Further Adventures in Fiordland

Each year, nearly 1 million people visit Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park, one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand. We joined them in early April, taking an overnight cruise on the fiord run by RealNZ Adventures.

Same Park, Different Experience

Our Milford Sound cruise was similar in some ways to our cruise on Doubtful Sound several days earlier, with a sister boat and the same activities. But it was a different experience because of the differences in the two fiords and their settings. Milford Sound is the only one of the park’s 14 fiords that can be reached by car, which is why it gets so many visitors. Many companies offer boat tours of the fiord, whereas only one company, RealNZ, operates on Doubtful Sound.

There’s less waterway to explore in Milford Sound, which is only 9 miles long, compared with Doubtful Sound’s 25 miles. But half the thrill of seeing Milford Sound is getting there. The road to the fiord from Te Anau passes through stunning scenery: wide valleys full of golden grasslands, mirror lakes reflecting the mountains, deep mossy forests, and finally sheer walls of dark gray granite towering over the road. By the time you reach the water and board your ship, you’ve already been wowed.

The mountains on either side of Milford Sound are much steeper than those around Doubtful Sound. They’re just as dramatic, but in a different way. Instead of being covered to the tops in lush green forest, they’re sheer dark cliffs and jagged peaks, with only sparse vegetation. It’s easier here to get a feeling of the power of glaciers to scour mountains smooth as they pass by. Seen from a kayak, the walls of the fjord feel impossibly tall and steep as they loom thousands of feet above you.

Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world, with an average of 250 inches of rain per year (four times as much as anywhere in the United States). But as on our previous cruise, we lucked out with the weather. Rain at the beginning of our trip gave way to clearing skies once we were on the boat and then bright sunshine the next morning. We saw fewer animals than we did in Doubtful Sound, just a couple of seals and some seagulls. And because of the other tour boats on the water, it didn’t feel like we had the fiord to ourselves, as we did in Doubtful Sound.

But the waterfalls in Milford Sound were even more dramatic than the ones in Doubtful Sound, many of them crashing into the sea with great force. Our skipper guided the front of our ship to within 30 feet of one of the falls. As spray blew across the deck, everyone who had been taking pictures with their phones scurried for cover, leaving Melissa and her waterproof camera alone on deck to capture some magnificent images. I think they’re some of the best pictures she’s ever taken.

A Tiny House With Big Views

In between our fiord cruises, we stayed on the shores of Lake Te Anau—first in an AirBnB tiny house and then in the cheap and cheerful Te Anau Central Backpackers. The tiny house was a splurge we couldn’t resist. After watching tiny-house-building shows on TV for years, we were eager to stay in one ourselves.

It was comfortable and cozy, with a decent-sized kitchen and bathroom and a loft at each end for sleeping or lounging. The house was full of windows, which offered views of mountains in all directions and of the lake (New Zealand’s second largest) spread out in front of us. We spent many happy hours, when we weren’t exploring the national park, curled up in the lofts watching the play of light and cloud and wind across the mountains and the water.

The tiny house we rented in Te Anau
Chris on the trail in front of our house

Many international visitors make day trips to Fiordland National Park while based in Queenstown, the South Island’s adventure capital. That makes for very long drives (almost four hours to Milford Sound and two hours to Te Anau), which cut into the time people have to view the scenery they came so far to see.

We strongly recommend basing in Te Anau instead for visits to the national park. The town has all the things you need for a good stay: hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, a laundromat. And instead of spending hours on the road, you’ll be back from your hike or scenic drive or boat trip in time for dinner and a lakeside stroll before bed. That’s our idea of good traveling.

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  1. Fantastic photos and commentary. I’m so glad the two of you are having this adventure. I didn’t know New Zealand was so beautiful.

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