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Home » Fiordland » Milford Sound – An Epic Boat Cruise in the Fjord

Milford Sound – An Epic Boat Cruise in the Fjord

by Nikos Taskos

Milford Sound tops many travellers’ bucket list – and it’s not hard to see why. Trust me, no guide can fully prepare you for it.

Towering land formations rising sharply from the water, waterfalls diving from great heights and crisp ocean air to fill your lungs. Milford Sound, rightfully described as the Eighth Wonder of the World, is a true taste of New Zealand.

You can experience the fjord in a number of ways. A Milford Sound cruise, however, is a great way to explore the area, if you are short on time.

In this travel guide you will:

  • get helpful info to better organise your visit
  • have a detailed overview of all boat cruise options
  • see the highlights of a Milford Sound boat cruise
  • view some incredible photos of the fjord

About Milford Sound

Milford Sound includes all the reasons that inspired you to take that journey to Aotearoa. It’s a wild and unique marvel of nature formed some millions of years ago.

The fact that it manages to remain wild & untamed until today, make 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 of New Zealand opening out directly onto the Tasman Sea. It’s a part of Fiordland National Park, one of the largest national parks in New Zealand and one of the largest 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 now a protected area and 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.

Boat cruise around Milford Sound fjord in New Zealand
Boat cruise around Milford Sound fjord in New Zealand

Is a boat trip the best way to see Milford Sound?

There are numerous ways to explore Milford Sound with the boat cruise option being the most popular one, especially amongst first-timers in Fiordland.

If your schedule in New Zealand is packed and you can’t afford to spend a lot of time on each location, then hopping on a boat is the best way to see Milford Sound. It’s accessible to everyone, it’s relatively cheap and it will get you up close to the unique wildlife and nature of the fjord.

However, if you have the luxury of spending more than one day in Milford Sound then you must also try some of the other activities available in the area. Some of them are Those hiking (or tramping), diving, kayaking or even flying (if you have the budget).

Tip: Getting a boat trip is one of the few chances you will ever have to get drenched by a huge waterfall. Most tours operators get the ship’s nose right below one of them.
One of the many temporary waterfalls in Milford Sound
One of the many temporary waterfalls in Milford Sound

What you’ll see in a Milford Sound boat cruise

A standard cruise will get you through all the major highlights, regardless of the tour operator.

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 glacier valley and meet the Tasman Sea, the boat will turn and come back on the right side of Milford Sound.

Did you know?

The entrance to the fiord is so well-hidden that Captain James Cook missed it in the late 1700s. It was only in 1823 that Milford Sound was discovered, when the sealer John Grono, managed to traverse the narrow waterways.

Boat cruise at Milford Sound with the New Zealand flag
Milford Sound is one of the best natural environments New Zealand has to offer

Upon arriving at the docks I felt excitement setting in. After all, that was the main reason I drived all the way from Queenstown.

During the cruise, I was surrounded by imposing limestone cliffs and impressive waterfalls were continuously coming into focus. I have tried hard to withstand the bone-chilling wind and I remained at the deck as much as I could to witness the pristine beauty of the fjord.

Can you spot it?

Lion Mountain, officially named Mt. Kimberley, looks like lion crouching at about 700 metres above sea.

Here are some of the highlights you’ll see in Milford Sound day cruise.

Cruising Milford Sound under fog - mysterious and unearthly
Cruising Milford Sound under fog – mysterious and unearthly
Pristine beauty in gigantic proportions in Milford Sound, Fiordland
Pristine beauty in gigantic proportions

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. Occasionally, as the boat is sailing next to one, you can feel their refreshing glacial spray.

From all the waterfalls you’ll pass through, only two are permanent; Lady Bowen and Stirling Falls.

Temporary waterfall in Milford Sound
Temporary waterfall in Milford Sound

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 west of Darran Mountain Range, the waterfall drops from 162 metres, making it the tallest in the fjord– a title only challenged by Stirling Falls.

Lady Bowen Falls - The tallest waterfall in Milford Sound
Lady Bowen Falls – The tallest waterfall in Milford Sound

And boy it’s powerful too!

Not only breathtakingly 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 this magnificent sight is to take the boat trip. Make sure to stand on the deck as you are cruising by to feel its cold and refreshing glacier spray.

Hine-Te-Awa is a 162-meter permanent waterfall in the fjord
Hine-Te-Awa is a 162-meter permanent waterfall in the fjord

Did you know?

At the bottom of the falls, lies the most 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 in the world where one can be buried.

Stirling Falls – feeling brave enough?

With a staggering 151 metres height, Stirling Falls is the second-highest permanent waterfall in Milford Sound. The waterfall single-drops from a U-shaped valley directly into the ocean, constantly fed by glaciers miles away.

