Milford Sound is a magical destination for families
With its towering peaks, cascading waterfalls and brazen wildlife, Milford Sound is a force of nature. It's also the perfect place to discover with your kids.
- April 2019
We almost miss them, distracted by the roar of a nearby waterfall – two large fur seals reclining on a flat rock bordered by looming cliffs, like old men watching the telly in a very grand living room.
Seconds later, the cruise boat PA system squawks to alert any would-be wildlife photographers where to point their cameras. My husband snaps a few shots before we are swallowed up in the sea of animal paparazzi. I knew we’d come across staggeringly beautiful views when cruising Milford Sound – one of New Zealand’s most spectacular attractions – but these intimate encounters with the wildlife are equally heart-stopping.
It may be one of the South Island’s most vast natural wonders but there is only one road into Milford Sound from the picturesque lakefront town of Te Anau – the main base for those wanting to visit this popular southland sight.
Although you can choose from numerous modes of transport (tour buses, minivan tours, campervans) for the two- to three-hour trip, my husband and I opt to self-drive The Milford Road – also known as State Highway 94. We have our one-year-old daughter with us and, being new to this parenting game, figure the ability to stop along the way may come in handy. And it does.We’re not even 30 minutes into the snaking drive when we need to pull over. It has nothing to do with an explosion coming from the gurgling bundle playing with her feet behind us and everything to do with the views. Soaring snow-capped mountains puncture puffy clouds and cast elongated shadows over grassy plains that stretch the breadth of the valley below. We need photographic proof. It’s so beautiful, it’s almost unbelievable.
Located on the south-west coast of the island in the Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound is actually a fjord. For those who didn’t pay attention in Year 9 geography, a sound is wider than a fjord and is formed when the sea floods a river valley, whereas a fjord is formed by glacial erosion and movement.Regardless, this famous fjord disguised as a sound brings in the masses, with tourist numbers predicted to top one million this year. Most visitors come for a daytrip and spend a couple of hours on a cruise boat before heading back to Te Anau or a little further afield to Queenstown (just under a four-hour drive away).
On the day of our adventure, I pack for every baby emergency I can think of and we end up leaving Te Anau by mid-morning, mindful that the high mountain pass is still closed and only due to reopen before lunchtime. Torrential showers and gusty winds resulted in its closure the previous day, so it’s safe to assume we’ll be sharing the road with a few tourists eager to cast their eyes on what is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.
There’s no use complaining about the wild weather because the thrashing rain and mighty wind makes Milford Sound what it is. If the wind was an introvert, the mountain peaks wouldn’t be so dramatic and if the rains didn’t fall, the grass wouldn’t be so lush and green.
Milford Sound is the wettest place in New Zealand, with an average of 182 rainy days per year, but this only elevates the experience. When it rains, the gushing waterfalls turn into falling blankets of white water and new, more delicate falls emerge, cascading down the towering limestone cliffs like coiled veins.
An hour on the road and we’ve seen double rainbows appear, disappear and reappear and driven through showers to emerge into blowtorch sunshine. Our daughter – who often sleeps in the car – is wide-awake and gazing out the window. We keep stopping whenever we can so the three of us can soak up this wonderful beauty over and over again. The scenery en route is so striking that even older kids will abandon the “are we there yet?” routine, mesmerised by what’s outside.
Being on the water, surrounded by water, is a truly immersive experience (pun intended) and that’s why cruising the fjord is the most popular activity to do here, with various tour companies departing throughout the day.
Our ship, Mariner, is huge and distinguished, and today there are hundreds of people boarding for the early afternoon scenic cruise. Unless travelling as part of a tour, seats are on a first-come, first-served basis, but since we’ve requested a high chair, we are assigned window seats and a table. It’s worth queuing up to get on board early to snag a window seat, as the views are what this cruise is all about.
We spend the next two or so hours staring out the window, munching on our lunch (you can pre-order lunch on some of the cruises and our ticket includes a buffet-style selection of hot dishes) and taking plenty of photos. My eyes are constantly darting in different directions, trying to take it all in. To my right, a misty cloud formation cloaks a towering cliff. To my left, a ray of sunshine perforates a collection of dark grey clouds and waterfalls spout on all sides. An hour into the cruise, my husband braves the outdoors and comes back soaked from rain and a nearby waterfall.
The ship doesn’t just putter through the middle of the waterway. Instead, it glides to and from the shoreline so that passengers can get a closer look at the waterfalls and wildlife.
Our daughter adores birds and dogs and it’s clear the lazy seals get that same tick of approval. She points at them excitedly and squeals so loudly that fellow passengers can’t help but laugh along with her. I soak up the views of the seals, the rain and my daughter enjoying seeing these creatures, straight from her bedtime storybooks, for the first time in her life.
As we turn to cruise back, the sun comes out as though a switch has been flicked, causing the water to glisten like black diamonds. The disembodied voice on the PA system explains that the water always appears dark because it’s stained by tannin, which flows from the forest into Milford Sound when it rains. The result is a bit like a two-layer cake – the top layer is the dark tannin-stained fresh water, while the bottom layer is ocean water. I don’t dive but fellow cruisers tell me it’s a great spot to view deep-sea life in shallow waters, thanks to the way the fresh water blocks out the sunlight.
On the return drive to Te Anau, a stop at Mirror Lakes is a must. The sun has won the afternoon battle and the wind has died down to a whisper, creating the perfect conditions to admire the mountains reflected in the water. I buckle my daughter into her carrier and we take the short stroll along the wooden boardwalk straight into that mirror view we were hoping for. The forest-clad mountains and bulging white clouds reflect perfectly in the lake, with only an infrequent ripple breaking the surface.
It’s our last stop before returning to town, so we linger, enjoying the peace and tranquillity. Our daughter has fallen asleep, missing out on this final view. We don’t wake her but vow to return again when she’s older. Milford Sound is a giant of a place with so much more natural beauty to wonder at.