New Zealand is one of only a few places on the planet where you can see the spectacular sight of glacial carved fiords, but which fiord should you see, and is it truly a fiord or sound?
I’m often asked which fiord to see and why we call it a fiord, when it’s named a sound? In this article I’ll answer those questions and more.
With over 20 years of designing vacations to New Zealand I’ve spent time in both places, experiencing the overnight cruises and days trips. I’ve hiked the Milford and Hollyford Tracks, each of which includes their own experience of Milford Sound, at the end of the hike. New Zealand has fifteen named maritime fiords. The most accessible for visitors are Milford and Doubtful Sounds – both located in Fiordland and each magnificent in its own right.
Fiordland National Park is one of New Zealand’s special places, cherished by nature lovers and explorers. This ancient and extraordinary environment of glaciers, alpine ranges, sounds and unique flora and fauna is internationally recognized as part of the wider UNESCO World Heritage site, Te Wahipounamu (Place of Greenstone).
The beauty of the area is shaped by water – lakes, rivers, streams, waterfall and lush rainforest, which means you will often encounter rain. In Fiordland we measure the rain in meters not millimeters. A drought would be considered two or more days without rain, however do not let that put you off. The environment is even more beautiful in the rain, as it creates an abundance of waterfalls everywhere you look. And when mist drapes itself over the mountain tops it only adds to the mythical beauty of the fiord.
Fiord or Sound?
New Zealand is known around the world for its breathtaking collection of fiords, which ironically are mostly named as sounds. Both terms are correct. Fiord is the geological term for an ice-carved landscape that has been inundated by water and a sound is a geographical term for a large ocean inlet.
Before we talk about each sound, a word of caution: if you locate Milford on a map you’d see it appears very close to Queenstown. If you’re thinking you could visit on a quick day trip, you’d be mistaken. As the crow flies, Milford is very close to Queenstown, but what you might not see are mountains in between, which you must go around. From Queenstown it’s approx. 5hr drive each way. Being based in Te Anau is the better call.
One of the best drives in New Zealand, the road journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound is one of the most scenic experiences you can have on four wheels. This road is much more than a way to get to Milford Sound; it's a journey in itself leading into the heart of Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage area.
If you are self-driving, you can make the most of the trip and explore some of Fiordland's best short hikes, including stops such as the Mirror Lakes, the Lake Gunn Nature Walk and Monkey Creek. It's worth noting that the drive is narrow and winding. It is also prone to damage from flooding and slips, and can be covered in snow in winter. If you plan on driving to Milford, it's best to check the conditions before your drive and allow plenty of time and to drive carefully. Alternatively, consider leaving your car and taking one of the many day tours which go in and out every day - this way you can relax and take in all the sights. Most coaches will stop along the way so you have the chance to take photos and admire the scenery, others spend a little more time enjoying some of the walks.
Arriving at Milford you’ll be struck by one of the most recognized (and photographed) peaks in the world, Mitre Peak, with its sheer rock walls rising 5,550 ft directly from the sea. Under the water the mountains continue to depths of around 800+ feet. The fiord is dramatic.
The drive to Milford is a highlight.
There is a parking lot and wharf at Milford with cruise boats coming and going. Due to its accessibility it’s a little busier.
Fiord is narrow and dramatic
Easy day trip from Te Anau
Do not recommend doing a day trip from Queenstown (12hrs), however you can do a coach trip down and scenic flight back. You should, however, be prepared for the journey back to Queenstown via coach should weather preclude the return flight. This does happen.
Often referred to as ‘the sound of silence’, this fiord is three times longer and ten times larger than Milford. This majestic fiord has no direct road access. It requires an effort to get to Doubtful Sound (45 min stunning boat trip across Lake Manapouri + 1hr coach) however once there, you’ll likely be the only ones. Due to its isolation, it offers a real wilderness feel, which adds to its magic. Wildlife will be present in both Milford and Doubtful Sound, however, if you’re really wanting to see dolphins, fur seals, penguins and other rare wildlife such as the albatross, penguins, and whales, Doubtful Sound is likely to reward those who make the trip. It is home to one of the southernmost populations of bottlenose dolphins, so it’s not uncommon to see large pods of dolphins.
It is a very open and spread out fiord and equally impressive, just in a different way.
Requires around the same amount of time to get to via boat, then coach, then another boat
It has a real wilderness feel
Easy day trip from Te Anau
Guided multi-day walks are a wonderful way to fully immerse yourself in Fiordland. If you’re walking the Milford Track (5 days), the hike ends at Milford Sound with a boat cruise. The Hollyford Track (4 days) ends with an exciting helicopter flight over Milford Sound.
Fiordland comes with New Zealand’s nuisance, the sandfly. Be sure to pack insect repellent and wear long sleeves.
Short on time
Book a scenic flight from Queenstown. Note: The weather in Queenstown is often different to Milford. Scenic flights are regularly cancelled, therefore we recommend having some contingency time in place. We always book scenic flights on the first day you are in Queenstown.
For the ultimate experience, book a helicopter flight to Milford + cruise on Milford Sound and a remote alpine / glacier landing.
In conclusion, there are a plethora of ways to experience New Zealand’s fiords from kayaking to both day and overnight boat cruises to scenic flights. My advice: if you have time, see both. Maybe an overnight cruise on one and a day tour on the other. What I love about the overnight cruises is they allow more time which means the opportunity to see the fiords in different weather and light. When it rains you’ll be rewarded with hundreds of waterfalls, in the sunshine you’ll see first-hand why people come from around the world to spend time here.