Exploring Milford Sound on a Boat Cruise

milford sound boat cruise day trip

This past weekend Dan and I ventured out of Queenstown for a weekend away to explore the very famous Milford Sound. This blog is about our experience on a Milford Sound boat cruise including all of the information you would want to know!

Milford Sound Boat Cruise

Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the most famous tourist attractions in New Zeland, bringing nearly 1 million people each year. It is a natural phenomenon showcasing some incredible views that photos from magazines have made world famous.

But what is Milford Sound?

Milford Sound is a really gorgeous area on the south-eastern coast of New Zealand.

A “sound” is actually the word used to describe a gorge or large break of land caused by a river. Since Milford Sound was actually created by glacier breaks, it isn’t actually a “sound” at all but has kept its name regardless.

on a milford sound boat cruise
Exploring Milford Sound by boat

The land 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 eighth wonder of the world!”

Surprisingly, we have been in New Zealand for four months now and hadn’t yet explored Milford Sound. We had heard lots about it, so we decided to visit for the first time just last weekend and booked a Milford Sound Boat Cruise with Southern Discoveries to get the best views. This is how our day went out on the water as well as some useful info if you ever plan on going for yourself.

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getting to milford sound

Getting to Milford Sound

Getting to Milford Sound is half of the fun. The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound is actually stunning and an adventure all on its own (we are in the process of writing a blog specifically about the drive, so be patient for that!)

You can either drive yourself there or join a bus tour from either Queenstown or Te Anau.

With perfect road conditions and no stops, Milford Sound is about 3 hours from Queenstown by car, making it possible for a very long day trip. Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound and about 1.5 hours by car.

Remember you should allow more time than mentioned as there are some breathtaking stops along the way!

Road Conditions

We had perfect road conditions, 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.

It is important to check the road reports for updates before departing Te Anau to avoid road closures in the winter and disappointment.


Staying Overnight in Te Anau

We decided to split up the journey a bit by staying in a town called Te Anau. By staying in Te Anau the night before and after the Milford Sound Boat Cruise we were less rushed and able to spend one full day at Milford Sound (and even stuck 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 nice. But there are lots of other option too, click here to brown accommodation available in Te Anau.


The Weather for a Milford Sound Boat Cruise

It rains a lot in Milford Sound. Apparently, up to 250 days per year and on the days it isn’t rainy it is often cloudy.

Somehow, we got extremely lucky and were blessed with clear blue skies for the majority of the day! We woke up in the morning in Te Anau to a bright sunrise but still lots of cloud cover. However, during our drive to Milford Sound, the clouds parted and revealed beautiful blue skies. By the time we boarded the Milford Sound Boat Cruise, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky!

milford sound cruise


Milford Sound was beautiful in the sun, however, I heard that it is equally as beautiful in the rain. Apparently, when it is raining more than 1800 waterfalls can be created! When it stops raining, 90% of these waterfalls dry up within minutes. So while we were glad to have a bright and sunny day, we will have to come back in the future to experience Milford Sound in the rain as well!

The only weather conditions that would affect your experience on a Milford Sound Boat Cruise would be fog and extreme low cloud. If the cloud prevents you from seeing the surrounding mountains then that would be a shame!

exploring milford sound on a boat
The rainbow!
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The best time of year for a Milford Sound Cruise

Unlike the Milford Sound Track, a Milford Sound boat cruise is great any time of the year! In fact, going in the middle of winter like we did was great 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 bring along patience in order to find parking.


What You See on the Milford Sound Boat Cruise (Points of Interest)

Bowen Falls

This is the first waterfall you will 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!

lady bowen falls

Mitre Peak

Mitre Peak is the large pointed mountain that has become somewhat of an icon for Milford Sound. While you can see Mitre Peak from the shore, you get up close on the boat cruise.

mitre peak milford sound
Mitre Peak is the snow-capped mountain on the left

Fairy Falls

Some magical little waterfalls falling straight off a cliff wall. We even saw rainbows here!

waterfalls in milford sound

Seal Rock

If it is a nice day out, you will likely be lucky enough to spot some Fur Seals sunbathing on a rock. We saw a couple of them, some napping, some swimming, and one was actually roaring at us! They were fun to watch!

fur seals at milford soun
Can you see the seals hanging out on the rock?

