Cruising Milford Sound in New Zealand
Milford Sound – This UNESCO site is considered a must-see in New Zealand in what feels like a very long list of must sees’ in this gorgeous country.
Visiting Milford Sound
A trip to New Zealand is synonymous with the chance to immerse yourself in nature. And not just nature, but some of the most beautiful, remote and untouched nature. Milford Sound is one of those opportunities. Often considered the 8th wonder of the natural world, a trip through these waterways will take you through blue waters, towering peaks, sights of glaciers, too many waterfalls to count and if you are lucky some amazing wildlife.
There is really so much to see in New Zealand, too little time, and not many misses from this traveler’s point of view. I wanted to definitely get this one right though, so I jumped on my trusty TripAdvisor site to check out reviews to find a reliable and amazing Milford Sound cruise.
Milford Sound Tours
One thing you will quickly learn in doing your research, is that driving in New Zealand is intense. When you rent your car, you might also see insurance exceptions for stretch of road between Te Anau to Milford Sound route. So while planning this trip I quickly focused on finding a tour from either Queenstown or Te Anau to avoid driving the last 3-hour stretch of driving from Te Anau to Milford Sound which has a high rate of accidents. The accidents seemed to be due to a combination of driver fatigue, being on the wrong side of the road (they drive on the left in NZ and lots of foreigners, me included, have our driving brains on the right), and getting distracted by all the amazing nature sights on this windy road. I was going to leave this one up to an experienced bus driver so I could just look out the windows at this part of nature. Milford Sound is around 5-6 hours (one-way) from Queenstown and around 3 hours from Te Anau by road. With a 3 hour cruise, you can just imagine what a long day this would be.
TripAdvisor is always my choice for research due to the sheer volume of reviews. I throw out the best and the worst reviews and focus on the middle tier reviews to get a feel for the different companies. I quickly found many tour companies, but what seemed to be the most experienced, largest and best reviews on TripAdvisor was Real Journey’s. Their rankings were overwhelmingly 5’s and they offered a longer nature cruise. One important consideration for this trip was boat size as a larger boat will handle better if the weather kicked up. While I don’t get seasick (and I lucked out with a really great weather day), I wanted a smooth ride so I could enjoy the sound, wildlife and the sail as opposed to feeling the sea. The tour does have 190 people, but many of the reviews continually commented that even with that many people, it never felt crowded.
This tour balanced cost vs perks and with all of the great reviews, I clicked the TripAdvisor availability button and got booking. This tour is “dialed in” and they have their processes down pat as I was able to select my exact Te Anau hotel for pickup from a drop-down menu. I was all ready to go.
Day of Milford Tour
After a prompt hotel pickup, I was brought to the Real Journeys building in the center of Te Anau where I jumped on the larger bus full of tourists from Queenstown who had been picked up earlier in the morning for that 3 hour drive down. The Real Journeys bus is also setup to maximize your experience on the drive to Milford Sound with large windows and windows on the ceiling so you can peak at those waterfalls and glaciers that are crawling out of the mountains. The bus is ~60% glass!
There were a few stops along the way to view the valley floor as a preview to the amazing mountains we were about to encounter. The best stop was at the cross-over into the valley which had breathtaking views. Once at Milford Sound, there is one last transfer to the ship… and away we go!
Two buses and a boat and all of the hand offs were super smooth.
Milford Sound Cruise
Milford Sound is at the mountainous north end of Fiordland National Park and is a deep water inlet between steep sided high mountains. This sound is the most accessible of the Fjordland National Park’s 14 fjords and is a middle-sized fiord at around 13 kms in length. It reportedly offers some of the most dramatic scenery in the Fjordlands. I have to take their word for it until I can get back to see some of the others, but the scenery rivaled the Bay of Montenegro and sights in Alaska with a perk of even more remoteness.
The cruise began promptly and as we left the port the iconic Mitre Peak stands tall in the sound. I have seen this peak on just about every vintage travel poster of New Zealand. It’s iconic and beautiful.
The sail up Milford Sound went smoothly with an onboard nature guide detailing the history of the region, the wildlife, and several Maori stories.
There are several other cruises on the bay, but the boat captains keep quite a distance from each other and each visited the waterfalls separately for an uncrowded experience. I chose to be on the front deck of the boat most of the time as the weather held out with just a bit of rain in the morning, but there is comfortable seating inside where it is nice and dry. Our driver had given us fair warning that it rains “5 out of 4 days in the sound” so make sure you have that rain jacket. However, it is the rain creates the hundreds of waterfalls pouring from the rocks. There is also full access around the boat for walking, so if you missed a waterfall, you could run to the back for another peak.
At Stirling Falls, the captain put the tip of the boat right up to the waterfall and anyone on the front of the ship not only got the cool spray but a drenching. He did give fair warning.
We sailed under sheer rock faces that defied gravity and the wildlife also came out to play with a show by the dolphins jumping beside our boat and the seals basked on rocks. The captain took a spin out of the sound past St Anne’s Point Lighthouse into the Tasman Sea where the waves really picked up and the weather cooled even more giving you an indication of how close you are to Antarctica.
The sail back down the sound to the port was even better as the sun and the wildlife came out in full force. We visited several more waterfalls and after a last view of Mitre Peak, we disembarked.
The bus drive back went a bit quicker with no stops and everyone taking a snooze and then a transfer back at the Te Anau Real Journeys sight to a local bus for hotel drop-off. It was all seamless.
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