Guide to five phenomenal fjords in New Zealand’s Fiordland
Fiordland National Park has some of the world’s most beautiful fjords, a series of deep glacial valleys plunging from dramatic sheer cliffs into pristine waters.
NOTE: Don’t be confused, New Zealand’s fjords have been named ‘sounds’, and New Zealand spelling favours fiord over fjord.
On the untamed southwestern coast of the South Island (known by Māori as Ata Whenua or Shadow Lands), this remote mysterious wilderness is one of only two places in the southern hemisphere where fjords can be seen.
New Zealand's biggest and most remote national park, Fiordland extends over 1.2 million hectares (three million acres) and has hundreds of lakes, mountain peaks, virgin rainforests and 14 deep fjords carved out by the ice and elements over thousands of years.
Fiordland makes up the largest portion of Te Wahipounamu South Westland – a UNESCO World Heritage Area recognised for its outstanding natural environment. It also incorporates three other national parks – Westland, Mount Aspiring and Aoraki Mount Cook – a dramatic blend of alpine and coastal environments, and home to populations of rare and protected wildlife such as kiwi, the mountain parrot kea and curious takahe.
Rudyard Kipling once described Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world, and this 16km long inlet at the northern end of the park, opening to the Tasman Sea, is an iconic sight. Māori discovered the fiord more than 1000 years ago, and its surrounding land was prized for the beautiful pounamu (greenstone) that was carved and used as sacred ornamentation. With dramatic mountains – Mitre Peak rises almost 1700m vertically from the sound’s inky waters – thundering waterfalls, forest-clad cliffs and a plethora of wildlife (bottlenose dolphins, New Zealand fur seals, penguins), it’s an unmissable stretch of perfection.
Milford is the only New Zealand fiord that can be accessed by car – five hours from Queenstown or two hours from Te Anau. Take a day or overnight cruise, or guided kayak tour and or go scuba diving or fishing. The Milford Sound Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory, at Harrison Cove (accessible by boat only), provides a fascinating insight, and the chance to observe the fiord at a depth of 10m. It rains – a lot – here: wet-weather gear is recommended to best experience the sounds (and the spray) from the waterfalls on the deck.
Doubtful - Sound of Silence
On a rainy day, Doubtful Sound / Patea echoes with the splash of hundreds of waterfalls, tumbling down bush-clad cliffs, and when it’s fine, the sun sparkles off the gently rippling waters. It’s a giant compared to Milford – its three distinct arms stretch some 40km to the ocean – and is the deepest of New Zealand’s fiords, at 420m. Milford Sound will fit into one of these arms alone. To access Doubtful Sound, you need to cross Lake Manapouri before taking a coach trip along the vertiginous Wilmot Pass (670m above sea level). Once on the water, you are likely to be greeted by bottlenose dolphins, a resident pod whose spray turns into rainbows as they ride the bow wake.
Doubtful Sound tours start from Manapouri, which is two hours by road from Queenstown and 20 minutes from Te Anau. All up, the trip across Lake Manapouri, across Wilmot Pass and on the waters of the fiord, will clock in at about eight hours. You can experience the sound on a day or overnight cruise, kayak and scenic flight.
Dusky Sound/Tamatea is about as pristine as the 21st century comes: its geographical isolation has made it one of the most naturally intact stretches of New Zealand, a haven for vulnerable species and freshwater species. It’s rich in history, too: Māori hunted and fished here from the 15th century; James Cook and his crew spent a six-week sojourn in Dusky Sound in 1773. Today, as you enter the sound, you will be treated with an abundance of native wildlife – from dolphins to the occasional humpback whale – and some tours also offer tender links that allow visitors to walk along some of the world’s least trodden shorelines.
A trip to the southernmost fiords can’t be undertaken in a single day. The remoteness of these fiords necessitates longer travelling time, but it’s worth the effort. Cruise tours to Dusky Sound start at Manapouri, and follow the same route as the tours to Doubtful Sound, before venturing out into open sea and south to remote southern waters.
Breaksea Sound - small wonder
Slightly north of Dusky Sound, Breaksea Sound is another hidden gem that can’t be visited in a day. Dotted with islands, this sound can be explored as part of longer multi-day voyages that take in other remote fiords. This is another spot where you’re likely to encounter dolphins, so keep the camera ready.
One great way to explore Breaksea is via helicopter from Queenstown or Te Anau. Once there, you can climb on board a charter boat and cruise the fiord in style.
Into the Inlets - Preservation & Chalky
After an ignominious stint as the location of New Zealand’s first shore-based whaling station, Preservation Inlet (and its neighbour, Chalky Inlet) is now welcoming southern right whales back to its waters. Preservation – its Māori name, Rakituma, means “the threatening sky” – is the southernmost of the Fiordland National Park fiords, and was named by American whaling captain Eber Bunker in 1809.
The inlets can be visited as part of a multi-day boat tour that takes in the entire region. As with other southern fiord tours, these leave from Manapouri or Te Anau.
If you really want to disconnect, New Zealand’s Fiordland could be the perfect place to go – there’s no cell phone coverage in any of the fiords, but why would you want to SnapChat when you’re in the midst of such natural beauty?
About Fiordland National Park
For tour information, check out:
- Area of 1.2m hectares – New Zealand’s biggest national park covers 5% of land mass
- 215km of coast
- 3 Great Walks / multi-day hikes – Milford Track, Kepler, Routeburn
- 14 fiords, up to 40km (25mi) long
- 10 marine reserves
- Hundreds of waterfalls – annual rainfall is eight metres-plus (26 feet)
- Lake Te Anau is New Zealand's second-largest lake.
- Lakes Manapouri and Hauroko are New Zealand's deepest lakes.
- Milford Sound, the most northern fiord, is the only one accessible by road
- Milford has two year-round waterfalls: Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls.