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It’s no secret that I have an undying love for New Zealand and all its natural beauty. Whether I’m doing adrenaline-pumping activities or just marveling at the stunning landscape, this country never seems to disappoint.
After hearing everyone rave about the beauty of Milford Sound, I had very high expectations. I was worried that I might have set the bar too high. Boy, was I wrong!
The Milford Sound area continuously tops the charts as one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand, and I can see why. The landscape of this region is so grandiose and unique, you really have to experience it in person to appreciate the area fully.
While you can do different hikes in Milford Sound, the best way to explore is to jump on one of the Milford Sound cruises, taking in all the sites from the water. These cruises range from short 2-hour excursions to an in-depth 2-day/1 night boat cruise.
I’ve been lucky enough to ride on a few different Milford Sound cruises over the years, and in this blog, I’ve narrowed it down to my personal favorites. So without further ado, here are the best Milford Sound cruises as well as some other essential info you need to know before booking any cruise.
Why Book a Milford Sound Cruise
Milford Sound is one of the most traveled places in New Zealand, and it receives over 1 million visitors a year. Pictures don’t do this natural area justice, so taking a Milford Sound tour should be on your bucket list. Whether you join a cruise lasting a couple of hours or stay overnight on the fiord, this will be one of the highlights of your time in New Zealand.
With the massive cliffs, large cascading waterfalls, and densely packed wildlife, it’s no wonder this area has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Milford Sound offers so much beauty – the best way to take it all in is by hopping on a cruise to explore places you wouldn’t otherwise see during a short visit on land. There is lots of incredible New Zealand wildlife that calls this area home, including penguins, dolphins, seals, and birds of prey.
Milford Sound has many of the top-ranked and visited sights in New Zealand. The cool ocean waters are clean and clear often reflecting the mountains and cliffs surrounding them. If you have the time, I highly recommend booking an overnight cruise. At night, you can stargaze on the fiord, and in the morning, you can enjoy a warm cup of coffee on the deck while marveling at the beauty around you. I wrote in-depth about my experience on a Milford Sound overnight cruise and it didn’t disappoint!
The Milford Sound area is known for many things, rain being one of them! The region receives around 200 days of rain annually, making the climate lush and green year-round. It also keeps the waterfalls roaring, making Milford Sound a great place to visit in any season!
Be sure to bring warm clothes, including a waterproof jacket, and you’ll have no problem enjoying the scenery despite the rain. Plus, if you choose the right cruise in Milford, you can easily escape the rain in indoor areas of the boat.
What to expect on a Milford Sound Cruise
Getting to your Milford Sound Cruise
The first thing I feel like I need to mention about going on a Milford Sound cruise is the drive to get to the boat departure point. Located on the South Island of New Zealand, this area is quite remote, adding to its appeal and exclusivity.
Milford Sound is located on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The nearest city is Queenstown, roughly a 3 ½ hour drive along Highway 6 and 94. While this distance may sound far, don’t let that deter you, as the drive from Queensland to Milford Sound is one of the most beautiful drives you’ll experience.
Driving to Milford Sound is a beautiful experience but certainly a long one. Located 178 miles/287 km from Queenstown, Milford Sound is a destination in itself. Due to the distance, I highly recommend spending a night or two in the area. If you’re not on an overnight cruise, you can stay in Milford Sound at the Milford Sound Lodge or other local accommodations along your route (there are plenty of nice hotels to choose from in nearby Te Anau.)
The conditions on this drive can change drastically. If traveling in peak season, the traffic can back up as this is the only road to Milford Sound. Expect to share the road with motorcycles, large buses, and camper vans. This road has limited cell phone reception, so it’s best to download your route beforehand and stay cautious.
If you don’t want to drive to Milford Sound, you can take a scenic flight from Queenstown, a helicopter ride from Queenstown, or a flight from Wanaka. Alternatively, you can join a guided bus tour from Queenstown or Te Anau, while you will still be in the vehicle for a couple of hours each way, at least you’ll be able to relax and not worry about having to drive!
What you’ll see on a cruise in Milford Sound
Once you get to Milford Sound, you’ll see a large jetty/dock on the edge of the water. This is where you will board your chosen cruise!
There are many types of cruises in the Milford Sound area of New Zealand. Some offer a couple of hours on the water, while others include an overnight stay on the boat.
