cruise in Milford Sound, view of the fiord from boat
Oceania,  Travel

What’s It Like to Cruise in Milford Sound?

When planning our 3 week trip to New Zealand, one of the things I knew we had to add to the itinerary was a cruise in Milford Sound. This stunning natural wonder has been on my bucket list for some time and I couldn’t wait to tick it off. After years of staring at photos, watching vlogs and reading blog posts, I’m happy to report that my Milford Sound cruise experience absolutely lived up to the hype!

Keep reading to learn all about my Milford Sound experience and how to book your own cruise in Milford Sound. Trust me, you are not going to want to leave New Zealand without seeing this place with your own eyes!

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What is Milford Sound & why is it so popular?

Milford Sound, located in Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, is the most famous tourist destination in all of New Zealand and often heralded as the 8th Wonder of the World!

This magnificent natural oasis is known for tall mountain peaks, the tallest (Mitre Peak) stands at 1692 m (5551 ft) above sea level, and cascading waterfalls that only double in power when it rains – which it does often! Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world seeing almost 7000 mm (275 in) of rain a year.

Despite its name, Milford Sound isn’t actually a sound. It’s a fiord, formed by eroding glaciers, and is the only fiord accessible by road in New Zealand. Over 1000 years ago, Maori people would hunt, fish and collect precious rock in Milford Sound. Europeans discovered the area in 1823 and named it Milford Sound in honour of Milford Haven in Wales.

Milford Sound’s remote location, icon status (it’s part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and undeniable beauty have made it popular amongst locals and tourists in New Zealand. The best way to experience the area is a cruise in Milford Sound, allowing you to explore all 16 km (10 miles) of the fiord, witness Lady Bowen Falls and other waterfalls up close, and keep an eye out for resident dolphins, seals and penguins!

PS: Trying to decide which fiord to visit? Check out my Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound showdown!

mountains and water seen during a cruise in Milford Sound, New Zealand

waterfall at Milford Sound, New Zealand

How do you get from Queenstown to Milford Sound?

The journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound takes about 4 hours by car/bus or 40 minutes by plane. You can self-drive, join a bus tour or take a scenic plane ride. You can check out the bus and plane Milford Sound tour options below!

In my opinion, the journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound is actually part of the Milford Sound experience. While long and winding, there are so many scenic stops to make along the way that will make the four hours zoom by. Check out all of the best places to stop along the road from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

Mitre Peak at Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford Sound tour options

There are many Milford Sound tour options to choose from to suit your time, budget and preferred mode of transportation. First, you’ll have to decide how long you want to be on the water:

Next, you’ll need to decide how you want to arrive:

Most bus and flight tours will include transportation from Queenstown to Milford Sound and back, plus most will include your day cruise when you arrive and stops along the way. There are also extras you can add on, like a kayak Milford Sound tour, Milford Track guided hike or a helicopter glacier landing. You can also choose to take a bus tour to Milford Sound from Te Anau instead of from Queenstown.

clouds coming over the mountains and water during a cruise in Milford Sound, NZ

There are pros and cons to each tour option. Obviously a Milford Sound overnight cruise will give you more time on the fiord, but it will also cost you more money and time than a day cruise. Self-driving allows you to make lots of stops along the way and avoid the crowds following the tour bus schedule, but is not as relaxing as sitting back on a bus or plane. Flying, while the most expensive way to get to Milford Sound, is also the fastest and, from what I hear, the most beautiful.

When we visited Milford Sound in April 2023, we opted to self-drive and go on a day cruise. For us, self-driving made sense as we had already picked up a rental car from Queenstown and would need it for the next leg of our trip to Wanaka and Aoraki Mt Cook.

Plus, by that point, Colin had driven all around the North Island and felt confident driving to Milford Sound. Self-driving also allowed us to make lots of scenic stops along the way, which was half the fun of visiting Milford Sound. And we opted for a day cruise on Milford because we had decided to splurge on the overnight Doubtful Sound cruise.

When is the best time of day to visit Milford Sound? When is the best time of year?

They say the best time of day to visit Milford Sound is first thing in the morning when the light is shining beautifully on the fiord and the crowds from Queenstown haven’t descended yet.

And while I’m sure morning is a great option, I’d also recommend visiting in the afternoon and taking the last boat of the day. That way, you have all day to drive to Milford Sound, making lots of stops along the way. You also miss the tour bus crowds, who will be leaving as you arrive, and you get to enjoy a bit of sunset on the water.

In terms of seasons, it’s best to visit Milford Sound in early autumn or late spring when you have decent weather, manageable crowds, and the best shot of seeing penguins and seals.

Keep in mind that as one of the wettest places on earth, you will likely experience rain in Milford Sound regardless of when you visit. In fact, summer is actually the rainiest time in Milford! But in summer, you’ll also be fighting for a good view with everyone else on their holidays. And in winter, sometimes the road to Milford closes due to extreme flooding, avalanche warnings and other weather events.

waterfalls seen on our Milford Sound cruise in New Zealand

That being said, you can cruise in Milford Sound year-round and as long as you can get there safely, there isn’t a bad time to visit. Each season offers something different for visitors, whether that be snowcapped mountains, rain-fuelled waterfalls, better wildlife viewing or fewer crowds.

