What to Expect on a Milford Sound Cruise: Is Milford Sound Cruise Worth It?

Milford Sound Cruise is one of the most popular activities on the South Island of New Zealand. This Milford Sound guide shows you what to expect on the popular cruise so you can decide if it’s worth doing!

Carved by glaciers a long ago, Milford Sound is a natural wonder and a sight not to be missed for anyone visiting the South Island of New Zealand.

Located in the Fiordland National Park on the west coast of Southern New Zealand, Milford Sound was first discovered by the Māori people and legend has it Milford Sound was created by a godly figure in
Māori legend.

Later on Milford Sound was “discovered” again by European settlers and was wrongly named as a Sound when it’s really a fjord (A sound is a river valley that’s been flooded by the ocean, whereas a fjord is formed by glacier).

There is a reason why Milford Sound is considered the 8th wonder of the world!

I was astonished by the stunning view on our Milford Sound Cruise surrounded by waterfalls and the towering peak of Mitre Peak, which is one of the most photographed peaks in New Zealand.

In this post I will share our experience on a Milford Sound cruise so you can see what to expect, and decide if a Milford Sound cruise is worth it for you.

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Milford Sound Cruise and Milford Sound activities

Best (and Worst) Time to Visit Milford Sound

Rain is one word you can use to describe Milford Sound weather. It rains over 200 days of the year there and Milford Sound is considered one of the wettest places on earth.

During the early summer months of December and January Milford Sound sees the heaviest rainfall even though temperature during these early summer months is higher at around 55-65F (13-18C) degrees during the day.

You can still visit Milford Sound in the winter month (June to August). Temperature during these winter months at Milford Sound is a bit lower but you have a better chance of seeing dolphins and penguins during the cold season.

Milford Sound Cruise and Milford Sound activities

Even though Milford Sound weather sounds wet and gloomy, you should not feel discouraged because you will be able to see numerous waterfalls from the cliffs surrounding Milford Sound if you do a Milford Sound cruise in the rain.

These waterfalls are only there when it rains so as long as it doesn’t rain very heavily (the type that causes the cruise to be canceled), you will still have a great time. Unfortunately rain could affect the other Milford Sound activities such as hiking.

We got really lucky when we went to Milford Sound on Christmas Eve it was sunny without a cloud in the sky. However the day before it was rainy and grey so you never know how Milford Sound weather will turn out.

Which Milford Sound Cruise to Choose From?

There are a number of different Milford Sound cruise companies and tours you can choose from:

For Milford Sound Cruise I personally went with Cruise Milford, a family owned cruise company that offers impeccable service and an amazing tour.

The reason I picked Cruise Milford is because of the raving reviews on TripAdvisor and the small boat size. I liked the fact that the boat is small so it wasn’t crowded and almost everyone fits on the deck to get the perfect view of Milford Sound.

Cruise Milford sightseeing cruise
Cruise Milford Boat

All the staff on board was super friendly and knowledgeable. Besides the actual cruise, Cruise Milford also offers bus pick up services as well as fly-cruise-fly option which I will discuss more below.

Milford Sound Cruise - what to expect onboard
View from the deck
Milford Sound cruise and Milford Sound activities

How to Get To Milford Sound?

There are several different ways to get to Milford Sound and they include:

Driving from Queenstown or Te Anau to Milford Sound

You can rent a car and drive from either Queenstown or Te Anau. It takes about 2 hours from Te Anau to Milford Sound and 4 hours from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

Driving from Queenstown to Milford Sound (4-5 Hours)

If you are driving from Queenstown, you might want to consider taking a later cruise as it takes 4-5 hours to drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound (Distance from Queenstown to Milford Sound is about 288km).

You will first drive about 2 hours from Queenstown to Te Anau, the last town before Fiordland National Park. As you drive towards Te Anau, you will be driving on the side of Lake Wakatipu the first 20-30 minutes.

There is a rest stop called Devil’s Staircase where you can get out of the car to really enjoy the view of the lake and the windy drive. Unfortunately after you reach the town of Kingston the drive to Te Anau gets a bit boring.

Once you get to Te Anau I suggest filling up on fuel, grab something to eat from the gas station before continuing on your drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

Hollyford Valley photo view point drive to milford sound

Driving from Te Anau to Milford Sound (2-3 hours)

Start your day in Te Anau bright and early to leave no later than 8am to catch your 10:45 Cruise Milford cruise. Budget 2-3 hours to drive on highway 94 to the Milford Sound Cruise terminal.

The actual distance from Te Anau to Milford Sound is only 121km but there are a lot of cars and buses in the morning to Milford Sound and you will inevitably get stuck behind a slower vehicle.

The road gets significantly more windy after the Divide so you definitely will need to slow down. In addition, there are a lot of beautiful photo stops on the drive to Milford Sound that you do not want to miss.

I personally stayed in Te Anau for two nights and absolutely would recommend it as it allowed me to do a few of the hikes in Fiordland National Park and see all the beautiful photo stops on the drive to Milford Sound.

