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Milford Sound Cruise – The best way to explore Milford Sound!

milford sound boat cruise day trip

Milford Sound is undoubtedly one of the most famous tourist attractions in New Zealand. Almost 1 million people from all over the world visit each year and that number is only growing!

Without a doubt, the most popular way to explore Milford is on a Milford Sound boat 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 spending many days and nights in Milford Sound over the last year, I’ve come to realize that not every experience is the same – nor are they equal!

So, here’s everything you need to know about a boat cruise in Milford Sound and just exactly how to have the best time possible!

Milford SOund at sunset after our Milford Sound cruise
A stunning sunset in Milford Sound

A little bit about Milford Sound

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 was formed thousands of years ago when giant glaciers once occupied the mountains here. The fiord was a very important place to the Maori people (New Zealand’s first people) and they regularly visited Milford in search of greenstone (New Zealand Jade).

on a Milford sound cruise taking in the stunning views on a sunny day
Exploring Milford Sound by boat

Milford Sound has been a tourist attraction for over a hundred years, however, 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.

To 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 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”.

After visiting Milford Sound for myself I completely agree!

milford sound
Mitre Peak is the first thing you’ll see on your Milford Sound Cruise!

6 Best Ways to Enjoy a Milford Sound Boat 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 enjoy a Milford Sound cruise!

1. Milford Sound Cruise from Queenstown by bus

Another common stop on the way to Milford Sound fro  boat cruise
A common stop on the way to Milford Sound in the Eglinton Valley

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 a 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!

Here are some of the top-rated tours to Milford Sound from Queenstown

2. Milford Sound Day Cruise from Te Anau by bus

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 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. I do, however, recommend spending a night in Te Anau or Milford Sound (more on that later) so you have plenty of time to explore the area!

Here are some awesome tours to Milford Sound from Te Anau!

3. Self-drive to Milford Sound from Te Anau or Queenstown (and join a Milford Sound cruise)

Lake Marian on the road to Milford Sound
You’ll only visit Lake Marian if you drive yourself and stay in either Te Anau or Milford Sound as the hike take around 3 hours to complete!

This is my top choice when it comes to experiencing Milford Sound in and 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. There are no must-see stops between Queenstown and Te Anau anyway, they all start after Te Anau!

Check out these top-rated Milford Sound Cruises

4. Scenic flight from Milford Sound to Queenstown (with a bus ride there)

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 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! Southern Discoveries offer awesome coach, cruise fly tours and are a great company to choose!

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!

You can view a range of scenic flight options here!

5. Fly, Milford Sound Cruise, Fly

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 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!

Check out these popular flights to and from Milford Sound with a cruise!

6. Milford Sound Overnight Cruise

Milford sound sunset
Can you spot the overnight cruise in Milford Sound??

My last option is something I have never had the pleasure of doing but honestly is a dream of mine! Arguably 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 here!

What Milford Sound Cruise should I do?

Ok, so if you’ve decided how you’re going to get to and from Milford then you now need to choose your cruise! I could make this section of the blog huge and explain all the different cruises I have done and what they involve. However, the truth is that they are all very similar!

With that said, my favorite hands down is the Nature Cruise! They are typically longer than the scenic cruises and you get a nature guide who is a professional at spotting wildlife! The scenic cruises tend to be on larger boats with lots more people.

If you want an even better Milford Sound cruise, then join the Encounter Nature Cruise. It’s a longer version of the Nature Cruise and is my overall favorite! Please note, 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!

Here’s a range of Nature and Encounter Nature Cruise Options

Road Conditions on the way to Milford Sound

Drive from Ten Anau to Milford Sound
The road conditions on a beautiful day like we had can still be icy!

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 boat 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 option 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!

Click here to browse other accommodation available in Te Anau.

The Weather for a Milford Sound Boat 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!

milford sound cruise
Enjoying blue sky on our Milford Sound Cruise
Milford Sound on a cloudy day
Milford Sound on a cloudy, rainy day is still beautiful!

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 (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!

rainbows under the waterfalls
The rainbow!

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

Bowen Falls

lady 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!

Mitre Peak

getting to milford sound
Mitre Peak from the foreshore in Milford Sound!

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.

Fairy Falls

waterfalls in milford sound

Fairy falls are a semi-permanent waterfall in Milford Sound. Although not always there, they hang around 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!

Seal Rock

fur seals at milford
Can you see the seals hanging out on the 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!

Stirling Falls

stiriling falls in milford sound

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 freshwater in a cup to drink afterward, having some of the freshest water in the world!

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, 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 in Milford Sound is also an alternative option.

waterfalls in New Zealand

Tips for Going on a Milford Sound 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 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!
the milford Forrest walk
The “secret spot” we found – perfect for photos!

Be sure to check out the Milford Sound Swing during your visit! You can read about where to find it here!

Related Read:   Lake Marian Track: The Perfect Day Hike on the Road to Milford

Milford Sound is still one of my favorite places in New Zealand and on a Milford Sound boat 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!

Be sure to check out more of our blogs about New Zealand!


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milford sound cruise

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