The Southern Alps and Fiordland Feature

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Fiordland National Park

Fiordland National Park

There is a reason Fiordland is considered a must-see destination. Prose, pixels, and paint all fail to describe Milford and its surrounding beauty. You simply have to experience the place yourself.

Encompassing more than a million hectares of wilderness, Fiordland is the country's biggest national park. About half a million people visit each year to see playful dolphins and rain forest-coated mountains, but most converge on Milford and Doubtful sounds, the park's stars. Don't worry—the park is massive enough to easily absorb the crowds. The scenery actually quiets them, too: entire boatloads of visitors have been known to just hush out on the water. Sand flies and rain (along with your job, breaking news, and the rest of the world) will seem like tiny nuisances when you behold Milford Sound, with Mitre Peak rising along the coast and waterfalls tumbling into the sea. I see the falls, said one returning visitor, and everything just falls away.

Best Time to Go

Spring and summer (October through April) are the best, but busiest, times to go. Still there are many opportunities to commune quietly with the park, such as kayaking, scuba diving, or hiking. If you only have time for a cruise, it is still well worth the trip; even the drive into Milford in itself is well worth the trip.

Park Highlights

Milford's Waterfalls. Milford Sound mass-produces waterfalls. Silver threads of spontaneous waterfalls join Bowen Falls' 520-foot drop. Torrents of rain cause lush green walls to spring leaks. Occasionally, fierce winds stop the flow and appear to push water back up the cliff faces. That's Milford's drama: lovely on nice days, spectacular on nasty days. A scenic flight will take you over Sutherland Falls, the tallest in New Zealand at 580 meters (1,903 feet); the only other way to see it is to walk the Milford Track!

Doubtful Sound. Doubtful Sound has all of the beauty of Milford, but it's less accessible and therefore less crowded and more serene. So if Milford's too hustle-bustle for you, arrange a trip to Doubtful, which will doubtless include a stop at its gateway, Lake Manapouri, and the enormous underground hydroelectric power station situated there.

Te Anau. This little town's restaurants, shops, and lodgings make it a perfect base for your Fiordland adventures. Situated on its picturesque namesake lake, it also has an excellent cinema/wine bar, which features the locally filmed Ata Whenua: Shadowland, well worth the ticket price. A short boat ride across the lake will take you to glowworm caves; it's a two-hour drive to Milford Sound and a 20-minute bus ride to Lake Manapouri.

Best Ways to Explore

Cruise the sound. Milford and Doubtful sound cruises run all day and include scenic, nature, and overnight trips. Most of Milford's daytrips get you close to a waterfall. Kayak on Milford Sound (guided or not) for eye-level views of New Zealand fur seals, penguins, and dolphins. For high seas adventure, charter a fishing trip in the Tasman Sea.

Walk the Finest Walk. New Zealand's most famous walk, the Milford Track, has been called the "Finest Walk in the World." Take the guided walk option if you want to stay warm and dry and have your meals cooked for you; otherwise it requires a bit of gumption and organization—and boat transport from either end—to complete the four-day track. The experience, which includes rain forest, glacial lakes, mountains, and several massive waterfalls, like Sutherland Falls (580 meters/1,904 feet), is worth the effort. There are other wonderful walks, including the 60-km (37-mile) Kepler Track, which is accessible from Te Anau. Sights along this four-day walk include the Luxmore Cave, beech forests, mountains, and rivers.

Scuba. The thick layer of rainwater, pigmented by forest tannins, that sits atop the sounds' saltwater filters the sunlight and simulates deep-sea darkness. And that means creatures of the deep in shallow waters. Scuba divers come here for uncommonly accessible glimpses of spiny sea dragons, sea pens, and black coral. If you don't want to suit up, visit the Milford Discovery Centre & Underwater Observatory.

Drive Milford Road. Most visitors drive to the park themselves, traveling the scenic Milford Road. Places to stop and enjoy short walks include Mirror Lake, which lives up to its name on calm days, and the Avenue of the Disappearing Mountain. And don’t drive past the Chasm walk in your haste to get to Milford Sound; it's worth the short walk (20-minute round-trip).

Tour Operators

By Air: Southern Lakes Helicopters has scenic flights that can take you right across Fiordland. Air Fiordland has a range of scenic flights on its fixed-wing aircraft to Milford and Doubtful sounds. Combined packages include cruising or kayaking. Wings and Water Te Anau Ltd. uses floatplanes to take travelers to inaccessible areas of Doubtful, Dusky, and Milford sounds.

By Land: Guided multiday treks with Ultimate Hikes require deep pockets but provide comfortable beds and a cook. Day hikes on either the Milford or Routeburn Track are available.

By Water: Real Journeys runs a range of combined bus and boat trips in and around Milford and Doubtful sounds, as well as overnight cruises. Southern Discoveries offers frequent daily cruises on its catamarans to Milford Sound that can be combined with kayaking and the Underwater Observatory. Rosco’s Milford Kayaks specialize in kayaking. Fiordland Expeditions arranges tours on its smaller boats, to the more inaccessible reaches of Doubtful Sound. Passengers can swim or fish along the way. Sea Kayak Fiordland has kayaking day- and multiday trips on Milford and Doubtful Sounds. Beginners are welcome.

One-Day Itinerary

Te Anau is a 2½-hour drive from Queenstown, so rise early and spend a full day in the park.

Morning

8–10: Have breakfast in Te Anau, and stop in one of the stores or cafés to pick up a picnic lunch, snacks, and drinks. Then hit the Milford Road.

10–1:30: Give yourself three hours or so to drive to Milford Sound. Take time for plenty of scenic stops, leg stretches, the Chasm Walk, and a picnic lunch along the way.

Afternoon

1:30–4: In Milford Sound, there are several companies offering two-hour boat cruises that leave hourly. Choose one that includes a stop at the Discovery Centre & Underwater Observatory. During peak season there are many large tours coming through that fill up the boats, so booking at least two weeks in advance is highly recommended.

4–6:30: Drive back to Te Anau.

Evening

7–7:30: See Ata Whenua: Shadowland at the Fiordland Cinema. This wonderful 30-minute movie takes you through parts of Fiordland National Park you wouldn't get to see even if you had a week to spend there. While you're there, have a glass of wine and a cheese platter.

8: Still have lots of energy? Grab a very quick bite for dinner, and catch the last boat across the lake to explore the glowworm cave. During the summer the last boat departs at 8:15. Or, save this for tomorrow and enjoy a leisurely meal in town.

10:30: You're a champ! Find a tavern in walking distance from your pillow and reward yourself with a pint. If you're too tired, then head to your bed. As they say in these parts, "Good on ya’, mate!" and sweet dreams.

Updated: 2014-07-10

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