Imagine this... You travel to Fiordland, New Zealand, for most a multi-day journey from another country. You travel along the Milford Road for a few hours, finally get to the world famous Milford Sound, look up at Mitre Peak and think "Wow, now I have seen it". Mitre Peak is simply the must do Instagram photo! Trust us when we say, you have to do a Milford Sound cruise to reveal the inner beauty and complete your full experience. A Milford Sound cruise is absolutely worth the money.
In this article we take a dive into what you will see on a Milford Sound cruise, and why it is important to try and do one. Now before we get started, you would think we would be biased - we are a tour operator after all! But we don't actually operate, or own a cruise company, we partner with another operator for the cruise portion of our tour. This article is not about which operator to use, it is only factual.
Milford Sound, tucked away in the southwestern corner of New Zealand's South Island, is a breathtaking blend of natural beauty and wildlife. It's a place where towering cliffs meet dark, mysterious waters, where waterfalls cascade from unimaginable heights, and where wildlife thrives in the rich rainforest and ocean depths. Embarking on a Milford Sound cruise is a journey into a magical realm, a place that leaves an indelible mark on every visitor.
Value vs Cost
Most cruises in Milford Sound are going to range between $100 and $140 per person and almost all of the cruises are two hours in duration. A couple of points to note, most cruise operators will also offer a day tour of which prices will greatly range, these will always include the cruise ticket in them. It is also important to understand that this cruise price includes any fees and levy's that need to be paid to the likes of the NZ Department of Conservation and Milford Sound Tourism.
It is often hard to know whether anything is worth the cost you are paying, but on this occasion we cannot recommend highly enough the value of going on a Milford Sound cruise to complete your New Zealand and Fiordland experience. Think of it like this - a Milford Sound cruise is cheaper than the following in New Zealand:
A car tank of fuel.
A nights accomodation in a hotel.
Flying between Auckland & Queenstown in most cases.
The cost of having to return to Milford Sound or New Zealand in a few years time because you regretted not doing a cruise!
There are ways to make the cruise cheaper such as early or late booking websites offering discounted deals, or for families - most operators will offer either family packages and in some cases kids cruise for free.
What will I see on a Milford Sound cruise?
Milford Sound is home to some of the world's most spectacular mountain scenery. The most iconic of these is Mitre Peak. Named for its resemblance to a bishop's mitre (a type of hat), this mountain soars straight from the sea to a height of 1,692 meters. As you cruise through the fjord, you'll continually be drawn to this majestic peak that dominates the landscape.
The Lion and the Elephant
As you navigate through the fjord, your attention will be drawn to two other unique mountain formations known as The Lion and The Elephant. These mountains, named for the animals they resemble, add to the mystique and grandeur of the Sounds.
The Southern Alps
Beyond these individual peaks, you'll be surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, forming a stunning backdrop to your cruise. These rugged mountains provide a stark contrast to the lush, green rainforest that covers much of the landscape. The Southern Alps run effectively from Milford Sound and the top of Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown, right up to the top of the South Island, below Picton & Nelson. They have been created by a combination of the Alpine Fault Line which also starts very close to Milford Sound, and glaciation events over millions of years.
Milford Sound Waterfalls Galore
Lady Bowen Falls
One of the most enchanting sights you'll encounter on your Milford Sound cruise is the abundance of waterfalls. The first of these is Lady Bowen Falls, the tallest and most powerful waterfall in Milford Sound. This waterfall plunges from a height of 162 meters, making it an awe-inspiring sight. It is more than just a waterfall though, it also powers Milford Sound's power supply through a hydroelectric system.
As you progress further into the fjord, you'll encounter Stirling Falls, another permanent waterfall. This waterfall is a bit shorter than Lady Bowen Falls, cascading from a height of 146 meters, but it's equally breathtaking. If conditions allow, your cruise boat might even venture close enough for you to feel the spray of the waterfall on your skin.
