Visiting Milford Sound is on the bucket list of every visitor who comes to New Zealand – and rightly so. With almost 1million visitors each year, it’s an internationally renowned world heritage site that shouldn’t be missed.
Only a Milford Sound scenic cruise will get you close enough to the beauty that’s hiding in the Fiord. You’ll get up close to waterfalls and, if you’re lucky, the local wildlife that calls Milford home.
Image by Mitre Peak Cruises
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There are lots of options available when it comes to cruising Milford Sound, from small intimate boats to huge pirate ship-like cruisers.
Of course, we’ve only done the one so I’m not about to tell you which is ‘the best’. I am, however, going to tell you why we think the Mitre Peak Cruise might just be the one for you!
If you’re planning a trip to Milford Sound – which you should be – here’s what you can expect from a Milford Sound Scenic Cruise, with Mitre Peak Cruises.
I am not affiliated with Mitre Peak Cruises and this wasn’t a sponsored visit. We paid for our cruise with our own money and all views are our own.
Where is Milford Sound, and how do I get there?
Before we get into the juicy bits about the Milford Sound cruises, I guess you need to know exactly where Milford Sound is, if you don’t know already, and how to get there. Right?
Milford Sound is situated within the famous Fiordland National Park, on the West Coast of the Southland Region. It’s the only Fiord within the National Park that is accessible by road. Thanks to the Homer Tunnel, it’s now also the most visited by tourists.
There are several options for getting to Milford Sound including guided day trips from Queenstown or Te Anau, self-driving the Milford Road or even a scenic flight. If you’ve been with us long enough, you’ll know that we will always opt for the self-drive option when it’s available.
It might be the most accessible Fiord, but there’s still only one road in or out, and that’s the Milford Road (Route 94) from Te Anau. On the map, Milford Sound might look closer to Glenorchy but unfortunately, there’s no road from here. Click the map below for full directions.
Choosing a Milford Sound Scenic Cruise
Why We Chose Mitre Peak Cruises
When it comes to choosing a Milford Sound scenic cruise, it’s easy to get bogged under with all of the options. We were exactly the same when we started looking in summer but ‘thanks’ to the recent pandemic, fewer tourists meant fewer operators were running, and those who were had fewer time slots – thus narrowing down our options when it came to finally booking our tour.
That wasn’t a bad thing though, as it turned out Mitre Peak Cruises offered exactly what we were looking for; small boats, intimate group sizes and an up-close-and-personal experience of the Fiord. Oh, and free coffee!
Our tour started at 11am, which gave us plenty of time to get to the waterfront from the Milford Sound Lodge, catch the sunrise and take a walk on the foreshore.
Even after spending the previous day on the waterfront, the views still took my breath away. It wasn’t a feeling that would ease any time soon, either.
Me and Dec before our Milford Sound Scenic Cruise
Mitre Peak Cruises pride themselves on offering small, intimate cruises onboard one of the smallest boats in Milford. With a capacity of 60-75, we were looking forward to being on the water with as few people as possible – what I wasn’t expecting was there to be fewer than 30!
The boat wasn’t even half-full by the time we left the harbour so after warming up with a complimentary coffee, we found ourselves a front-row seat on the bow of the boat.
The local skipper soon started filling the air with facts about the area as we drifted away from land and out towards the Tasman Sea.
I’ll list the most impressive ones below, but the most important fact to note is that Milford Sound isn’t actually a Sound, it’s a Fiord.
What’s the difference? A Sound is created by flooded rivers and Fiord is created by glacial melt and erosion! Millions of years ago, Milford Sound would have once been completely under the ice!
What you’ll see on your Milford Sound Scenic Cruise
Mitre Peak Cruises – Taking You Further
What I liked most about the Mitre Peak Cruise was that not only did they get closer to the best bits than the bigger boats would be able to, they stopped and explained parts of Milford Sound that I hadn’t even heard of before.
