If you try to think of places that are iconic New Zealand, it doesn’t take long until your mind wanders to Milford Sound. Milford Sound, or Piopiotahi, is in the southwest of New Zealand and serves as the jewel in the crown of Fiordland National Park. The Sound, which is technically a fjord, has deep clear waters and is surrounded by sheer cliff-faces stretching hundreds of metres into the sky. Rudyard Kipling once referred to Milford as the “eighth wonder of the world”, and when we lay eyes on Mitre Peak for the first time, we understood this sentiment completely.
Fiordland is vast and the landscapes make it tricky to explore. Visiting Milford Sound by road was not possible until the opening of Homer Tunnel in the 1950s, and even hiking was not popular until McKinnon Pass was found. Nowadays, the Sound attracts visitors from all over the world and is one of New Zealand’s most popular places to explore. Not only is the Sound itself mesmerising, but the journey along the Te Anau-Milford Highway is a destination in itself.
We were pleased to be able to venture through the National Park with the BBQ Bus, a fabulous company offering small group day tours to Milford Sound (and, as the name suggests, there is an ~amazing~ BBQ involved). The trip originated in Queenstown, and after that, we spent fourteen hours in constant awe until we came back. Here’s what happened…
Rise and shine
We were greeted by the BBQ Bus and our friendly guide, Nigel, at 7:40am from the front of our Queenstown hotel. He was right on time, which felt like a shock after our two weeks living on island time in the Philippines. We boarded the bus, which had comfortable seats and wide windows for soaking up the vista, and were soon on the way. As we drove through the farmland toward Te Anau, Nigel had us both laughing and learning as he shared his knowledge of the area with the group.
After around two hours, we arrived in Te Anau, which is the gateway town to Fiordland and a destination in its own right. We only had a quick stop here, but it was long enough to sample one of the town’s famous pies and check out Te Anau Lake. After leaving the township, the beauty of the Te Anau to Milford Highway started to truly take shape. You never really knew what you were going to see next. One minute it was driving through ancient forests, and the next we were in open plains with towering mountains – it was a feast for the eyes.
As we edged towards Milford Sound, we stopped off at Mirror Lake, which is one of the most picturesque places to visit on the journey. The name might give it away, but the beautiful lake, on a still day, perfectly reflects the mountain surrounds. Surrounding the water, there is plenty to learn as well, with Nigel giving us an introduction to some of the Fiordland fauna and flora which was in abundance.
Lunch at Cascade Creek
After seeing Mirror Lake and winding through the velvety forests of Fiordland National Park, we pulled into an area known as Cascade Creek. Here was where the magic happened and Nigel put the BBQ into BBQ Bus. As Nigel turned his hand to cooking up the variety of mouth-watering foods, we were given the opportunity to look around Cascade Creek.
It was an ideal place to stop for lunch and there were no other tour buses around, only a few campers in the far away sites. Cascade Creek is a beautiful icy blue creek which flows through grey stones and vibrant purple lupins until it connects with Eglinton River, and all this is surrounded by preserved greenery.
Soon enough, we were back at the hut to eat the delicious lunch. Nigel had somehow managed to cook a mountain of different, delicious barbecued foods in only half an hour – what a legend! Lamb and chicken kebabs, sausages, salads, and more, we were over the moon with the feed. A familiar food-induced silence, interjected only by clinking of forks against plates, fell over the group as we all tucked in. Having a good lunch was essential in keeping up our energy levels for the next half of the day.
We briefly stopped at Gunn Lake as we beetled along the highway towards the Sound, and it was worthy of its place in the itinerary. Gunn Lake was similar to Mirror Lake, and on this still day, it reflected the snow-capped mountain surrounds without fault onto its surface.
Homer Tunnel and The Cheeky Kea
Eventually we neared Homer Tunnel where the landscapes started to become even more phenomenal. It was around this point that the “oohs” and “woahs” in the group started to become more frequent, as the mountains became taller, the snow became closer, and hundreds of waterfalls were springing up off the cliff faces.
We stopped at Homer Tunnel to let the traffic through, and this was where we spotted some kea. Kea are New Zealand parrots and are an endangered species with a cheeky attitude, so they love teasing tourists and messing around with cars. They are pretty entertaining if you get to see some!
Once we got through Homer Tunnel, we commenced the descent towards Milford Sound. In the distance, we were able to occasionally spot the tip of Mitre Peak and our excitement intensified. As we descended, the mountains looked taller and the waterfalls longer, until we eventually pulled off the road at The Chasm.
