Explore magnificent Milford Sound with Cruise Milford and avoid the big crowds. Cruise Milford offers smaller boat sizes and a more personal experience cruising the tranquil waters of this natural wonder in the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage-listed region. Flight transfers are available from Queenstown, and coach transfers from Te Anau. Duration: 1.45 hours (approx.)
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Poipiotahi, more commonly known as Milford Sound, is one of the most visited natural attractions in Aotearoa New Zealand.
However, it is not really a sound but a fiord. Carved out by glaciers during the ice ages, mountain peaks ascend from the deep waters of the fiord, creating the perfect environment for spectacular waterfalls. It rains on average more than 180 days of the year at Milford, making it one of the wettest places in the world. So, there’s a good chance it will be raining when you visit, but look on the bright side. It means even more waterfalls to enjoy!
On a recent South Island road trip, I decided to add a scenic cruise on Milford Sound to my itinerary. It’s an experience every New Zealander should have at least once in their lifetime. I settled on an option with Cruise Milford, who came highly recommended by word of mouth and online reviews. The mention of smaller boats suggested a more personal experience, which sounded good to me. I later discovered that Cruise Milford limits passenger numbers to 50% of their boat’s capacity, ensuring that everyone on board has plenty of space.
Milford Sound is situated in the Southland region and you get there by air, bus or car from Te Anau or Queenstown. I drove from Te Anau, which takes approximately 1.5 hours each way. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the country and there are numerous stops worth making along the way to take in the stunning views. If you are going to self-drive, plan for it to take the whole day. Te Anau makes a great base for visiting Milford, with a number of accommodation options and other attractions nearby. It’s also much less of a drive to the Sound than from Queenstown (around four hours each way).
Upon arriving in Milford Sound, I’m able to find plenty of parking just a five-minute walk from the wharf. Check-in is quick and easy and from there it’s just a short distance to the pier to board my cruise boat, the Milford Explorer. Skipper Roger and crewmember Julia greet passengers with friendly smiles and an offer of hot beverages and biscuits to enjoy before our adventure gets underway.
Once all passengers are on board we set off, and are instantly rewarded with a view of the mighty Bowen Falls. At 162 metres, this is Milford’s highest waterfall. We then detour into Deepwater Basin for a quick look and a briefing on the topography of the basin itself. The direction of Sandfly Point is pointed out to us as the trailhead for the popular Milford Track Great Walk.
Upon leaving Deepwater Basin we cruise up the left side of the fiord, heading for the Tasman Sea. The day is overcast and the iconic Mitre Peak is hidden in the clouds, but the sheer steepness of the mountain is clearly evident.
As we near the Tasman Sea, the swell becomes noticeable and the vastness of the open ocean apparent. We turn around and head back into the fiord and before long Julia spots a Fiordland crested penguin. Roger takes us in for a closer look, which reveals two more of these cute creatures. These are one of the rarest penguin species in the world, only found in the southernmost parts of New Zealand.
Dolphins frequent the fiord as well, but we have no luck there. However, we do see plenty of New Zealand fur seals lazing about on Seal Rock. There are not many places in the fiord where the seals can get out of the water (due to the steepness of the cliffs), so this particular rock is a popular place for them to stop and rest.
Now cruising along the opposite side of the fiord, we eventually come to Stirling Falls — the only other permanent waterfall in Milford Sound. Roger warns the passengers on the outdoor deck that they might want to move inside to avoid getting wet. That’s most of us! However, two passengers decide to stick with their position at the front of the boat and brave a cold sprinkling as we move under the falls. They appear to enjoy the thrill of it.
As we near the end of our journey Roger takes us into Harrison Cove, which is home to the Milford Sound Underwater Observatory — New Zealand’s only floating facility of this kind. I’m told that to view the untouched marine environment from 10 metres below the surface is an amazing experience in itself. From the cove, we also get a great view up into the snow-capped mountains (the source of the Harrison River), before heading back to the wharf.
We’ve spent nearly two hours soaking up the breathtaking views and our hosts’ knowledge of the Sound and its history, but there’s one more thing I must mention about the experience — and that’s the fresh air. It has felt so amazing to inhale the clean, crisp air with every breath. Cruise Milford’s staff were superb from start to finish and I did enjoy the experience of being on a smaller boat. This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one worthy of your travel bucket list.
The writer travelled as a guest of Cruise Milford.
Additional images: Bigstock
Hailing from Aotearoa New Zealand, Karllie Clifton is an avid midlife traveller and blogger who loves an adventure. At the end of 2015, Karllie left her teaching profession, sold her home and became a nomad for the next few years. It sparked a real passion for budget solo travel, which she now loves to inspire others to do. In the last few years alone, Karllie has visited over twenty countries and ticked off more than 50 cities across three continents. She loves the great outdoors — especially hiking and anything to do with the ocean.