Less than twenty-four hours after landing in Queenstown, we headed back to the airport for our 10 o’clock helicopter flight to Milford Sound – the most well-known of all the fiords in Fiordland National Park, part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Area.
For three of the four of us, this was the first helicopter ride of our lives and we absolutely loved it! Our pilot alternately popped above and dropped below the thin layer of cloud, so it was a pretty smooth flight. We took hundreds of photographs, doing our best to accurately record the green alpine lakes, winding rivers, steep mountainsides and jagged peaks as we flew southwest to Milford Sound.
After landing at the small Milford Sound airport, we had just enough time for a family photo before hopping aboard the shuttle bus for the short drive to the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal where several cruise lines have regularly scheduled departures.
Our excursion included a two-hour cruise, from the Visitor Terminal to the Tasman Sea and back. Along the way we spotted a major fault line, a small group of fur seals, lots of people out in sea kayaks, a few small planes, several other boats offering similar tours of Milford Sound and two impressive waterfalls.
Almost as soon as we came about to cruise back up the sound, the wind picked up. Discarded jackets started flying around and everyone grabbed their hats!
A close approach to Stirling Falls was the big highlight of our trip back towards the Visitor Terminal. The cruise companies must have an agreement that all boats will approach the falls from the same direction.
Overall, we felt the cruise was a little long. Since it was a “there and back” route, the only real highlight of the return trip was passing close to where Stirling Falls plunges into the sound. We’ve since learned that Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters offers another Queenstown to Milford Sound flight that does not include a cruise. Instead, the helicopter lands briefly on the beach at the Tasman Sea and there’s also a stop for a short nature walk near the Visitor Terminal. This probably would have been a better choice for us and just goes to show that you can’t do too much pre-trip research!
Maybe it’s because we spend so much time in the Canadian Rockies, including snowshoe outings and hiking in the snow, but for me, the absolute highlight of this excursion was landing on the glacier on Mt. Tutoko, the highest peak in Fiordland National Park.
And flying over the glacier after we lifted off for the final leg of our trip we enjoyed amazing views of the ice and snow.
We landed at the Queenstown airport just a few minutes past 2 pm, which gave us the rest of the afternoon to relax, do a little reading, and get our hiking gear organized for the next day’s excursion.
During the remainder of our trip, a few different people told us we should have visited Doubtful Sound rather than Milford Sound. I’ve only done a little bit of reading about Doubtful Sound, but I’m doubtful (sic) it would have been manageable as a day trip from Queenstown, as the cruise itself takes a half day (Doubtful Sound is 3 times longer than Milford Sound). But if you’re visiting New Zealand and interested in avoiding the crowds, it would be worth investigating excursion and cruise options for Doubtful Sound. If you’ve been to both, please leave a comment outlining your comparison of Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound.
PS – I really thought I’d re-establish my blogging rhythm by now, but it’s more elusive than I’d hoped. Maybe it’s reluctance to highlight the contrast between New Zealand’s warm, late summer temperatures and lush vegetation and Alberta’s apparently never-ending winter and 50 shades of dirty snow. It’s partly the daunting task of sorting through almost 20,000 photos to select the best ones to include in each post. And it’s probably partly because I’ve been working away at our personal income tax returns. Regardless, the boys’ schools are on spring break for the next two weeks. Before we left for New Zealand, we knew spring break would be mostly about catching up on missed school work. One of my goals for these next two weeks is to blog about all the amazing sights, excursions and adventures we enjoyed on the South Island. By remembering and re-visiting all those highlights, I will enjoy a virtual spring break – and I hope you will too!