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The Legend of Milford Sound

milford sound cruise

The Māori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahimeaning one single piopio, which unfortunately is now an extinct bird in New Zealand.

That happened a lot here. Many of New Zealand’s great birds went extinct after humans discovered the islands and introduced predators, ruining everything.

But back to the story.

milford sound cruise

There once was a great Polynesian demigod called Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga (try saying that 5 times fast) who left Hawaiki (the legendary home of the Māori before they came to NZ) with the company of a piopio, attempting to gain immortality for mankind.

If you haven’t already guessed, he failed. And died. Typical. I could have lived forever but NOOOOOO.


The piopio who was with him and witnessed everything is said to have flown to Milford Sound in mourning, giving the famous fior its name, Piopiotahi.

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

But besides that Milford Sound itself is legendary for so many reasons.

I mean, just look at it!

Supposedly Piopiotahi was carved out by Tu-te-raki-whanoa (remember, “wh” is pronounced as an “f” with Māori words), who was tasked with the great responsibility of shaping the Fiordland coast on New Zealand’s South Island. Hacking and hewing away at the high mountain rock with his ax, he worked his way north, getting better and better with each fiord.

Milford Sound, the 16th and final fiord, was his best and masterpiece.

But oh no, we can’t end there.

milford sound cruise

Watch out for bitchy goddess, Hinenui-te-Po, who released the sandflies, te namu (little devils), into Milford Sound to keep people away from such a beautiful place.

Moral of the story? Don’t forget to pack bug spray if you come to Milford Sound.

I can vouch that sandflies are actually little devils, and they definitely make my top 10 list of things I can’t stand about New Zealand. But if there is anywhere in the world I can tolerate being eaten alive, it’s Milford Sound.

I mean COME ON, just look at it! Well done Tu-te-raki-whanoa!

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

Driving into Milford Sound, out the front bus window. Not ugly.

My own discovery of Milford Sound took place on Christmas Day while exploring the South Island with Haka Tours. And my god, what a place to spend Christmas.

Geographically speaking, Milford Sound doesn’t look too far away from Queenstown, especially as it’s the “most accessible” of the fiords, but it’s actually a 4 hour drive away. Not exactly closeby.

However, Milford Sound is one of the top New Zealand attractions, and shouldn’t be missed – I can’t emphasize that enough. So it’s worth braving the sandflies and 8 hours on a bus in a day to visit it from Queenstown.

Though I don’t recommend doing it hungover.

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

The best way to see Milford Sound is by boat, and Real Journeys offers different boat and transport options from Queenstown. Two hours into the bus ride, I was beginning to feel human again (thank GOD), not to mention once you enter the national park, the scenery looks like something from another world.

Curative power of nature and what not.

Real Journeys has planned ahead and their buses have huge glass ceilings and the seats are shaped in a way everyone gets a view (but the best side in is the right) and there are plenty of stops scheduled in to enjoy the beautiful scenery on the way to the fiord.

Thankfully Milford Sound is gorgeous before you even get a look at the water, turning what could be a long unpleasant journey into one that you never want to end.

Now that’s magical.

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

I don’t want to give away too many secrets but if you come in summertime you’ll get to enjoy the fields of lupins, and wide valley landscapes signaling the beginning of the high mountains.

New Zealand’s Fiordland is green beyond imagining. Dense rainforest gives way to lush woods cut by glacial streams and waterfalls thundering down from the mountains.

Because it rains so much here, Milford Sound is famous for its moody weather and dramatic clouds. If you happen to visit on a sunny day, you’re very lucky indeed.

But don’t worry, that never happens.

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

But the best time to visit is right after heavy rainfall, like when we went. It was still mostly cloudy but it lifted enough that you could see the snowcapped peaks here and there, and when the fog rolled in and out, it created a magical, fairytale-like ambiance that made Piopiotahi’s rich legends seem real – I mean, come alive again.

While there are a few permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, after heavy rain you get hundreds of tiny temporary waterfalls snaking down from the peaks of the tall cliffs, giving the land an even more surreal feeling.

Are we in New Zealand or Avatar?

Seriously, I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that such a place can exist.

I mean just look at it!! AHHHH! (Sorry, can’t stop).

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

I’ve been to plenty of beautiful places around the world but none so beautiful as Milford Sound. I’ve not seen such steep mountains before, decked out with crashing waterfalls and green stooped valleys. Tu-te-raki-whanoa did a pretty good job with his axe, that’s for damn sure.

