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5 Types of Milford Sound Tours from Te Anau (The BEST Tours & Cruises)

5 Types of Milford Sound Tours from Te Anau (The BEST Tours & Cruises)

Milford Sound, located in Fiordland National Park, is one of the top tourist attractions in New Zealand, attracting over 1 million tourists every year! In fact, it has garnered the nickname ‘the unofficial 8th Natural Wonder of the World’ thanks to its impressive natural beauty, which includes glacier-fed waterfalls and giant mountain peaks. 

Not only that, but it’s home to an impressive variety of unique wildlife like the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin, the dusky dolphin, and the New Zealand fur seal!

The best way to see Milford Sound is on a boat cruise, and as you can imagine, there are many different Milford Sound tours from Te Anau. One of the best tours is a 2-hour self-drive nature cruise onboard a catamaran, but there’s also a family-friendly cruise that includes entry to the Milford Underwater Observatory. 

There are many different tours to Milford Sound from Te Anau (it’s one of the best things to do in Te Anau), and which one you choose depends on your budget and how much time you have. 

In this blog post, I list 5 of the best tours available from Te Anau to Milford Sound and a little bit about each option!

Milford Sound Tours from Te Anau

1. Milford Sound Small Boat Cruise (self-drive)

A lady stands on the side of a boat by a waterfall on a cruise through Milford Sound
On the smaller cruise, you get so close to the action… Oh and a little wet!

This is a great Milford Sound tour option if you are able to drive yourself to Milford Sound. This also means it’s the cheapest option on the list as you’re just paying for the 2-hour boat cruise (and not transport to and from Milford). 

Driving yourself also means you can stop at the many stunning attractions on the drive from Te Anau to Milford, like the Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, and the famed Homer Tunnel. But keep in mind the road into Milford is narrow and winding, so care should be taken at all times. Thus, if you’re not a confident driver, I recommend booking one of the other tours from Te Anau that include transport to and from Milford Sound.

This particular tour starts from the Milford Sound Visitor Center, where you will check in before boarding your boat. Then, it’s time for the cruise itself – which takes in breathtaking fiord scenery. In fact, did you know that Milford Sound is not technically a ‘sound’ but a fiord? That just means it was carved by glaciers and not rivers!

One of your first stops on this cruise is the powerful 160-meter (525 feet) Bowen Falls. This is one of the largest waterfalls in Milford Sound and also one of the only permanent waterfalls. Then it’s off towards the Tasman Sea and along the way enjoy the breathtaking views of Sinbad Gully and Mount Pembroke.

You may even be lucky enough to spot fur seals, dusky dolphins, and the elusive Fiordland crested penguin, so be sure to have your camera handy. You will also get close to the giant Mitre Peak mountain, which stands tall at 1,692 meters (5,551 feet).

This 2-hour cruise only costs $93 NZD per adult. Drinks and snacks are available to purchase on board (tea and coffee are free) the boat and you get a live commentary from the captain.

2. Small-Group Tour (with transport from Te Anau)

A boat cruise up to a waterfall in Milford Sound
You need to pick the correct cruise if you want to get close to the waterfalls like above!

This premium small-group tour ticks most of the boxes for tourists to Milford Sound, that’s because it includes transport to and from Te Anau, a 2-hour boat cruise, and a picnic lunch – plus, it’s limited to just 30 guests. 

Your day starts in Te Anau, and your driver will stop several times on the 1.5-hour drive into Milford Sound, which a lot of the larger group tours don’t do. Some of the most notable stops include the Lord of the Rings-esque Eglinton Valley, the aptly named Mirror Lakes (thanks to the lake’s reflective surface), and the peaceful Lake Gunn. 

Perhaps, the best stop on the road into Milford is the Homer Tunnel which is a feat of engineering and is literally carved through a mountain. It’s 1.2 kilometers (.75 mi) in length and took almost 20 years to build due to the dangerous nature of its location.

From the Homer Tunnel, it’s a picturesque drive down the valley to Milford Sound Visitor Center, where you will catch your boat. The cruise is 2 hours and is a smaller boat meaning it’s a much more personalized experience. In fact, this is the best-rated cruise operator in Milford Sound, according to TripAdvisor. 

The smaller boat also gets you up super close to the magnificent waterfalls and like the small cruise above, you’ll get really close to the action and may even get wet!

Lunch will be served on the boat and is picnic-style. So, sit back and enjoy your meal but be sure to keep one eye out the window in case you see some of the wildlife that is abundant in these waters, like dolphins, fur seals, and penguins!

After the cruise, you will board the bus for the 1.5-hour long journey back to Te Anau. Your driver will break up the journey with a few more stops like The Chasm and Pop’s View Lookout. These stops are spectacular and not visited on most tours.

This particular tour costs from $199 NZD per adult, which is surprisingly reasonable when you consider all that it includes!

3. Milford Sound Coach, Cruise, and Underwater Observatory with lunch (with transport from Te Anau)

Lady Bowen Falls a seen on Milford Sound tour from Queenstown
The stunning Lady Bowen Falls!

This particular Milford Sound tour is a firm favorite with families because it includes access to the Underwater Observatory at Milford Sound, which kids love! 

The tour departs from Te Anau (tour options are also available from Queenstown) and includes several stops en route to your boat cruise, including Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes, and Lake Gunn. It’s also a small group tour – so the smaller coach and smaller boat mean you’re getting a more personalized experience. Plus, as I’ve mentioned, the smaller boats can get super close to the waterfalls in Milford as well as the wildlife there.

The scenic cruise included in this tour is 2-hours long and comes with commentary from your captain and a visit to Seal Rock where you can see fur seals sunbaking. Keep your eyes peeled for the native dusky dolphins and the tiny Fiordland Crested Penguin, which tends to be the ‘star of the show’ for kids.

After your cruise, you will visit the Underwater Observatory at Milford Sound, which is, in fact, the only floating underwater observatory in the world. Here, at 10 meters (33 feet) below sea level, you can get up close to the unique sea life of the area without getting wet! See various species of fish, fur seals, as well as the very interesting black coral, which is usually only seen at depths of 500 meters (1,640 feet) or more.

A picnic lunch is included, which is typically enjoyed onboard your 2-hour boat cruise. You can purchase alcoholic drinks on board for an additional charge too.

The tour costs from $189 per adult and includes transport from Te Anau, a 2-hour boat cruise, entry to the Underwater Observatory, plus a picnic lunch! It’s one of the most inclusive Milford Sound tours from Te Anau.

4. Milford Sound Nature Cruise (without transport)

Two seals on a cruise through Milford Sound
The nature cruise focuses on spotting wildlife. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the Fiordland Crested Penguin and dolphins!

I must admit the nature cruise is my absolute favorite cruise in Milford Sound, and I’ve done four different Milford Cruises! This one’s my favorite because the boat is a spacious and luxurious catamaran with several outdoor viewing areas, but there’s also a lovely indoor seating area with huge windows. 

Also, onboard you have a dedicated nature guide who is a professional at spotting wildlife and is so knowledgeable and friendly – you’ll come away having learned quite a lot of things about this unique area.

This is a cruise-only tour, meaning you need to make your own way to the Milford Sound Visitor Center from Te Anau. Which, if you ask me, isn’t a bad thing because you can drive the epic Milford Sound road at your own pace and stop as much as you like to take some envy-inducing photos to show to your friends and family. On top of that, after your cruise, you can enjoy some of the best things to do in Milford Sound such as some amazing hikes.

The cruise on the catamaran boat is 2 hours and has a big focus on wildlife spotting. So you will be certain to spot one if not all three of Milford’s famous residents – the dusky dolphin, the Fiordland Crested Penguin, and fur seals! 

You will also get up close to Bowen Falls, which is the tallest waterfall in Milford, as well as Mitre Peak, Stirling Falls, and Sinbad Gully, which is home to several unique native species. In fact, the tour operator Southern Discoveries is a partner in the Sinbad Sanctuary Project, a conservation project which aims to make this Gully a sanctuary for the native species here. Which I thought was pretty impressive!

