Fiordland. This is undoubtedly the New Zealand you dreamt of. Towering mountains, seemingly bottomless glacial lakes, thick uninhabited bush, deep fiords off the Tasman Sea and multi-day hikes taking in all of the above make up the southwest corner of the South Island.
This is an area of New Zealand where one mountain runs into the next, which runs into the next, which runs into the sea. It's an area of unsurpassed beauty and will leave you with memories that will last a lifetime. Home to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, the multi-day Milford Track, dozens of day walks and billions of sandflies, Fiordland is an absolute must on your trip traveling in New Zealand.
Arguably one of the most awe-inspiring areas of both the South and North Islands, Fiordland is also the wettest area of New Zealand. They don't measure rain in inches or centimetres here, they measure it in metres. The 6 metres of annual rainfall (19 feet) doesn't keep tens of thousands of tourists away from Milford Sound each year and it shouldn't keep you from taking in the unspoiled beauty of the region.
Don't forget to get your accommodation booked before your trip. Check out Wotif for the best deals on Fiordland accommodation.
Destination Fiordland: Getting There
Fiordland encompases a huge portion of the southwest corner of the South Island - the vast majority of which is completely untouched. To the average traveller, Fiordland will consist of a trip to Milford Sound and maybe a multi-day walk and is likely be visited after having spent time in nearby Queenstown.
As the kea flies, Milford Sound is remarkably close to Queenstown - about 75 kms. Yet unless you're flying (which is a possibility), the trip to Milford by car or bus will take anywhere from 4-5 hours. And remember, like most drives in New Zealand, this isn't one you'll want to rush.
Destination Fiordland: Hot Spots
Be sure to check out any or all of these spots during your time traveling in Fiordland.
The Milford Road
The Milford Road begins in the Fiordland town of Te Anau which is about a two hour drive away from Queenstown.
Te Anau sits on the shores of New Zealand's second largest lake, Lake Te Anau. This glacial lake is over 400 metres deep at its deepest point and is a fantastic place to watch the sunset (assuming you don't get carried away by sandlies). Te Anau is the logical place to base yourself if you're setting off on a tramp in the area.
The Milford Road stretches 119 kms from Te Anau to the shores of Milford Sound - you'll want to allow 2.5 - 3 hours as this is without a doubt one of the finest drives in New Zealand.
The road cuts through thick bush, passes mirror lakes and towering mountains and runs along sheer cliff faces. There are a number of spots to pull off for photos and quick walks along the way - all are highly recommended. Not to be missed is the Mirrow Lakes pull off after about 60 kms and the Chasm Walk at about 110kms.
At about 100kms from Te Anau, you'll come to the Homer Tunnel. This 1207 metre long tunnel took 18 years to build and drops steadily into the stunning Cleddau Canyon. It's almost eerie driving through the tunnel in sheer darkness as water drips from the cut rock. You can only imagine what it'd be like running through the Homer Tunnel clad in only your running shoes and head torch (and yes, this happens once a year).
One of the most spectacular parts of the drive is at the eastern side of the tunnel. As you sit at what must be the world’s most remote traffic light, you realize you’re in a massive glacier carved amphitheater with towering, sheer rock cliffs on either side of you. It truly is spectacular.
Whilst this drive is arguably best experienced on a clear day, it's equally impressive to drive through during or after a rainstorm where thousands of waterfalls come down from the tops of the mountains.
Beware of snow in the winter, bus traffic jams in the mid morning and mid afternoon, and cheeky kea's hanging out on the western side of the Homer Tunnel.
Milford Sound village sits at the end of the Milford Road. This small settlement includes a pub, a cafe (with the worst coffee in New Zealand), a handful of accommodation options, a billion sandflies and is the jumping off point for a cruise on Milford Sound or the finishing point of the Milford Track.
Thousands upon thousands of visitors arrive in Milford Sound each year for all the right reasons - a cruise on the sound is one of those iconic New Zealand experiences you're bound to remember for the rest of your life. Cruising along the water between towering, sheer cliff-faces under the shadows of the spectacular 1,692 metre-high Mitre Peak is a once-in a life time experience. With any luck, you'll share your cruise along the sound with seals, dolphins, Fiordland penguins and the inevitable downpour.
The cruises all depart from the wharf visitor centre which during the busiest part of the day resembles an airline terminal. The majority of cruises all offer the same tour of the sound - a trip around the Sound to Bowen Falls, Mitre Peak, Anita Bay and Stirling Falls and most will nip out into the Tasman before turning around an taking you back to the Wharf.
The cruises are hugely popular, so it's recommended you pre-book prior to driving to Milford Sound. Each operator somehow claims to be better than the other - newer boats, more eco-focused talks, smaller trips, bigger boats etc - at the end of the day, book the tour that is the best for your budget.