The Chasm waterfalls are a short walk from the carpark through native forest and you can hear them thundering towards land from a mile away. The sheer strength of the water from the falls has etched out a chasm through the stone which you can look down upon from the footbridge. The bright blue water swirling its way through the carved rock is mesmerising and well worth the stop.
From here, we drove a further few minutes until we reached the Sound. This was the moment we had all been waiting for. The towering peaks and still waters greeted us, and it was a magical sight. By some stroke of luck, the terrible weather forecast never eventuated and we were able to explore Milford Sound in all its glory.
It may have been intentional, but many of the big tours leave quite early from Queenstown, and don’t stop much along the way, to arrive for late-morning and midday cruises. The BBQ Bus didn’t seem to follow that blueprint. We left at a more relaxed time, ate that beautiful lunch, spent time at the destinations along the way, and arrived at Milford for a mid-afternoon cruise instead. This all paid off when we arrived for the 2:45 cruise because, by this time, almost all the tour buses had come and gone, and we had the whole Cruise Milford boat to ourselves.
There are two permanent waterfalls at Milford Sound, Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls, and the other hundreds of waterfalls spring up after rain. The Cruise makes an effort to get up close and personal with these waterfalls, and if you’re brave enough to stand on the outside deck, you’ll get a good spray. Our favourite was Stirling Falls which seem to appear out of nowhere through a horse-shoe-shaped incision in the cliff face, plummeting towards the waters’ surface.
The cruise continued out from the fjord until it opened up into the Tasman Sea. It was around this point that we were able to see Bridal Veil Falls and there were some spritely penguins on the rocks below jumping into the water. As we turned around, we could see Dale Point to our left and passed Seal Rock. True to the name, there were about a dozen seals reclining in the sunshine, none of which seemed to be too bothered by our presence. A pretty cool thing to see!
On the way back to land, we stopped at Harrison Cove which had an unbeatable view up towards the snow-capped mountains. Throughout the whole cruise, we were kept entertained and informed by the members of staff who shared stories and information about the Sound. The caffeine-fiend in me was pretty stoked with the free coffee and cookies on board, too.
We were sad to eventually have to disembark and wave good-bye to Milford Sound. Fiordland is a slice of heaven in one of the southernmost corners of the world, and the landscapes here were unlike anything we had seen before. As we walked along the dock back towards the bus, we promised each other that it would not be long until we would come back again.
The road back home from Milford Sound is the same scenic one that gets you there, so we beetled on back to Queenstown enjoying the scenery along the way. We were dropped back to the hotel around 8:30pm completely content and still dreaming of the Sound.
If repeating the drive isn’t up your alley, there is an option to fly or helicopter back from Milford Sound which is a 40 minute journey. This does incur an additional cost but I imagine the views from that perspective would be incredible.
FAQs AND TIPS
Is Milford Sound worth the day trip from Queenstown?
In our experience, absolutely. Milford Sound and the entirety of Fiordland National Park are spectacular and an iconic part of New Zealand. Seeing this remote corner of the world is an opportunity that should be taken. With towering mountains, icy blue fjords, and cascading waterfalls as far as the eye can see, Milford Sound shouldn’t be missed. Don’t get me wrong, seeing Milford Sound from Queenstown is a long day, but it is doable. When you are travelling with an expert guide and you don’t have to concentrate on driving yourself, the day is pretty relaxed – just sit back and enjoy the scenery .
How long is the journey to Milford Sound?
Our BBQ Bus Tour went for around 14 hours, with the drive time to Milford Sound and back being around four hours each way. Some tour companies push through the drive and don’t stop off at scenic locations or include lunch, which would cut down the total tour time but may not be as enjoyable. If you were leaving from Te Anau, the drive would be about 2 hours and 15 minutes each way. The cruise once you arrive in Milford Sound is around 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Some tips for visiting Milford Sound
Bring waterproof clothing. The boat captains like getting close to the waterfalls (which is an awesome experience but it will get you wet if you’re on an outside deck) and there is a decent amount of sea spray
Having a bit of cash can be handy for any tea/coffee/snack needs in the stops in Te Anau
If you’re self-driving, it’s a long day with winding roads, so maybe schedule a night in the beautiful lakeside town of Te Anau
Wear sunscreen and bring clothes appropriate for all weather types
BOOKING THE BBQ BUS
You can book your journey to Milford Sound with the BBQ Bus through their website. The tour we did was the coach/cruise/coach tour and was done in November (peak season) and we would recommend it.
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Disclosure: we were delighted to be guests of the BBQ Bus for a day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound, with a boat cruise with Milford Cruises. All the experiences and opinions in this article, as always, are my own.