As a rule, us Kiwis are a thrifty bunch. When travelling, we tend to scrimp on the expensive tourist activities in favour of roads less travelled and discovering new hidden gems.
For most of us, this makes perfect sense. Unlike our overseas counterparts, we are not limited to just a few weeks or months to cram in as much of our wonderful scenery as possible. Also, when you live on the road full time, while it might feel like a permanent holiday, you still have to be mindful of making your money last.
As a result, you don’t see many Kiwi motorhomers bungee jumping, cruising through fiords, or whizzing over mountains on scenic flights. We leave that sort of stuff for the ‘real’ tourists. But are we missing out by refusing to buy into the hype? We decided to find out by comparing experiences at one of New Zealand’s most top-rated destinations, Milford Sound.
Experience #1: 120km car journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound
Our first trip to Milford Sound was in 2017. I loved that the incredible 120km journey from Te Anau is in itself a destination. We drove alongside the stunning Eglinton River and spotted cheeky keas at the side of the road.
We visited the Mirror Lakes, Lake Mistletoe, the Chasm, and everywhere else the trip had to offer. The highlight was unquestionably Lake Gunn, which is accessed through a forest walk at Cascade Creek.
Upon arriving at Milford Sound, however, we were surprised. The scenery was indeed incredible but there was nothing to do unless you wanted to spend money on a scenic flight or cruise and we felt a bit let down.
It wasn’t a huge deal; we had already seen and enjoyed so much but there was no way we were spending hundreds of dollars when we had already experienced what had been an unforgettable journey for free. How could anything else possibly top what we had seen? We didn’t believe it could. So we did the short walks that were available and then made our way back down through the mountains to Te Anau.
Both there and back, we saw countless busloads of people being herded on and off from one place to the next, with just a few minutes at each stop. They didn’t even visit Lake Gunn!
In contrast, we could see whatever we liked for as long as we liked, for no more than half a tank of gas. We could have even stay overnight if we wanted. We felt quite smug that we had been able to see so much more for a lesser cost compared to the tourists. What we didn’t realise at the time was that there was more to Milford Sound than we could ever imagine.
Experience #2: Encounter Nature cruise
We got another opportunity to visit Milford Sound almost exactly a year later, this time with my son, Liam. This trip would be a huge change from his busy life in Wellington and I wanted to make sure it was unforgettable, so we booked an Encounter Nature cruise with Southern Discoveries. I figured the only way we would find out if the tourist activities were really worth it was to experience it for ourselves.
As we boarded our vessel, the Lady Bowen, I was surprised to see we were the only Kiwis. Upon sailing out of the dock, I was immediately impressed both with the ship and our friendly and informative skipper. As soon as we hit the water, I had to eat my words about ‘touristy things being overhyped and not worth it’.
Already, this was better than anything we had managed to see in our last visit. You cannot compare standing on the shore admiring from a distance to being close enough to touch it. There is so much more depth and sheer size to Milford Sound that you simply won’t see any other way.
We passed colonies of fur seals, lounging on the rocks, who waved lazily at us with their flippers, and got wet at Fairy Falls—one of the few permanent waterfalls at Milford Sound that actually has a name. The reason being that while there are numerous waterfalls streaming down the mountains on a wet day, they disappear half an hour after the rain stops.
This means you will never see Milford Sound looking the same on two days in a row as most of these waterfalls are completely unique. On we cruised, marvelling at our surroundings with each second that passed.
Eventually, the water became a little more choppy, and we reached the watery gateway to the Tasman Sea, where it was time for us to turn around. From this direction, it is difficult to see the entrance to Milford Sound. Captain James Cook sailed past it twice when compiling his map of New Zealand, completely missing it.
As we made our way back to the dock, the view was quite possibly even more spectacular heading in the other direction, sailing into the final two permanent waterfalls—the 146-metre-high Stirling Falls and the 160 metre Lady Bowen Falls—a landmark one that can be seen from the shore.
So how did our taste of commercial tourism compare with doing the same trip under our own steam? Quite simply, you cannot compare the two; the cruise wins hands down. The experience and value we got from Southern Discoveries far outweighed anything we had seen previously, and we learned so much, none of which we would ever have otherwise known.
Our advice to anyone thinking of seeing Milford Sound by boat? Just do it; you won’t be disappointed. In our opinion, it is some of the best money you can spend on a tourist activity and is worth every cent.
Tips for visiting Milford Sound
Bring your own food and drink. There is only one place to eat and although the food is delicious, it is quite possibly the most expensive cafe in New Zealand. Do your wallet a big favour and bring any provisions you need with you.
Use lower gears where possible. ‘Cooking’ your brakes is a common occurrence on the Milford Sound road. Local mechanics advise using lower gears where possible if you want to avoid the hefty price of them coming to rescue you.
Beat the buses. To ensure a smooth and enjoyable journey, it’s best to leave early and beat the crowds. Setting out from Te Anau before 8.30am or after 3.00pm gives you a good chance of missing the many buses that can significantly slow
Consider boarding kennels for dogs. Because dogs are not permitted anywhere in the area, we recommend putting dogs in kennels, at least for the day (there is one at Te Anau).
Take the time to enjoy. This journey is not one you are going to want to rush and there are many places you will want to stop along the way.