The pilot banked slightly to the right so that we could get a better view of a glacier high up in New Zealand's Southern Alps. As he straightened the plane, I felt like I could almost reach out and touch the crisp, perfect snow just beyond the window. We were that close.
To say I felt like I was living the “lighting of the beacons” scene from Return of the King would be an understatement.
Milford Sound is the top tourist attraction in New Zealand — each year, hundreds of thousands of people make the trip to Fjordland National Park to cruise through this iconic landscape.
I've been to Milford before. Back in 2008, I booked a bus trip from Queenstown, which is the most popular way to visit Milford Sound. But it also takes the longest. Driving the epic Milford Road takes nearly 5 hours one-way from Queenstown. Add to that a 1- or 2-hour cruise of the fjord, and you're looking at a LONG travel day of at least 12 hours.
I'm not saying that it's not worth it — because New Zealand's fjords ARE amazing, and the Milford Road is extremely beautiful.
But I am suggesting that there might be a better way.
In addition to bus tours from Queenstown, you can book a flight to Milford Sound — yes, there's a tiny airport there, right within view of Mitre Peak. But flights from Queenstown can be expensive, and you fly the same route there and back (and, if you want to ride the coach one way, cruise, and then fly back, it's even MORE expensive).
So consider this alternative:
Fly to/from Milford Sound from Wanaka instead.
Liz and I got the call from Carla at Lake Wanaka Tourism at about 8:15 a.m. that the weather was going to be perfect for a flightseeing tour to Milford with Southern Alps Air — the only caveat was that we had to be at the airport by 8:30. So we threw on (not nearly enough layers of) clothing, grabbed some coffee and scones to-go, and darted to the tiny Wanaka airport.
Thankfully, many tours here run on laid-back “New Zealand time,” and so us being 10 minutes late was no big deal. In fact, we had plenty of time to hang out and get to know the other four passengers that were going to be on our flight that day.
We eventually boarded our tiny plane and got briefed on the plan for the day: we would be flying to Milford Sound over the awe-inspiring Mount Aspiring National Park, cruising through the fjord for about two hours, and then we'd be flying a more southerly route back to Wanaka. And we'd fit it all in before lunchtime.
Liz and I were both giddy about the views as we flew up close to Mount Aspiring and then over the glacier-clad mountains on the way to the coast. We had absolutely perfect weather for the flight: clear skies and calm air as we skimmed the mountaintops.
I was humming “Lord of the Rings” music in my head the whole time.
And then we got to fly 15 kilometers up the sound, from where it empties into the Tasman Sea to the tiny airport. The views? Incredible.
Once we landed, we headed to the Milford docks to board our cruise ship. Contrary to the reports you'll hear about Milford being “crowded,” there aren't actually THAT many boats. And, unless you are there in the height of high season, chances are the boat you're on won't even be full. Our cruise was on a smaller boat, with plenty of comfortable couches and chairs inside and plenty of space to stand outside to get great photos.
The captain of our boat enjoyed taking us not only UP to some of Milford's permanent waterfalls, but INTO them.
The cruise itself was very much like how I remember my very first Milford cruise: windy, chilly, sunny, and full of incredible vistas.
We lucked out with the weather — this part of New Zealand can receive upwards of 300 inches of rain per year, and there are usually more rainy days than sunny ones. But we landed one of the sunny ones, with the occasional wisp of cloud blowing in to create even more drama.
In Milford, you can usually expect to see wildlife, and that was definitely the case for us. We saw plenty of fur seals (also enjoying the sunshine), and even a couple of little blue penguins. No dolphins on this tour, though pods frequently can be spotted in the fjord.
The cruise lasted nearly two hours — but that wasn't the end of our adventure.
Afterwards, we headed back to our plane for a completely different flight over the Southern Alps back to Wanaka.
We saw the braided Dart River near Queenstown, more snow-capped mountains, and flew over neon-blue sections of Lake Wanaka and the Clutha River.
As far as experiences in New Zealand go, this one definitely ranks up there as one of the best!
And it all happened from Wanaka.
So, why is booking a tour to Milford Sound from Wanaka the best?
- You get to fly past Mount Aspiring.
- You get to enjoy a longer cruise at Milford Sound.
- You fly completely different routes there and back, meaning you get to see a lot more of the Southern Alps.
- The whole thing only takes about 4 hours, meaning you can do other things in Wanaka in the same day!
The tour I did — the Milford Sound Glacier Flight and Scenic Boat Cruise with Southern Alps Air — runs $490 NZD (about $370 USD) per person. I know that sounds like a lot of money to drop on a half-day activity. BUT, I honestly think it's one of the best value-for-money activities you can book in New Zealand.
And, if you're going to go to Milford Sound anyway, you may as well do it in style.
(Plus, it means you get to spend more time in Wanaka, too — and everyone should spend more time in Wanaka.)
So what do you think? Would a flightseeing tour to Milford Sound be on your NZ wish list?
*Note: I did receive a free flightseeing tour from Southern Alps Air. However, you can always rest assured that all opinions on this site are completely my own!
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!