Milford Sound tops many travelers’ bucket list – and it’s not hard to see why. Trust me, no guide can fully prepare you for it.
Huge land formations rising sharply from the water, waterfalls diving from great heights and crisp ocean air filling your lungs. Milford Sound, described as the Eighth Wonder of the World, is a true taste of New Zealand.
You can explore the fjord in a number of ways. A Milford Sound cruise is one of the best.
In this travel article we will:
- help you select the best cruise
- show you the highlights of a Milford Sound boat cruise
- post some incredible photos of the fjord
About Milford Sound
Milford Sound includes all the reasons that inspired you to take that long trip to New Zealand.
It’s a unique marvel of nature formed millions of years ago. The fact that it remains wild & untamed until today, makes a day cruise in the fjord one of the best things to do in New Zealand.
Where is it located?
Milford Sound is located on the South Island opening out directly onto the Tasman Sea. It’s part of Fiordland National Park, one of the largest national parks in the world.
Framed by razor-edge cliffs, once a spiritual place for the indigenous tribes and later a popular outpost for fishermen and whalers, Milford Sound is a protected area at the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Did you know?
Māori named it Piopiotahi, after the extinct native Piopio bird. In 1812, however, Captain John Grono renamed it, after Milford Haven in Wales.
Milford Sound at a glance
|Location: Fiordland, New Zealand||Island: South Island|
|Highest Waterfall: 162 m||Max. width 1.94 km|
|Max. length 15.1 km||Max. depth: 291 metres|
|Official Website: Destination Fiordland||Weather info: Dept. of Conservation|
Is a boat trip the best way to see Milford Sound?
There are numerous ways to explore Milford Sound with the boat cruise being the most popular, especially amongst first-timers.
If your schedule is packed and you can’t spend a lot of time on each location, then hopping on a day cruise is the best way to see Milford Sound. It’s accessible to everyone, it’s relatively cheap and it gets you close enough to the unique wildlife and nature of the fjord.
Adventure Tip: Getting a boat trip is one of the few chances you will ever have to get drenched by a huge waterfall. Most tour operators get the ship’s nose right below one of them.
However, if you have the luxury of spending more than one day then you must try some of the other activities. Hiking (or tramping), diving, kayaking or even flying (if you have the budget) are some of the options.
What you’ll see in a Milford Sound boat cruise
A standard cruise will get you through all the major highlights.
Leaving Milford Wharf, you will slowly cruise up the left side of the fjord, past a number of waterfalls, hanging forests and famous peaks. Once you reach the mouth of the fjord and meet the Tasman Sea, the boat will turn and come back on the right side of Milford Sound.
Upon arriving at the docks you’ll feel the excitement setting in. After all, that’s the reason you drived all the way from Queenstown.
During the cruise, you’ll be surrounded by imposing limestone cliffs and huge waterfalls. It’s really worth staying at the deck as much as you can (I know, it’s cold and windy), to witness the pristine beauty of the fjord.
Can you spot it?
Lion Mountain, officially named Mt. Kimberley, looks like a lion crouching at about 700 metres above the water.
Next, you’ll find some of the highlights of a Milford Sound cruise.
The imposing Milford Sound waterfalls
What makes this remote corner of New Zealand remarkable are its waterfalls.
Seasonal rains and melting ice give birth to numerous temporary waterfalls, creating an unearthly sight. However, from all the waterfalls you’ll see, only two are permanent; Lady Bowen and Stirling Falls.
Bowen Falls #girlpower
The first and most impressive waterfall you’ll see is named after Lady Diamantina Bowen, wife of the fifth governor of New Zealand. Māori referred to it as Hine-Te-Awa which means the “river maid” or “the girl of the river”.
Originating from a hanging valley, the waterfall drops from 162 metres, making it the tallest in the fjord– a title only challenged by Stirling Falls.
And boy it’s powerful too!
Not only beautiful but also useful, it’s the sole source of electricity and water for the Milford Sound settlement nearby.
You can easily hear the thundering sound of the falls from the wharf; however, the best way to truly enjoy the sight is to take a boat trip. Make sure to stand on the deck as you are cruising by to feel its cold and refreshing glacier spray.
At the bottom of the falls, lies an unusual sight; the grave of William Ward Rathbun, a Canadian worker who took part in the construction of Milford Track, in 1894. Undeniably, one of the most scenic places where one can be buried.
