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Writer Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) called Milford Sound "The eight wonder of the world". In the more than 100 years since he made this statement, many thousands of visitors have come to share his sentiments. With its iconic Mitre Peak (1695m), Milford Sound is the best known, and most visited, of New Zealand's many scenic attractions.
Situated in Fiordland World Heritage National Park, on New Zealand's rugged west coast, Milford Sound is the most accessible of the West Coast fiords, being the only one directly accessible by road. There are seven major fiords in Fiordland National Park; Milford, George, Charles, Bligh, Dagg, Doubtful, and Dusky. In addition, there are some minor inlets, such as Sutherland Sound, and numerous side fiords branching off the main ones.
Although named as sounds by Capt. James Cook and other early navigators, who obviously were not aware of the difference, Milford and the other "sounds" are true fiords, which are drowned glacial valleys, identifiable by their steep, almost vertical, sides, and great depth. A not so obvious characteristic of a fiord is a marked reduction of depth at the entrance, where the terminal moraine of the glacier was deposited. In contrast a "sound" is a drowned river valley or geological feature, normally having sloping sides, and a delta at the entrance.
It is perhaps understandable that Capt. Cook would not be aware of the difference, since there are few, if any, fiords in England and Wales. The later Norwegian sealers and whalers would certainly have known what a fiord was; however, by that time it was too late. In any case, 'Milford Sound' slips off the tongue better than 'Milford Fiord'.
In addition to access by sea, Milford Sound is accessible by road (Highway 94) from Te Anau, and by air from either Te Anau or Queenstown. The road journey from Te Anau to Milford Sound (120km) takes approximately two hours, and is one of the world's great scenic drives. From the air, the trip takes approximately forty minutes, passing Sutherland Falls (580m, 1904 ft) on the way.
Although playing host to over 400,000 visitors annually, Milford Sound has a permanent population of only 150, made up of staff from the cruise boats which take visitors on the sound, staff from the Milford Hotel (which is exclusively for the use of walkers from the Milford Track), and fishermen, who harvest crayfish (spiny lobster) off the Fiordland coast.
With the exception of Milford Lodge, which is essentially a motor camp / back packers, and the overnight cruise boats, there is no accommodation at Milford Sound. The closest accommodation is in Te Anau, 2 hours drive from Milford. There is also very little in the way of services. Fuel is available, but expensive, and there is a bar, and a small cafe. Fresh lobster can be purchased from the Fiordland Lobster Co. receiving depot in Fresh Water basin, behind the Milford Sound Airfield.