Fiordland has become one of the iconic travel destinations in New Zealand. It is, at times, startlingly beautiful, dark and mysterious, remote and wild, huge, wet and empty - except Milford Sound, which can be all of the above, and busy. But there's a good reason for this as Milford is the only place in Fiordland where you can actually drive through to the fiords, get on a boat, and explore. Which also explains why it can be a little busy at times. Early each morning coachloads of visitors leave Queenstown for the 4 hour drive to Milford Sound. Once there they spend time on wilderness and scenic cruises and short hikes before returning to Queenstown. This is a fantastic day out.
You can also choose to self-drive if you're comfortable driving on the left side of the road. It is, in places, narrow, steep and winding, and not for those who get motion sickness. But the road is sealed all the way and is usually easy to drive. Self-driving allows you to travel outside the busy times, but check cruise departure times so you don't miss out.
Sunday 10 am
We were staying at Fiordland Lodge near Te Anau, rather than Queenstown, so only had a 2 hour drive to Milford. The road was near empty as we headed out along the shore of Lake Te Anau. The weather looked promising. It was early in the season and there was still snow on the tops.
We drove along the first part of this World Heritage highway, which runs almost the length of Lake Te Anau, then into the Eglinton Valley and ever upwards towards the Hollyford Valley and the Homer Tunnel. To the side, short hikes disappeared into dense rainforest draped with dreamy lichens and drooping native beech trees. Others led to waterfalls, rivers and inviting multi-day hikes.
None of the clichés do this trip justice. The scenery really is ‘huge’, ‘breath-taking’, ‘sensational’ and ‘unique’. We passed small lakes ringed by dense bush, looked skywards at the massive peaks towering above us one after the other, and watched as the snow started to thicken by the roadside. By the time we reached the Homer Tunnel, the alpine landscape was completely black and white, snow and rock. Through the tunnel and it was a spectacular crawl down the densely forested Cleddau Valley to reach Milford.
The highlight here is always a cruise – there are a number to choose from. Some go right out to the ocean, some sail beneath the impossible height of Mitre Peak and others leave later in the day and go out for an overnight stay. Unfortunately the midday rush at the Milford Sound boat terminal, as the coaches arrive, is not in keeping with its surroundings so try and avoid it if you can.
The cruise is a highlight – again, all the clichés, in spades. Even after all the jaw-dropping scenery we had driven through, the view of Mitre Peak from sea level as we sailed beneath it, the drenching spray of the Stirling Falls, and the countless other waterfalls dropping from huge heights, fed by the constant rain, are priceless. And guess what, the best time to see Fiordland is in the rain, when every surface rushes with water, every trickle becomes a cascade and the peaks are spun with mist and cloud.
As evening moved in we made ourselves cosy back in our little chalet at Fiordland Lodge, overlooking Lake Te Anau and just five minutes out of town. Once we had warmed by the fire and watched the snow-laden clouds disappear into an inky blackness over the lake we enjoyed a beautiful meal. Later the clouds cleared to reveal the silken silver lake shining in the distance.
Leaving the lodge early we’re in search of breakfast. The Sandfly Café in Te Anau proved a winner, with good coffee, fresh bagels and a solid blackboard menu. I soaked up some fleeting sun which had broken through the heavy cloud and enjoyed a quiet moment before the two hour drive through to Queenstown.
But before we got underway curiosity moved us next door to Te Anau’s very funky Fiordland Cinema. Not there for the wine bar, or the coffee as we’d just had one, we were drawn to a short movie that plays in the cinema every hour, each day, all year. Called ‘Atawhenua - Shadowland’, and filmed by a local helicopter hot-shot, this 30-minute wonder captures everything stunning and beautiful about Fiordland in wide-screen perfection. Definitely an experience in itself, this short movie is well worth making the time to see, but only after you’ve been into Milford and seen for yourself what’s there. To do it the other way round would be an anti-climax – so save the movie for last. A couple of hours later we're back in Queenstown, a world away from the wild beauty of Milford Sound, but with a DVD of the Atawhenua movie tucked in a bag - an easy way to take Fiordland home with us.
Email us to find out more about a visit or stay in Fiordland.