Tears rolled down my cheeks. Usually my emotions are tightly closed. But today, it took millions of years in the making of a plot of Kiwi landscape to pierce the seal.
We didn’t just visit Milford Sound; we traced the green arteries in a small plane, landing at the most beautiful airport in the country. It was all part of the most magical four hours I was fortunate enough to spend on Earth.
Before you think of traveling like this as the world of the rich, these are extraordinary times. And amazing deals are being offered. A lovely little airline in Queenstown so desperate to get the Kiwis flying, its prices were cut almost in half.
And the 50 or so Kiwis lining up to check-in on a cool morning in Queenstown are proof that the offer is popular.
* Crazy promo: Hot air balloon in Queenstown is one of the most beautiful flights in the world
* The ‘best in the world’ tourist flight for just $ 99
* Kiwi attractions in Lonely Planet’s Wonders of the World
Milford Sound is a modern puzzle for many Kiwis. We all know it is there and has an earthly beauty. So, we’ve put it on our wish list for years.
Others may have visited in the last decade to discover the natural wonders that people overwhelm.
Before Covid-19, cruise ships rumbled away, there were queues of cars, tour buses and ferries. I visited late last year, and the sheer number of tourists juxtaposed against some of our greatest sights was staggering. And a little sad.
But now, mass international tourism has stopped and nature is back in the limelight.
And I will experience them all in the most spectacular way; by flights and cruises all within a few hours.
Our pilot, Karl, spent the morning clearing the ice on the plane and checking the weather. Milford is one of the wettest places on the planet, and this plane is a “cloud dodge” – in other words – he has to see where he’s going, or the flight won’t happen. Insider tip: make sure to have spare days, as flights can be canceled up to 50 percent of the time depending on the season.
We race on the short runway of Queenstown Airport and glide into the skies near Lake Hayes. We passed hot air balloons, with people in wicker baskets scrambling to take photos as we passed.
We turn above Coronet Peak, then head into the heart of the Southern Alps. It’s hard to appreciate the scale of the mountains in this part of the world, without flying between the hundreds of peaks.
We soon reach Mount Aspiring National Park, a vast wilderness of frozen wonders. Our pilots tilt the plane so everyone can see Mount Aspiring, the highest mountain in the country outside Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park. We passed a desolate valley the newest place Mission Impossible was filmed, where Tom Cruise famously flies his own helicopter in a daring scene for a high-speed chase.
We made a series of sharp turns around Mount Tūtoko, Fiordland’s highest peak, before the Tasman Sea was visible beneath a layer of clouds. The mountains here suddenly end in Alpine Faults and plunge into the sea, creating some of the most stunning scenery in the country. Our little plane shot under the cloud layer to reach the water, and at the mouth of Milford Sound, our pilot fell silent as he began to navigate us into a fiord carved into the ice.
We embrace on the right side of the mountains, past the tree-covered rock face that rises hundreds of meters from the water. We saw dolphins below.
The planes were positioned next to the hillside as we lined up for our short approach to Milford Airport, near the end of the fiord. It’s hard to know where to look: we have thundering Lady Bowen Falls to the right, majestic peaks to the left, and a small, dramatic airstrip surrounded by mountains ahead of us. I felt my emotions overflow at that beauty, and tears rolled down my cheeks.
We landed with a soft thud, and were then taken to the ferry terminal. The last time I was here the bus bay was filled with people. Today, they sit empty.
We were about five minutes away from our boat ride before a herd of Milford resident bottlenose dolphins began to ride on us, rolling on their sides so they could gaze at us.
Obviously very pleased with us, and not only delighted to see us, the dolphins began hopping so close they were almost reachable. This all happens when the sun shines over the 1000 meter high mountain, making the dolphins shine like a halo.
The panoramic views of Milford, thanks to glaciers dating back to the last Ice Age, carve out dramatic landscapes as they expand. Miter Peak, the highest on the fiord, is extraordinarily beautiful. The steep mountain rises up out of the water, 1.6 kilometers up into the sky, with clouds covering its peak – giving it an almost heavenly look.
Adding to the biblical vibe is a waterfall that appears to fall out of nowhere. After a big rainstorm, it could be hundreds that pour into the sea.
We drove to Tasman, where we saw seals and more dolphins. We parked the boat under a waterfall, and everything became wonderfully at one with nature as we were doused in a little bit of icy mountain dew.
The two hour fiord tour passed in an instant before we headed back to the airport aboard the Cessna Grand Caravan for our 40 minute journey back to Queenstown.
We took another route, this time exploring different mountains and a small village on the shores of Lake Glenorchy, before following Lake Wakatipu back to Queenstown Airport.
We slowed down our approach as an Air New Zealand jet hurtled over our left wing. Even though it looks small behind the towering mountains – we definitely look like a speck of dust.
We race down the small runway and stop – my mind has been desperately trying to find spare storage for the past four hours. These are, without a doubt, some of the best outings I’ve ever taken, and I want them to stick around in my brain.
We may never get the chance to experience this national treasure without the crowds again. Combined with a significant discount, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Do not miss.
Milford Sound Scenic Flights offers a A “fly-cruise fly” trip to Milford Sound is $ 389 per adult (usually $ 575) and $ 299 per child (usually $ 350). These include round-trip sightseeing flights, a two-hour ferry ride and tea, coffee and water on cruises. See: milfordflights.co.nz
Urgent: Flights are weather dependent, and are often canceled. Always leave a day or two spare, to avoid disappointment.
Almost there: Air NZ flies from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Queenstown with cross-domestic connections. See: airnz.co.nz
Jetstar flies from Auckland and Wellington to Queenstown. See: jetstar.co.nz
Travel writer supported by Destination Queenstown. This story was first published in July 2020 and has been updated.
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