of a “sound.”
After further investigation, it is believed the Ice Age’s melting glaciers created Milford, which would classify it as a “fiord.” (I vote we change the name to “Milfiord (Sound)” to avoid all confusion.)
Even though you can accomplish the four-hour drive into Milford on your own, you may regret it if you do. The stretch of Highway 94 known as “Milford Road” is among the most scenic drives in the world, and hopping on a coach lets you relax and keep your eyes on your surroundings. At that, why bother searching for the best photo opportunities when someone else can tell you when they are?
Some (but not all) coach options include NakedBus, InterCity Bus, FlexiPass, and TravelPass. If you’ve booked a nationwide tour like Kiwi Experience or Stray, the cruise is often already included or easily added.
Milford Road, however, is a mere precursor to the wonders in store once you reach the ocean. Join hundreds in gawking at glaciers, rushing rivers, captivating mountainsides, and jaw-dropping landscapes as you weave throughout the cliffs.
Just be sure to bring carsick pills.
The drive also takes you through a portion of Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand, which is a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site. You might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the kea, the only alpine parrot in the world.
Cruising Through Milford Sound
Although the trip to Milford Sound is packed with incredible visuals, nothing beats the world-famous Mitre Peak.
As the ship departs from the dock, the first of many waterfalls rests just behind the cove. The ship may offer interior seating, but most people peruse the observation decks, where camera clicks mix with whispers of, “Would you look at that?”
The mountains loom on either side of the canal, and parts of the passage can seem a bit claustrophobic. Most people, however, are much too busy forgetting to blink to feel suffocated.
Who doesn’t like a bit of wildlife along the way? If you’re lucky, a school of dolphins might surface and take all of the attention off the mountains.
Even if the dolphins don’t take a bow, at least you’ll get to see seal rock.
Be sure to bring your rain gear and waterproof camera, or you’ll have to hide inside when the ship rests under the biggest waterfall. If it catches you unaware, you’ll get a massive shower whether you like it or not.
Hiking the Milford Track
Feeling a little more on the adventurous side? A cruise isn’t the only way to see Milford Sound, and if you’ve got four days (and some extra energy) to spare, take a hike along the Milford Track.
One of New Zealand’s Nine Great Walks, the Milford Track is arguably the most popular. Catch a ferry out of Te Anau to start the hike in Glade Wharf, then work your way down the glacier-carved mountains until you reach the Dumpling Hut.
If you’re not one for overnight hikes, a few day–hike options exist to get you out in the wilderness. Likewise, if neither a cruise nor a hike catches your fancy, check out flight options through Air Milford.
Milford’s Impact Today
In a world coated in darkness, Milford Sound acts a beacon that reminds us of its splendor. The resplendent mountain carvings remind us just how small we are in the grander scheme.
New Zealand prides itself on clean land and a healthy environment, and Milford Sound is no exception. Apart from the general eye-catching landmarks, travelers may also notice an insane lack of rubbish littering them. The New Zealand government heavily enforces “bring out what you bring in,” which results in glistening, untouched mountainsides.
There’s no time to argue or think about insufficient worries when Earth’s beauty stands firm in front of you. Whether you’re a nature buff or not, an experience in Milford Sound is sure to change you forever.