New Zealand: Milford Sound and Beyond
From Melbourne we were able to fly directly to Queenstown, in the South Island of New Zealand, to start our New Zealand adventure with Milford Sound.
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Our flight left really early in the morning, and we experienced one of the only crabby people we met on our trip, the check-in agent for our flight. Since we had flown from the US to Australia we had gone through customs in Sydney, which was disorganized and a bit casual, but New Zealand customs are no joke. The agent demanded to see proof that we planned to return to the US, in the form of our return ticket from Auckland, about 30 days later. Lucky for us, we had a printed copy of our flight reservations with us, otherwise we might have not made it on our flight.
Once onboard, it was a short hop from Melbourne to Queenstown and we arrived in the early afternoon. We picked up a rental car and made the short drive to Te Anau, our home for the next few days for our visit to the spectacular New Zealand Fjords, Milford and Doubtful sound.
Once you land in Queenstown, you feel as if you have landed on a different planet. The young, jagged mountain peaks rise up all around you, even as your flight is landing. As we started our drive, we were stunned by the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. Once we passed through the Queenstown suburbs, it felt like we had this lake and curvy road all to ourselves. It took about 2 hours to get to Te Anau.
Our hotel in Te Anau was directly across the street from another beautiful clear lake of the same name. Te Anau is a tiny, primarily tourist town surrounded by open land and farmers. It is the gateway town for thousands of visitors who come to see Milford Sound, from backpackers, serious hikers, package tour guests to independent travelers like ourselves. While we could have easily done a day trip to Milford from Queenstown like thousands of other folks do, we were really glad we got to spend a couple of nights in Te Anau to relax and get to know the town.
Milford Sound is still quite a journey from Te Anau, and we debated whether or not we wanted to drive on our own or sign up for a package tour. After visiting a couple of tour operators in town, we decided we would go ahead and book a bus tour for the next day, and we were glad we did.
We chose Real Journeys since they are the longest running company in the area. The bus picked us up in town early in the morning and we reserved premium seats, guaranteeing we had the front spot right behind the driver. The driver had been doing this same route for more than a decade, which made the tour feel almost effortless, like she was a friend who happened to just be driving a big bus.
It’s about a three hour journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound, so to break up the trip and make it a better experience, the bus stopped several times on the way there and the way back so we could stretch our legs and take in the beautiful countryside. It felt like we were stopping at the same places on a typical tourist journey, but it was great not to have to think about it and just relax and look out the window between spots. We saw the stunning, aptly named Mirror Lakes, and walked a short trail to peer into the Chasm, a deep rut of waterfalls and rapids. When we reached the Homer Tunnel, a dark, scary single-lane mile and a half tunnel about 10 miles away from Milford Sound, we were really glad we were on the bus. The tunnel is tightly controlled and on busy days cars have to wait for hours.
Once we arrived at Milford Sound we joined hundreds of other tourists coming to walk or to take a boat journey around the fjord. We were blessed with an absolutely gorgeous day, crystal clear blue skies that made the contrast of the blue water with the tall hills sticking out even more striking. Our boat sailed around the perimeter with ample time to stop and take photos of the landscape, the birds, and the waterfalls. We went to the edge of the sound where it meets the sea, and we could imagine the first sailors who explored the coastline in New Zealand in the 1600s, and what the rugged land looked like to them. Probably not too much different than what we were seeing.
All our tour guides told us that the sunny and warm day, especially in early Spring, was really unusual. Normally there is plenty of fog and clouds and you can’t see everything so clearly. It was definitely brisk, especially on the water, but the weather was definitely not unpleasant.
After a couple of hours on the sound, we headed back to our bus for our journey home. Most everyone was tired so we didn’t make too many stops, but we did get to stop at a place where the New Zealand Kea frequent. The Kea, native to New Zealand, are the only alpine parrot. They are very intelligent birds that have a reputation for pecking off the rubber gaskets on cars. Evidently if you leave your car parked too long the Kea will strip out all the rubber around your windshield. They do fly but tend to walk around a lot and seem to have no fear of people. Again, we were glad we decided not to drive!