Once our cruise set sail, I was blown away by the sheer beauty of the tall limestone walls and the many waterfalls along the journey. Depending on the size of your boat, you might even navigate to shallower points of the bay for a closer look at the falls.
Some of the most notable sites in the area include:
- Mitre Peak is 5,500 ft/1692 m tall. This is one of the most recognizable and photographed mountains in the area. This is a popular spot among hikers and rock climbers. Most people take a boat to Sinbad Bay to start this challenging climb. From here, you’ll conquer a 7-mile/11.2 km out-and-back journey to the peak. If you aren’t a climer, don’t worry, you’ll see this peak from your cruise from many different angles!
- Bowen Falls is 531 ft/162 m tall. Also known as Lady Bowen Falls, this is the tallest waterfall in the area.
- Sinbad Gully is a famous rock climbing area located beside Mitre Peak. Here you will find large granite walls created by glaciers.
- Stirling Falls is 495 ft/151 m tall. Some boats can pull right up to this waterfall. The water here is so clean that I recommend bringing a cup so you can catch and drink it as it cascades down.
You’ll have the chance to see a wide variety of wildlife no matter which Milford Sound Cruise you take, and there are some places you’re almost guaranteed to see marine animals. A cruise through the area invites you into these animals’ natural habitats, providing the best opportunities to spot wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, and even Fiordland crested penguins.
Most, if not all, of these cruises are weather dependent, so the cruise might be canceled if there is a storm or adverse weather. Although disappointing, it makes sense since you won’t be able to see the sights in lousy weather. If this happens, you’ll either get your money back or exchange your tickets for another day.
With that said, a little rain never hurts anybody, so even if it’s raining, expect to set sail!
All of these cruises leave from the Milford Sound visitor center and wharf.
Just to let you know, some tours don’t include parking. Parking is available at the Milford Sound Carpark for $25 NZD ($16 USD) for 5 hours. The visitor center wharf is a 10-minute walk from this area. It is best to leave extra early since every cruise operator will expect you at least 20 minutes before your departure time.
5 Best Milford Sound Cruises
1. Southern Discoveries Nature Cruise
If you love being on the water but don’t have time to stay overnight, this Southern Discoveries Nature Cruise could be an excellent option for you. It costs $109 NZD and includes just over 2 hours on the water exploring granite walls and chasing waterfalls. There is a possibility of seeing bottlenose dolphins and even crested penguins.
You will be on a smaller ship than some of the other cruises listed, which means there will be fewer people onboard – a huge win in my book! One of my favorite things about this tour is the live commentary from the skipper, who explains the geography and helps you develop a better appreciation of the area.
Another plus is that this boat is prepared for warm or cold weather. It has large outdoor decks perfect for viewing the area as well as a large, heated indoor seating area for colder days. Large windows surround the boat allowing for uninterrupted views of the water.
You can choose between a few options on this route, depending on the timing and the food experience you’d prefer. If you’d like a buffet-style lunch on board, you’ll want to book the 1:15 pm Nature Cruise and Buffet option for $158 NZD. If you’d prefer a freshly packed picnic-style lunch, this is offered at three different sailing times: 10:30 am, 1:15 pm, or 3:15 pm for $134 NZD.
You can book this Nature Cruise online here!
2. Milford Sound Overnight Cruise
If you’re looking for an in-depth cruise experience, this Milford Sound overnight cruise is a great option and, in my opinion, the best Milford Sound cruise you can choose!
This luxurious boat cruise takes you to tour the fiord, where you’ll have stunning views of waterfalls, rainforests, and mountains. Wildlife is abundant here, so keep your eyes peeled for many animals along the journey. We saw several seals on our tour, and if you’re lucky, you may even spot some dolphins and penguins.
My favorite part of this trip was the specialist nature guide who did a great job of explaining all about the history and landscape you are seeing. I found I had a much greater appreciation for the region once I started learning more about it.
Make sure to pack appropriately for this trip and bring warm clothes, a camera, and a waterproof jacket. If the weather doesn’t get you wet, the spray from the waterfalls will.
Once you have toured the area, the ship will anchor in a cove where you can relax onboard or get off the boat to enjoy water activities. Weather permitting, you can jump into a kayak or small boat to explore the cove further. And if you’re feeling brave in the summer, try jumping into the water! But I will warn you – it is definitely cold!
