Milford Sound is arguably the South Island's number one 'must do'. The guidebooks even suggest flying to Queenstown or Te Anau specifically to 'do' Milford Sound if you are on a tight timescale (but perhaps not so tight budget). There are currently two schemes vying for permission from the New Zealand government (and vermently opposed by environmental campaign groups) to create new transport links to Milford Sound so that tourists can get from Queenstown to Milford in just a few hours, rather than the current 5 hour drive.
Though I'm sure there are valid arguments for and against, you do rather feel that any attempt to make Milford more accessible would then detract from the experience of visiting it. Part of the adventure of visiting Milford Sound is that it lies at the end of a long and winding road, that takes you on a journey through spectacular mountain scenery. Milford Sound itself is simply the pearl at the end of the gold chain, the culmination of your journey through a landscape forged by ancient glaciers.
The drive from Te Anau where we had spent the night (at an excellent backpackers / homestay called Rosie's) is around two hours, though fortunately we had allowed time for plenty of photo stops, as they were more than justified. We also stopped off to do the Key Summit walk - a three hour (well, two hours for Team Speed) return walk up the other side of the Routeburn track to a hill which gave spectacular views of the surrounding mountains from an alpine garden of plants and mosses. By the time we arrived in Milford Sound it was almost an anticlimax.
On the recommendation of a friend, we had splashed out and booked an overnight cruise aboard the Milford Wanderer. We boarded the boat just after 4pm, and drove out of the sound to seal rock, where there were about twenty fur seals sunbathing on the rocks. Once everyone had taken enough photos, we carried on round the Sound before returning to a sheltered bay, where we moored up for the night. Out came a small motor boat and a pile of kayaks - MizHB and I both opted for Spassky around the bay in kayaks. There were about fifteen of us who went out in the kayaks and we only lost one person to the water, so not bad going! A good incentive to keep paddling were the sand flies, who swarmed you if you stayed still for more than ten seconds.
Once everyone had been fished out of the water, dinner was served! Ate far too much, but I do have a weakness for apple crumble... We were only interrupted once, when some rare Fjordland Crested Penguins were spotted in the shore. Best seen through binoculars or telephoto lens! Finally we settled down to bed in our little cabin, with the gentle lapping of the water outside our porthole.
Breakfast next morning was at the early hour of 6.45am. The reason for this became clear as we started steaming out towards the mouth of the Sound, and as a glorious red sunset spread across the sky, most people abandoned their food temporarily in favour of going up on deck. We headed to the open sea, and did a loop around before heading back in. From the sea, it's easy to see how Captain Cook missed this inlet on his explorations round the coast - it was a Welsh seal hunter who eventually discovered it, and named it after the Pembrokeshire town of Milford Haven.
As we headed back in, we got more close up views of seals playing in the water and some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, including the famous Mitre Peak. Coming back into shore, we passed the day trippers going out on the boats and couldn't help feeling lucky to have experienced this beautiful, peaceful, wilderness at night.