There’s a lot to see on the Mitre Peak Cruise, especially after heavy rainfall when they experience hundreds of temporary waterfalls. Below I’ll outline some of the highlights that you can expect to see on your own Milford Sound scenic cruise.
Mitre Peak Milford Sound Scenic Cruise Map
We were able to see Mitre Peak from the shore, but that didn’t make it any less impressive as we sailed into its shadow.
It’s the most famous of all the mountains within the Fiordland National Park, and while it isn’t the country’s highest peak (1692m), it’s possibly one of the most photographed, alongside Mount Cook.
When you see it, you’ll probably be amazed to find out that people actually climb Mitre Peak, given that it looks like a sheer climb from ground level, it’s a feat worth applauding I think!
Oh, and its Maori name is Rahotu, which loosely translates to ‘Long for the sun’… possibly because of how cloudy and wet it is for most of the year here!
Lady Bowen Falls taken during low tide
Hiding beneath Mitre Peak, lies Sinbad Gully, another glacially carved gully that veers away from Milford Sounds main waterway.
It’s home to over 20 species of native wildlife, including tokoeka (Southern brown kiwi) and the rarer whio (Blue Ducks).
If you’re lucky you might even spot Yellow Crested Penguins emerging from here, especially during winter.
Despite the overcast and somewhat miserable day, our Mitre Peak Cruise was relatively calm – until we reached Copper Point.
This is the windiest point of Milford Sound and one that the bigger boats often can’t come past. It wasn’t surprising that from here, the ride got a little rockier.
If you don’t see penguins from Sinbad Gully, keep your eyes open from here on out. They’re common visitors to Milford Sound and between July and November, their activities heighten within the Fiord. We weren’t lucky enough to see them, but maybe next time!
View from the Mitre Peak boat
Visible Tectonic Fault Line
For me, this was another really interesting point within our Mitre Peak Cruise that never gets talked about.
Within the high mountain ranges of Milford Sound is a visible sign of the Tectonic Fault Line that lies beneath the Fiordland and the whole of New Zealand.
The skipper will point this out to you during the Milford Sound scenic cruise, but if you keep your eyes on the mountains to the left, you’ll be able to see a huge crack ripping its way through the rock.
This crack goes all the way beneath the ground where it connects to the tectonic plates – you know, those things that are responsible for earthquakes!
In a way, this crack in the mountain provides a safe way for us to see a faultline without having to be impacted by a dramatic earthquake – pretty cool, huh?
St. Anne’s Point Lighthouse
Because Mitre Peak Cruises go further than the others, on this Milford Sound scenic cruise you will be able to go out to (and past) St. Anne’s Point Lighthouse on the entrance to Milford Sound.
It isn’t the most remarkable lighthouse we’ve seen while travelling New Zealand, but this is where you stand a good chance of seeing dolphins, or even whales while cruising Milford.
While we weren’t fortunate enough to see any of Milfords more exotic marine life this time around, I can assure you if you do, it’s an experience you’ll never forget!
St. Anne’s Point Lighthouse also marks the halfway point of this Milford Sound scenic cruise and it was here that everything got a lot more choppy due to being out in the open waters of the Tasman Sea before we headed back to the relevant safety of Milford Sound.
Australian Tectonic Plate colliding with New Zealand
The return journey is when you’ll get almost-guaranteed wildlife sightings.
The New Zealand fur seals of Milford Sound are here year-round, with their number decreasing slightly during the winter months when the majority head off to fatten up in warmer waters.
We might have seen fur seals in New Zealand before, but I always get excited when there’s a chance to see wildlife up close. The small Mitre Peak Boat was able to get eerily close to the side of the rock, giving us a clear view of the seals without having to use the camera zoom.
We were able to see four seals on our Milford Sound scenic cruise, including a mother and pup. Apparently, in the summer this whole rock face is full of fur seals basking and playing in the waters.