Exploring Te Anau
Beyond our day-long adventure to Milford Sound, there was plenty to love about the town of Te Anau. The main part of town is just a small crossroads, with just enough small restaurants and shops to keep us occupied for a couple of days. One day on our walk back to our hotel, we saw a couple of baby lambs in the back of a truck and stopped to chat with the young woman working at a nearby kiosk. The young lambs were hers and she had brought them to work with her, so she could keep them fed during the day.
Just across the road from our hotel to the Te Anau Bird Sanctuary, situated right on the nearby lake. The sanctuary is free to the public, with a suggested donation, and is home to dozens of different species of native birds. We got to see and hear the pair of Takahe, an unusually stout flightless bird once thought to be extinct. The birds were rediscovered in 1948 and became the beneficiary of New Zealand’s longest running endangered species program. Now there are about 400 Takahe on the South Island.
We had one of our best meals of our trip at the Redcliff Restaurant. Even in the shoulder season, it was tough to get a reservation but we were so glad we did. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but our dinner was incredible – from our scallop appetizer, to our first taste of New Zealand venison, which is actually raised on farms throughout the area.
After our two nights in Te Anau, we left on the next part of our adventure – an overnight cruise on the Doubtful Sound – another trip with Real Journeys. For this trip, we had booked ahead before we left California based on some recommendations we found online. We left our car at our hotel and took a day pack with us, which was great since we didn’t have to deal with our luggage.
The trip to the boat was just as epic as the bus ride to Milford Sound. We started with a shuttle ride to our starting point, deeper into the woods, then boarded a small ship that took us on a 45 minute journey across Lake Manapouri. From there, we took a bus over Wilmot Pass that took us even deeper into the wilderness to the dock and our small ship and home for the night. As the bus descended, the driver stopped and let us take photos. It was an amazing sight.
The ship, the Fjordland Navigator, slept about 64 travelers and had a small crew to take care of our every need. It reminded us of an old-fashioned three-mast sailboat from the 1700s on the outside, but inside it was more modern and comfortable. It wasn’t luxurious but plenty nice for our overnight trip. Once we got to the boat, we were welcome to settle in and rest before dinner. Some more adventurous folks geared up and did some kayaking outside in the bay. It was probably spectacular but the weather was much more traditional than Milford Sound, foggy, drizzly and cold, so I stayed on board. Mark took a ride around the bay in a dingy and took some fantastic pictures of our boat.
Our dinner was a generous buffet with plenty of food, wine and dessert to go around. We sat with a lovely couple from Australia who turned out to be amaetur archeologists, having excavated a prehistoric snake over 12 years in their neighborhood. After our dinner, a scientist on board gave a lecture about the history of birds in New Zealand and a bit of a preview of what we might be able to see from our boat the next day.
At this point, we knew that there were a lot of flightless birds in New Zealand, more than just penguins, but we didn’t quite understand the extent and the history of the continent and how it was settled. New Zealand had no native mammals, only plants and birds. And because the birds had no native predators, they grew really big and quite a few species didn’t fly. Before man arrived, and later brought horses, cattle, sheep, and with them, other less useful creatures like rats, there were no mammals on the continent at all.
Some of the original New Zealand flightless birds, the Moa, were the size of large dogs and looked like today’s ostriches or emu. They must have been tasty because when the first people arrived from Polynesia, they pretty much ate the Moa into extinction because they were so easy to hunt. The descendants of those first settlers became known as the Maori and still form a large part of the New Zealand population. Most everything in New Zealand or Aotearoa has both English and Maori names and we learned a lot of both.
Our guest lecturer talked about many of the extinct and endangered birds and plants and we learned a lot to get prepared for the next day at sea. After a full day we settled into our cabin and slept peacefully in the calm and nearly silent waters. The boat sailed to the end of the sound and we started moving again in the morning.
Our next day was mostly overcast and cool, but we didn’t let that stop us from spending it outside. After a hearty breakfast we spent the whole day on deck looking at all the stunning scenery around us. While Milford Sound was spectacular, Doubtful Sound was even more special, since we were completely alone in the area.
Our scientist guide talked to us about what we were seeing as we sailed around, and made sure to alert us to different sights and birds along the way. We were thrilled when we spotted penguins in the wild a couple of times – first two fiordland crested penguins on the shore of a small island, eating and sunning themselves, and then a few hoiho or yellow-eyed penguins swimming and fishing alongside our boat.
