It’s a chilly morning where my breath guides me before the dawn of the day. In the distance I can see luminous mountains with the twinkling lights of ski slopes, and the darkness clings to the sky while the light slowly fights it off. I’m not one for mornings, but the excitement and cold had me pacing with anticipation. I’m waiting to get picked up in Queenstown by my bus tour for Milford Sound, a place that has echoed in my ears for years with a promise of extraordinary beauty.
While on a quick romp around New Zealand in the winter, I could squeeze in only a few days on the South Island based out of Queenstown. Milford Sound is located a short distance, but a long 4 ½ hour drive away. Without a car, it remains nearly out of reach for the fly by tourist. But luckily some companies offer day trips that leave directly from the hub of Queenstown. That’s how I ended up in the cold so early in the morning, waiting for my ride that would easily and comfortably deliver me to Eden for the day.
I chose Jucy’s coach and cruise tour, a company synonymous with backpacker travelers in Australasia and beyond. They offer a variety of price packages whether you want the luxury bus, economy bus or simply just the cruise (if you can organize your own ride there), they’ve got you covered. One of the benefits of traveling in the winter as well is that companies like this have great deals going, so it’s important to keep this in mind when planning and booking. They are professional and have lots of experience working with backpackers so they know our needs and wants, whether you are traveling solo or in a group. As I’ve only done this trip with Jucy, I can’t speak for the standards of the other companies, but was overall very impressed with the pace and offerings.
Luckily I was able to nab a coveted front row seat on the glass-roofed bus and enjoy a truly epic journey. The route started by winding around Lake Wakatipu with towering cliffs opposite, adding to the drama of the first light. A highlight of the tour was George, our driver full of kiwi good humor. He provided folklore of how the landscape came to be and history of the region. Interesting facts weaved with amusing legends helped the ride fly by rather quickly. There was also ample opportunity to kick back your chair and catch a few more z’s for those in dire need.
As the journey continued, the landscape changed and we were permitted several photo stops in some incredible places. It felt all a bit too surreal as a tiny person in a vast field etched with immense snow-capped mountains. A clear green tinted lake mirrored the heavens perfectly and steep forest covered hills that dove straight down into a gently flowing river. The warm sun started enticing steam from the frosted ground and it felt like we were walking through a screen saver or movie set. Suddenly it made sense to me why New Zealand was the perfect location for epic Middle Earth.
The narrow road continued winding by fern covered rock walls and another river flowed by with crystal clear blue water. Large boulders were still covered in frost, as were many things still untouched by the sun in this gorge we were driving through. Rock slides and avalanches make this road a treacherous one and due to dangerous conditions, it must sometimes be closed. Luckily for us, this winter day provided a perfectly blue sunny sky.
Then there’s the one-way drive through the dark tunnel that opens up on the other side to an awe-inspiring valley of gentle hills that the sun was starting to light up with vivid colors. Yet another incredible view on a road where they clearly never stop. You think I’m embellishing this story with flowery words and silly details? I assure you, this journey deserves all the wonderful descriptive words of beauty it can get because it’s just that gorgeous. And we hadn’t even arrived at Milford Sound yet.
When we did, we boarded the boat with 3 levels, offering a warm place to sit and eat indoors or an upper deck with the wind in your face and 360-degree perfect views. I went straight for the deck so I could watch us pull away and see the first powerful waterfall within a couple of minutes. Getting snap happy with my camera, I was also getting frustrated because my expensive and wonderful camera, which I normally adore, simply couldn’t quite capture the essence of sailing through the vast Sound. The shadows were far more prominent in the pictures while in real life it simply added to the drama of the towering mountains plunging straight into the emerald green waters.
And then I remembered, I travel for my own personal enjoyment and my memories are far better than anything I can capture on film and share with others. If anyone wants an amazing photo of Milford Sound, they can Google it. I wanted to be here, in this wonderful moment, taking it all in for myself. So I spent my time admiring the various exotic trees enveloping the mountains, some peering out over others. Noticing all of the tiny waterfalls hidden in the distance of the crevices of shrubbery. We’re told when it rains the rocky walls become a symphony of waterfalls unrivaled by anywhere else in the world. So basically, no matter when you come, sunshine or rain, you are promised some sort of surreal beauty.
As it was lunchtime and there was a Pita Pit on board, it’s easy enough to quickly grab an order and enjoy your food while admiring the views simultaneously. Healthy, filling, and delicious, I never get tired of customizing my order and was grateful they provide options for people with dietary restrictions such as myself. If you’re just after a snack, they have coffee and nibbles available as well so something for everyone really. They also have beer and cider on board and for the first part offer happy hour prices so it seems there’s no reason not to indulge and cheers with friends to the adventure of the day.
Another great benefit of Jucy’s cruises is the free hot tea, which felt quite necessary after getting wet from the waterfall they get super close to. There is a warning so it’s optional to stay outside, but I wanted to feel just how powerful this rushing water slamming down and spraying everywhere was. It’s also a nice reminder just how real everything is; that you are truly in this moment, because sometimes it feels as if you’re sailing through a dream of another planet.
For the last section of the cruise I moved to the lower front part of the boat, feeling the intense wind in my face but happily enjoying the views. As luck would have it, just after my arrival some others came too: dolphins! I had no idea dolphins even lived here and suddenly these magical creatures were swimming beside us, playing with the boat. Jumping in and out of the water, swimming on its back so we could see its smiling face through the pristine water. I couldn’t believe it, it must have been a sign from the Gods. “You’re in Heaven,” they said. “Bet you didn’t know that was in New Zealand!”.
And then like a dream, it was all over too quickly. Time to disembark and shuffle back onto the bus. The drive back was not as exciting, although the view was still pretty amazing before night fell and George continued to keep us entertained. Eventually, the darkness settled in and a movie about New Zealand culture was offered up to entertain the time away. It’s easy to relax and replay my new favorite images in my mind while in a comfortable warm chair. And then I was dropped off where I was picked up only 12 hours earlier, ready for dinner and bed. It was only one single day but now I have a lifetime of memories to cherish.