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Opinion: What is the best way to see Milford Sound?

hiking in milford sound

I have adventured through different parts of New Zealand, particularly around my home town of Te Anau as well as Milford Sound and different parts of Fiordland. Some of this has been through competing in eight day adventure races. My name is Katelyn, owner and Guest Experience Manager here at Luxe Tours - but first and foremost - a lover of exploring and being out in nature. I often get asked, "what is the best way to see Milford Sound", by family, friends and guests who are planning to visit our beautiful backyard. When we started Luxe Tours, we had to decide whether to start the tour in Queenstown or Te Anau and very quickly we realised that it wasn't even a question - it had to be Te Anau. This is the best way to start your tour to Milford Sound, it gives you the most relaxing day and the best Fiordland, Milford Sound and wild New Zealand experience.


Starting Out


Stay the night in Te Anau before your tour or day to Milford Sound, it's really that simple. I have driven from Queenstown to Milford Sound return in one day with my family and it was such a long day! About 13 hours to be exact and get this - 10.5 hours of it was driving... It is a beautiful drive, don't get me wrong, but you are going to see it all no matter what, it is just about breaking it up a bit so that you can take more of it in. Too often I see tours or visitors blasting through Te Anau on their way to Milford, without stopping because they are rushing to get to their cruise in Milford. I hate to think what else they are missing. By leaving from Te Anau on a new, fresh day, the driving will go from 10.5 hours to about 5.5 hours with all the great stops along the Milford Road included. More time to take photos, more time to meet the cheeky wildlife such as the Kea bird, more time for toilet breaks and just a lot less stress.

There is also a lot to do in Te Anau. Don't get me wrong, Queenstown is an amazing resort town and we love it, but a lot of people miss all the things there are to do in Te Anau. Here is some of the highlights that I would consider doing if you do stay for a couple of nights:

  • Te Anau Glowworm Caves with RealNZ. Such a beautiful two hours experience in the deep, underground caves of the Murchison Mountains. I've attached a link above for you to check it out.

  • A scenic helicopter ride to somewhere like Doubtful Sound, or the popular loop that takes you above the Kepler & Murchison mountains. Southern Lakes, Fiordland Helicopters and Te Anau Helicopter Services offer this.

  • A cruise on the beloved 'Faith', a historic small sail ship with very intimate service and care. This cruise will take you up the South Fjord of Lake Te Anau, stopping for a small nature walk at the 'Hidden Lakes'.

  • The famous 60km 'Kepler Track' starts and ends in Te Anau. With incredible views from Mount Luxmore, this is not to be missed if you are a hiker. You don't need a lot of experience, but I would recommend an average level of fitness. I have done this in one day just for fun and race training, but please don't copy me!

  • Black Dog Bar and Cinema is a great place to rest and refuel before the next adventure.

  • As well as these main things, Te Anau has some great cafes & restaurants, a Water Wings plane tour, a beautiful cycle track (and tours) taking you through many kilometres of native bush and lakeside views and even an Escape Room experience.


My recommendation: Stay the night in Te Anau before and after your Milford Sound day. Add in one or two of these other experiences in the days either side.


What time should we leave for Milford Sound?


This can depend on which cruise you are planning to go on in Milford Sound. There are several operators to choose from, for example RealNZ, Cruise Milford, Southern Discoveries, Mitre Peak Cruises and a few others. At Luxe Tours we partner with RealNZ because of their commitment to conservation and decades of experience. They all have several cruise options, especially in summer, but a popular cruise time is between 1pm - 2pm. If you choose this time, you really want to leave Te Anau sometime between 8am - 10am. We leave at 9am and get in all the great stops along the Milford Road with plenty of time to spare. If you choose an earlier cruise, say 10am-ish, then you would do most of the photo stops on the return drive to Te Anau instead which is fine.


If you are travelling on a tour, which obviously we recommend but hey we are slightly biased, then the operator is going to let you know what time they leave but make sure that there is a good amount of time between the start and the cruise time. You don't want to be rushed at each photo stop!


