Great Drives from Queenstown: Milford Sound

Queenstown is close to 4 of the great drives and 3 national parks of New Zealand. Fiordland National Park, Mt Aspiring National Park, and Mt Cook National Park are all within a 4 hour drive of the Queenstown-Frankton Area. Given that we only had around 5 days in Queenstown, and unpredictable weather, we had to make some wise decisions about what drives we could do within the given parameters.  Ultimately we decided to do Milford Sound, Glenorchy, and Wanaka and call it a quits. Let me say that the possibilities of places to go are just limitless in this part of New Zealand, and so it is needless to say that 4 days isn’t nearly enough cover the area around Queenstown. Though I initially thought I would put all 3 drives in one post, I realized how big the Milford Sound post would be and split them up into 3 posts. Enjoy!

Introduction: Christmas in Hong Kong, and New Year in New Zealand
Cathay Pacific First & Business Class Lounge San Francisco
Cathay Pacific Business Class (Reverse Herringbone) SFO-HKG
The Conrad Hong Kong – Harbor View Twin Room
The Intercontinental Hong Kong – Harbor View Room
The Sights and Sounds of Hong Kong
Singapore Airlines Silver Kris Lounge HKG Airport
Singapore Airlines Business Class HKG-SIN-AKL
Arrival in Queenstown & The Rees Queenstown Luxury Hotel Apartments
Queenstown Day 1: Milford Sound
Queenstown Day 2: Glenorchy
Queenstown Day 3: Crown Range Road & Wanaka
The Hilton Auckland
Attractions in/around Auckland (Hobbiton, Mt. Eden etc.)
Emperor Lounge @ Auckland Airport (via Priority Pass)
The Park Hyatt Sydney – Opera View Deluxe King Room
Virgin Australia Business Class SYD-LAX

DAY 1: Te Anau-Milford Sound Road and the Fiordland National Park

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We woke up early the next morning to a clear, warm, and sunny day, perfect weather for a trip to the Fiordland National Park. Having relaxed the previous night, we were well rested and ready to tackle the long drive to Milford Sound.

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As you can see, the drive to Milford Sound is a rather long 3 hours 51 minutes from the Rees, Queenstown The round trip drive is not exactly for the faint hearted because it can take up the better part of the day. Many people just take the tour bus over to Milford Sound, but I despise those types of adventures because the tour operators never stop where you want take a picture. Furthermore, every time you do get a chance to take a shot, the picture itself gets really crowded with tourists.

Anyway the drive starts out on a windy road along  the spectacular Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables and slowly transitions to a more straight road between Kingston and Te Anau. It was surprising to find that there really wasn’t anyone on the road to Te Anau. I guess tourists really do prefer to take the early morning buses or the more expensive helicopters.

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The sides of the road were full of hills and rolled up piles of hay on picteresque countryside farms. However it was interesting to note that in contrast to the Swiss and other European countrysides, most of the grass was yellow or of a bit drier kind.

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Looking back down the road, we could still see the mountains around Queenstown, which were a good hour away now. As you can see the condition and design of the roads were very similar to the roads in the U.S and almost alwats had a decently spaced shoulder from Kingston to Te Anau. And so the transition to driving on the left was extremely smooth. The one annoying part was that there was absolutely no one on the roads and the speed limit was at most: 100 km/h, and a lot less in other areas.

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Along the way there were some really low clouds hovering over the hills and farms, which made for an awesome sight.

We stopped at a gas station in Te Anau, where we picked up some snacks and took a short break to stretch our legs. The attendant at the gas station gave us a map of Fiordland National Park and offered to book us one of the last available boat rides through the sound. Though I was a bit hesitant to go on one of these rides, I eventually gave in thinking that I might as well considering I came all the way here. Here is a map of Fiordland National Park with the highlights of the park underlined or boxed:

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Our boat took off from the Milford Sound marina at half past noon which meant that we really couldn’t make too many stops to take pictures on the way over. Instead I took a video of the drive from Te Anau – Milford Sound with Google Glass (yes, I had the Lord of the Rings soundtrack playing the entire way).

