There are a lot of “Must Dos” on most peoples’ New Zealand itinerary. Those usually include places like Queenstown, the Tongariro Crossing, Mount Cook National Park, and Rotorua. But most of all, a good New Zealand itinerary will almost always include cruising Milford Sound.
Visiting Milford Sound is something I knew I wanted to do way before I flew off to New Zealand. Every photo I saw of it felt dark, moody, quiet, and undeniably beautiful. Milford Sound looked so far away, so far removed from the rest of the world.
Without getting too abstract and gushy, cruising Milford Sound was everything I wanted it to be and more. It was, without a doubt, one of the best experiences I had in all of New Zealand.
What & Where is Milford Sound?
Milford Sound is sort of a misnomer. If we’re getting technical with geographical terms, Milford Sound is actually a fjord. The difference? A fjord is a narrow body of water carved out glacially (like Milford Sound), whereas a Sound is a wider body of water usually created by flooding (like the Marlborough Sounds).
Technicalities aside, Milford Sound is a beautiful inlet on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s located within Fiordland National Park, the country’s largest national park.
Milford Sound is a 15 km inlet off the Tasman Sea. It is one of the wettest places in the world, with an average of 252 inches of annual rainfall.
This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of New Zealand, and for good reason.
Milford Sound is often referred to as the “8th Wonder of the World”. It’s an unofficial title, but it’s certainly fitting. This nickname was given to Milford Sound by Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book.
Cruising Milford Sound with Real Journeys
I booked my tour with Real Journeys, and chose the nature cruise. Once I arrived in Milford Sound, I was dropped off at the cruise terminal by my shuttle. With ticket in hand, all I had to do was find the right boat. The one I was booked on looked like a classic explorer’s ship, perfect for cruising Milford Sound.
The boat was a pretty good size, with perhaps 150 or so passengers. There was a dining room with seating, where guests could purchase food & drink for the cruise. I sat inside initially, nursing a cup of free coffee while the cruise started.
A little later, I made my way out to the upper viewing deck (there are two outdoor decks). The deck was quite large, with lots of seating. Towards the beginning of the cruise, it was really crowded outside. By 20 or 30 minutes in, a lot of people went inside to keep warm, clearing up lots of space.
It was a gloomy day, but there wasn’t much rain. It wasn’t particularly cold with all of my layers on, but there was certainly a lot of wind while heading out of the inlet towards the sea. Sitting on the benches in the middle of the deck was a good spot to keep warm, while standing along the railing to get photos was the hardest spot to be.
Milford Sound is so quiet, it’s almost eerie. Steep walls jut out of the dark waters, reaching into the clouds. Waterfalls cascade down the rock face, and the cruise boats get so close you might get sprayed. Fur seals lounge on large rocks, and if you’re lucky you might spot a dolphin (I didn’t).
The ship moved slowly along one side of the fjord, just out to where it meets the sea, and then made its way back along the opposite side. This allows plenty of time to see Milford Sound, enjoy the experience, and get plenty of photos.
Cruising Milford Sound can last anywhere from an hour and a half to over three hours, depending on your tour company and cruise option. My cruise was 2 hours and 15 minutes.
How to Get to Milford Sound
The only way to get to Milford Sound is via the Milford Road. Most people visit Milford Sound as a day trip. The main hubs for tours are Te Anau and Queenstown.
Te Anau is a small town on the shore of Lake Te Anau, and it’s considered the gateway to Fiordland National Park. It’s about 120 km south of Milford Sound, so while it’s the closest tourist town, it’s still a bit of a drive.
Queenstown is, overall, a much more popular place for tourists. It’s almost 300 km from Milford Sound, but there are still plenty of tours and buses taking visitors there for a day trip.
The best way to get to Milford Sound for your cruise is to book a tour package through the cruise provider. Most companies offer an option to purchase just a cruise ticket, or a cruise and return transport from either Te Anau or Queenstown. If you have a car, you can drive yourself.
I stayed in Te Anau and would recommend it over Queenstown for a Milford Sound trip. I was transported from town in a van with a small group, and we stopped at all of the popular landmarks along the road to Milford Sound. It was a calm, simple, and laid-back trip.
On the other hand, when I left Te Anau, I took a bus to Queenstown and it happened to be a bus coming from Milford Sound. It was the daily bus that transports visitors back after their Milford Sound cruise, and it was packed full. I was only onboard for half the trip—I can’t imagine driving all the way from Milford Sound to Queenstown just for a day trip.
How to Book Milford Sound Cruise
There are a lot of companies offering Milford Sound tours. I went with Real Journeys, but other options include Southern Discoveries, Jucy Cruise, and Go Orange.
As I said before, most tour companies give you the option to purchase a cruise ticket only (and find your own transportation to Milford Sound), or a cruise and transport package. Once you’ve chosen a tour provider, you can easily book a Milford Sound cruise through a site like Viator, or directly through the tour operator’s websites.
Milford Sound tours can be very expensive, though. During peak season, cruise-only tickets generally cost between $55-$100 NZD, depending on the type of cruise. Cruise and transport packages will easily set you back around $150-$200 NZD if you’re coming from Te Anau, and $200 and up if you’re coming from Queenstown. Jucy Cruise seems to have the cheapest tickets.
I recommend booking your Milford Sound cruise through bookme.co.nz. I used the site to book a lot of attractions & activities during my time in New Zealand and it saved me a lot of money. It’s easy to find a Milford Sound cruise through Book Me from all of the tour providers. There are a lot of options on the site, so be sure to read all of the information and full terms. Book your tour as far in advance as you can to be sure you find the best times and prices.
I found a Milford Sound cruise & transport package from Te Anau for just $87 NZD. That was almost 50% less than if I had booked directly with the company. I just want to note that I am in no way affiliated with Book Me. I genuinely use and recommend the website & just want to share it with you.
Tips for Visiting Milford Sound
- It rains about 180 days a year, and the waterfalls will be more spectacular afterwards. If you can, try to go on a cloudy day right after the rain. I found it to be more beautiful in the gloom than it would be on a sunny day.
- Wear layers! This is a general rule for New Zealand, but especially while cruising Milford Sound. The weather can be fickle, so be prepared for rain, wind, and a bit of a chill. I wore moisture-proof leggings, hiking boots, a t-shirt, a fleece jacket, and a wind/water resistant jacket. I also brought a scarf and gloves. This kept me warm enough to sit outside the entire time.
- Book your tour in advance if visiting during peak season. While there are generally enough tours going out every day, it’s best to book early to make sure you get the tour & time you want.
- The road to Milford Sound is filled with a lot of stunning scenery as well. If you’re driving yourself, leave time to stop off along the road. If you’re using other transport, find a tour that stops at the major landmarks. Otherwise you’ll just be sitting on a bus passing it all by, and trust me, you’ll want to get photos.
- Kayaking is a popular activity in Milford Sound. You can also book an overnight cruise for a luxury experience.
Want to see more photos from Milford Sound? Check out my Steller Story
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