New Zealand is full of incredible landscapes, from mountain glaciers to fern forests. But even among this diversity, Milford Bay stands out – Piopiotaki for the indigenous population of the South Island. This striking bay, supporting the soaring 1,692m Mitra Peak, was carved by glaciers during the last ice age. About 10,000 years ago, the ice sheets retreated, leaving an almost uncanny mountainous landscape rising above the mirror-like surface of the fjord. Watching the amazing scenery from cruise ships sailing through calm waters, you will see the peaks rise like crashing humpback whales, isolating the bay from the outside world.
When it rains – a frequent occurrence in this corner of the South Island, the foamy cascades of waterfalls fall down and slow down to trickles. As the skies clear again, the Stirling falls and Lady Bowen falls provide a rainbow after-rain spectacle. To fully appreciate the scale of the landscape, you need to go down to the water level. Take a guided kayak trip or try diving as you explore the wonderful underwater world – a playground for dolphins, seals, penguins and octopuses.
How to get here
Tourist flights arrive at the tiny Milford Sound Airport from Queenstown, Wanaka and Te Anau, but the only airport with international connections is in Queenstown.
Several airlines serve Sydney and Australia’s east coast, but to connect to Asia and beyond, you’ll need to fly to Dunedin or Christchurch first.
Most people visit Milford from Queenstown or Te Anau as this natural wonder has limited infrastructure and places to stay other than the Milford Sound Lodge and cruise ship docks. Buses and tourist flights depart daily from both cities, making day trips a good option. However, many visitors prefer to travel on their own.
Set on the lakefront, the popular Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers hostel offers great views, with a choice of simple two-room suites or more expensive private rooms.
Rustic chic is the motto of Milford Sound Lodge. It has everything from impressive chalets to cozy common rooms, as well as stunning views.
Locals and tourists get together at the Sandfly Café. This picturesque place in Te Anau is famous for its morning coffee, hearty breakfasts and light lunches.
The Lakeside diner Public Kitchen & Bar in Queenstown makes full use of meats and produce from local farms. Come for a sumptuous dinner after a day trip to Milford.
Duration: 3 – 4 days
Since the bay is not accessible from everywhere, most tourists come on day trips from Queenstown or Te Anau, so consider a route that links all three places, leaving some time for adventure. Start with a couple of days in Queenstown by booking a day for rafting, paragliding, bungee jumping, canyoning or rock climbing in the fabulous countryside outside the city. On the third day, head out early to the bay and take in the stunning scenery both on arrival and along the route before overnight at Milford Sound Lodge. On the fourth day, drive to Te Anau, which also boasts stunning views of the lake.
Duration: 7 – 10 days
If you have a whole week, it will be strange to dedicate just one day to Milford Bay. The legendary Milford Track runs from Glade Wharf on Lake Te Anau to Milford Bay. The journey takes four days, during which you will pass towering waterfalls, high mountain passes plunging into glacial valleys, and small rainforests. Boats depart from Te Anau to Glade Wharf, but visitor numbers are tightly controlled and the route is quickly booked in a few days from the opening of the reservation for tourists every year. Then head to Queenstown for some food and festive mood, then continue the fun in Wanaka with a more humble lakeside life.
When to go
Milford Bay is known for its green and pleasant atmosphere – this is due to the heavy rains that fill the waterfalls all year round. It looks especially beautiful in December and January.
From June to August, the weather is drier, but the temperature drops and the waterfalls subside slightly.
The half-seasons from March to May and from September to November are a good compromise: fewer visitors, but still plenty of water.
Milford Bay receives an average annual rainfall of 6000 mm, which means it is one of the wettest places in the world.