Flying high to Milford Sound with Southern Alps Air

Nick (the pilot), Me and Rory with our little plane

If there’s one thing that you should put on your bucket list when travelling in New Zealand, then it’s a scenic flight from Wanaka into Milford Sound. We did our trip with Southern Alps Air and even threw in a scenic cruise around Mildford Sound for good measure too.

It was a beautiful autumn day when we arrived at Wanaka Airport. We were greeted by our pilot Nick who took us through the pre-flight safety briefing. There were 4 of us on the scenic flight, myself and Rory, and James and Val, a lovely couple from England, who were spending 3 weeks in New Zealand seeing the sights. I was really excited about going up in the plane. I was going to train to be a commercial pilot a few years ago, but a nasty snowboarding accident and the resulting concussion grounded me for 5 years, but the love of flying is still there and I especially love small planes. We were heading up in a 6 seater cessna so I was lucky enough to sit up front with Nick our pilot.

Lake Wanaka from the sky

Everyone was smiling when we took off and headed towards Milford Sound. We first flew over Lake Wanaka which is the 4th largest lake in New Zealand and in some places an impressive 300 metres deep (meaning that it’s below sea level!). The sun sparkled on the water as we flew over the lake heading towards Mount Aspiring National Park. Mount Aspiring itself is the largest peak outside of the Mount Cook Range, standing at 3,033 metres high. It’s Maori name Tititea means Glistening Peak.

Flying over the National Park was fantastic and it was quite amazing to see just how many glaciers, tarns (mountain lakes) and waterfalls there are, that most people would otherwise know nothing about. It was really beautiful and breathtaking and I found myself taking hundreds of photos of all the different things we flew over. Nick our pilot, was really knowledgeable about the area, and gave us a really good running commentary about the various things we saw. He could also answer all of our questions too which was great.

The flight from Wanaka to Milford Sound Airport was about 45 minutes. As well as Mount Aspiring National Park, we also flew over Fiordland National Park, hundreds of glaciers, ice falls, the Olivine Ice Plateau, alpine lakes, waterfalls, river valleys, rain forest, and even some of the Lord of the Rings locations too. I don’t think any of us in the plane wanted to land as we were all enjoying the scenery so much. The bonus of flying from Wanaka instead of somewhere like Queenstown or Glenorchy is that for one the flight is longer, and secondly you get to see Mount Aspiring and the National Park, which flights from other destinations don’t go past. This was by far the best part of the flight so I’m really glad that we did choose to go from Wanaka.

Entrance to Milford Sound which looks just like a bay

Milford Sound wasn’t fully discovered until 1812. The main reason for this is the entrance to the sound (which is actually a fjord) is very narrow and at first glance looks like it is a small bay. Captain James Cook actually sailed past but chose not to go into the ‘bay’ as he feared he may not be able to get out and would be pushed up against the rocks.  In 1812, a Captain John Grono was the first man to discover just how big the sound was, and named it Milford Haven after his hometown in Wales. Years later another Captain, John Lort Stokes, renamed it Milford Sound.

The airport at Milford Sound is tiny, and it is really an amazing experience to land amongst giant mountains with the water around it. Once we l;anded we headed to the road side to wait for the bus to take us the short distance to the ‘town’ and the wharf where we were to catch our boat for our cruise around the Sounds. Southern Alps Air sorted everything out for us so all we had to do was jump onboard and relax.

On the cruise around Milford Sound

The cruise lasted about an hour and a half and went right up the sound to the entrance and the open sea and then back in again to the wharf. We are completely spoilt in New Zealand, we have such breath taking scenery, and Milford Sound is no exception. The mountains rise steeply out of the water and tower hundreds of metres above the boat beneath. Again on the commentary on the boat we were told that they fall as steeply into the water and this is the reason that the boats can get so close to the edge. Towards the end the boat got close to one of the many waterfalls, and everyone up on deck enjoyed a light shower of water hitting the back of the boat.

The weather in Milford Sound unlike in Wanaka, was overcast with moody skies, this mad for some great photography of the area though so no one minded the slight chill at all. Once back on dry land Nick ushered us back onto the bus and back to the airfield. Taking off from Mildford Airport was as exciting as landing. Soaring up between the mountains and over the water.

On the trip back to Wanaka we took a different flight path, this time going past Glenorchy, Lake Wakitipu, Ernslaw and other Glaciers, Milford Track, Dart River Valley, Lake Loch Nagar, the Shotover River, and the Treble Cone ski area. It was great to get a different view on the way back and again Nick gave us a running commentary of the area we were flying over including history about the gold mining era. We even flew over Shania Twain’s massive ranch style house on the way back too.

One of the many glaciers we saw on the scenic flight

It was a fantastic trip and I really enjoyed it. Our pilot Nick was fantastic and the information he gave us was not only informative, but really interesting too. He was forever pointing out things that we might otherwise have missed. The cruise was great too and I really enjoyed it, although I have to say the plane journey was definitely the highlight for me. In comparison to other companies and for the cost of the trip, it was a really long flight, and well worth making the journey to fly from Wanaka instead of other airports. The drive between Wanaka and Queenstown, whether over the Crown Range or around the hills are both really beautiful, and being Autumn was even more colourful.

The Milford Sound Flight and Cruise Tour with Southern Alps Air costs $460 for adults and $275 for children and includes the scenic flights and boat cruise – allow around 4 hours for the return trip (Prices valid till 30th September 2012). For more information on this tour and the others they provide, or to make a booking, check out You can also phone them on (NZ Freephone) 0800 345 666 or +64 (0)3 443 4385 or email


Other photos from the trip:

On the plane

Me and Nick the pilot

Mount Aspiring

A glacier in Mt Aspiring National Park

Tarn (lake formed by a glacier) in Mt Aspiring National Park

Glacier and Tarn

Entrance to Milford Sound

Inside Milford Sound

Milford Sound wharf and 'town'

Milford Sound Airport

On the boat

Milford Sound

Seals in Milford Sound

Seal on the rocks in Milford Sound

Under the waterfall in Milford Sound

Milford Sound Cruise

Mountains in Milford Sound

Waterfall in Milford Sound

Flying over rivers and valleys

Beautiful cloudy sky


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1 Comment

  • Reply
    May 10, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Absolutely stunning!!

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