Most visitors to Milford Sound depart from Queenstown via scenic flight, coach or a combination of the two. Unfortunately, in New Zealand, we are yet to have ‘wheelchair’ accessible coach options and the scenic flights that go in and out of Milford Sound are generally small fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Some of the larger planes have been known to accommodate wheelchair users but they are certainly not accessible. In true Kiwi accommodating style, there are always operators who will pride themselves on making anything happen. So, if you are really keen on a scenic flight, it doesn’t hurt to ask, especially if you are able to self-transfer and fold down your chair to take on the plane with you.
For those of us who rely heavily on a wheelchair, we need to organise our own self-drive option. The road from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a long stretch of road to take on in one day, 3 hours and 45 minutes one-way and that’s without taking in any stops. We opted to take a more leisurely approach to our trip to Milford and booked into Lake Te Anau for two nights, staying at the Distinction Luxmore Hotel on the main street. Lake Te Anau is a picturesque, relaxed town on a very scenic lake with the Fiordland National Park as its backdrop. The town is flat and all the amenities like the supermarket, bars and restaurants are nice and central. Te Anau is a half-way point between the tourist Mecca of Queenstown and the spectacular Milford Sound. There is a well-maintained lakefront walkway where you will find a floatplane and a helicopter enticing you to take a scenic flight. And plenty of picnic spots to take in the serenity of the lake with a takeaway or something you’d put together from the local supermarket.
Tip: Make sure you bring plenty of sand fly repellent – there is always an itch in paradise!Grab Your Wheels, Let’s Travel
We hired a customised mobility van with a drop-down hoist from Freedom Mobility Queenstown, they met us at Queenstown Airport and handed over the keys. The van sported great windows to look out of including extra windows high in the roof to maximise views. This is so important when travelling around this part of the country as you can take in the incredible mountain vistas all around you. We were given a van that suited our family, two adults and three children (one in a wheelchair). We even had plenty of room for our second wheelchair, the all-terrain Hippocampe. Freedom Mobility has a great selection of mobility vehicles to suit different needs including hand-controlled ones.
Waking up to catch our Milford Sound Cruise
Real Journeys recommended two scenic cruise trips for us, 11.00 am and 1.00 pm. We decided on the 11.00 sailing and decided to take our stops on the way back. We are not early risers so we made our departure time 8.30am. I would recommend leaving earlier if you can, so that you can take in at least one scenic stop along the way. We spotted the Mirror Lakes looking like glass as we passed, but hadn’t left time to stop off and check them out. On our return journey, the wind had picked up slightly, so the lakes weren’t showing off their stunning mountainous reflections!
Parking and the Milford Terminal
Parking can be found as you drive in. There are a couple of mobility parks dotted around but if you choose to park here you will still need to make time for a 10-minute walk or wheel to reach the wharf. The path starts with packed gravel then carries on along a boardwalk, finishing off on a covered concrete pathway. We did spot two mobility parks right outside the wharf so if you are pressed for time these would provide a good option. We did feel the positioning of them was not ideal as they are placed a little close to reversing coach traffic, and the curb cuts are further along in front of the terminal entrance. Other than these issues its good to know they are there if needed.
Entry onto the Real Journey’s Scenic Cruise
At the Milford Wharf Terminal, you will find an accessible toilet and an array of cruise ticketing desks representing the different cruise companies who are permitted to operate on The Sound. We picked up our reserved tickets from the Real Journey’s desk and boarded immediately on arrival. We were cutting it a bit fine due to the need to toilet our Finlay before boarding. The staff were very welcoming and were obviously ready for our arrival as they looked after us well. They boarded everyone onto the boat and had a descending ramp already waiting for us to manage the safety lip in.
Inside the Boat
The floor level that we entered on provided good access throughout with large viewing windows all around. The staff helped us find our ‘accessible’ wheelchair spot, which consisted of two areas where they had taken out a seat to create a space for someone to wheel into. These spaces were located in the middle rows rather than by the windows. Lunch is offered on the cruise which is usually pre-booked before boarding. The buffet is available on the next level down, accessible only by steps, it consists of a range of Asian style options. On the ‘accessible’ level that we entered on, we found complimentary tea, water and coffee plus a selection of sandwiches, chips, yoghurt, biscuits and muffins. As it was school holidays Real Journeys was putting on a special for the kids, free admission and free a picnic lunch. The kids were delighted with their lunch option and gave it a definite thumbs up! If you take the steps up to the next level you will find a licensed bar.
Tip: There are no shops in Milford so it can pay to pack your own lunch and refreshments for the day trip!Grab Your Wheels, Let’s Travel
My recommendation to scenic cruise operators: I personally think that as this is a ‘scenic cruise’ it would be preferable for wheelchair users to have a dedicated space next to a window. Or even a ‘pull-in’ area with the opportunity to access a good view point.
The Accessible Toilet Onboard
An accessible toilet exists but would prove a mission to access from inside the cabin due to a large safety lip on door entry. I felt it was good to include this in this blog just in case you were advised that there was an accessible toilet onboard. It pays to be informed about the accessible route so you don’t find yourself in an awkward situation. We asked the staff onboard if there was an alternative route just in case we’d missed something. The reply was one we hear often on our travels – ‘No, but we do have strong hands onboard who can assist wheelchair users over the lip’.
Things to see along the way
Incredible mountain peaks, that come right out from the sea with cascading waterfalls and home to unique New Zealand wildlife. The staff never seem to tire of what new encounter they could find on each cruise. Excitedly the skipper and nature guide will steer in close to examine the seals stretched out on a rock or the rare Fiordland Crested Penguins strutting along a rock face. You could even experience the thrill of dolphins following beside the boat. The stunning waterfalls are everywhere and the skipper likes to get you as close as he possibly can to taste the water spray tumbling down the huge rock faces. Visiting Milford Sound in the rain is equally as spectacular as having blue skies.
The Roof and Stern Views
You will find the majority of people who can manage the steps will head for the roof-top. The views from the top are pretty special allowing you to take in the enormity of the mountain peaks around you. The stern is where the accessible toilet is located which can give you some more outdoor vistas.
On Exiting the Boat
We waited until all the foot passengers had left before we disembarked because we needed the ramp over the safety lip.