Milford Sound Cruise – The BEST Way to Explore Milford Sound!
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Visiting Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in New Zealand. Almost 1 million people from all over the world visit each year and that number is only growing! And the most popular way to explore Milford is on a Milford Sound cruise.
From the water, you can truly gauge Milford’s true size and beauty. You can stare up at the 600 ft sheer cliffs or spot some of Milford’s impressive marine and birdlife that call this ancient fiord home!
With an experience so amazing it’s important to get it right. After joining lots of different Milford Sound cruises, I’ve come to realize that not every cruise is the same!
So, here’s everything you need to know about a boat cruise in Milford Sound and what I consider to be the BEST Milford Sound cruise!
About Milford Sound, New Zealand
To kick things off, let’s dive into a few facts about Milford Sound. For starters, Milford Sound, as it’s called, is in fact not a “sound” at all!
A “sound” is the word used to describe a gorge or valley formed by river erosion. Since Milford Sound is actually a glacier-carved valley, it isn’t actually a “sound” at all but rather a fiord (hence its location in Fiordland National Park.) The mistake wasn’t corrected until the name had stuck and to be honest, Milford Fiord doesn’t really have the same ring to it!
Milford Sound has been a tourist attraction for over a hundred years, but in the early days, the journey to Milford was done on foot or horseback.
In fact, the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau wasn’t completed until 1953 when the Homer Tunnel was finally completed after 20 years of construction.
The closest town to Milford Sound is Te Anau. From Te Anau, Milford Sound is a 1.5-hour drive. From Queenstown, the drive takes around 3 to 4 hours.
The rock formations, waterfalls, cliff faces, and beautiful turquoise water is why Milford Sound is so spectacular and therefore so popular. Some actually refer to Milford Sound as the unofficial “eighth wonder of the world”.
After visiting Milford Sound for myself on a few different occasions, I completely agree!
Is a Boat Cruise the Best way to Explore Milford Sound?
Yes! Without a doubt, a Milford Sound cruise is the best way to explore Milford Sound. Of course, there are lots of other amazing ways to explore Milford Sound but a boat cruise is accessible to everyone, affordable, and you get the see a lot of Milford Sound.
Other ways to explore Milford Sound that deserve a mention are by foot from the shore, on a scenic flight either in Milford Sound or from Queenstown, and via the Milford Track which actually finishes in Milford Sound.
There is one other way though that rivals a cruise. and that’s kayaking in Milford Sound! Although you can’t see as much of Milford Sound in a kayak, the feeling of being in a tiny kayak in Milford Sound is one Bailey and I will never forget!
With that said, you absolutely must join a Milford Sound cruise when you visit so, here’s my recommendation on the best Milford Sound cruise!
The BEST Milford Sound Cruise
Ok so, I haven’t done every single cruise in Milford Sound but I have done three – and that’s more than most people! The best part is that they were all different cruises so I have a really good idea what makes a Milford Sound cruise amazing!
With that said, my favorite Milford Sound Cruise is hands down the Nature Cruise! But why?
Well for starters, they are longer than the scenic cruises so you get to spend more time in Milford Sound. Another reason is that the boats are smaller as they need to navigate closer to the rocks to see wildlife. This means you get a more personal experience!
And the last reason is that on a Milford Sound Nature Cruise you will get a professional nature guide who is an expert at spotting wildlife! So you’re more likely to see wildlife as well as learn all about them!
If you want an even better Milford Sound cruise, then join the Encounter Nature Cruise. It’s a longer version of the Nature Cruise!
However, don’t take my word for it, you can see all cruise reviews online and book here!
Important Info: You can’t join the Encounter Nature Cruise on any tour from Queenstown or Te Anau, only self-drive visitors can make the 9:45 am departure! If you’re driving yourself, consider spending a night in Milford too!
Milford Sound Boat Cruise Highlights
Now that you’ve chosen your cruise (I hope) it’s time for a little look into some of the highlights in Milford Sound you’re going to see on a cruise!
1. Bowen Falls
This is the first waterfall you’ll see, and it is powerful! On the right-hand side as soon as you depart from the jetty, you will see this magnificent waterfall and know that going on a Milford Sound cruise was the right choice!
Bowen Falls actually provides all the power in Milford Sound and is one of the permanent waterfalls in the fiord.
2. Mitre Peak
Mitre Peak is the large pointed mountain that has become somewhat of an icon for Milford Sound. In fact, it’s the most photographed mountain in Milford Sound and is one of my favorite mountains in the world!
While you can see Mitre Peak from the shore, you get up close on the boat cruise and see her from a completely different angle!
3. Fairy Falls
Fairy Falls is a semi-permanent waterfall in Milford Sound. Although not always there, Fairy Falls hangs around for most of the year. This waterfall is a popular place for boat cruises to stop and fill up your glass with some of the purest water in the world!
4. Seal Rock
Seal Rock is the best place in Milford Sound to see, you guessed it… seals! New Zealand Fur Seals were almost hunted to extinction however these days they’re protected and Seal Rock is their favorite place to hang out.