Stirling Falls – feeling brave enough?
With a staggering 151 metres height, Stirling Falls is the second-highest waterfall in Milford Sound. The water drops from a U-shaped valley directly into the sea.
The falls were discovered by Captain Stirling in the 1870s. In Māori, they are called Waimanu which means “cloud on the water”. Being three times taller than Niagara Falls they are often shrouded in clouds & mist.
If you are a fan of Wolverine, you might recognize this waterfall, as it is the one that Hugh Jackman jumped off in the movie.
Time to get drenched!
Most boats sail right beneath it, so you can feel the true power of the water.
Ever stood below a 151-metre waterfall?
The captain announced that he would steer the front deck under the falls. Feeling adventurous enough, I went for it.
I still recall the sound of the falls, like a storm raging, only a few metres next to me. The sound became deafening as the water hammered me from above.
With tons of water falling on me, I looked up; it was literally dropping from the clouds. Even if I got completely soaked, it was totally worth it.
Did you know?
A Māori legend says that Stirling Falls makes you ten years younger! I certainly felt like a 10-year-old as I was getting soaked under the freezing water.
Palisade Falls – the #gueststar
There’s another waterfall on the fjord worth mentioning that nobody on the cruise talked about.
Yet, it’s so hard to miss.
Palisade Falls is quite distinctive due to its twisting S shape. It’s quite tall too, with its first section having a height of 55 metres, plus another 25 metres of the second section.
This one, however, does not appear unless the rainfall the previous days is pretty high.
Keep an eye for this temporary left-out waterfall and give it some love!
Fairy Falls & Bridal Veil Falls
There are two more magnificent waterfalls, appearing only when they seem fit to.
Fairy Falls can be seen for most of the year and it’s also one of the stops of the nature cruises. Get ready to fill up a glass with pure glacial water and drink it!
On the other hand, Bridal Veil Falls, are shyer and a lot smaller.
Both of them can be seen hanging out together after extended period of rainfall.
Mitre Peak – a record holder
No visit to Milford sound is complete without setting eyes on the iconic Mitre Peak – the most photographed peak in South Island.
Rising sharply above sea level at 1.692 metres, Mitre Peak is often mistaken for having one peak.
A better look will reveal five peaks grouped around a single arrow-headed summit, like a bishop’s mitre or hat.
Getting the perfect shot: Aim for the reflection of the razor-sharp peak on the fjord’s calm water.
Wanna see the view from above?
Climbing Rahotu, as it is called in Māori, is greatly demanding and requires planning and extensive training.
Did you know?
Mitre Peak is a record-holder; it’s the highest mountain in the globe rising directly from the sea floor.
The lost world of Sinbad Gully
Just around the corner of the most popular location in North Island, a secret world awaits you.
On the base of Mitre Peak, οpposite the Milford Sound Wharf, there’s a perfectly U-shaped valley. This remote wilderness is the last global retreat of at least 20 bird species, slugs and three species of threatened lizard.
Did you know?
It was here that the last native Kakapos, a ground-dwelling owl parrot, were discovered in the 1970s. Until then, the bird was considered extinct.
The great Tasman Sea
After sailing through a steep section of the fjord the boat reaches Dale Point – the mouth of the fiord.
The Tasman Sea, Te Tai-o-Rehua as the Māori call it, is described as a world of undersea volcanoes and icy depths. Numerous unclassified life forms have adapted to its harsh conditions over the ages.
Unfortunately, that’s the furthest your cruise gets; the boat makes a U-turn and starts the return trip.
Did you know?
The Tasman Sea is informally referred to as “the ditch” by both Aussies and Kiwis. Crossing the ditch means to travel from Australia to New Zealand, or vice versa.
Seals on a Rock
A great place to see fur seals chilling and a scheduled photo-stop for most Milford Sound cruises.
Seal Rock, as it is called, is a seal’s favourite place to hang out!
And how could it not be?
It’s one of the few places inside the fjord where seals can actually rest outside the water with a height advantage, getting protection from the predators. What is more, on those few sunny days, Seal Rock is drenched in sunshine!
Which Milford Sound Cruise is the best?
So, you are now convinced that booking a Milford Sound boat tour is the best for you. But which one should you choose?
Well, there are many things to consider!
Fear not! For we have gathered all the information you need to decide.
The entrance to the fiord is so well-hidden that Captain James Cook missed it in the late 1700s. It was only in 1812 that Milford Sound was discovered when sealer John Grono traversed through its narrow waterways.