Warm water more your style? Not to worry, this luxurious boat cruise also has a hot tub on board.
I loved that this cruise includes a three-course buffet-style dinner and a continental breakfast. I thought the food was absolutely delicious and made the entire experience feel much more luxurious. Also, there is a licensed bar on board, but please remember that drink costs are extra, so bring cash with you.
The cruise departs from the Milford Sound Terminal at 4:30 pm and returns at 9:15 am the next day. Make sure you are at least 30 minutes early for check-in as the captain is punctual, and the ship will leave without you!
This cruise has private cabins with HUGE windows. This meant I could still enjoy the view from my room when I wanted to relax for a bit below deck which was amazing. Rates are $1,149 NZD per person, so while it’s not a cheap experience, it’s definitely worth the splurge!
Spaces are limited and these overnight cruises tend to book up months in advance. Make sure to book your overnight cruise in Milford Sound online here!
3. Mitre Peak Cruises scenic cruise
This 2-hour cruise through Milford Sound will take the same route as New Zealand’s first settlers.
The smaller ship was specifically designed for shallow areas, allowing you better accessibility to the shore. Expect to see Bowen Falls, Sinbad Gulley, Mount Pembroke, and Mitre Peak. What’s awesome about this boat is the large viewing platform, giving you unobstructed views and the opportunity to get close to the dolphins, penguins, and seals living here.
This Milford Sound Scenic Cruise costs $112 NZD per person and includes complimentary tea and coffee onboard. Children under three can ride for free, and the boat holds a maximum of 65 people. Make sure to check in 30 minutes before departure to secure your spot on the ship.
This cruise is also weather dependent, so if there’s bad weather, your trip will be canceled and refunded, or you can pick another date that works for you.
4. Cruise Milford NZ Small Boutique Cruise
If you are looking for the perfect way to spend your afternoon, this small boutique Milford Sound Cruise is one of the best things to do!
This intimate cruise takes a maximum of 75 passengers, only half of the boat’s capacity, so it never feels too crowded. The cruise lasts just under 2 hours taking you past some of the best sightseeing spots the area has to offer. For $115 NZD, your cruise includes coffee, tea, and biscuits while you enjoy unbeatable nature views.
What I love about this tour is that there are fewer passengers on a smaller boat, allowing you to get much closer to the wildlife. The ship is also able to navigate smaller nooks and crannies where seals and penguins hang out.
You’ll first cruise down the south side of the fiord until you get to the Tasman Sea, where it turns around and travels back up the north side providing different views. There are also four sailing times per day, so you can choose between a morning or afternoon cruise experience.
As you cruise the area and marvel at the beauty of the natural landscape, you’ll get a live narration from a skipper explaining the sights. You can expect to see all the important highlights in the area such as Mitre Peak and the large cascading waterfalls.
Make sure you eat before you hop aboard as there is no food sold on this cruise. If you are driving here, you can park at the Milford Sound main car park for $25 NZD for 5 hours.
5. Southern Discoveries Sightseeing Cruise
If you’re short on time but want a quick look at the area’s beauty, this sightseeing Milford Sound Cruise is a great option. Lasting just under 2 hours, this boat tour will immerse you in nature and allow you to see some of the beautiful wildlife that calls this area home, such as New Zealand fur seals, and bottlenose dolphins.
When on board, grab complimentary coffee or tea and enjoy the views as you cruise through the UNESCO World Heritage site: the Fiordland National Park. Here you will get views of Mitre Peak, and the stunning Bowen and Stirling waterfalls.
This cruise costs $109 NZD and gives you an overall feeling of Milford Sound’s beauty. For an extra $24 NZD, you can add a freshly made buffet-style lunch to the experience. It departs from Milford Wharf, where there is a parking lot for only $25 NZD for 5 hours.
Related Read: Milford Sound is one of my favorite national park attractions. Learn more about New Zealand’s vast national park system and the best places to visit.
Best Milford Sound Tours (that include a Cruise!)
If you’re planning to be based in Queenstown and looking for more of a day-trip type of tour to Milford Sound, that’s totally possible. These are my top picks for tours that include transport to Milford Sound as well as a boat cruise once you arrive.
