South Island Road Trip: Te Anau and Milford Sound


One of the worst things about living somewhere, no matter how awesome or beautiful, is you never make the time to explore it. We felt this way in New York City, in San Francisco, and now in New Zealand. We'd been here for almost two months by the time Rob's parents came to visit, but we hadn't made it past our little corner of the South Island, withstanding a few business trips to Queenstown.


Knowing that we were about to have visitors gave me the perfect reason to plan a few getaways. Because we still had to take care of our canine and feline companions at our housesit, we were mostly constricted to overnight trips. Luckily for us, though, there's a ton to see in New Zealand about three hours away from wherever you happen to be, so a two-day getaway can actually be pretty incredible.

Mirror Lakes

Our first order of business was Milford Sound in the Fiordland area. Billed New Zealand's top tourist attraction, the typical excursion to Milford is an all day bus trip from Queenstown, followed by a two-hour cruise on the Sound, and the bus trip back.

TIP: Rent a car

If there are more than two people, this not only makes financial sense, but will guarantee a much better trip despite having to drive yourself.


Seriously, the bus trip looks like hell and makes it a super long day. We broke the trip up into two days by staying overnight in Te Anau and it still seemed like a really long drive. The other benefits of overnighting halfway is exploring Te Anau's lake, getting a headstart on the road so it's not as crowded, and beating the tourists to the boats.

TIP: Agoda seems to have the most competitive prices for NZ hotels

And if you get a unit with a kitchen, you'll save a ton of money on eating out.

Fiordland is known for being rainy and cold and it didn't fail to deliver when we arrived late afternoon in Te Anau. Luckily for us, the sky cleared in time for a decent sunset on the lakefront and also appeared the next morning when we woke up for an early start on driving. Yay!

Te Anau sunset

There are lots of stops you can make along the road (all clearly labeled, as is always the case in NZ), so allow yourself at least 2.5 hours to make it to Milford, especially since you could be stuck waiting 20 minutes for the one-lane tunnel or the sheep crossing.

Mirror Lakes

My favorite stop was The Chasm. Picture water swirling between boulders and cutting through rock on its furious descent downstream and you'll never question the power of nature again.

The Chasm

I'd prebooked a cruise for 11:15am, which is supposed to be a good time to avoid both the early morning fog and the tour groups that arrive en masse around noon. The company's recommendation was spot-on and we had a lovely, though windy, cruise on the Sound.

TIP: Check out local discount sites to save on your Milford Sound cruise

If you arrive without a reservation, prepare to pay $75+ per person.

We cruised with Jucy, which offers a 90-minute cruise, 10 minutes shorter than some of the other companies. To be honest, I'm not sure I would have needed the extra 10 minutes. Despite being one of the "cheaper" companies, I thought the captain offered a really informative commentary and didn't rush the tour, stopping at all the typical spots: the seals, Mitre Peak, and the waterfall. Unfortunately, we didn't spot any penguins, but the rain the day before did mean hundreds of waterfalls thundering down from the cliffs into the water.

Milford Sound, like so many other places in New Zealand, is the result of glacial retreat. Being in a small boat and looking up at the cliffs above you is supposed to be a surreal experience, but to be honest, it's a bit tough to comprehend size and scale in an environment where relatives are few. To give you an idea, this waterfall here is 105 TIMES taller than me!

Milford Sound waterfall


Lina in front of a Milford Sound waterfall

After the cruise and the subsequent sandfly attack, we started the drive back, stopping for a three-hour hike to Key Summit.

TIP: Always pack a lunch

Rob's parents made fun of us when they saw how many food supplies we had in the car, but by the end of the trip they understood. If you don't bring your own food, you'll either starve or pay $20 for a sandwich.

Key Summit is supposed to be one of the best day hikes on the South Island, but our luck with the weather had run out and the summit clouded over by the time we got there so we didn't see much. It was also a pretty tough hike, straight up for 1-1.5 hours, depending on your pace. In other words, not a must-do, but a nice way to get some sweat in when you've been sitting in a car all day!

Key Summit

With both the hike and cruise under our belts, we set off in search of home. Milford Sound was great to see, but it would pale to what was around the corner in our travels.

Lina with Lupine flowers

Have you been to Milford Sound?

Did it meet your expectations? Was it one of your must-dos for New Zealand? Share your thoughts in the comments!