Another cool thing about this cruise is tasting the pure glacier water from Stirling Falls which is acquired by placing glasses on the nose of the boat.

Fun fact – Stirling Falls, which you will see on this tour, is where Hugh Jackman jumped from in one of the scenes in the movie Wolverine.

The nature cruise (our favorite) costs $100 NZD per person! Again, worth noting that because you must make your own way to Milford Sound, it is not recommended for those without a car or who are not confident driving the windy road from Te Anau to Milford.

5. Visit Doubtful Sound instead

A cruise through Doubtful Sound
Doubtful sound is just as beautiful but much less busy!

Dare I say that Doubtful Sound may be more impressive than Milford Sound? Well, that is if you’re after a more peaceful and unique tour experience. After all, Doubtful Sound is nicknamed ‘the Sound of Silence’! 

It’s difficult to get to, though, as there’s no direct road access into Doubtful Sound. That means need to first hop on a boat cruise across Lake Manapouri and then onto a bus through the Wilmot Pass to your Doubtful Sound Cruise. Therefore, I only recommend this particular tour for those who don’t mind a full-day tour. And because it’s a long day (8 hours plus), it may not be suitable for young children.

In my opinion, the effort to reach Doubtful Sound on a tour is worth it! The cruise through Doubtful Sound is 3 hours in length, longer than the Milford Cruises because Doubtful Sound is much bigger! 

You will be taken out to where the fiord meets with the Tasman Sea and will likely spot lots of wildlife along the way. As well as that take in the breathtaking beauty of Doubtful Sound, which is much greener than Milford and is home to many hidden coves and caves.

The main drawcard with a cruise to Doubtful Sound is that you are unlikely to come across any other cruises, so, you will feel as though you have the entire fiord to yourself!

This Doubtful Sound Cruise costs $200 NZD per person. The tour starts from Manapouri, a 15-minute drive from Te Anau, so you will need to make your own way here. Lunch is not included, so be sure to pack your own. You can purchase some small food items from the visitor center in Manapouri, where your tour departs from.

Where to Stay in Te Anau

Our campervan at a holiday park in Te Anau

Although only a small town, Te Anau boasts lots of amazing places to stay. I almost always stay here when exploring Milford Sound. The reason? Well, I like to take my time on the road from Te Anau to Milford Sound stopping along to way to enjoy hikes and viewpoints. The only way to do this is to stay in Te Anau or Milford Sound itself (which is much more expensive!)

For budget travelers, you can’t beat staying at the Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park & Motels. It’s perfect for those on a road trip in a campervan or motorhome and has budget rooms available. If you’re a social traveler, the Lakefront Backpackers is another good budget option and they have dorm beds and private rooms.

If you can spend a little more I love staying at the Aden Motel. They have studio,1 bedroom, and 2 bedroom apartments that are absolutely beautiful. For the price, it’s the best value place in town. Of course, if you have a larger budget then check out the Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments. They also specialize in apartments but some of their rooms have magnificent views of the lake.

If you’re traveling in a larger group or just want a more local experience consider booking a holiday home in Te Anau. There are lots to choose from all the way from large houses to smaller apartments. The best part is they work out cheaper for the luxuries you get!

Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand

A motorhome by the beach
Me and my trusty campervan!

Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!

You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:

  • Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to book a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
  • Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
  • Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!

Thanks for reading!

Dan and Bailey on a cruise through Milford Sound
Thanks for reading!

Choosing a Milford Sound cruise from Te Anau is a difficult decision simply because most people only visit Milford Sound once. The truth is, choosing any one of the 5 options above is a great decision and I guarantee you’ll have a fantastic time seeing the unofficial 8th wonder of the world!

I hope this blog post has helped to make your decision to choose a Milford Sound Cruise from Te Anau that bit easier. As you can see, there’s a lot to take into consideration. Before you leave be sure to check out more of my in-depth guides about New Zealand such as:

Things to do in Queenstown

Best hikes in New Zealand

Things to do on the South Island