The next portion of our whirlwind tour of the South Island found us in scenic Te Anau. We spent two days here so we would have ample time to explore Milford Sound. Similar to the Dolphin Encounter tour, we decided that we would make the most of our time there and packed our day to the brim with activities. Our planned itinerary began with a 5 am departure from our AirBnb in Te Anau.
We drove up the windy dark road into the mountains, through a long, dark, one-way tunnel, and down into Milford Sound on the other side. We had booked a kayak tour for 8 am. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the meeting point for the tour, we were told that the outgoing winds were too strong that day and the tour would have to be cancelled. After the long drive we were all a bit disappointed, but there was nothing we could do about the weather.
We had also scheduled a scenic cruise for 1:30 pm, but now it was 7:30 and we had nothing to do for the rest of the morning. The kayak tour guide was kind enough to recommend a restaurant at the nearby Milford Lodge where we could grab a coffee and get our minds working fast enough to process this unforeseen change of plans. This was really great for everyone else because I wasn’t in the best of moods after the long drive up in the dark. The coffee was good and it was nice getting out of the cold for a while.
After breakfast we headed over to the boat terminal to see if we could change our tour to an earlier time. At this point we were struck by our second setback: no one knew which company we had booked with. Fortunately there were only a handful of choices and it didn’t take too long before we found the right one, Mitre Peak Cruises. Luck was on our side this time and they were able to move us to the 11:00 cruise.
The boat we were on was much smaller than a lot of the other companies’. We had heard good things about Mitre Peak tours being smaller and less crowded, thus offering better views and photo opportunities without the crowds on some of the larger boats. The rumors were true, and we had great views of the mountains and waterfalls as we made our way down the sound.
Our first stop was to see a group of seals lounging on the rocks. Alana and I were slightly jaded to the experience, having seen seals up close and personal in Wellington and the Abel Tasman Track, but my mom and sister were absolutely enthralled by their first encounter with these big, rubbery blobs of animal.
After the seals we moved on to the first waterfall. The boat drove right up under where the water would be falling, if not for the wind blowing it out of the way. Everyone moved inside, just in case the wind suddenly let up, but even from indoors it was cool to see the falls curving in the wind as they fell, trailing mist down around the boat.
The mountains, which we hadn’t seen since the end of the Milford Track, were just as grand the second time around. We rode out to the end of the sound before turning around to head back. As we were making our way back, one of the guides spotted a pod of dolphins following us. They followed alongside and in the wake of the boat, jumping out of the water, just like before. These were bottle nose dolphins though, much larger than the dusky dolphins we had gone swimming with a few days before. Leaning over the edge of the boat, it looked like they were jumping close enough to crash right into the side of the boat. Our guide told us that it was pretty uncommon to see such a large group of dolphins, so in the end it was fortunate that our kayak tour was cancelled and we got to go on this cruise instead.
On the way back I noticed that no one was out on the front of the boat, so I went out to enjoy the view all to myself. I soon found out no one was out front because those outgoing winds that had cancelled our kayak tour were now whipping up some serous spray. I returned to the cabin a short while later, wind-burnt and soaked through, but it was totally worth it. Sitting out there by myself and taking in all of the surrounding natural beauty as we drove through the sound was a pretty cool experience.
It was a nice sunny day though, so it didn’t take long for me to dry off. And now that it was light out, we could fully appreciate the scenic drive back to Te Anau. We stopped at the Chasm, Gertrude Valley, Pop’s View lookout, and Mirror Lake on the way back. They were a nice way to break up the drive and soak in some more of the amazing mountain views before we left. Last but not least, no trip in the area would be complete without a stop at the legendary Miles Better Pies! Everyone, newcomers and semi-regulars alike, was blown away.