An hour or so into the drive, we finally entered the Fiordland National Park, and I pulled over for a quick picture by some mountains and a stream:

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The scenery only got better as we went along.

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We saw a beautiful glacier before entering the tunnel on the road; I do hope that wasn’t an indication of global warming :-). After driving down the other side of the mountains on a windy road, there was a parking lot at the end. And a short trail led from the parking lot to this iconic sight:

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We were finally here and words can’t describe how magnificient this view is when you first witness it. Take all the pictures you can here because this is by far the best view in the park.

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After a short walk further down the trail, we arrived at the port, where our tour boat was docked. Each boat takes a slightly different amount of time to complete the journey to the Tasmanian Sea so do your research and ticket buying before you start driving. I would personally skip the ride to be honest (I’ll explain later).

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Our boat was getting ready to depart so we hurried inside to pick up our tickets from “Real Journeys” and soon hopped on. The ride would be around 90 minutes, round trip.

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It was a beautiful day on the sound with just enough clouds to get some spectacular pictures. There was even a rainbow cloud in the sky (seen in the above picture).

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There were plenty of waterfalls along the way, though none were nearly as big as those we had seen in Norway.

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This low cloud was especially interesting considering the kind of day it was out on the sound. The rather windy conditions during the greater part of the ride meant that most of tour groups were inside the cabin. FYI: There is some food and drink on offer there in case you are looking for some lunch.

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We saw some more waterfalls, but unfortunately we didn’t get too close to any of them.

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By the time we were finished with the cruise, it was well past 2 pm and time for our journey back so that we would have sufficient time to cover the rest of the park. I took a moment to take a few pictures of the Sound and the picturesque footpath before finally saying my goodbyes. It was extremely windy at this point, hence no one ventured out onto the middle of this path.

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We were met with some more spectacular scenery as we drove back. The picture above was taken just before entering the tunnel on the route.

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Our first stop along the way was this field of vibrant Russell Lupin flowers, which made for some spectacular portraits and landscape pictures.

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And then there were the awesome Mirror Lakes, which looked just like the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. If there was a regret in this entire drive, it is that I didn’t stop here on the way to Milford Sound. The reflections on the Mirror Lakes were nice, but past their prime at this time of day :(. I guess you can’t have everything after all. 

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Farther down the road were what I like to call the plains of Rohan. As you can see everything just seemed straight out of the Lord of the Rings. I don’t think Tolkien could’ve thought of a better place for Middle Earth to be.

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Our journey through the Fiordland National Park finished with this beautiful view of Lake Te Anau near the Te Anau Downs. It was now time for the 2 hour drive back to Queenstown after a quick refueling stop in Te Anau.

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And as we took the road toward Queenstown from Kingston we were met with this absolutely clear and placid view of Wakatipu. And behind us was the beginning of the sun setting over the mountains of New Zealand. By this point I was beginning to get sleepy (probably from driving at 100km/h for prolonged periods of time :)) so I just pulled over and let my dad drive the rest of the way back. It’s always important to know when you are sleepy while driving on the left because our tendency as Americans may be to drift to the right.

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I enjoyed some more views of Wakatipu from the back seat. One of the greatest drives I’ve ever done was now over. 🙁

Bottom Line: The drive to Milford Sound is one of the best drives in the world and should not be missed if the weather is good. It can be a bit stressful for some to do it in one day, but New Zealand summers consist of long days, and an early start can definitely ensure that you get back before the sun sets.

My advice: skip the boat ride over the sound and spend more time at the other attractions and hikes in the region. It will not only save you some money, but a lot of time as well. The iconic view of the sound is really the best picture you can get of it, and the other attractions do a better job giving you a lot more photo opportunities. Besides if you are not more of a landscape photographer like me, your hair will be flying in most pictures on the boat. 

Next up: Glenorchy