Stirling Falls

This is the waterfall that you get up close and personal with. 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 fresh water in a cup to drink afterwards, having some of the freshest water in the world!

stiriling falls in milford sound

Is a Boat Cruise the Best way to Explore Milford Sound?

This is a matter of opinion really. Some people say that the actual drive to Milford Sound from Te Anau is more beautiful than the views from the boat cruise while others say that the Milford walking track (only open in summer and must be booked several months in advance) is best.

While I haven’t done the Milford Track (yet) I definitely agree that the drive is absolutely gorgeous That being said, I don’t think that it is the best way to actually see Milford Sound. The drive gives amazing views of the mountains, but in order to see the entirety of Milford Sound, you must get out onto the water! This can be done most easily with a boat cruise, but kayaking is also an alternative option.

waterfall in milford sound

The Best Milford Sound Crusie Company

We obviously only went on one cruise so we only have one experience with the company Southern Discoveries – and it was awesome! We really can recommend this cruise as it was fantastic. We joined the nature cruise which included a guide providing commentary along the way telling us all about Milford Sound as well as the wildlife.

While there are many other companies that also offer a Milford Sound boat cruise, there were a couple things that set southern discoveries apart and made us choose them for our trip.

The first was that at the end of the Milford Sound boat cruise we could check out the underwater observatory. This is a place where you go down about 60 stairs underneath the surface of the water and look out onto the sea life around you through windows. While we were there we didn’t see anything too exciting, just corals and fish, but the guide did say that they see a shark from time to time!

The second was that our cruise was longer than most at two hours long not including the 45 minute stop at the underwater observatory. We had plenty of time to get up close to waterfalls and take many pictures.

boarding the milford sound boat cruise
We did our cruise with Southern Discoveries, and it was great!

Tips for Going on a Milford Sound Boat Cruise

  • Bring bug repellent – Our tour provider told us to bring some when we booked 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 sand flies or midgies, but they are annoying regardless!
  • Pack lots of snacks and water – Your day could be a long one and food and water is 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!


What Our Day Looked Like

We woke up early in Te Anau to allow ourselves plenty of time to get to Milford Sound. Our cruise was set to depart at 12:30 but we needed to be there early and allow for lots of stops along the drive for photos so we left Te Anau at about 9 am.

Along the drive to Milford Sound, we stopped several times, taking photos and going for little walks. We saw Kea’s (parrot-like birds that are quite friendly) and played in the snow. The journey itself was half of the fun.

Upon arrival in Milford Sound, we easily found a parking spot easily and then went to the visitor’s center to ask about a secret spot we had heard about. We walked the Milford Forrest Walk and took some photos before heading to the jetty to get on our boat cruise.

the milford Forrest walk
The “secret spot” we found – perfect for photos!

Lunch was provided on our Milford Sound Boat Cruise which was great because we didn’t have time to eat anything before!

The cruise went for about two hours and we saw several amazing waterfalls, got to get soaked by one in particular, and even watched fur seals bathing on some rocks. The views were spectacular and we were running around all over the boat the entire time trying to take in new views.

After the cruise, we explored the underwater observatory. It was interesting to learn about how much work it was to actually build and install the observatory.

After hanging out at the underwater observatory for about an hour, we were brought back to the mainland by boat. There, we had a glass of wine and waited in the cold for the sunset. It was strange, the area became a ghost town by about 4 pm. All the tour buses had left and barely any cruises were departing from the jetty. The parking lot cleared out and we seemed to be the only people around. But, we just had to wait for sunset!

The drive back to Te Anau in the dark was fine for us as the road conditions were clear, but this wouldn’t be a good idea if it was snowing or icy. We enjoyed the views of the stars before arriving back in Te Anau exhausted after a long day of exploring.

milford sound cruise
We had such a fantastic day!
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Overall, our day trip to Milford for the Milford Sound boat cruise was a busy but incredible day. We saw so many beautiful sights and had a blast along the way. Dan and I already know that we will be back that way several more times before the end of this year!

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