Photo stop on the drive to milford sound
View on the drive to Milford Sound, New Zealand

Milford Sound Driving Tips

  • Fuel: Make sure you have enough fuel to drive to/back from Milford Sound as Te Anau is the last town that you can fill up. From Te Anau it’s still a two hour drive (one way) to Milford Sound.
  • Cellular Reception: There is NO cellular reception. If your car doesn’t have GPS, you should download a Google offline map and mark all the stops you want to make. Technically you won’t get lost because there really is only one road to Milford Sound and all the photo stops are well marked.
  • Photo Stops: Map out places you want to see on highway 94. Even though the photo stops are well marked, it’s still good to do your research ahead of time to figure out which ones you want to stop at because you probably won’t be able to stop at all of them.

    If you plan to do Milford Sound hikes definitely plan out which hike you want to do and bring enough food, water and clothes.
  • Ice & Snow: Watch out for ice and snow on highway 94 in the winter: if you are visiting Milford Sound in the winter you will need to put chains on your tires and watch out for ice and snow.
  • Don’t speed: One of my friends said they actually got caught speeding while driving to Milford Sound and I did see a couple of police cars myself while driving there. The speed limit is 100kmph but you probably won’t be driving that because the road gets really narrow and windy with hairpin turns at 15kmph.
  • Get there early! There are a few car parks near the Milford Sound cruise terminal. The closest parking lots get filled by 9:30am and the closest parking lot is already a 10 min walk to the Milford Sound cruise terminal. If you arrive late and need to park at a further lot then expect to walk 20-30 minutes.
Drive to milford sound best photo spot

Taking a Coach From Te Anau or Queenstown to Milford Sound

If you don’t feel like driving the windy Highway 94 to Milford Sound worry not, there are options for you to just sit back and relax.

With the cruise company I used, they also offer day tour options from Te Anau or Queenstown to Milford Cruise so you do not need to drive yourself.

There are also many other tours that offer day trip options to Milford Sound.

Flying to Milford Sound

If you really want the ultimate Milford Sound experience, then you can choose to either fly by plane or fly by helicopter from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

Flying by plane costs about between $NZ500-600 a person and taking the helicopter is around NZ$1000, which is the most expensive option. However if you have the money the view and the experience is definitely worth it.

What to Expect on a Milford Sound Cruise

This is based on our experience visiting Milford Sound on a nice sunny day. Your experience may be different depending on the weather, the tour you choose and other factors. But hopefully our experience will show you what to expect on a Milford Sound Cruise in New Zealand.

Arriving at Milford Sound Cruise Terminal

After driving on the narrow and windy road for hours from Te Anau we finally came to a huge parking lot for the Milford Sound cruise. .

There are several different parking lots used for the Milford Sound Cruise terminal and unless you are the first ones there the first parking lot is prob full. We got there around 10am and was able to get one of the last spots in a parking lot closest to the cruise terminal.

Milford Sound Cruise Terminal
Walk to the cruise terminal
Cruise Milford Boarding Pass
Our Milford Sound Cruise Boarding Pass
Milford sound Cruise

What You See On the Milford Sound Sightseeing Cruise

After you check in with your cruise company at the terminal, you will be given a boarding pass. Hold onto it otherwise you won’t be able to board.

Cruise Milford’s boarding process was easy since it’s a small ship and I also appreciated the fact that they offered free coffee, tea and cookies on board given how early we had to get up to drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

The route of the cruise is pretty much making a big circle starting on the left side of the fjord, continuing to the Tasman Sea then coming back on the right side of the fjord.

Sinbad Gully

One of the first things the cruise will pass by, Sinbad Gully is a U shaped Valley on the base of Mitre Peak. A rare bird called the kakapo bird was discovered in Sinbad Gully.

Sinbad Gully Milford Sound
Sinbad Gully

Mitre Peak

Above Sinbad Gully is the most iconic peak of Milford Sound, the Mitre Peak. Towering at 1692m, Mitre Peak is perhaps the most photographed peak in the entire South Island.

Shortly after we passed by Mitre Peak we spotted some seals! A couple of them were sunbathing on the rocks not too far from the first waterfall we encountered.

Mitre Peak Milford Sound
Mitre Peak is the Tallest Peak

Fairy Falls & Bridal Veil Falls

Two semi-permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, on a rainy day or right after heavy rain, you will be able to see these two gushing waterfalls. However since we went on a super sunny day, we actually only saw Bridal Veil Falls.

The captain got us really close to the waterfall and you can literally feel the spray on your face (cover up your camera and hopefully you have a rain jacket). It is amazing to see a waterfall from almost right under it; having a rainbow in from of your boat doesn’t hurt either.


Bridal Veils Falls Milford sound Cruise

Anita Bay & Tasman Sea

As the cruise continues you will pass by Anita Bay and go into Tasman Sea. This is generally the point where your Milford Sound sightseeing cruise will turn around to go back to the cruise departure point.