Scenic or Nature Cruise?
Both cruise types, follow exactly the same route, going you through all the major highlights. Prices start from $69 per person!
Scenic Cruise: With a duration of 1 hour and 40 mins it is a great option for those short in time. Scenic cruises are an excellent choice for the winter season when it’s less crowded.
Nature Cruise: They last longer, around 2 hours and 15 mins. An excellent choice for those who want to spend a bit more time in Milford Sound or to get closer to the local wildlife and the waterfalls. Besides, a professional nature specialist will join the trip providing live commentary about the fjord and the species you encounter.
Day or Overnight Cruise?
Again, it’s a matter of time and money. Prices for a day cruise start from $69 and for an overnight cruise from $249. Let’s get into the specifics!
Catching the all-around day cruise
If you are on a tight schedule then a coach trip from Queenstown, combined with a scenic or nature cruise will get you an incredible glimpse of Fiordland National Park. A day boat cruise can last up to 3 hours and will get you through all the must-sees of Milford Sound.
Enjoying the famous “sound of silence”
On the other hand, if you wish to experience the fjord without the crowds, get an overnight cruise.
Not only you’ll enjoy Milford Sound at sunset & sunrise but you will also have the chance to go kayaking, spend the night under the starry sky and… relax in one of the most stunning locations in the world.
Highlights of overnight cruise
- see the rare Fiordland crested penguins as they head out to the sea in the morning
- go kayaking and catch up with dolphins swimming around and below you
- star-gaze as the boat drops anchor in a protected cove
- dare a refreshing glacial swim
- learn about the history & geology of the fjord; a nature guide is available onboard
- blue hour mode on; catch some epic photos when the light is the best
The overnight cruise starts mid-afternoon (around 16:30 pm) and returns by 10 am the following day. That leaves you enough time on your way to and from Milford Sound to enjoy The Milford Road (avoiding road traffic as well).
Tip: Combine the overnight cruise with a walk to the bottom of Bowen Falls or do the Foreshore Walk. Both are short & sweet and give you a different perspective of Milford Sound.
To sum up, time-permitting, I suggest going for the overnight cruise to fully appreciate Milford Sound. Having the whole place for yourself and experiencing the serenity of the fjord with just stars overhead will be a highlight of your trip!
Selecting the best Milford Sound cruise
No matter if you pick a day or overnight cruise, you still feel overwhelmed by all the different boat cruises.
To be honest, there isn’t any best cruise in Milford Sound; all boat trips follow pretty much the same route.
However, some cruises might suit you better than others. It’s the details that you need to keep an eye on.
To further narrow down the list of boat tour companies ask yourself the following questions!
- Large or small boats? The smaller ones can get you closer to waterfalls and cliffs. Look for the capacity of each boat to get a better understanding of its size.
- Capacity? Each boat has one. The less crowded the boat is the more room you’ll have to get those awesome shots.
- Lunch onboard? Most boat trips provide lunch, for an additional fee. Look for the “add lunch or picnic” option on checkout.
- Bringing your own food? Most boat tours allow you to do so provided that it is only consumed in public areas e.g. not on the onboard café.
- Departure time? Morning cruises, between 9 am and 11 am are less crowded whereas afternoon cruises are jam-packed. That is because the majority of the coaches from Queenstown arrive after 12 pm.
- Cruise duration? Some day cruises are longer, others shorter, ranging between 1 hour 45 minutes to 3 hours (nature cruises).
- Other experiences? Combining your cruise with another experience like kayaking, walking or the observatory is fun but does your tour operator offer them?
- Kids-friendly? Pick a shorter boat trip if you have small children and consider avoiding lengthier & tiring activities.
To sum up, the best Milford Sound cruise depends on you – your available time, your budget and what you really want to see.
Make sure to read carefully what each boat cruise provides before booking one!
Best Milford Sound boat cruises
By this point you should have a clear idea about what to expect from each cruise type.
Time to do your research!
To save you some time, I have collected all the main boat cruise companies operating in Milford Sound.
- Real Journeys – great variety of cruise options & combos (kayak, boat, flying). The only company offering an overnight cruise.
- JUCY Cruise – the most affordable cruise options. Plan ahead and get a cheaper ticket with the early bird option!