If it is a nice day out, you will likely be lucky enough to spot some Fur Seals sunbathing on the rocks. We saw a couple of them, some napping, some swimming, and one was actually roaring at us! They were fun to watch!
5. Stirling Falls
This is the waterfall that you get up close and personal with on a Nature Cruise. The boat driver drove us right up to the falls and from the front of the boat you would get soaked (they provided raincoats onboard.)
We could even collect the freshwater in a cup to drink afterward, having some of the freshest water in the world!
Milford Sound Cruise FAQs
Before lunchtime is the best time for your cruise. In the morning fewer people are around and more wildlife are out and about.
The best things to wear on your cruise are comfortable clothes with layers including a waterproof jacket. The weather is notoriously unpredictable, so start with shorts and a shirt (summer) and layer up.
On your cruise, you can see New Zealand Fur Seals (very common), Fiordland Crested Penguins, dolphins, and a range of New Zealand bird species.
The best Milford Sound cruise depends on the person. However, overall the least crowded boats are the nature cruises and on them, you’ll also go searching for wildlife!
For just a standard scenic or nature cruise without transport expect to pay between $35 USD and $55 USD.
The shortest cruises (scenic cruises) are 1.5 hours long and the longer cruises (nature cruises) are well over 2 hours.
The Best Time of Year for a Milford Sound Cruise
Unlike the Milford Sound Track, a Milford Sound cruise is amazing at any time of the year! In fact, going in the middle of winter (as we did once) was perfect because it was not very busy and the surrounding mountains were covered in snow! We found parking without any problems, there was no traffic on the roads, and our boat cruise wasn’t packed full of people.
During the summer months (Dec to Feb) is the busiest season which means if you are driving there yourself, you will need to be patient in order to find parking if you arrive after 10 am. Parking is also no longer free and costs $10 an hour!
Summer tip: In summer be sure to book your cruise in advance as the smaller cruise book up well in advance!
Weather on a Milford Sound Cruise
It rains a lot in Milford Sound. In fact, up to 250 days per year and on the days it isn’t rainy it is often cloudy.
Milford Sound is beautiful in the sun, however, it’s equally as beautiful in the rain. When it is raining more than 1800 waterfalls can be created from the surrounding cliffs!
When it stops raining, 90% of these waterfalls dry up within hours. So while we are always glad to have a bright and sunny day, we do miss all the waterfalls!
To be honest though, Milford Sound is better without rain and best just after rain with sunshine. So, if you can, go on a day without rain but, don’t let the rain ruin your experience because the odds are against you!
Tips for Going on a Milford Sound Cruise
- Bring bug repellent – Our tour provider told us to bring some when we booked our Milford Sound Cruise but I didn’t think it would be necessary since it was winter…I was wrong. The bugs are bad and they leave nasty bites. I am not sure if they are sandflies or midgies, but they are annoying regardless!
- Pack lots of snacks and water – Your day could be a long one and food and water are expensive in Milford Sound. Our cruise did, however, include lunch, snacks, and water.
- Be prepared for any weather – We didn’t think we would get sun so we didn’t bring sunscreen or sunglasses, both we could’ve used! A rain jacket and umbrella would also be useful.
- Allow plenty of time to get to Milford Sound – the tunnel near Milford Sound sometimes makes you wait up to 20 minutes before passing through. Road conditions can also slow down the drive by a lot!
Be sure to check out the Milford Sound Swing during your visit! You can read about where to find it here!
How to Get to Milford Sound for a Cruise
There are literally hundreds of ways to experience Milford Sound in your own unique way!
To help you choose here are the 6 best ways to get to Milford Sound in order to enjoy a Milford Sound cruise!
1. Full-day Tour from Queenstown
Without a doubt, a day cruise in Milford Sound from Queenstown is the most popular and convenient way to explore the fiord! Day cruises in Milford Sound with transport from Queenstown can cost as little as $150 NZD.
With most of the trips from Queenstown, you can also choose the type of cruise you do, add lunch, or even a kayaking trip!
From Queenstown, the drive to Milford Sound takes around 4 hours each way on a tour bus. Luckily though, the drive (between Te Anau and Milford) is also an attraction on its own and most of the companies who travel to Milford stop at some stunning spots along the way.
Tours from Queenstown by bus take around 12 hours and leave from Queenstown at around 7 am. It’s a long day but as I’ve said, it’s super convenient and easy for those who don’t have a car!
2. Full-day Tour from Te Anau
Te Anau is only a 1.5-hour drive from Milford Sound so it’s common to join a tour from here. Although the tours from Te Anau to Milford Sound are almost identical to the tours from Queenstown, you have the added bonus of being much closer to Milford meaning you can spend more time in the fiord and less time on a bus.
These tours also stop at some of the most impressive places on the road to Milford Sound! Tours from Te Anau also don’t leave until around 9 am so you get a little bit of a sleep-in on your holiday!
The problem I have with this option is that if you have a car and have already driven yourself to Te Anau, it makes sense just to drive yourself to Milford Sound too! With the info in the next section, you’ll know all the best places to stop on the way.
You should, however, spend a night in Te Anau or Milford Sound (more on that later) so you have plenty of time to explore the area!