Tasman Sea Milford Sound
Tasman Sea

Seal Rock

Because Milford Sound is a protected area, there are a lot of wild lives here such as penguins, dolphins and seals. There is even a rock named Seal Rock where you can see seals sunbathing on the rocks. We actually got very lucky that we saw seals both on Seal Rock and near Bridal Veil Falls earlier during the cruise.

Seal Rock Milford Sound Cruise
Seal Rock
Seal Rock Milford Sound Cruise
Wish I could just sunbath all day

Stirling Falls

Perhaps my favorite waterfall in Milford Sound, this stunning waterfall is about 150m high and is a permanent waterfall. This means that even on a sunny day you will be able to see Stirling Falls.

The captain gets you really close to the waterfall and you can feel the power of the gushing water. Be prepare to get wet but amazed! Also if you are a X Men Wolverine fan, you may recognize this waterfall!

Stirling Falls Milford Sound New Zealand
Stirling Falls
Milford Sound Cruise Stirling Falls New Zealand
Stirling Falls is SO amazing

Lion Mountain

As you sail back to the wharf your captain will point out a mountain range that looks like a lion crouching. This mountain apparently sits 700 meters above sea and its real name is Mt. Kimberley.

Harrison’s Cove

Second to last sight on your Milford Sound cruise, Harrison’s Cove is a sheltered cove that allows visitors to kayak in peace sheltered the wind and the waves.

The main thing to do in Harrison’s Cove is the Milford Discovery Centre & Underwater Observatory, a floating underwater observatory that lets you see the underwater world.

Both kayaking and the underwater observatory are included on this cruise tour. Our cruise did not include them so we didn’t get to do them.

Harrison's Cove Milford Sound

Milford Sound Kayak
Do you see the kayakers?

Lady Bowen Falls

The last waterfall you will see on the Milford Sound cruise, Lady Bowen Falls is also the tallest waterfall in Milford Sound at 168m. It is named after the wife of one of the first New Zealand governors. Apparently Lady Bowen Falls is the sole source of electric power and energy in Milford Sound, therefore it’s extremely important.

Lady Bowen Falls Milford Sound
Lady Bowen Falls

Other Things to do at Milford Sound

Although most people visit Milford Sound to do the sightseeing Cruise, there are actually a ton of other Milford Sound activities you can do. However this is only if you are driving to Milford Sound yourself (or have a private transfer). If you are doing a Milford Sound tour, then you probably can’t do many of these activities.

Camping in Milford Sound

If you are traveling by camper van in New Zealand then you simply have to stay one night in Milford Sound. It’s a completely different feeling when you wake up and have Milford Sound all to yourself.

Kayaking in Milford Sound

As mentioned earlier, Harrison’s Cove is a kayaker’s heaven. Even though you cannot go as far as a cruise can, it is still an amazing experience to kayak in the calm waters of Milford Sound to enjoy the stunning view.

Diving in Milford Sound

If you are a fan of diving and the underwater world then you simply have to do a diving tour in Milford Sound.

There are a ton of beautiful stops on the drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, from waterfalls to gorges to hikes to lupine fields (depending on the season).

See my complete guide on the best stops on the drive to Milford Sound.

Hiking in Milford Sound

Photo stop on the drive to milford sound
Key Summit Track

There are a number of multi-day hikes located in Fiordland National Park, 3 of which are part of New Zealand’s Great Walks

  • Milford Track
  • Kepler Track
  • Routeburn Track.
  • Another multi-day track called the Hollyford Track is also located not too far from Milford Sound.

If you are not into multi-day hikes, there are a number of amazing Milford Sound day hikes you can do. These include Gertrude Saddle, Key Summit Track (part of the Routeburn track), Lake Marian Track (one of my favorites), Tutoko Track and Grave Talbot Track.

I did the Key Summit Track and Lake Marian track when we were driving back from Milford Sound (we got to do both hikes because we drove to Milford Sound twice). Both hikes were really nice and not super long, but we were able to see beautiful lakes and nice views along the hikes.

Hiking Lake Marian Track in New Zealand
Lake Marian Track, New Zealand

Is Milford Sound Cruise Worth It?

If you are looking for a relaxing experience visiting one of the most famous natural attractions in New Zealand then Milford Sound Cruise is definitely worth it!

Be sure to visit Milford Sound on a nice day. If it’s pouring and you can’t see anything then I don’t think it would be the best experience for you.

In addition, self-drive is the best way to visit Milford Sound. After the cruise you can check out other beautiful spots or do a hike near Milford Sound. This whole day experience makes the Milford Sound Cruise day trip even more fun and worthwhile.

Final Thoughts on Milford Sound Cruise and Activities

Regardless of how long you are in New Zealand, you will inevitably find your way to the amazing Milford Sound, whether it’s one day or one week there.

If you only have one day in Milford Sound then you simply have to do the Milford Sound sightseeing cruise like I did. If time allows in your 1 day in Milford Sound, then add in another hike along the way. But seriously, no matter what you do in Milford Sound, this place will amaze you.

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