- Southern Discoveries – the greatest variety of day cruises, transport options & combos (kayak, boat, flying, coach+cruise). The only company combining the cruise with a visit to the Underwater Observatory.
- Mitre Peak Cruises – a great variety of transfer options & combos (cruise, Milford Track, coach, plane, helicopter)
- Go Orange – another affordable operator and the one I travelled with. Provides coach connections from Queenstown or Te Anau.
- Cruise Milford – boats operate at half-capacity so expect a less-crowded cruise. Kayak+Cruise option and coach connections are available.
- Milford Sound SELECT – they offer free pickup from your accommodation. You can also combine your cruise with a fly-back option.
No matter which Milford Sound cruise company you pick it’s safe to say that you won’t be missing anything. All of them, cruise through the major highlights of Milford Sound, following the same route on water.
Summer tip: If you are aiming for the smaller cruise boats make sure to book in advance!
Is there a company that I’ve missed? Let me know on the comments and I will update the list!
Best Milford Sound day trips (coach & cruise)
No car? No worries!
There are several day trips that get you from Queenstown or Te Anau to Milford Sound. Combined with a boat tour it’s one of the most popular and convenient ways to explore Milford Sound National Park.
Most bus trips feature the same stops along the Milford Road, so no matter which one you pick you won’t miss anything important. To make things easier for you, I have collected the best Milford Sound tours from Queenstown & Te Anau.
- Southern Discoveries – it’s coach & nature cruise departures daily from both Queenstown and Te Anau. Expect headsets with translated commentary, a bus with full-height windows and free pick-up & drop-off from your accommodation.
- JUCY Cruise – with a maximum of 33 people on the bus and lunch included on the final price, this coach & cruise option is “just right”. Complimentary pick-ups from Queenstown and Te Anau.
- Real Journeys – enjoy spectacular views from a glass-roofed bus departing from Queenstown and Te Anau. Hop on to Milford Mariner for an overnight cruise or Milford Haven for a 2-hours day-cruise.
- Go Orange – offering connections from both Queenstown and Te Anau the orange coaches offer a glass roof, reclined seats, WiFi and USB ports. The boat cruise is a co-share trip with Real Journeys.
- Milford Sound SELECT – another great day-trip with complimentary pick-ups from central Queenstown or Te Anau accommodations and a luxurious coach with glass roof and USB ports.
- Cheeky Kiwi Travel – drop the crowded coaches and pick an 11-seated minibus. Picnic lunch is included in the price and the boat trip is co-shared with Cruise Milford. Departures from Queenstown or Te Anau.
- Milford Sound BBQ Experience – using small buses of up to 19 seats and a BBQ lunch onboard their scenic cruise is co-shared with Mitre Peak. Currently (2021) only departing from Te Anau and not sure if they still offer the BBQ lunch.
- Trips & Tramps – departing from Te Anau, this small-group day trip to the fjord includes a cruise and various walks including Gertrude Valley, Lake Gunn, Hollyford Valley, Routeburn Track and Key Summit.
- More coach+cruise companies – GreatSights, Greyline Tours, Kiwi Experience
Travelled with a different one? Let me know on the comments below!
How long does a coach+cruise trip lasts?
From Te Anau: 7 to 8 hours
From Queenstown: 12 to 13 hours
Helpful info about Milford Sound
There are certain things you should take into consideration before visiting Milford Sound.
What’s the best month to do a boat cruise?
Milford Sound can get extremely busy and crowded.
The peak season is summer (December, January and February) when the sound can host up to 2.000 visitors per day. During winter (June, July and August) there is snow to contend with and Milford road might close due to avalanches.
- Rainiest month: January – avg. 15.7 days of rain
- Driest month: July – avg. 13.8 days of rain
- Warmest month: February – 19°C avg. high
- Coldest month: July – 9.3°C avg. high
- Longest days: December – 15.5h of daylight
- Shortest days: June – 8.9 hours of daylight.
If you wish to avoid big crowds and low temperatures, while also enjoying longer days, with a good chance of rain then the best season to visit is Spring (September, October, November). What is more, during early spring, plant life begins to blossom as the ice being to melt (though there was snow on early November when I visited).
Alternatively: Doing a boat cruise in the middle of winter is another great alternative. The surrounding mountains are covered in snow, there is no traffic on the roads and the boats are not crowded at all!
What’s the best time for a boat cruise?
Catch an early morning cruise, between 9 am to 11 am. Why?