For a few hours you get to sail up and down the fiord, even out into the Tasman Sea for a quick jaunt.

Because of the steep mountain walls, the boat can get incredibly close to the rock face, giving you amazing views and letting you see just how steep and jagged the mountains really are.

The boat even heads right up to one of the biggest waterfalls, close enough you get sprayed if you’re standing on the front of the boat, which I highly recommend if only to watch the Asian tourists get drenched, endlessly amusing (sorry if that’s inappropriate – ignore me).

milford sound cruise

But perhaps one thing I found so fascinating about Milford Sound was just how rugged and wild the landscape really is. It does actually feel like you are at the end of the world here.

Because it’s so wet and green, trees have managed to take root and grow up and down the vertical cliff faces, all interconnected by their roots.

And if you pay attention, which hopefully will now that I’ve pointed it out to you, while driving around the South Island and especially in and around Milford Sound, you’ll notice huge patches of mountainside empty of trees.

This is what Kiwis call “tree avalanches” when one tree falls, it yanks all the ones connected to it with it sliding down the mountain, revealing the bare face of the mountain underneath.

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

Too cool right?

That is until you see one that goes right down the road and realized sometime in the not-so-distant past, a giant avalanche of trees and boulders buried part of the road.

Oh shit!

It’s moments like this when you remember where you are and JUST how untamed New Zealand really is.

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

Life’s about taking chances, am I right?

When I think back to how nervous I was to spend Christmas on an organized tour with Haka Tours in the South Island, I was afraid that I would be disappointed. What if I ended up spending Christmas sad and alone, on a bus somewhere with a bunch of strangers, wishing I was back with friends on the North Island? What if Christmas sucked?

My god, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I can’t think of a more beautiful, more special place to spend Christmas than Milford Sound with pretty much everyone from the Haka Tour group – it definitely made it incredible special and unforgettable.

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

While I had heard how beautiful Milford Sound was from everyone I’ve ever met who’s been to New Zealand, nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the sheer size, depth and raw beauty of it.

And while it’s one of the most popular places to visit here, it didn’t feel crowded or ruined by tourists, something that did sit in the back of my mind.

Because nothing would ruin a place like this quite like mass tourism.

milford sound cruise

But Milford Sound is so large and there are not that many companies running there, giving everyone who visits a true experience. The Real Journeys boat was large enough that everyone had space to move around on the different decks and see what they wanted to see.

In fact, they use the same boat for overnight tours of Milford. Where do I sign up?

As someone incredibly anal about getting the right photos and the right shots at the right time without everyone and their mother getting in the way, I am happy to report I didn’t have ANY problems both getting the photos and videos I wanted AND also being able to sit back and relax and enjoy the cruise without feeling crowded.

Something I couldn’t be more grateful for.

milford sound cruise

milford sound cruise

Milford Sound is the type of place that reminds you how small you really are. It’s the type of place that reminds you that there is still gritty, untouched beauty to be found in the world and it’s worth preserving.

Piopiotahi is the New Zealand you’ve imagined from books, movies and stories. If you come all the way to this side of the world, do not miss out on a such a legendary spot.

Have you ever been to Milford Sound? Is it on your wish list? Have you ever visited a place so breathtaking or so dramatically beautiful?

milford sound cruise

Many thanks to Haka Tours and Real Journeys for hosting me in Milford Sound. Like always, I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own, like you could expect anything less from me. 

54 Responses to The Legend of Milford Sound

  1. Hanara January 27, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

    Stunning, stunning photos Liz. Have not yet visited Milford sound but will certainly do so when the opportunity presents. Gorgeous! Understand your feelings towards sandflies – lovely creatures. They may be doing a good job of keeping the place untamed, but I often wonder what they get to munch on when people are not around!

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

      That’s what I thought too! Luckily it was too cold for them when we were there, and we were covered up too. Not a fan!

  2. Stef January 28, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    What a great way to celebrate Christmas, lucky you 🙂 I loved Milford Sounds, it’s so quiet even though it’s a touristy place, it so beautiful with all the mountains and waterfalls. New Zealand is seriously one of the most beautiful countries in the world, if not even the most beautiful…All your posts make my wish to go back there even bigger. I still have a working holiday visa left 😉

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

      then get down here! What are you waiting for?!

  3. Katie January 28, 2014 at 12:17 am #

    Beautiful! I didn’t make it to Milford Sound when I was in NZ. We did an overnight stay on a boat on Doubtful Sound instead, which was also stunning – it definitely wasn’t accessible, though in the best possible way! Because it’s so isolated, we had to take a bus from Queenstown, then a boat to another piece of road that was isolated from all other roads by water, where there’s a bus that can only go along that little stretch to Doubtful Sound. Like you, I was blown away by the surreal beauty of the place. We got to kayak on the perfectly flat water, and it was like being in another world!
    Thinking about how beautiful Doubtful Sound was with its sparse wisps of mist, I can’t imagine Milford Sound could be even more beautiful. I won’t argue with the legend, though!

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

      I really want to go there!

  4. Kaelene @Unlocking Kiki January 28, 2014 at 1:25 am #

    I love learning about the stories behind places. Here in Iceland there are so many sagas and I am loving learning about them in different areas we visit.

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

      I LOVE that about Iceland – still got a few stories coming out about it too – I have one on here about the Katla volcano 🙂

  5. Rachel of Hippie in Heels January 28, 2014 at 1:28 am #

    It’s beautiful! I also love going places just after rainfall, Goa is gorgeous during/after monsoon & no tourists come here! Such a shame!

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

      I have to go then – when can I visit?!

  6. Katharina @ 100 Miles Highway January 28, 2014 at 4:11 am #

    I had been to Milford Sound a few years ago… but nobody had told me about all the storied behind it! It still remains to be one of my favourite corners of the World.

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      me too! It’s got such a fascinating history, I didn’t even elaborate too much because I didn’t want to bore people!

  7. Dana January 28, 2014 at 5:12 am #

    We did the Doubtful Sound cruise on our honeymoon. Just unbelievable beauty that photos really can’t even begin to capture! Our boat even pulled close enough to the rock that we got under a waterfall. They handed out cups for us to catch the water to experience some of the cleanest water on Earth! Such a wonderful experience! We were also able to go right after it had rained so the mist and waterfalls were a plenty! Just completely indescribable. Definitely my favorite thing we did in New Zealand.

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

      I can’t wait to go back and hit Doubtful Sound!

  8. Trevor Huxham January 28, 2014 at 6:46 am #

    Beau-ti-ful. Wow. There are no words. This is the green, luscious New Zealand I’ve dreamed about for a while now. Thanks for the recommendations and the gorgeous pictures!!! (Glad you were able to get Your Picture When and Where You Want It, Dammit…I feel exactly the same when I’m in museums 😛 )

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

      me too, me too!

  9. Kayli Schattner January 28, 2014 at 7:57 am #

    Wow! These photos just stole my heart. What a beautiful place & fun adventure!

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      It really is the most amazing place!

  10. Andi January 28, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    What a stunning destination!!! Awesome pics!

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Thanks Andi!

  11. Laura P January 28, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    I’m turning green with envy! New Zealand, and Milford Sound in particular, is one of my dream destinations. Am hoping to make my way there next year. The rugged beauty of it reminds me of Iceland, one of the best places I’ve travelled to so far.

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      It really reminds me of Iceland too, and I’ve heard it looks similar to the Norwegian fiords as well!

  12. Lily January 28, 2014 at 10:40 am #

    The car ride from Te Anau to Milford Sound was probably one of the highlights of our holiday in the South Island a few years ago. We were absolutely gobsmacked by the beauty of the views along the way – the waterfalls, the lakes, the mountains and mist that seemed to linger amongst the trees. The cruise on the Sound was just as great. I remember the peace I felt as we approached Mitre Peak, then feeling the force of the waterfalls on our faces as we neared them. Most of all, our delight in seeing the faces of our 2 sons as they watched the dolphins bobbing on the water and swimming alongside our boat. We still talk about that special day when we have a break from our busy lives.

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

      that’s amazing, if I ever have kids one day, I want to make sure they have memories like that!

  13. Henry | @fotoeins January 28, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    I have fond memories of my daytrip from Queenstown to Milford Sound, also with RealJourneys! I love the photo of the purple flowers, especially the one in near focus. A very good and memorable way to spend Christmas, LIz!

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

      It really was!

  14. Jamie January 28, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    Ahh! I wish we had made it to Milford Sound. I was there December 2012. We also took Real Journeys — but thankfully they have a really great backup plan for when Milford is inaccessible. (The driver kept mentioning it approximately a thousand times, lol.) In “summer” (lol) it was about 37 F that morning, and there had been an avalanche/rockslide that closed the road to Milford. So instead, they trucked us off to Doubtful Sound. A bunch of other tour busses were headed back to Queenstown when we were heading off to Doubtful! So better to go elsewhere to another fiord than lose our money, right?