In addition to these permanent waterfalls, you'll also witness a multitude of temporary waterfalls, especially if you're visiting on a rainy day. These waterfalls appear only after heavy rainfall, creating an ethereal spectacle as water cascades down the steep cliffs into the fjord. Many visitors often comment on their disappointment on waking up to a wet, rainy day before starting their Milford Sound tour, only to be amazed when they arrive to Milford and witness a labyrinth of waterfalls overflowing form mountain lakes above due to rain.
Milford Sound Wildlife
New Zealand Fur Seals
While cruising through Milford Sound, keep an eye out for the New Zealand fur seals. These adorable creatures are often spotted lounging on Seal Rock, sunbathing, and frolicking in the water. Most cruise operators will venture out to this area. It can sometimes be a bit more open to the weather or wind than the rest of the Fjord however cruise operators will always judge the weather before making the decision to head out here. Read our article on managing sea sickness if this happens to you.
Milford Sound and the wider Fiordland area are also home to several species of dolphins, including the playful bottlenose dolphins. It is thought a pod of roughly 50 bottlenose dolphins reside in the immediate area of Milford Sound. While cruise operators are not allowed to directly approach the dolphins, if the dolphins decide to approach the boat then that is fine. They will often spend 5-10 minutes putting on a playful show for you, swimming around the bow of the boat or chasing you down the Fjord.
If you're lucky, you might even spot a rare Fiordland Crested Penguin. These elusive creatures are usually spotted during the colder months and actually reside in the forest that borders the water's edge. They go down into the water of course to feed and can sometimes be seen lazying around on the surface before heading back to dryer shores.
Milford Sound is a bird watcher's paradise. The area is teeming with native New Zealand birds, including tui, bellbirds, and kea. The surrounding rainforest provides a perfect habitat for these birds, making it a haven for bird lovers. Rarely, but impressive, you may see an Albatross that comes up from the southern quarters of Stewart Island and beyond. These magnificent birds with wingspans of up to 3-metres wide enjoy the abundance of food in the area.
Milford Sound's beauty isn't limited to its surface. Beneath the water's surface lies a unique underwater ecosystem. The fjord's waters are home to Black Coral trees, some of which are over 200 years old, and primitive clam-like creatures called brachiopods. While you won't see any of this from your cruise, you will notice the dark, almost black water of Milford Sound. This is due to the tannins from all of the surrounding native forest in the mountains. Due to the almost 8-metres of rain the area gets each year, the high volumes of water cause the leeching of these tannins which darkens the water of the Fjord below. This creates a perfect environment for the Black Corals.
As your cruise approaches the mouth of the fjord, you'll find yourself on the edge of the Tasman Sea. This vast body of water stretches all the way to Australia, and it's a sight to behold as the calm waters of the fjord give way to the open sea. It is said that on a full clear visibility day, you can see the outline of Australia almost 2000km away... We will let you be the judge of that.
What else will I get on a cruise?
Throughout your Milford Sound cruise, you'll likely be treated to a live commentary from your guide. This insightful commentary will enrich your understanding of the fjord's geology, wildlife, and Maori legends, making your cruise an educational experience as well as a visual feast. Visitors are often surprised and mesmerised by the story of Milford Sound, it will add a big dimension to your day and leave you feeling fulfilled of understanding the ecological importance of the area.
Food & beverage
Very much depending on the operator, you may be offered snacks, tea, coffee and most certainly at least water. Some of the cruises have a full restaurant and bar offering and these can really add to your day, to enjoy lunch while the stunning scenery goes by outside.
Experience & Safety
Safety is always any tour operators number one priority and all of the operators in Milford Sound are experienced in cruise tours there, some have been in Milford for decades. Cruising with one of the options in Milford is really your only way to see the Fjord unless you know someone with a boat in the area, however we really wouldn't recommend that for the exact reason of this title - experience & safety. On a cruise, you are going to get the commentary, the safety and the knowledge of which areas of the Fjord to go to at certain times.
You can probably sense by now how passionate we are about getting out on the water and experiencing Milford Sound from the inside out. It will fulfil you, energise you and connect you to nature in unimagined ways.