- the fjord is less crowded – most coaches reach Milford Sound after 12 pm
- the light is ideal for photography
- more wildlife are out and about
Morning cruises might be the best choice, however, you will have to spend the previous night either on Milford Sound Lodge or in Te Anau.
Preparing for your cruise
You don’t need any special equipment, especially if you pick the boat cruise option. However, there are certain things I’d recommend bringing with you.
- a fully charged camera with plenty of memory; trust me, you’ll take more pictures than you plan to
- prepare for rain; wear non-slip shoes and get a waterproof jacket or rain poncho
- bring lunch and drinks; keep in mind that most operators provide water during the coach+cruise
- a light jacket for the short walks and the deck
- extra cash; on the ship you will only be able to use cash
- insect repellent; those sandflies can get really aggressive
- your cruise ticket – you don’t want the boat to leave without you!
Extra items for the overnight cruise
- the nights in the fjord are cold; bring a warm sweater or fleece jacket
- get ready for the outdoor activities; grab your sunscreen & sunglasses
- swimwear, for the brave ones
- a small bag
Is Milford Sound cruise worth it in the rain?
Millions of visitors fall in love with Milford Sound and I could easily see the reason.
The most famous tourist destination of New Zealand, once called by Rudyard Kipling the eighth Wonder of the World, is one of the most impressive natural landscapes in the country.
And also the wettest.
The fjord is famous for its high rainfall receiving rain for an average of 182 days per year. That makes it one of the wettest inhabited places in the world.
But here’s the catch.
It’s when it rains that Milford Sound is most impressive.
Dozens of temporary waterfalls start dropping down from the towering cliffs and colourful rainbows keep appearing around. A truly enchanting sight, if you’d ask me!
Hint: The two rainiest months are December and January.
Is Milford Sound a fjord or a sound?
Weirdly enough, Milford Sound is a fiord, wrongly named by the early settlers.
So, how can you say the difference?
A sound is formed when a river valley is flooded by the sea. On the other hand, a fjord is a steep glacier valley, carved by ancient rivers of ice that have long melted. Milford Sound falls into the second category.
What about mobile coverage?
To all those instagrammers out there wishing to go on a live broadcasting, I’ve got some bad news!
You’ll be out of range during the boat tour and there will be limited network coverage along the Milford Road as well. You are deep into wilderness after all!
This must be nature’s own way of telling you to enjoy the landscape and take a break from social media!
Is there parking available?
Yes, there are marked areas where you can leave your vehicle, 20$ for 5 hours.
Alternatively, free parking is available, further up at Deepwater Basin Road. Make sure to allow an extra 20 minutes walk to the Visitors Terminal.
During the busy summer months you need to be extra patient to find a parking spot!
Is it worth going to Milford Sound?
If you find yourself in South Island you can’t miss Milford Sound! It’s a unique place in the world and one of the most photographed places in New Zealand.
And it’s not hard to see why.
Cruising the fjord was such a memorable experience. Titanic land formations rising vertically from dark waters and numerous waterfalls dropping down from the sky; a breathtaking scenery.
The ford’s pristine environment and remote beauty are certainly worth the long drive from Queenstown.
There are certain places in the world that somehow make you feel insignificant; Milford Sound is definitely one of them.
Know before you go
A boat cruise can cost from 50 NZD to 100 NZD but that depends on the type of cruise you’ll pick. View all the different cruise options here!
Most operators provide a 2-hour experience, taking you through all the major highlights of the fjord. Learn what you’ll see on a typical Milford Sound cruise here!
That depends on you! The size of the boat, the type of the cruise, the activities you want to include and many more. See all Milford Sound cruise companies here!
Do you prefer snow or rain? Warmer or cold temperatere? Short or long days? Each month provides a different experience. Learn more about the best month to visit here!
Fiordland Crested Penguins, New Zealand Fur Seals and dolphins are occasionally seen floating around! There’s also a place where you can see seals sunbathing! See it here!
Yes, you can either spend the night at Milford Sound Lodge or book an overnight cruise, that is highly recommended. Learn what’s included the night cruise here!
Yes, Milford Sound is absolutely worth it. No matter the weather or the season, my advice is to simply go for it. Learn more about all the reasons that make a visit to Milford Sound a must!
Make sure to dress comfortably with layers, as the weather in Milford Sound is notoriously unpredictable. Here you can find a list of things to pack to best prepare for your cruise.
All images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.