3. Self-drive to Milford Sound
This is my top choice when it comes to experiencing Milford Sound in an adventurous way but also on a budget. My personal recommendation is to spend a night in Te Anau (or Milford Sound) and leave from there. It’ll give you more time to explore the stunning stops along Milford Road and still join a cruise later in the afternoon.
If you’re leaving from Queenstown or Te Anau and want even more time then consider staying at the Milford Lodge.
The Milford Lodge is the only hotel in Milford Sound and it’s located only a 5-minute walk from the foreshore. It’s not the cheapest place to stay but if you have a campervan then you can get a powered site for only $70 per night – not bad considering its location! Alternatively, they offer budget dorm rooms all the way to villas for $500 a night!
Check out our blog post on where to stay in Milford Sound!
I have stayed at the lodge and it gave me an entire day to drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. I stopped at places like the Lake Marian Track, Mirror Lakes, and the Key Summit and still had time for a cruise the next day!
If you’re self-driving then be sure to read my post on the perfect Milford Sound itinerary from Queenstown. Although the article starts in Queenstown, just use the stops and estimated times as a guide from Te Anau onwards.
4. Bus tour from Queenstown to Milford with a Scenic Return Flight
The next way I highly recommend you to consider is the bus ride to Milford Sound with a return flight back to Queenstown. The reason you must take the return flight on the way way back is so you don’t miss the stops on the way to Milford Sound (the buses drive straight back to Queenstown without stopping after the cruises).
Although this way is a little more expensive, just think of the adventure! The flight from Milford Sound to Queenstown only takes around 40 minutes and flys straight over the Southern Alps!
You can choose to fly by plane or helicopter, however, on a helicopter ride, you can also experience a glacier landing!
As you can imagine, this way is much quicker and instead of the 4-hour drive home, you’ll be taking the fast way home cutting off over 3 hours of your day! You’ll see Milford from the road, water, and air – it’s really the full tour of Milford!
5. Scenic Flight to and from Milford Sound
If you really want to shorten the trip and enjoy a day in the air then flying both to and from Milford Sound is a great option.
These fly/cruise/fly tours are the most expensive and do cost around $1000 NZD with a cruise included. However, with this option, you can leave at 7 am and be back in Queenstown in time for lunch!
Most flights include a flight down the entire length of Milford Sound and if you fly by helicopter, some include up to 5 landings in and around Milford Sound!
You will miss the stops on the road to Milford Sound but with the views you get from both flights, you won’t really care!
6. Milford Sound Overnight Cruise
My last option is something I have never had the pleasure of doing but honestly is a dream of mine! Spending the night on a Milford Sound cruise is the most epic way to explore the fiord.
Just imagine Milford Sound with almost no other people around, dead quiet in all its beauty! Yep, I’m already jealous of you just thinking about doing it!
There are a few different ways to join an overnight cruise. You can either drive yourself to Milford Sound, get picked up in Queenstown, or even Te Anau! Regardless though, this is one experience that’s truly unchallenged!
You can view a huge range of overnight cruises in Milford Sound with pickups from every location!
Road Conditions on the way to Milford Sound
If you’ve decided to drive yourself to Milford Sound then it’s important to check the road conditions before setting off. In summer you likely won’t have any problems, but in winter things are different.
We had perfect road conditions on all our visits, but I could see how the drive could be slow and somewhat dangerous during icy road conditions. The last 20 minutes or so before getting to Milford Sound is very steep and narrow.
You can check the up to date road reports for updates before departing Te Anau to avoid road closures in the winter and disappointment.
Staying Overnight in Te Anau
By staying in Te Anau the night before and after your Milford Sound cruise you will be less rushed and able to spend one full day at Milford Sound (and even stick around after the cruise to wait for sunset!)
In Te Anau, there are quite a lot of different places to stay including really nice caravan parks with rooms available at great prices. We stayed at the Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park and it was great! But there are lots of other options too!
Some great options for where to stay in Te Anau are:
Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers (budget hostel)
Located right in the town center this is the perfect choice for the budget traveler. They offer dorm beds as well as private rooms and have communal kitchen facilities and common spaces available. This a great social hostel – perfect for meeting other travelers.
Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park (mid-range budget)
This holiday park is where we stayed as it had budget private rooms as well as powered campsites (perfect for Daniel’s parents who were with us and had rented a campervan,) It is located just outside of town but in a very beautiful and peaceful area. There are tons of communal facilities and the park is kept very clean.
Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments (high budget)
If you want a beautiful, comfortable, and somewhat luxurious place to stay then this is it! Right on the edge of the lake, this motel offers apartments that suit couples or families. Every room has a balcony, WiFi, air conditioning, a kitchen, and there are BBQ facilities onsite!
Before you go…
Milford Sound is still one of my favorite places in New Zealand and on a Milford Sound cruise you really get the best experience! I hope this blog has helped you plan your adventure to this stunning fiord and if you have any questions please leave them below!
If you liked this blog then be sure to check out all our New Zealand travel guides as well as the blogs we have about Milford Sound! We have so much info on New Zealand that will make your trip easy to plan! A few other related articles you might like are:
January 28, 2020