My friend and I are travelling to New Zealand at the beginning of April and have booked a package through YHA including car hire and accommodation. I'm starting to look into planning our route etc and have been told that it will take 5 hours to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sounds. Also the cost of staying around Milford Sounds seems to be quite expensive so we were thinking of stopping there for the day and driving on. What is that side of the south island like, and why does it take so long to drive between places?
Just wondered if anyone had any suggestions re. driving around that area and if there's any cheaper accommodation at Milford Sounds (we're not really willing to pay $175 pppn for the YHA hostel there!!!)
The reason the YHA "hostel" in Milford sound is that expensive is that it isn't a hostel.
People (thousands upon thousands of them each day) go to Milford Sound for only one thing: to take a 40-minute boat cruise. They share the boat with hundreds of other people, with several other boats in the water at the same time, and a constant stream of people arriving and departing.
And then, at the end of the day when the masses have gone, only two vessels remain, both harboring a maximum of 60 people on board, to spend a nearly undisturbed evening, night and early morning on the water in this (as some people claim) most beautiful of places.
The YHA "hostel" is one of these two boats. (This one.) That's what you pay for. (Technically it's not even a YHA hostel, actually - just affiliated with. You'll notice this in things like having your dinner made for you, and not having to wash your own dishes.)
Personally, I wasn't all that impressed with Milford Sound (sacrilege, I know, but there you have it). However, since it's a "must do" thing anyway, _the_ way to do it definitely is to take this overnight cruise.
Now, if you don't want to do the overnight cruise, and don't mind playing tourist amidst the hordes for a day, I'd recommend not driving yourself at all. Just take one of the dozens upon dozens of tourbuses leaving daily from Queenstown or Te Anau. It'll cost you $150-$180 pp (less from Te Anau, though I don't know how much less), but that includes the cruise and prevents you from an exhausting and really really long day of driving, where you have to share the road with the aforementioned dozens of buses. Not pleasant driving at all.
Closest "civilization" to Milford you can find would be Te Anau. The YHA there is fairly decent, and you can probably survive staying there for a day, although there's absolutely nothing worth of any interest in the town itself. Expect restaurants there to be very expensive and crowded. (On the plus side, sublime walking in the form of the Kepler track is only half an hour's walk away from the center of town, and although you wouldn't do the entire thing, it's worth it just to walk for a few hours and back.)
As for the reason the drive to Milford Sound from Queenstown takes so long... Just look at any map. Milford Sound is in the "middle" of Fiordland National Park, which is an absolutely huge area, and nearly completely inacessible. For starters you'll have to go all the way south along lake wakatipu, fruther on to Te Anau, and then from there you'll head northwest to Milford. There's just absolutely no other way to get there.
Oh, actually, there's supposed to be an actual hostel on land about half an hour away from Milford Sound, but I haven't read a single positive reaction on that place, and I actually went searching for it (for I once thought exactly like you do now). There's also some sort of luxury lodge, but that's only for people who've walked the Milford Track...
I thought Milford Sound was great. We did a day trip from Te Anau, which included a ride 3/4 of the way down the sound on a small boat and then kayaking back, including paddling under the waterfalls. A school of dusky dolphins came and swam around our boats. I think it was about 150 NZ Dollars from Te Anau including transfers, and I thought it was well worth it.
We stayed at the lakeview holiday park in Te Anau which was fine and reasonably cheap - they have a backpackers lodge, cabins and holiday flats.