From the photos that consistently flood my Instagram feed I can tell that it doesn’t matter what time of year you visit New Zealand it is always going to offer spectacular scenery. I have a soft spot for snow covered mountains (who doesn’t?) and a great love for winter so I knew my first time in NZ would have to be during ski season.
Taking a break from the slopes in Queenstown, I wanted to get out a bit and explore the landscape that makes New Zealand such a unique travel destination and see for myself some of the places that featured so heavily on Instagram. With only a short time to explore, we decided what better way to see the South Island in all its glory than through a trip to Milford Sound.
Winter in NZ comes with some pretty unpredictable weather conditions so when looking at the tour options departing from Queenstown, I decided to stick to the coach – cruise – coach option from Eco Tours. I had originally wanted to do a fly option however I wanted to avoid disappointment if weather caused any cancellations. Turns out this was a pretty smart option as we very nearly missed out on visiting all together due to the weather. The road to Milford Sound had been closed the day before our trip and the road closed behind us as we left. When the road closes there is no guarantee when it will reopen. An avalanche had not too long before closed the road for three months!
For our first few days in Queenstown we had picture perfect weather with gorgeous blue skies. This did not last however, and we found ourselves on our way to Milford Sound with grey and overcast skies making visibility quite low. This was obviously disappointing after having perfect weather, but one of the biggest positives with rain when visiting Milford Sound is that it brings out the waterfalls!
Our glass roof coach picked us up at our hotel as the sun was just sneaking up from behind the mountains and the temperature was dropping, leaving us standing on the side of the road freezing in the dark. It was nice to get onto the warm bus! Our journey would take around 4 hours passing through landscapes that would have us glued to the window marvelling at the New Zealand countryside.
We briefly stopped for morning tea at Te Anau before heading into the Fiordland National Park where we would make a few stops at some of the key tourist points along the road into Milford Sound. With such low visibility due to the weather, we did not get the full impact of the landscape as the enormous mountains that I have seen in photographs were hidden behind clouds. I didn’t feel as though the beauty was compromised but rather it felt like I was just experiencing a different version.
During our brief planned sightseeing stops, we made friends with the Kea Birds as they posed for photos and attacked the bus doors and rental cars. We also drunk straight from a fast moving stream some of the purest water sourced straight from the mountains.
The impact of Mirror Lakes was reduced as the mountains that are meant to reflect perfectly in the lake’s surface could not be seen. The short walk at The Chasm gave us a chance to stretch our legs as we walked past rushing waterfalls and curiously admired the strange, smooth shapes in the rocks that have been carved over time by the water.
My favourite stop however was the not so planned stop at the entrance to the Homer Tunnel. The tunnel is one lane and we got the red light meaning we would have to wait about 8 minutes for the traffic to pass through from the other side. I am not sure he was meant to, but our driver let us off the bus for one of the best photography opportunities I have experienced. It was like being in another world, and I literally could not comprehend the landscape surrounding me.
Once arriving at the boat terminal I prepared to be greeted by the craziness that you would expect from one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It was a pleasant surprise to see it was just us and 2 more coach loads of people who were to board our boat. That was it. While out there we spotted another tour boat (and a private moored yacht) but basically we had the place to ourselves. I think this is a major benefit of visiting in winter.
Milford Sound has two waterfalls all year round but due to the weather we experienced more than I could count. If the rain hadn’t stopped before we got on the boat we would have been surrounded by thousands of them. It was absolutely spectacular and when I look at my photos from the time cruising through the fiords they just do not capture the size of the landscape. It was so cold standing on top of the boat in the open air that my ears hurt and I couldn’t take my gloves off to take photos…it was icy wind!
Something that I found interesting was the water. It is both salt and fresh, so due to the amount of rain, the fresh water sits on top of the salt water. In my photos you can see the water is dark rather than the brilliant blue that New Zealand is known for as the dirtier fresh water dominates the usually clear salty ocean water. If you want to see what Milford Sound looks like with in the warmer months with blue skies and water, check out this post by Discovering New Skies.
While on our cruise through the fiords we saw plenty of seals lying about on the rocks and were lucky enough to be joined by a couple of Dolphins as we reached the entrance of the Tasman Sea. Truly an awesome experience!
Our journey back was long and I slept for most of it. It was sleeting and dark and I was very much looking forward to dinner and my hotel bed. It is a long day, leaving Queenstown at 7.30am returning at 8pm but well worth it.
The feeling that visiting Milford Sound gives you is like no other and it really is a place you need to see to truly understand its impact. I am interested to see the difference of visiting in a warmer month but there is something special about New Zealand in winter that I don’t think you can top.
Have you experienced Milford Sound? What is your favourite time of year to visit NZ?