My recommendation: If you have a morning cruise, leave 2.5-hours earlier. If you are on an mid-day or afternoon cruise, leave 4-hours before and do most of the photo stops on the way into Milford.


What is the best way to see Milford Sound?


My strong recommendation is to take a tour and I know that that will come across as biased as we are a tour operator but there are several reason for that, the main one being it is very difficult to fully enjoy and appreciate the Milford Road if you are the driver!


If a tour just isn't for you, then here is the exact itinerary I would follow for the day. Coincidentally it is our itinerary here at Luxe Tours, but I have kept out a few extra stops which are special to us as locals.

Depart Te Anau

Te Anau Downs

5mins

Eglinton Valley

10mins

Mirror Lakes

15mins

Knobs Flat

5mins

Lake Gunn

5mins

Monkey Creek

10mins

The Chasm

20mins

Milford Sound

2-3 hours (cruise)

Homer Tunnel

5mins

Hollyford Valley Lookout

5mins

Return to Te Anau

What should I bring to Milford Sound?

  • Insect repellant

  • Sunblock/sunhat

  • Rain & warm jacket

  • Camera/Phone with plenty of photo space

  • Sturdy walking shoes. Doesn't need to be hiking or specific walking shoes, just comfortable. We don't recommend jandals/flipflops.

  • Snacks/packed lunch if your tour doesn't offer one. Most of the cruises will offer snacks and tea/coffee.

  • Your cruise ticket!

Do I need to do a Milford Sound cruise?

Milford sound cruise and Milford sound waterfalls

Short answer - no you don't need to but in my honest opinion, it really isn't worth coming to Milford Sound without doing a cruise so yes you do need to. There really are limited ways to see the entirety of Milford Sound which is 16km in length, basically by a cruise or from the air in a helicopter or small plane. In summer, about 4000 people every day cruise Milford Sound, it is popular for a reason. We have an article on whether or not a Milford Sound cruise is worth the money, but long story

short, you are going to see all of Milford Sound, the beautiful cascading waterfalls, come up close to steep cliff mountain sides and likely have a wildlife encounter with seals, birds and maybe even dolphins. It is a magical experience no matter the weather. My personal favourite is a cruise on a day with pouring rain - you will know what I mean if you catch a day like this and can thank me later!


My recommendation: Absolutely do a cruise. It will typically always be a part of your day if you are going on a tour. A tour will handle all the paperwork, tickets and boarding process for you, making it easy and seamless.


Recommendations for your tour.


I am not going to talk about any of the tours available out there, or our tour specifically, but the only thing I would say is the cheapest price does not always represent the best value. You want to make sure of the following:

  • That during the driving part of the tour on The Milford Road, your tour/driver/guide is going to stop at as many of the beautiful photo stops on the way in as possible. They won't always stop at every single one as the weather can dictate not doing so, but you also don't want to miss them altogether.

  • That each stop has enough time to take in the scenery, take photos, and feel like you are not being rushed.

  • That your cruise is at least 1.5 - 2-hours. Milford Sound is not a Fjord to be done quickly, there is just so much to look at and take in.

  • Your cruise is going to visit 'Seal Rock' (weather permitting) and give you an up close personal experience with the big waterfalls.

  • You really want to have at least tea/coffee/water available on the cruise boat, but I also highly recommend doing a cruise that has a full restaurant/bar onboard, especially if you are on a mid-day to early afternoon cruise. My favourite part of cruising Milford Sound is sitting with my husband, at the window of the restaurant, enjoying a wine and watching the world go by in between wildlife encounters and points of interest.


Have I convinced you to book your tickets to New Zealand and Milford Sound? Any time I go into Milford Sound, I see something different that I didn't the time before, different weather, different birds, different sound. Its truly. beautiful place in the world. There are a few ways to explore it but very simply my favourite is - Starting from Te Anau, touring up through the stunning photo stops along the Milford Road while taking our time and enjoying each place for what it is, then cruising on a boat that offers the full experience with restaurant/bar, knowledgable and light commentary and visits all the key spots down Milford Sound.


Come and join me at Luxe Tours!

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