Award-winning small group tour
This award-winning, full-day tour from Queenstown includes a 2-hour nature cruise and plenty of stops so that you can experience the full natural diversity of Milford Sound. You’ll also see two of New Zealand’s largest lakes – Lake Wakatipu and Lake Te Anau – as well as the Homer Tunnel and Eglinton Valley. For only $229 NZD, this is an all-inclusive type tour with everything included!
Premium Milford Sound tour with LOTR filming sites
As well as exploring beautiful Milford Sound, this small group tour takes you past filming sites for the Lord of the Rings movies! It also includes lunch, snacks, and a cruise, and you’re free to add on a scenic flight if you’d like to. The tour is $249 NZD and includes your entrance fee, so no need to wait in line!
Milford Sound glass-topped bus tour and cruise
On this fun day tour, you’ll travel in style from Queenstown in a glass-roofed bus. You’ll enjoy a cruise, the Mirror Lakes Walk, and a stop at the Homer Tunnel. You can learn lots from your knowledgeable guide and see some of New Zealand’s best scenery. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to drink glacier water straight from the source in Monkey Creek!
The entire tour, including a complimentary lunch, is $215 NZD.
From Te Anau
As the closest town to Milford Sound, Te Anau is the perfect place to stay for a bit if you have a few days to soak up the beauty of this area. Plus, the tours are a bit cheaper since you’re closer to Milford Sound.
Premium Milford Sound small group tour
This full-day tour from Te Anau starts with a stop at Eglington Valley, which is famed for its lowland beech forest. You’ll then visit Mirror Lakes, where you can take a short walk to see the reflections of the Earl Mountains on a still day. Other great activities on this tour include a boat cruise, the Chasm Walk, and a stop at Pops View Lookout for an amazing view of the divide in the Alps.
This $199 NZD all-day tour is packed full but doesn’t feel too rushed. The two-hour Milford Sound cruise is definitely a highlight!
Milford Sound glass roof bus and scenic cruise
This tour includes a glass-roofed bus ride along the Milford Sound Road, enjoying those panoramic views before hopping aboard a nature cruise on the Tasman Sea. You’ll enjoy many of the park’s highlights (waterfalls, mountains, and rivers galore) and several scenic stops on the way to and from Milford Sound.
Plus, there’s a buffet lunch, and unlimited tea and coffee – yay! This really is a great way to cover a lot of ground for an affordable price of $189 NZD.
Related Read: Are you planning your own road trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound? Check out the best places to stop on the drive from Te Anau to Milford.
Where to Stay near Milford Sound
If you’re wondering if you can stay in Milford Sound, the answer is yes!
Staying in Milford Sound is the most convenient choice when planning a cruise. However, there’s only one hotel here: the Milford Sound Lodge. It’s lovely, but since it’s the only option, it also books up far in advance (you can check availability here) and can be pricey. You can’t beat the location though!
However, there are also several campsites on the road between Te Anau to Milford Sound, which can also be a great option for those wanting to stay close to the fiord.
Cascade Creek Campsite is around 40 minutes south of Milford Sound and has 120 tent sites, which do not have power. The facilities are clean and it’s the closest Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite to Milford Sound, so it’s a popular choice. For this reason, you’ll need to book in advance. It’s $15 NZD for adults and $7.50 NZD for children per night. There’s also a $10 NZD booking fee per party.
Deer Flat Campsite is a 50-minute drive from Milford Sound. It’s a small, primitive camp, with only 15 tent sites, although caravan and RV access is also permitted. It’s absolutely beautiful, located next to the Eglinton River and surrounded by beech forest. You can’t book here, so it’s first-come, first-served. The prices for Deer Flat are the same as Cascade Creek, minus the booking fee.
Alternatively, there are plenty of hotels in Te Anau to choose from, and from there you’re only a 2-hour drive to Milford Sound.
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Thanks for reading!
Visiting Milford Sound is, without a doubt, one of the best things to do in New Zealand. And trust me when I say, you’ll agree Milford Sound is worth it after you visit for yourself!
I created this guide to showcase some of the best Milford Sound Cruises for you to choose from. Surely, one of the above boat cruises will be perfect for your holiday.
If you found this blog helpful, I have lots of other blogs about visiting Milford Sound that you’d probably enjoy. Also, check out these related reads: