Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound, South Island
Fiordland is a slice of nature at its best. This remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island is the country’s finest national park and covers 1.2 million hectares of wilderness, with mountains, vast swaths of untouched rainforest, and towering coastal fiords that were carved out by receding glaciers.
UNESCO awarded the region World Heritage Status in 1986, recognizing what they called its “superlative natural phenomena,” and the dramatic landscapes of Fiordland are just as awe-inspiring today.
This is an ecological wonderland of the highest order, and it sits at the forefront of New Zealand’s renowned conservation efforts, with several rare and endangered endemic species calling the region home. Whether you set off on one of Fiordland’s lauded multi-day treks or just come to cruise the magnificent scenery of Milford Sound, this stunning national park will surely be the highlight of your New Zealand journey.
For tips and ideas regarding unique sightseeing opportunities and the best things to do, be sure to read our list of the top-rated attractions in Fiordland National Park.
The Big Four Sightseeing Opportunities
The lakes and fiords are beautiful sights regardless of how you choose to see them. You don’t always need to embark on a big hike to appreciate the jaw-dropping scenery. Take a road trip, hop on a tour or cruise, and stop in to see some of the towns. You’ll find many interesting things to do along the way.
1. Milford Sound
Even in a country packed to the brim with majestic landscapes, Milford Sound stands out. The sheer cliffs of the fiord rise up from the water in jagged rock triangles, lushly carpeted in bush towards the water’s edge, with the supreme centerpiece of pyramid-shaped Mitre Peak-often brushed with snow on the summit-rising tall over the surrounding rock faces. The first European to see this scene was Captain Stokes, who sailed into the sound upon the survey ship HMS Acheron in 1851.
Today, this pristine and startlingly beautiful coastline remains unchanged from when he first saw it and still has the power to wow all who visit. A cruise trip around the fiord is a must and can be booked at either Te Anau beforehand or at Milford Sound itself.
A great option is the Cruise Milford NZ Small Boutique Cruise Experience, popular for their smaller, less-crowded (and somewhat more luxurious) vessel, which allows guests to get closer to wildlife such as fur seals, dolphins, and penguins. Other perks include great commentary along the way, as well as complimentary tea, coffee, and snacks. A number of kayak rental options are also available.
2. Doubtful Sound
First named “Doubtful Harbour” by Captain Cook in 1770, who sailed past deciding not to enter due to worries of whether it would be navigable, Doubtful Sound is the largest fiord in Fiordland.
Unlike Milford Sound, which can be easily reached by road, Doubtful Sound can only be accessed by water. Cruise trips start from the village of Manapouri, journey across Lake Manapouri, and then go over the Wilmot Pass by bus and arrive at Deep Cove to begin touring the fiords. Due to this schedule, cruises are either day-long or overnight options.
Doubtful Sound is a major wildlife spotting destination with the tiny islands scattered across the mouth of the fiord home to Fiordland crested penguins and New Zealand fur seals. Bottlenose dolphins are often seen in the water here, and whales are sometimes spotted as well-an especially thrilling site if you’re kayaking!
3. Te Anau
The mighty Lake Te Anau is rimmed by native forest with the snowcapped peaks of Mount Luxmore and Mount Murchison rising up in the background. Hugging the lake is the pretty settlement of Te Anau, often called the walking capital of the world. This is Fiordland’s main base, and the unhurried and relaxed charm of this tiny town (with a population of 2,000) beguiles all who make the long journey here.
About 171 kilometers southwest from Queenstown, the lake is the South Island’s largest and the second biggest in New Zealand (only beaten to the number one spot by Lake Taupo), and plenty of cruises and kayaking tours explore the lake’s gorgeous setting. Great day walks are also available in the vicinity for keen hikers who don’t have time to tackle one of the longer treks.
Just out of town is a family-friendly attraction, Te Anau Wildlife Centre, where you can meet the endangered Takahe bird, which was thought extinct until it was rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948.
Other fun things to do include visiting the Te Anau Caves, an ecologically sensitive natural wonder that can be visited via organized guided tours.
4. Lake Manapouri
Tiny Manapouri, on the shore of Lake Manapouri, 20 kilometers south of Te Anau, lays claim to being the most westerly town in New Zealand. Although Manapouri is best known as the gateway to Doubtful Sound, the town itself is a nature-lover’s paradise with a vast amount of boating, kayaking, fishing, and day-hiking opportunities to enjoy. Staying here for a few days to just revel in the unhurried charm and soak up the lake views is a must-do for travelers looking for a get-away-from-it-all experience.
The Manapouri Track is an excellent way to explore Fiordland’s drop-dead gorgeous native forest scenery, with both day hikes and overnights possible. Film fans will want to spend some time here to visit the Waiau River and Kepler Mire, locations that were featured in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.
Of interest to families, the Manapouri hydro station offers an interesting behind-the-scenes tour.