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.

Did you know?

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.

Stirling Falls at Milford Sound between Lion and Elephant mountains
Stirling Falls at Milford Sound between Lion and Elephant mountains
Waimanu falls' base covered in a veil of mystery
Waimanu falls’ base covered in a veil of mystery – what can you see in the mist?

Time to get drenched!

Most of the boats sail right underneath the waterfall, so you can feel the power of the gushing water.

The captain announced that he would steer the front deck beneath the falls. Feeling adventurous enough, I decided to go for it.

Have you ever stood below a 151-metre waterfall?

I can still recall the sound of the falls, like a storm raging only a few metres next to me, as the boat closed in. The sound became completely deafening as the glacial water hammered me from above.

Experiencing the true power of this giant, with tons of water falling on me, was exhilarating. Looking up, the water was seemingly dropping from the clouds. Even if I got completely soaked, it was an experience I couldn’t afford to miss.

You can even collect the water in a cup and drink it. It certainly is one of the freshest water in the world!

Did you know?

A Māori legend says that Stirling Falls makes you ten years younger! Well, I certainly felt like a 10-year-old as I was getting soaked under the freezing water.

The 151-metre Stirling Falls at all their glory
The 151-metre Stirling Falls at all their glory

Palisade Falls – the odd one out

There’s another waterfall on the fjord worth mentioning that nobody on the cruise mentioned.

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!

The temporary Palisade Falls in Milford Sound
The temporary Palisade Falls in Milford Sound

Fairy Falls & Bridal Veil Falls – the guest stars

Two more magnificent waterfalls, appearing only when they seem fit to.

Fairy Falls can be seen for most of the year. It’s also one of the stops of the nature cruises allowing you to fill up your glass with the purest glacial water!

One the other hand, Bridal Veil Falls, a lot shyer and a lot smaller.

Both of them can bee seen hanging out together after extended period of rainfall.

Mitre Peak – a record holder

No visit to Milford sound is complete without getting a closer look to the iconic Mitre Peak – the most photographed peak in South Island.

Rising above the sea level at a jaw-dropping height of 1.692 metres, Mitre Peak is often mistaken for having one peak.

Wrong!

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: The reflection of the razor-sharp peak reflecting perfectly on the fjord’s water.

Climbing Rahotu, as it is called in Māori, is a greatly demanding and requires planning and training.

Did you know?

Mitre Peak is a record-holder; it is the highest mountain in the globe rising directly from the sea floor.

Mitre Peak as seen from Milford Sound wharf
Mitre Peak as seen from Milford Sound wharf
The famed Seal Rock in Milford Sound
The famed Seal Rock in Milford Sound

The lost world of Sinbad Gully

Just around the corner of the most popular location in North Island, οpposite the wharf in Milford Sound, there’s a secret world.

On the base of Mitre Peak, you’ll see 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 beneath over the aeons.

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.

The great Tasman Sea - a local fishing boat entering the fjord
The great Tasman Sea – a local fishing boat entering the fjord

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 now be?

It’s one of the few places inside the fjord where seals can actually rest outside the water, with a height advantage, providing protection from the predators. What is more, on those few sunny days, Seal Rock is drenched in sunshine!

Sunbathing anyone?

Which Milford Sound Cruise is the best?

So, you have decided to see Milford Sound by boat. 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 select the Milford Sound cruise that suits you best.

Scenic or Nature Cruise?

Both cruise types, follow exactly the same route, making sure you see all the major highlights. Prices start from $69 per person!

Scenic Cruise: With a tour duration of around 1 hour and 40 mins it is a great option for those short in time. Scenic cruise is 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 up close and personal with the local wildlife and the waterfalls. Besides, a professional nature specialist will join you for 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 of each one!

Catching the fast-paced 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. You can see all the highlights of the boat cruise here.

Relax your way through the night cruise

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 10:00 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!

Milford Sound cruise companies

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 trip companies operating in Milford Sound.

  1. Real Journeys – great variety of cruise options & combos (kayak, boat, flying). The only company offering an overnight cruise.
  2. JUCY Cruise – the most affordable cruise options. Plan ahead and get a cheaper ticket with the early bird option!
  3. 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.
  4. Mitre Peak Cruises – a great variety of transfer options & combos (cruise, Milford Track, coach, plane, helicopter)
  5. Go Orange – another affordable operator and the one I travelled with. Provides coach connections from Queenstown or Te Anau.
  6. Cruise Milford – boats operate at half-capacity so expect a less-crowded cruise. Kayak+Cruise option and coach connections are available.
  7. Milford Sound SELECT – they offer free pickup from your accommodation. You can also combine your cruise with a fly-back option.