See fur seals up close from a Milford Sound scenic cruise
Now, this is the reason we chose Mitre Peak Cruises.
Stirling Falls is 151m tall and one of only two permanent waterfalls within Milford Sound – despite there being a whole lot more on display throughout the year.
Unlike Lady Bowen waterfall, this one can only be experienced up close by boat or scenic flight. Due to their size, the Mitre Peak boats are able to get closer to the waterfall than any of the other tour operators, making our experience a whole lot more fun and memorable – if a little wet.
As we approached the rock face, I quickly made sure to zip up my waterproofs and hold on tight to my phone. Within a matter of moments, the waterfall was colliding down onto the boat and water was washing over us. I can see why they leave this for last as it wasn’t long before I was shivering my ass off in the wind.
Before the boat pulled away, I was able to grab a photo of the impressive pattern that forms at the base of Stirling Falls. It looks like electricity zapping through the water, don’t you think?
The electric waves of Stirling Falls, scene from our Miter Peak Cruise
Overall Thoughts on Mitre Peak Cruises
Our experience with Mitre Peak Cruises was one I will hold dearly for a long time to come.
Being able to experience a Milford Sound scenic cruise on a smaller boat without a huge crowd, was a big deal for us as I’m sure it is for many of you too!
If you’re looking for a cruise that has knowledgeable guides, friendly staff and one that goes a little further than all the rest then we fully recommend the 2-hour Mitre Peak Cruises… the complimentary drinks were pretty yum too.
Image by Mitre Peak of their small boat at Stirling Falls
Mitre Peak Cruise Times
Mitre Peak usually offer tours all throughout the day, including sunrise and sunset options. I’ve listed them below;
– 8:55 am and 3.15 pm & 4.30pm
– 9.55am,11.10am,12.40pm & 2pm
However, due to the ‘weird’ circumstances at the moment, they’re only offering two time slots;
– 11 am
I’m not sure when they will resume normal hours, so if you were hoping for an earlier/later cruise, I suggest checking their website or giving them a call before getting too disappointed.
Mitre Peak Cruise Prices
Their cruise prices vary between $90-$100 per adult and $30 per child.
You can often find discounts on getyourguide.com or bookme.com BUT I strongly recommend calling Mitre Peak to see if they can match those prices and allow you to book direct – this is what we did and were able to do a Milford Sound scenic cruise with them for $40 each!
By booking direct, you cut out the middle man and save the company from paying a big commission to the third party company.
Quick Facts About Milford Sound
- It was carved by glaciers melting and eroding the rocks over millions of years
- With an average of 182 days of rain a year (occasionally 9.84 inches within a day), it’s one of the wettest places on earth.
- After heavy rain, the water turns black. This is due to the fresh rainwater getting trapped at the surface, creating a thick freshwater layer. Combine that with the amount of tannin that gets washed in from the trees, and you get the eerie black-looking water.
- Maori ancestors were touring these Fiordlands by foot and boat long before the Europeans settled in New Zealand – it was a huge source of food and Jade Stone for Maori in the area.
- It’s called Piopiotahi by the Maori, which means ‘a single Piopio’. Maori legend says that the hero Maui died here while trying to gain immortality for people. When he did, a single Piopio (an extinct bird) flew over the ranges in mourning.
- It was originally called Milford Haven by Welsh explorers who passed through. It was later changed to Milford Sound by a couple more Welsh who passed through a few years later.
When is the best time to do a Milford Sound Scenic Cruise?
No matter what time of year you visit Milford Sound, I can guarantee you that it will be beautiful.
With that in mind, the perfect weather for seeing Milford Sound, believe it or not, is rain.
Why? Because when it rains heavy, within a matter of hours the mountains transform into backdrops for hundreds upon hundreds of waterfalls. All of which dry up again within hours of the rain stopping. So while you won’t be able to see the tops of the mountains for the rain, you will experience Milford Sound at its most dramatic.
