It’s practically unheard of to visit the South Island of New Zealand and not go on a cruise in Fjordland’s magnificent Milford Sound. With sheer cliffs rising dramatically out of the deep blue waters, frolicking seals and dolphins and more breathtaking waterfalls than you can keep track of, Milford Sound is a must-see destination on practically every visitor’s list.
The majority of people visit Milford Sound on a day cruise, but it is also possible to stay overnight or even do a multi-day paddle of the sound by kayak, which sounds like a pretty ideal way to experience such a beautiful place. But, with hiking as our primary focus, we didn’t have enough time for either of the extended options, so we thought we would save our visit to Milford Sound for a future trip. In the words of travel guru Elizabeth Gilbert, you have to pick a major…
So, with a few challenging day hikes under our belts, we felt like we were ready to tackle the Routeburn Track, the first of the three Great Walks that we had arranged to do. Our hut reservations had us hiking from west to east, so we needed to drive from Wanaka, south to Queenstown where we had to visit the Department of Conservation (DOC) office to pick up our hut reservation tickets.
From Queenstown, we planned to drive in a big loop around to the trailhead at The Divide, where we would leave our car and begin the 3-day, 32-kilometer hike to the Routeburn Shelter just outside of Glenorchy, some 325 kilometers away by road from where we left our car on the other side!
Scenically, the Routeburn Track is supposed to be magnificent, but, logistically, you can see that it’s a little bit of a nightmare. We read that there is a public bus that hikers can take to and from the trailheads, but it runs infrequently and isn’t particularly cheap, especially for two of us. As luck would have it, we would be finishing our trek on Christmas Day, so the bus wasn’t even an option for us.
Luckily, the enterprising Kiwis do offer a convenient solution, and for a mere $295 NZD (about $215 US!) it’s possible to hire a car transfer service (we used Easy Hike) to move your car from one end of the Routeburn Track to the other. Expensive but worth it.
During our quick stop through bustling Queenstown to claim our tickets and pick up the lock box that we needed to leave our car keys in, we kept seeing advertisements and posters for Milford Sound cruises on practically every street sign, tour bus and shop window, and we have to admit that we started feeling like we were going to miss out on an essential New Zealand experience. It looked stunning, and we would be so close to it at the start of the Routeburn. How could we possibly pass up on an opportunity to see something so beautiful? That would be crazy, right?
As luck would have it, Easy Hike has an arrangement with Jucy Car Rental to give out the lock boxes, and Jucy had just started offering an early morning cruise on Milford Sound. The first sailing is at 8:55 am and is the least popular since it’s rather undesirable to stay in Queenstown and make the 3-hour drive to Milford Sound before the boat leaves. So, to sweeten the deal, there is a significant discount on the price on the morning tour making it the least expensive sailing of the day. Jucy even offers a free hot breakfast for the early morning passengers, and, as Jucy car rental customers, we also got a discount off of the car driver’s cruise ticket. What a deal!
We figured we could camp near Milford Sound on the Milford Highway, take the early cruise and start hiking from The Divide by 2 pm at the latest. We only had 12 km to hike for the day, which seemed doable, even for two slow-poke hikers like us. What do you know, we could have our cake and eat it, too. We love it when that happens!
After picking up some groceries and wine, we set off on the spectacular drive from Queenstown to Fjordlands National Park where we planned to camp for the evening. By the time we reached the Cascade Creek campsite about 76 kilometers north of the town of Te Anau, the light was already beginning to fade. Not wanting to miss out on any parts of the gorgeous drive, we figured we better call it quits there for the evening.
This quiet campground is located right next to a river with incredible fields of lupine lining its shores. Of course, we spent the last few moments of daylight shooting the gorgeous flowers. We also set our alarms extra early to shoot more of the pink, purple and white blossoms before leaving for Milford Sound. Can you blame us?
With time ticking in the morning we hit the road and drove the Milford Highway to the Milford Sound Visitor Center, where we needed to meet the boat. This road is touted as one of the most spectacular drives in New Zealand, and we had to fight the urge to stop every five seconds to photograph all of the incredible scenes that appeared around every bend in the road. We did manage to make a few choice stops, making a mental note that this will be an area where we will need to spend a lot more time on a return trip to NZ.
Even with our photo breaks, we arrive at the dock in Milford Sound just in time for our departure and, in no time, we are cruising the calm waters of the sound and loving every minute of it. The weather is absolutely perfect, and the boat captain tells us that we are experiencing the first morning of blue skies that they have seen in the last several weeks. What luck!
Along the way, we are treated to incredible views of the magnificent cliffs towering all around us and the ribbon-like waterfalls cascading down the sheer walls.
It’s not uncommon to see dolphins swimming alongside the boat, but we don’t spot any today. We can’t win ’em all, but the seals do their best to make up for it.
Just after seeing the sound’s shortest waterfall, we are invited to stand on the front of the deck and get drenched by the tallest. We decide to play it safe in an effort to stay dry and protect our camera gear, so we hang out a little farther back. Even so, we get a nice dousing; the people up front are totally soaked.
We didn’t think we were going to be able to squeeze a Milford Sound cruise in on this visit to New Zealand, and it was a definite bonus for us. Next time, we will be sure to build in time for an extended stay, so we can enjoy it after the cruise boats have docked for the day. Until then…