Milford Sound – One of New Zealand’s Biggest Disappointments?

mitre peak milford sound

The more popular something is, the less inclined I am to enjoy it. Maybe I’ve always been a hipster at heart. Snorting with derision at anything popular. Or maybe I can never be satisfied by something with high expectations.

Expectations were the reason I couldn’t really enjoy Milford Sound.

All through our travels in New Zealand we’ve been hearing about the wonders of Milford Sound. People telling us we just have to visit. That it’s the most beautiful area of New Zealand. Magical. Amazing. Every positive adjective imaginable.

mountains near homer tunnel fiordland

Funnily enough the most beautiful place in New Zealand is the hardest to get to. First there’s the drive. A long road twisting its way along and through mountains. The only way in and out. Then once you get there, the only way to explore is via boat or kayak. The town of Milford is little more than a harbour for the many tour ships – the perfect tourist trap.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories – but could it be that you hear so much about Milford Sound simply because it’s so lucrative? The more people that say it’s the most beautiful place in New Zealand, the more people pay for boat tours. Easy money.

milford sound cruise boat

We fell into the trap. Originally we decided not to go – it’d be too expensive and the car wouldn’t make it through the mountains. But that thought kept nagging, what if we’re missing out? What if it is all that people say it is? Plus we may never come to New Zealand again, so it could be now or never.

milford sound

Eventually the pressure was too much. I buckled and booked us on a boat tour of Milford Sound followed by a guided walk afterwards. The next day we were up bright and early for the drive.

First stop, a reflective pool with the apt name of Mirror Lake. It seemed this was also the first stop for every other tour, so the most noticeable thing was how many people were standing taking a photo of what was a rather lacklustre view.

mirror lake fiordland

We jumped right back onto the mini-van and continued onwards, only stopping before hitting the large tunnel before Milford Sound. Enough time to spot some cheeky kea jumping on a car roof.

Then we were through the tunnel, in Milford Sound. The famous Mitre Peak towering over us. Looking out over the water with awe.

mitre peak milford sound

That’s how it was supposed to be. Instead, I just felt apathetic. That’s it? That’s Milford Sound?

People build things up so much that they give the impression that many places are akin to spiritual experiences. Something so out of the realm of normality that you’re changed by the place, or amazed beyond words.

Yet Milford Sound, at first look, was just as I expected. Giant pieces of rock. A large expanse of water. Everything you’ve seen in the postcards and photos. But nothing more. I realise now that before arriving I’d already experienced much of what Milford Sound had to offer. Huge mountains are all over the South Island. As are large, spectacular bodies of water. But more than that, I’d already seen so many photos that the place offered no surprises.

boat on milford sound

If you were to blindfold a person who has spent a whole year at work in France, then suddenly bring them to Milford Sound. The surprise would be enough to take their breath away. They’d be amazed because they’d have no expectations. Their only comparison to what they’re seeing would be France.

But when you’ve travelled for a certain amount of time, it takes a lot more to be surprised. You’ve seen mountains every day. You’ve been spoilt. Everything you see is in comparison to what you’ve just seen. Beauty is less impressive when you see beauty every day.

It ends up spoiling the experience. It’s like when you know how a magic trick is done. There’s no more excitement. You can see the sleight of hand and it no longer seems as magical.

tourist taking photo on milford sound cruise

So there was no magic to Milford Sound. Is it beautiful? Without a doubt. But is it any more beautiful than other places in New Zealand? Not really. Especially when you’re shoved on a boat with a hundred other tourists. All jostling from one side of the boat to another to see a seal. The whole thing is so organised that it takes away the adventure. The tour guide reads off the list of jokes memorised in his mind – the same jokes he told yesterday. The boat pulls in beside waterfalls right on schedule, soon leaving so another boat can pull in and repeat the process. Nothing unexpected.

rainbow waterfall milford sound

A few weeks before leaving Wellington, Jamie and I went on a road trip to visit the nearby Putangirua Pinnacles. Towering rock formations sculpted from the earth. They were impressive, but barely worth the trip there. As we walked back to our car, we spotted a family of quails running along the path in front of us. A few tiny chicks behind them. Jamie was delighted and later revealed she enjoyed that moment more than the pinnacles themselves.

bowen falls milford sound

It’s those moments that I’ve enjoyed most when travelling. The unplanned events that happen by chance. Things that happen without expectation or schedule. Everybody seems to think it’s more than that, but to me it wasn’t.

It was foolish of us to go on the tour. The simple act of going meant we wouldn’t enjoy it. We would get everything we’d asked for but little more. Milford Sound would look as we imagined it to. There would be no surprises.

milford sound glacier

But you’re wondering what there’s to complain about? You’ve seen my photos and you’ve no doubt also heard how beautiful Milford Sound is. You’ll go too. And you’ll find it’s everything my photos show it to be. But nothing more.

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