    It was a great bus ride, and even though I love looking at scenery, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Real Journeys bus had free wifi! (IN NEW ZEALAND?! What? Free? Unlimited? Huh?) I was finally able to catch up on email and stuff without using up my generous 8 MB/20 minute limit at our hotel. 😛

    I loved that drive, and our tour wasn’t too overcrowded either! I was really impressed with RJ overall — I’d take a bunch of their tours. We also did their Walter Peak tour across Lake Wakatipu on the steamship.

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

      woah that’s awesome! I can’t wait to go to Doubtful Sound too, they were great!

  15. Daniel January 28, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    I remember when I visited Milford Sound, on a dreadfully rainy day, three years ago. You’re so lucky to just see this wonderful place at all, let alone in somewhat clear weather! It truly makes you see how there are still so many amazing places out there to discover.


    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

      ah I guess you have to come back when there’s good weather 🙂

  16. Jen Seligmann January 28, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

    What a great post! Entertaining, inspiring and informative. I loved it!!!

    Can’t wait to get to the South Islands one day.

    • Liz January 28, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

      Thanks Jen, I’m glad you liked it, the south island is amazing!

  17. Amanda January 29, 2014 at 12:36 am #

    You probably won’t believe it, but I visited Milford Sound on an amazingly sunny day back in 2008! It was magical.

    And Real Journeys is great. I went on a day trip with them to Doubtful Sound three years ago (on a typically moody day) and it was phenomenal. You should visit that fjord, too!

    • Liz January 29, 2014 at 10:07 am #

      lucky! We have to go to doubtful sound too!

  18. Dustin@WeGoRTW January 29, 2014 at 7:52 am #

    Good to know we weren’t alone on the Sand Fly attack, we found the Routeburn trek to be spared from them but I don’t know how people who do the Milford Sound tramp handle it day in and out.

    • Liz January 29, 2014 at 10:08 am #

      sooooo not looking forward to that ugh

  19. Jennifer January 29, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    The Milford Sound is truly AMAZZZZING. I visited two years ago, it was a sunny day and I saw dolphins!! I really want to go back!

    • Liz January 29, 2014 at 10:08 am #

      lucky! We didn’t see dolphins that day but I’ve seen them in other places in NZ, it’s amazing!

  20. Chanelle Boshuizen January 31, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

    Breathtaking! I love to be in this place too. The photos are great but I just couldn’t imagine how beautiful it is in real. Thanks Liz for sharing this post. Will surely gonna visit NZ soon.

    • Liz February 1, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

      It’s even more amazing in real life!

  21. Laura @ RoamFarAndWide February 3, 2014 at 8:54 pm #

    Milford Sound was one of the highlights of my continuing journey around the world. I agree with you – it should NOT be missed.

    • Liz February 4, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

      It is just amazing!

  22. Ross March 13, 2014 at 10:16 pm #

    Great photos. I definitely agree it is a super spot. I did kayaking there and thought it was amazing. Pity it rains so much!

  23. Jennifer March 28, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    hi liz, i absolutely adore your blog. i am so envious of your travels!! i wish i had that much courage when i was your age to just get up, leave and go for it!! to the exciting unknown. you will definitely have no regrets later on. =) I just recently discovered it while researching for spain. i love your ideas of where to visit and i definitely want to include them on my itinerary. we will be going this september.

    Oh how i miss NZ!! i have always dreamed of going even way back before lord of the rings came out. i always thought it was a place that was soooo far away and out of reach, it might as well have been the moon! i finally went in 2005. i did have to keep pinching myself and squinting coz i couldn’t believe that this whole place can be so darn green!! my trip to new zealand definitely changed my way of thinking when it comes to travel and now knowing that nothing is impossible to reach or get to. my hubby and i did the milford trek hike and that was spectacular. it rained so hard on one of the days and we had to continue to hike through trails that were at least 2ft deep. we climbed to the top of the mountain (darn forgot what it was called) where there was still snow and freezing! then climbed down the mountain where it was soo lush and still so green (and much warmer for some reason). i couldn’t wrap my head around snow at the top and lush warmth at the bottom. oh well, it was an out of world experience…. we did the boat ride too at the end…

    keep on writing! i’m looking forward to more of your writing and experience.


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