At one point, our crew pulled into a cove with waterfalls and filled with birds, then cut the engine and asked us all to be silent for a few minutes. We all enjoyed the calm, peaceful sounds of the water and the birds, feeling a million miles away from our phones and the outside world.
After our cruise, our guides wound us backward on our epic bus, boat and shuttle journey and deposited us safely at our hotel.
We were thrilled with both of our Fiordland adventures with Real Journeys and would highly recommend visiting one or both Sounds during your trip. We were happy with our two boat adventures, but there are lots of ways to see the sights for people looking for something more adventurous like hiking, kayaking, flying in a helicopter or seaplane, or just by walking around on the nature trails along the town.
Technically, you could do a lot of these trips as day trips from Queenstown, and most of these tour companies will pick you up. But that will add 3-4 hours of travel onto your day and leave you exhausted. We’d definitely recommend spending two or more nights in Te Anau so you can relax, enjoy the outdoors and the town.
From Te Anau, we drove our rental car back to Queenstown and dropped it back off at the airport so we could relax for a couple of days without a car and explore the city.
Queenstown is not the most populated town on the South Island, but it sure felt busy, even in early spring. It is known around the world for extreme sports – bungee jumping was invented here, and people were lining up to try it all over town. Queenstown seemed to be transitioning from skiing season, with a couple resorts still open, to spring and summer activities.
The town is packed with hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars catering to its year-round tourists, and staffed almost entirely by non-New Zealanders. Young people under 30 flock to Queenstown from all over the world to live and work on a travel visa. Depending where they are from, they can stay up to 23 months so lots of people work for a few months in the tourist industry then travel until they run out of money then go work to work again. Queenstown is crowded with a strange combination of young travelers and older expats who have moved from overseas and settled in large homes in gated communities around the city, driving the real estate prices up.
During our day exploring Queenstown, we did a half-day jeep tour of the different Lord of the Rings locations in the area. We drove up and down lots of rough and winding roads and saw some amazing vistas over the town. We also learned just how much film magic Peter Jackson used to make the landscapes work for his movie.
That afternoon, back in town, we rode back up to the top of Bob’s Peak in the Skyline Gondola and explored some of the trails on foot and rode the family-friendly luge. It went a bit slower than a luge on snow, but was still a lot of fun. While we were walking around on the trails, we saw lots of hikers making the same 450 meter climb from town and hiking past us all the way to the top.
Queenstown is incredibly picturesque, with towering jagged peaks all around – the Remarkables among others – and a clear blue lake in the center. We were able to take a short ferry from our hotel to the town center and back. We loved the landscape and the modern amenities of the town, but it was a bit too touristy for our taste. If you are looking for a base on the South Island to visit and like to have modern conveniences and easy access to activities, it might work better for you. We would certainly fly in there again, but we’d probably skip out of town quickly the next time we visit.
Central Otago Pinot Noir
Just east of Queenstown is the Central Otago region, known around the world for its Pinot Noir. New Zealand Pinot has been one of our go-to wine list choices for years, so we were thrilled to be able to visit it firsthand. We had an excellent guide to take us around, Tania from Winesolutions Bespoke Wine Tours.
Tania picked us up from our hotel and stored our luggage in the back of her brand new Volvo and drove us out to visit some local wineries. We felt comfortable immediately, like an old friend had picked us up for a day trip. We chatted along the way and she got an idea of what we liked (reds, not whites) and she drove us to visit five different places to taste delicious wines.
We started in Bannockburn with the famous Mt. Difficulty winery with an incredible view of the surrounding landscape. We also visited Domain Road, Wooing Tree, Aurum and our favorite, Desert Heart. Desert Heart’s tasting room was a renovated storage container and the owners were delightful. Since we were going to be gone for so long, we didn’t buy much, but we did pick up a bottle of Desert Heart pinot to enjoy later on.
For lunch, we stopped in the tiny picturesque town of Cromwell. Cromwell was an old gold rush town that was mostly drowned by the Clyde Dam then rebuilt in the early 1990s. We had a surprisingly gourmet lunch at a little Italian place called Armando’s. We also tried our first sausage rolls, a local favorite that sounded disgusting but tasted delicious.
After an amazing day of exploring the area, Tania dropped us off at our hotel in Clyde, for the start of our next adventure, five days of biking on the Otago Central Rail trail.