Have you picked a different company? Let me know on the comments and I will update the list!

Helpful info about Milford Sound

There are certain things you need to know before visiting Milford Sound.

What’s the best month to visit?

Milford Sound can get extremely busy and crowded.

The peak season is summer (December, January and February) when the sound can host up to 2000 visitors per day. During winter (June, July and August) there is snow to contend with and Milford road might close due to avalanches.

That makes autumn and spring the best months to visit.

What’s the best time of the day?

Catching an early morning cruise is the best choice – there will be significantly fewer people in the fiord and the light will be ideal for photography.

This option, however, requires you to spend the previous night either on Milford Sound Lodge or on one of the many accommodation options 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 to bring with you.

Packing list
  • a fully charged camera with plenty of memory; trust me, you’ll take a lot more pictures than you plan to
  • prepare for the rain and the boat cruise; wear non-slip shoes and get a waterproof jacket or rain poncho
  • bring lunch and drinks with you; keep in mind that most operators provide water during the coach+cruise
  • extra cash; on the ship you will only be able to use cash
  • insect repellent; those sandflies can get really aggressive

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.

Countless temporary waterfalls drop from the fjord’s towering cliffs from as high as 1000 metres and colourful rainbows keep appearing all around you.

Hint: The two rainiest months are December and January.

Is Milford Sound worth it?

Yes, absolutely!

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; such a breathtaking scenery.

The ford’s pristine environment and remote beauty are certainly worth the long drive from Queenstown.

Towering green cliffs in Milford Sound
Towering cliffs in Milford Sound – A sight to behold

There are certain places in the world that somehow make you feel insignificant; Milford Sound is definitely amongst them
Mitre Peak under a veil of fog
Mitre Peak under a veil of fog

During my visit in October, the fiord was clearly not crowded with only 2-3 more ships cruising around. Don’t forget that even during springtime it could be quite chilly so make sure to take your thermals with you.

But, truth be told, Milford Sound is a stunning destination all year round – there is really not a bad time to explore its many charms.

Is Milford Sound a fjord or a sound?

Last but not least, the million dollar question – is Milford Sound a fjord or a sound? Weirdly enough, Milford Sound is actually a fiord, named wrongly by the early settlers.

So how can you say the difference? A sound is formed when a river valley gets flooded by the sea forming a large extended ocean inlet. However, Milford Sound was produced by retreating glaciers; they firstly carved through the rocks and eventually receded allowing the sea to flood the valley. Thus, Milford Sound is clearly a fjord, not a sound – an inlet of the Tasman Sea formed by glaciers during the ice ages.

Snowy peaks in Milford Sound
Snowy peaks in Milford Sound

Know before you go

What is the price of a Milford Sound boat cruise?

There are several operators in the area, each one offering a number of boat cruise options. The cruise itself can cost from 50 NZD to 100 NZD; still, you need to determine how you’ll reach Milford Sound (coach, flight or rental car).

What’s the duration of a typical Milford Sound cruise?

Most operators provide a 2-hour experience, counting from the time you board until you are back at the wharf after the boat cruise.

Which Milford Sound cruise company should I pick?

There are several reliable operators you can choose from, with Altitude Tours (Milford Sound BBQ Experience) and Cruise Milford being two of the top ones. I have picked Go Orange, and more specifically their Coach – Cruise – Coach option and greatly enjoyed the overall experience.

Can I arrange a Milford Sound overnight cruise?

Spending a night in the heart of the eighth wonder of the world with spectacular fiord and sea views sounds intriguing. Doing so will allow you to experience the fiord at its most peaceful, without the crowds. Unfortunately, due to time restrictions, I was not able to book a night cruise but I would certainly did so if I had enough time.

What’s the best month of the year to visit Milford Sound?

Milford Sound is best viewed wet and peaceful. The good news is that rainfall in the fiord is quite common, about 182 days per year. Therefore, I would recommend visiting Milford Sound in October, the second-wettest month of the year with daytime temperatures sitting around 16°C. During that time the fiord is also a lot less crowded.

Is Milford Sound worth it in the rain?

Yes, definitely. During heavy rain, the fjord is full of numerous temporary waterfalls, dropping down from steep cliffs, while rainbows are all over around you. Pretty cool, huh?

Where is Milford Sound in New Zealand?

Milford Sound is part of the Fiordland National Park and it is located on the South Island of New Zealand.

Milford Sound at a glance

Location: Fiordland, New ZealandPart of: Tasman Sea
Highest Waterfall: 162 mMax. width 1.94 km
Max. length 15.1 kmMax. depth: 291 metres
Official Website: Destination FiordlandWeather info: Dept. of Conservation

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