I was going to condense our days in Queenstown, our arrival town, into one package but I realised that our first experience – a fly, cruise and fly to Milford Sound deserves a whole post to itself.
But first some background information and some tips for would-be travellers. Queenstown is expensive and popular. In fact, on our arrival date of January 1st, the entire town was almost entirely booked out. In a frantic search for accommodation months earlier, I heard repeatedly “Oh Queenstown books out a year in advance at this time of year” and “Good luck!” Within 100kms of this mecca for adventure tourists, there was nothing* to be found.
*Clearly there was something, as we didn’t sleep on a park bench, but the options were minimal and extraordinarily expensive.
This lack of accommodation meant that we had to change our original plan to drive to Milford Sound because we were unable to stay there either. As one of the main reasons for visiting Queenstown was to get to Milford Sound (NZ’s premier tourist destination), we had to think outside the box in order to make it there.
This is where the option of flying to the sound was sounded (get it?!) Although not cheap, by flying there we would effectively ‘saved’ an expensive night’s accommodation. And included in the price was the 2 hour cruise on the fjord which we would have paid for anyway. The long and short of it was, weather permitting, we now could visit Milford Sound even if we couldn’t stay. It was by far and away the best decision we made!
We flew with Milford Sound Scenic Flights and our plane was a small 9 seater where everyone got a window and I got to ‘co-pilot’. (Actually I didn’t do anything but sit in the co-pilot’s seat, probably much to the relief of the rest of the passengers).
The 40 minute route to Milford took us over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu and past some of the most spectacular mountain scenery you are likely to see. These flights only depart if the weather is perfect (for the return journey too) so you are guaranteed a breath-taking view.
The outward journey took us through the southern alps, coming so close to some snow-capped mountains, you felt that you could jump out and ski them. It took us over Milford township and down the Sound itself, turning at the coast and heading back to the landing strip at end of the fjord.
With no time to lose, we were whisked from airstrip to boat – the small Mitre Peak cruiser was waiting for us.
It was a great boat. The perfect size for getting up close and personal with the wildlife and the waterfalls.
I was initially skeptical that the cruise could beat the flight in terms of what it could offer. Surely it couldn’t get better than flying over such beauty from the air? I can tell you, this cruise certainly complemented it, adding scale to scenery and wildlife to wonderful.
One of the highlights was getting up close and personal to a pod of bottle-nose dolphins, who followed our boat for half the fjord, jumping playfully in and out of our wash. Also our boat came so close to a colony of fur seals, basking on a rocky outcrop that we could have prodded them with a stick. Note: I am not suggesting prodding animals with sticks.
But probably the most memorable and certainly most fun experience of the cruise was getting close to Stirling Falls. Not all tour boats are small enough to come close so I was pleased that our choice of fly/cruise/fly tour operated a smaller one. Captain’s announcements told us it was going to be powerful, windy and obviously wet. Put your cameras and phones away and just enjoy the experience of being pummelled with the spray from a 151 metre drop. (Even so, the photographer in me managed a few snaps before the spray got too much.) Our oldest was the only one brave enough to withstand the full force and I’m sure it will be an experience he will remember a life-time.
The return flight took us a different route and we got to take in yet more incredibly dramatic scenery, including more ravines, valleys and waterways.
It was such a truly breath-taking experience, I hope this post has done it some justice. I would recommend without hesitation, scraping some money together to do this fly/cruise/fly option as it was the highlight of our whole trip. Could the rest of New Zealand compare? It is only day 1!