We spent a total of four nights in Queenstown and used it as a base to explore the many daytripping opportunities around Otago and the many national parks which are all within a few hours drive from town.
On our first day, we joined a day tour to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). This tour took us past several quaint villages across the southern part of the island, and into the western coast which has a much wetter climate. Again, we went with Great Sights. The bus picked us up from the hotel at 8AM sharp for the five hour drive. It was a very scenic drive as that morning was my first opportunity to see Lake Wakatipu in the day. We drove past the majestic Remarkables mountain range, into the town of Kingston. Our driver was especially enthusiastic and gave erudite commentaries on the notable landmarks during the trip. We passed by this extremely quaint town called Garston, with a population of only 106. Its known as the most inland town in New Zealand which does not really say much given that NZ is an island nation. What really caught my attention was the small number of people who live there – 106. I suppose it’s one of those towns where everyone knows each other. Having lived in big cities my entire life (Manila, San Francisco, Singapore), I entertained for a few seconds the possibility of spending a night or two in a town where it’s impossible to remain anonymous. But it disappeared not long after we left the town limits and passed by another (larger) town.
We stopped by Te Anau, which is another picturesque town overlooking NZ’s second largest lake. Apart from the scenery and nature trails, there was not really much to do there if one has already been through several lakes. Today, Te Anau is used mainly as a jumping-off point to places like Fiordland, which was our destination for the day.
one of the many valleys near milford sound
From Te Anau, it took around 1.5 – 2 hour drive to get to Milford Sound. We made a few interesting stops. The most interesting one was Mirror Lake which certainly lives up to its name. The still waters made for a great mirror-like reflection of the surrounding verdant mountains and blue sky. We also made a brief stop at Eglinton Valley to drink some water from the passing stream.
The entrance to Fiordland via the Homer Tunner was nothing short of spectacular. While the tunnel was nothing except for 1,270 meters long of darkness, what awaited at the end was a narrow valley that extended for miles. From here, it was only a few minutes til we reached Milford Sound.
We arrived at the cruise centre at about noon along with busloads of tourists. Our ship – the biggest among the lot – was there waiting for us to take us on an obligatory cruise around the Sound. Actually, one need not board the cruise to see the highlight which is Mitre Peak – which at 1,692m above sea level is supposedly one of the highest peaks to rise directly from the sea. The Peak can be seen directly from the cruise centre and I made a mistake not to take a photo immediately of it when I had the chance. The reason is because only a few minutes later the visibility deteriorated and it started to rain.
waterfalls in milford sound
Still, there’s an ongoing debate on whether it’s better to visit Milford when it’s sunny or during rain. Those advocating fair weather of course cite the photogenic qualities of blue skies and sunshine while those favoring rain cite the intensity of the waterfalls as a big plus. It of course depends on the person, but I would prefer on the former.
The cruise was about 1.5 hours long and went as far as to the Tasman Sea coast. Due to inclement weather and strong winds, the waters were a bit rough. The visibility was also getting poorer as the journey went along, which made it a bit more difficult to appreciate the scenery. Nevertheless, I could see why it’s one of the most photographed places in New Zealand and I could imagine how it may appear in fair weather. The day of our visit was just not one of the best.
Apparently, it was also possible to see dolphins jumping out of the water, penguins and seals but we didn’t manage to see any of these (again, probably due to the weather) except for the seals.
Tip: Take the Milford Sound cruise in the morning when there’s better chances of fair weather and you get to avoid the hordes of tourists (like myself) that arrive around noon.