From Queenstown, it took the bus tour four hours to get to Milford Sound, reputedly the most visited tourist spot in all of New Zealand. The boat cruise, once we got there, lasted almost two hours, by which time we got a closer look at the majestic fjords that can tower out of the water almost 4,000 feet high. Unless you plan to spend the night at one of the very few accommodations there, this is all the time you can afford before boarding the bus to return. And herein lies the problem with these organized tours—the lack of freedom to explore, to linger and ponder the majesty of these geologic wonders.
Since it was winter, the sun hung low above the horizon and the peaks lay mostly in shadow. As the boat turned and positioned the sun to angle behind Mitre Peak, the effect was magical as if glimpsing a scene from The Lord of the Rings.
If you happen to arrive when it’s raining, which here at the wettest spot in NZ is quite often, you will obviously not be fortunate enough to experience Milford Sound in its picture-perfect pose, but you will be rewarded with perhaps a more spectacular sight—the production of hundreds of temporary waterfalls that come cascading down the cliff faces, as the following YouTube video shows:
Milford Sound and the vast area known as Fiordland surrounding it got their present form from repeated advances and retreats of glaciers that left enormous swaths of deep valleys in their wake. To the north are still the popularly visited Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. An aerial tour would provide the most spectacular visual evidence of the scale of geologic forces that have been at work to create this remarkable area.
We reluctantly boarded the bus for another 4-hour ride, but not before briefly entertaining an offer by an air tour operator for seats at half-price to fill vacancies. At $250 per person, we boarded the bus instead.