The spectacular beauty of a day trip from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a northerner's wake-up call, writes Tess Nichol.
I'm an ardent North Islander who can count the number of trips south of Wellington on one hand but a trip to the Milford Sound has me questioning my priorities.
Even a five-hour coach ride could not dampen my excitement of seeing this "eighth wonder of the world" — I didn't even mind being largely out of cellphone service.
I would recommend trying to get a seat on the right-hand side of the coach. Otherwise, you'll spend most of the time craning your neck to see the view along the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu and cursing the heads of the American tourists in your way.
We set off shortly after 7am on a Saturday from just outside Queenstown's main centre.
It's early but surely not early enough to justify the number of people around me snoozing through the start of the journey.
An unscientific poll puts my count at about half the passengers at 8.24am. Madness.
How can they stand missing this, I wondered, my eager Auckland eyes wide to take in each new view of the Remarkables revealed with every turn of the road.
To be fair, there are six or seven hours of views to come, so maybe a short nap is acceptable.
Southern Discoveries has recently added coaches to their Milford Sound tours, meaning the coach and cruise packages are run entirely by one company.
This cuts out potential confusion of two operators when arriving at the Sound and boarding the boat.
The coach seats are comfortable, legroom more than adequate and the seats not too high, giving a more open feel than other coaches I've done long journeys in.
A tinted sunroof gives views to clear, brilliant blue skies.
USB ports and Wi-Fi is available on board, although I manage to chew through mine streaming songs in about 15 minutes. Whoops.
Our friendly driver/tour guide is Gabe Oldenhof, a former Rio Tinto Aluminium employee who took redundancy in 2012. Ever since, he's been driving coaches, a childhood dream come true.
A big man with a silver beard, tattooed forearms and drawling southern "r", he opens up after some initial wariness at being accosted by a reporter during our halfway toilet break in Te Anau.
"I used to make the purest aluminium in the world — and that's a fact," he tells me.
Oldenhof lives in Arrowtown now but in his Rio Tinto days it was just a holiday house, which would be visited from his home in "Invervegas".
"Me and my wife would come here every weekend and I'd see these guys driving coaches and I'd say 'these guys are doing my job'."
Not many people are lucky enough to fulfil such a long-held dream so late in life, he says.
Our 49-seater coach is full today and, although there's a translation service for six languages, no one has taken up Oldenhof's offer of headphones.
"They all wanted to listen to me, so that's great."
The landscape as we make our way along the 300km to Milford Sound is stunningly beautiful.
The journey is much faster by air but you'd miss out on spectacular sights along the way.
A gasp was heard on the coach as we exited the dense bush at the entrance to the Fiordland National Park to see our first glimpse of Eglinton Valley.
A ribbon of pink and purple snakes along the foot of the mountain — lupins, hundreds of them blooming pastel purple to pale pink.
We stop to take photos in the valley, which is between 500m and 2km wide with a shingle riverbed floor.
The hills are briefly alive with the sound of camera shutters; the picturesque scene a perfect selfie backdrop.
Next stop is the Mirror Lakes, which show mountain reflections in calm weather. A small but chilly breeze ripples the water, obscuring the reflection today.
The sky roof shows its true value on the downslope of the Hollyford Valley.
Narrow roads and high trees flanking the road obscure the tops of the glacial mountains — on the side at least.
But through the clear roof the tops are visible, with tall skinny waterfalls thundering down the rocky sides.
As we stop at the bottom to fill our drink bottles at Monkey Creek, a kea lands on the roof.
Its feet and fat body are visible through the sunroof, delighting passengers.
Oldenhof chases it away with a broom because it's doing what kea do — trying to peck the rubber off the coach skylight's frames.
We reach Milford Sound itself in the early afternoon.
Transferring to a boat, I eagerly anticipate the view I've heard about so many times.
There's a reason Mitre Peak is one of the most photographed landmarks in the country. It seems impossible something could be so big, and so old. It's a little overwhelming.
I was lucky enough to see Milford Sound on a clear and sunny day and the juxtaposition of the deep green, untamed mountains against the bright blue sky is truly awesome.
Two hours on the water flies by, including penguin-spotting, a hanging garden and a trip to a waterfall which includes an interactive element (i.e. getting very wet).
As much as the coach ride down was worth every moment, I'm relieved that today Milford isn't embracing its reputation as one of the wettest parts of the country, meaning we've got a clear path to fly back to Queenstown. Returning by air adds about $400 to the package, but at 40 minutes the plane journey is a good four hours shorter than the bus.
A swift return with spectacular lofty views. Talk about arriving home in style.
The Milford Sound Coach and Nature Cruise with buffet lunch and return flight costs $599, and $374 for kids. For details, go to southerndiscoveries.co.nz.