Don’t forget: If you’re coming from the northern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed in Aotearoa New Zealand! So the busy and rainy summer season is from December to March.

What should you wear for a cruise in Milford Sound?

Like most of New Zealand, the dress code is comfortable, casual and weather-appropriate in Milford Sound. Average temperature in Milford Sound ranges from 4-18C (39-64F) year round, so dress for the season you’re visiting in but pack a few extra layers in case it gets cold on the boat.

You’ll want a waterproof outer layer so you can stand on the boat deck in the rain – or under a misting waterfall! Even if it’s not raining, a waterproof outer layer also makes good wind protection. And for the rare sunny days, sunscreen and sunglasses are always a good idea.

Milford Sound cruise experience in New Zealand

How much time do you need in Milford Sound?

How much time you need in Milford Sound will depend on the length of your cruise. Most day cruises are 2-3 hours in length, but you’ll want to budget more time in Milford Sound than just that. For starters, you’ll need time to get to Milford Sound via car, tour bus or flight. The route there is very scenic, with lots of stops you’ll want to make. There are also one lane roads, such as the Homer Tunnel, which can slow you down.

Once you reach Milford Sound, you’ll want to give yourself lots of time to park (and pay!), use the restroom and check in early for your cruise. There is also a cafe and gift shop, as well as walking trails and viewpoints to enjoy. I’d suggest arriving about an hour before your cruise to make the most of the area, and to give yourself a healthy buffer in case your drive there takes longer than anticipated.

waterfall and sunset on Milford Sound, New Zealand

So if you’re self-driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound, you’re looking at 4+ hours to get there, an hour to park and check in, and 2-3 hours of cruising. Because the road there has so many stops, including a lunch break you’ll probably want to take in Te Anau, I’d actually give yourself 5 hours for the drive. So all in, that’s 7-9 hours to get from Queenstown to Milford Sound and enjoy your Milford Sound cruise.

Because it’s such a long day, I highly recommend staying overnight (more on that below!) and not trying to drive back to Queenstown. You can dedicate a few days of your New Zealand trip to the Fiordland area discovering Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, Te Anau and other natural wonders nearby.

If you’re short on time, opt for a bus tour where someone else is responsible for the 8+ hours of driving to get there and back. Or if you’re really short on time, choose a flight tour which gets you to Milford Sound in under an hour!

Of course, if you’re going on an overnight cruise in Milford Sound or wanting to walk part or all of the Milford Track, you’ll need even more time in the area! Plan on a couple of nights to give you time to get there, enjoy your activities and get back.

sunsetting behind the mountains on Milford Sound cruise in New Zealand Aotearoa

Milford Sound lodging: Where to stay at Milford Sound

Unfortunately, Milford Sound lodging options are limited. There is only really one place to stay right at Milford Sound and freedom camping is prohibited. If you want to stay at Milford Sound, you’ll need to check into the luxurious Milford Sound Lodge and stay in one of their beautiful chalets with a view. Alternatively, they have a campervan park if you’re travelling in a self-contained vehicle (no tent camping).

Many people choose to stay in Te Anau when visiting Milford Sound, where there are more lodging options. Keep in mind that Te Anau is still a two hour drive from Milford Sound without stops (and you’ll want to make stops!).

If you have the budget for it, I’d highly recommend staying at the Milford Sound Lodge. I haven’t stayed myself but have watched videos and read reviews and it truly looks like a stunning experience. Plus, staying at the lodge would allow you to make the most of your time in Milford Sound since you won’t have to drive hours away to your accommodation. You’ll also get to enjoy the waterfront long after all the day trippers have left.

Eglinton Valley Camp cabin room in Te Anau Downs in Fiordland National Park, affordable Milford Sound lodging, New Zealand
Eglinton Valley Camp

However, if you don’t have the budget for the Milford Sound Lodge and don’t want to drive all the way back to Te Anau or Queenstown, there is another option. We stayed at Eglinton Valley Camp, just an hour outside of Milford Sound, and I highly recommend it.

We were in one of their self-contained cabins and it was spacious, comfortable and cozy with our own kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. It was also affordable – less than half what a chalet would cost you at Milford Sound Lodge – and an easy drive from Milford.

My cruise in Milford Sound experience

Our cruise in Milford Sound started when we pulled into the Milford Sound Tourism car park. Many have complained about the steep cost to park; it was previously $25 NZD for five hours of parking but as of June 2023 it’s $10 NZD/hour (credit or debit only).

If that’s too steep, there is free parking available at Deepwater Basin, but it will require you to walk for about 30 minutes to reach the Visitor Terminal. If you do opt for paid parking, don’t forget to pay! There are parking metres throughout the lot and two in the Visitor Terminal. If you forget, you’ll be ticketed and suddenly $20-30 won’t seem so bad!

After parking, we followed the trail to the Visitor Terminal where all of the cruise ships depart from. There, each company has a desk where you can check in for your cruise. You can also use the restroom, buy souvenirs, and read up about the history and wildlife in the area. If you need more extensive souvenir or snack options, these are located back where you parked your car.

Riana from Teaspoon of Adventure posing at Milford Sound, New Zealand

Once we checked in, we headed out to where the ships were docked. Colin and I walked out onto the bluff to take some photos and get ready for our cruise. Our cruise in Milford Sound was with Mitre Peak Cruises and was the last cruise of the day, giving us the entire fiord to ourselves.

When boarding started, Colin and I raced to the second level to secure seats on the open deck, as it was a rare sunny afternoon. We sat on the left (facing the Visitor Terminal) but I would recommend sitting on the right, as the views seemed to be slightly better.

As we started cruising, I was pretty immediately blown away by what we were seeing. Our boat got up close to the mountains on either side of the fiord, and it was so interesting to study the rock faces and see the vegetation growing on them. It was wild to see trees almost growing sideways and plant life that looked more similar to what I’d find in a salad bowl than on the side of a mountain.

Turning around and seeing how the steep mountains fell into the water was postcard perfect!

cruise in Milford Sound, Fiordland, New Zealand

mist coming off waterfall at Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand

Unfortunately the waterfalls in Milford Sound were not at their full power, but that’s the trade-off for getting a sunny day. On rainy days, the rain adds to the water running off the mountains, creating tons of waterfalls and mist along the fiord. But we were still able to see a few small waterfalls on the way out.

On our way back to the harbour, our cruise in Milford Sound stopped under one of the largest permanent waterfalls so we could witness its power up close. We felt the mist but I’ve seen videos of this same waterfall on a rainy day and people get soaked!

Our cruise in Milford Sound also went out to the Tasman Sea, but lucky for me, it was only a short visit. Compared to the calm fiord waters, the Tasman Sea was rocky and windy, which isn’t great for those of us who get seasick. Our captain had hoped we could see a colony of seals or penguins from out there but sadly, we did not.

However, we did have one incredible wildlife encounter! The highlight of our cruise in Milford Sound was when a pod of dolphins swam along our boat. The captain explained that families of dolphins live in the fiord and are used to the boats coming out. They swam right up to us and dove alongside our boat for a few minutes. It was so cool to see dolphins up close in the wild and luckily, it happened on the side of the boat where we were sitting!

Check out a video of the dolphins we saw on our Milford Sound cruise below! 

Milford Sound tour review

Our cruise in Milford Sound was with Mitre Peak Cruises and I really enjoyed the experience. We booked the last cruise of the day, 3:55 pm, and it seems like Mitre Peak Cruises is the only company that has a boat going out at this time. That meant we had the entire fiord to ourselves with no other boats! If we had booked an earlier cruise, we’d likely have five or six other boats out there as it seems like most companies have sailings in the morning and early afternoon.

The boat itself was nice and not too crowded. It wasn’t a huge cruise ship, and so didn’t take a ton of people, but it still felt full. Because we were some of the first people on and headed straight to the top deck, Colin and I were able to secure seats in the outside area with the best views. But even people who boarded later still had plenty of room to stand outside or sit inside.

The only time it felt a bit too crowded was when something exciting happened, like a pod of dolphins swimming by, and everyone wanted to take photos.

Mitre Peak Cruises boat pulling into the harbour at Milford Sound, New Zealand

Throughout the boat tour there was supposed to be an audio guide explaining what we were seeing, the history of the area, local wildlife, etc. I say “supposed” because while the audio guide did technically happen, the speakers on the outside deck were so poor that we could barely make out what the speaker was saying. Honestly, it didn’t bother me too much, as I mostly wanted to cruise in Milford Sound for the views. But if you’re someone who loves a guided audio tour, I’d suggest sitting elsewhere in the boat with better speakers.

We paid $69 NZD ($56 CAD/$42 USD/€38/£33) per person for our two hour Milford Sound tour cruise in April 2023. Compared to the cost of some of our other activities in New Zealand, I think $69 was super reasonable for the incredible experience we had seeing Milford Sound up close (though we did snag a discount, I would have gladly paid more!). I’d highly recommend our tour or any cruise in Milford Sound. Even if you go on a different boat, pay a little more or sail earlier in the day, I think you’ll have an amazing time experiencing Milford Sound!

Conclusion: Enjoy your cruise in Milford Sound

Colin and Riana selfie on Milford Sound cruise

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to add a cruise in Milford Sound to your New Zealand bucket list! Honestly, this cruise experience was one of the highlights of our time in Aotearoa and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting New Zealand. Whether you drive, bus or fly there, whether you have two hours or two nights on the water, and whatever the weather, I know you’ll appreciate the magic of Milford Sound!

Looking for more bucket list experiences in New Zealand? Don’t miss these posts:

Riana Ang-Canning is a travel writer who has been sharing her global adventures as the founder of Teaspoon of Adventure since 2012. In that time, Riana has travelled to almost 50 countries on 6 continents, including interning in Eswatini, working in Tokyo, road tripping New Zealand and living abroad in Prague. Riana helps everyday travellers discover the world on a mid-budget, proving that you don't have to be athletic, wealthy or nomadic to have an adventure!


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