Doubtful Sound is Milford Sound's bigger, more remote cousin. Until the last 10 or 15 years, only the most keen trampers or sailors reached the inner portions of Doubtful Sound. Along with a growing tourism presence in NZ, Doubtful Sound has been opened up to visitors - though is still only easily accessible on an organized tour.
It's an absolutely massive sound complimented by roaring waterfalls, thick bush, rugged often snow-capped peaks and far fewer tourists. Where the sound meets the sea, you'll find the impressive Nee Island with a native seal population. If you're up for a mission and keen to stay away from the crowds, a cruise on Doubtful Sound is for you.
The sound became significantly more accessible after the opening of the Wilmot Pass to facilitate construction of a power station for the aluminum mining near Bluff. From Lake Manapouri, a tunnel was dug to Doubtful and subsequently tour operators were able to provide tours to this new frontier.
As it takes a significantly longer time to get to Doubtful Sound, we suggest you base yourself in Manapouri or Te Anau. You can catch trips from Queenstown, yet it makes for an absolutely massive day which looks like this: Bus to Lake Manapouri, boat shuttle across the lake, bus to Doubtful Sound, followed by a cruise on the Sound. And then you still have to get back to Queenstown.
New Zealand very often claims to have the world's best of many things. The Milford Track is one of them and justifiably so.
Traversing the heart of Fiordland, the 53.5 km four-day Milford Track is often described as 'the finest walk in the world.' Trampers get to experience the most spectacular aspects of Fiordland, on the ground, in the bush and up close and personal with nature. Expect to take in deep lakes, fiords, thick bush, glacial carved canyons and dozens and dozens of postcard-perfect shots.
Expect lots of rain. Heaps. Bring loads of wet-weather clothes, plastic bags (or dry-bags) for all of your electronic gear and plenty of space on your DSLR's memory card.
DOC (Department of Conservation) limits the number of walkers that can walk the track each year. You must-pre book your huts and can only walk the track in one direction. All of the above ensures the best 'on-track' experience with fewer crowds and DOC huts not packed to the rafters. Find more details on the Milford Track on our Great Walks page.
The 60km, circular Kepler Track is another New Zealand Great Walk that start just outside of Te Anau and heads west to the Kepler Mountains. It's a three-four day walking route and passes through landscapes ranging from mossy beech forest, rocky mountain ridges, deep clear-blue lakes and deep gorges. Similar to other activities in Fiorland, be prepared to get wet and expect at least one day of rain.
The first day alone will take you above the tree line giving you panoramic views from a 12km alpine stretch of track. This track requires a moderately good level of fitness with climbs of up to 1000 metres and numerous stream crossings. Common practice has walking the track in the Luxmore, Iris Burn and Moturau direction.
Bookings are required during the peak season (25th October - 26 April) with huts costing $51 per night and campsites $15.30 per night. During the off-peak season, huts are $15.30 per night and camping spots are $5.10 per night.
Find more details on the Kepler Track on our Great Walks page.
Southern Scenic Route
We wouldn't suggest you do the Southern Scenic Route unless you have already found yourself in Te Anau (after having cruised in Milford Sound, for example). If you plan on heading towards the Catlins or Dunedin, it's a lovely wee drive that affords fantastic views of the edge of Fiordland on the way to the sea.
Leaving Te Anau, you'll head south to Tuatapere (stop in to the Tuatapere Sausage shop for some of NZ's best sausages) with great views behind of the often snowcapped Kepler Mountains. Within a couple hours you'll have passed Tuatapere and arrived at the mighty emerald green Tasman Sea. The road from here heads along the coast to Riverton.
There is a fantastic camping spot at Colac Bay (about 10kms before Riverton) where you can park up your campervan or pitch your tent directly on Colac Bay for free. Wake up to the sound of the surf before carrying onto Riverton and New Zealand's "Deep South."
Destination Fiordland: Final Thoughts & Recommendations
We can offer two well tested pieces of advice here, but we'll add three or four to make sure you have the best possible experience in Fiordland. One and two are crucial to enjoying your visit in this rugged and untouched area of New Zealand.
First, don't forget your rain jacket. Even sunny days with no chance of rain very often include a torrential downpour (or two or three). Don't let the rain get you down on your visit - odds favor it raining, and as we've mentioned the rain adds to the experience. The roaring waterfalls and the misty mountain tops are all part of the experience. Second, don't forget your bug repellent. The sandflies in Fiordland will make the most sane man crazy. Luckily, once you get out on the water in Milford Sound, you'll have escaped the sandflies and can take in the sound in peace.
One of the most fantastic ways to take in Milford Sound is obviously from the water. The view from the wharf is great, yet getting out amongst the waterfalls is highly recommended. The smaller the boat the better. This holds true for the cruise ships, but consider going on a guided tour of the sound in a kayak - we're not sure there is a better way to see Milford Sound (unless you're up for climbing Mitre Peak).
While you can catch a day trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown, we suggest you first spend the night in Te Anau. It's a lovely little town and makes for a much more enjoyable day when you're not coming all the way from Queenstown.