November – March is the areas busiest months, with visitor numbers soaring to 2000 a day! This is when the area experiences the most rain, but as was the case in February 2020, it’s also when the roads are at a higher risk of closing due to storm damage.
Winter is the quietest period for Milford Sound, with tourist numbers dropping dramatically. In these much colder months, you’ll get crisp clear skies and early sunsets, this is a great opportunity for viewing the stars above Milford.
Of course, with winter comes a new risk on the roads – snow. When the snow gets too much, the Milford Road gets closed. So no matter what time of year you plan to visit always check the road conditions before setting off.
You can keep your eyes on the road conditions with this website. It’s the most reliable and up to date.
View from our Milford Sound scenic cruise
What are the Milford Sound Accommodation Options?
We were really surprised to hear that Milford Sound is very limited when it comes to accommodation options, given how extremely popular it is with tourists. This is why most people opt to do a day tour instead.
However, if you really want to stay within the Fiordland National Park there are a couple of options – more if you’re road tripping in a motorhome.
Milford Sound Lodge
This is the only option for those of you who want to stay over but are travelling without a campervan.
The Milford Sound Lodge offers a wide range of accommodation from powered campsites, backpacker rooms and right up to luxury chalets. The chalets have the best view out of these options; most look over the river while the mountains tower above them. There’s also an on-site cafe, bar and restaurant that serves some fantastic meals.
We had the opportunity to stay in one of the mountain view chalets during our 3-day stay and I can assure you these spacious rooms are 100% worth the cost. Keep your eyes open for our upcoming in-depth post (that isn’t sponsored).
If you’re camping, the prices at the moment for a woodland powered campsite near the facilities has been reduced to $50 a night, down from $70.
At the moment this is also the only place to get food once you leave Te Anau. The Milford Sound Cafe and Information Centre is currently closed.
Milford Sound Lodge Chalet
DOC Camping in Milford Sound
If you’re driving to Milford Sound in a campervan, you’re in luck. There are a lot more options for you when it comes to camping in Milford Sound
Along the Milford Road (not to be confused with the Milford Track) there are a handful of DOC campsites that are partially serviced – this means they have a few toilets but little else in the way of amenities. They do, however, offer some great views with some of them even being right by the river.
We noticed a couple of these are closed at the moment, so we suggest checking out the DOC website to find out exactly what’s open and what the current prices are.
Parking at Milford Sound
If you’re wondering where to park up before your Milford Sound scenic cruise, I wouldn’t worry too much. There’s plenty of parking if you get there early enough.
This is free parking all year round that’s located just past the Milford Sound Lodge. There are limited spaces (around 80) so get there early in the summer if you want to grab a free spot.
In summer it offers a free shuttle bus into Milford Sound but it’s only a 10-minute walk via the bush track if you’re not in a rush, or don’t fancy catching the bus.
Milford Information Centre
This is where the bulk of the parking is, right on the waterfront of Milford.
They’re also a bit slower to fill up thanks to the summer charges of $10 an hour.
When we visited they were free, at first we thought this was a post-covid offer, but apparently they’re free every year in the off season/winter months.
Out at the Tasman Sea
Other things to do in Milford Sound
There’s plenty to keep you busy in and around Milford Sound, especially if you’re a keen hiker or photographer.
Once you’ve done your Milford Sound scenic cruise, why not do one of the local walks?
Most of these were closed on our visit, still suffering from the February storms but I’m sure the DOC will have them up and running again in time for the next busy season. Check for updates on the DOC website.
- Lake Marian. A steep 3.1km return walk to a beautiful alpine lake
- The Milford Sound foreshore walk. An easy, family-friendly walk through the local bush along the famous waterfront
- The Milford Sound lookout. We nearly missed this! It’s hiding behind the cafe and information centre. Only 400meters but up a lot of steps, it offers the best views of Milford without a plane.
- Bowen Falls Walk – A relatively new walk that only opened in 2015. Take a short boat ride ($10 per adult) to the boardwalk and find yourself at the base of one of Milford’s most famous waterfalls.
What to pack for your Milford Sound Scenic Cruise;
Wondering what you’ll need to take with you on your Milford Sound scenic cruise? We’ve made that a little easier with our Milford Sound packing list. If you do decide tour with Mitre Peak, you will definitely want something waterproof as they get close to the waterfalls. Also, take plenty of snacks both for the boat and in case you decide to do any of the longer walks. Lastly… Don’t forget the bug spray. While the Sand Flies aren’t too bad on the boat they are a nightmare while you’re waiting to board or walking along the foreshore. Pack spray, don’t let them ruin your Milford Sound scenic cruise!
- Waterproof Coat
- BUG SPRAY x1 million
- Did I mention bug spray?
And one last time… bug spray. Jeez those sand flies are nasty in Milford Sound!
Overall, we had a fantastic time with Mitre Peak Cruises. For our first experience of a Milford Sound scenic cruise, we couldn’t have asked for a more informative guide and what can I say, I’m a sucker for free coffee + hot chocolate! Have you been to Milford Sound yet? Did you cruise or kayak? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or maybe come over to our Facebook page and say hi!
Once again, this post isn’t sponsored by Mitre Peak. All thoughts and opinions are our own. However, there are a few affilated links that offer us a small commission at no extra cost to you.
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Milford Sound looks like a surreal dream come alive in your post through some vivid pictures and words. What an amazing experience it must have been. Cruising on a boat close to the mountain peak and the waterfalls, spotting wildlife, and more, indeed the makings of an unforgettable experience. My attention was riveted by the images of Stirling Falls, the patterns at the bottom of the falls look so out of the world and magical. This is an experience that we would really enjoy, hope to do so when we wake up in New Zealand someday.
The patterns of Stirling Falls are what made it rocket to the top of our top 5 waterfalls. It’s so unusual, isn’t it! Thanks for reading Sandy
I wasn’t familiar with the difference between a Sound and a Fjord until I read your post. I absolutely loved your photos and description as it reminded me of Berchtesgaden National Park in Germany. It too is a fjord. I can see why so many tourists visit there each year. If I ever go to New Zealand, this too would be an experience I would like to have.
We missed out on the Milford Sound cruise the last time we were in New Zealand! We had the worst luck ever – the first day the entire thing got cancelled due to inclement weather, the second day we made it all the way to the cruise starting point (the bus journey from Queenstown was beautiful!) only to find that there were technical issues with a few of the vessels so we couldn’t go! Thankfully, they refunded our money. But since then Milford Sound has been high on my list of places to go!
Oh no! At least you got to see the road into Milford, that’s just as beautiful! Next time, you should try and drive yourself because there are quite a few spots that the buses don’t stop at. Thanks for reading Smita!
Wow, I love how you got up close & personal with the Sterling Falls! That sounds amazing and a little damp! haha, but seriously, Cruising around the Milford sound with Mitre Peak cruising sounds like one of the best options since you got to have a more intimate setting and got to see all those animals. I think Darcee would lose it if she saw penguins hobbling about while I would love seeing all of the different waterfalls and the tectonic plate schism! I am kind of a nerd when it comes to things like that! Love that you called them to see if they could at least price match. Dont get me wrong Get Your Guide, Viator, & others are great but if you can skip the middle man and get close in price, you help the local economy too!
I was really hoping to see Penguins but we were just too early in the winter season I think. Yep cutting the middle man is great for the economy – especially if that middle man is an overseas operator that does very little for the country the tour is in. It’s especially hard for Milford area at the moment because just before lockdown they had only just opened up again after being closed for 2 months due to a massive landslide closing the only road in! Thanks for reading Eric
I can’t wait to get to Milford Sound – it’s so beautiful. The cruise looks like a fantastic way to see it.