Going on an overnight Milford Sound cruise with Real Journeys was one of the best experiences during our whole time in New Zealand.
New Zealand is fortunate enough to have some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring landscapes on the planet, with glacier-carved valleys, precipitous peaks and glistening lakes drawing over 3 million visitors every year.
From Queenstown to Rotorua, Abel Tasman National Park to Stewart Island, there are no shortage of gorgeous spots to check out in the country. But one place rises above the rest.
Milford Sound, on the west coast of the country, is the northernmost fjord in the majestic Fiordland region.
It was known to the Maoris by the name Piopiotahi, after the piopio bird. They believed the demi God ‘Tuterakiwhanoa’ carved the landscape out of shapeless rock, and was a spiritual place for the indigenous people for centuries.
In 1812 Captain John Grono visited the region and renamed Piopiotahi to Milford Sound, after Milford Haven in Wales.
Milford Sound then became a popular settlement for whalers and fisherman in the years that followed. Today it is a protected area, and the development of tourism has seen millions of people fall in love with its mystical landscape.
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Sailing The Fjords – Our Overnight Milford Sound Cruise
Milford Sound was one of those New Zealand destinations that we had always heard about, applauded by previous travellers who fell in love with its striking scenery.
As our plans formulated for the South Island we knew we couldn’t skip this magical place.
After spending a few days doing the best things to do in Queenstown, we started our research on Milford Sound, and found a couple of different options to visit.
You could either do a day trip and add a bit of hiking around the area, do a day cruise, or spend the night on a boat. Having done a few epic boat trips in other beautiful parts of the world, such as our Patagonian fjord cruise, we knew the overnight option would be epic.
Us being us though, we left things to the last minute, and quickly found out that the best overnight Milford Sound cruises are usually booked out weeks in advance during the high season.
We found out that the company Real Journeys were the leaders in trips through the fjord, so we called them up hoping we could squeeze into one in the next few days.
As luck would have it they just had a cancellation in one of their berths for a trip leaving in 2 days. We jumped at the opportunity without hesitation, and made plans to head to Te Anau, the last town before Milford Sound, the next night.
The drive to Te Anau was pleasant enough, and we booked ourselves into a simple cabin at the Te Anau Kiwi Holiday Park, so we could leave early in the morning to make the most of the views into Milford Sound.
We were told to meet the boat in Milford Sound at 4pm, which gave us lots of time to enjoy the beautiful drive from Te Anau.
The ride is only 122km long, but with the twists and turns, and numerous places to stop and explore, people recommend you take at least 3 hours to do the drive.
Not wanting to be in any rush though, we left at 10am, and with all the stops and small hikes we did, it was 3:30pm when we finally made it to the Milford Sound Visitors Centre. It really is one of the best drives in New Zealand, and it’d be foolish to hurry through it (check out our tips for driving it at the bottom of this article).
All Aboard The Milford Mariner
We collected a free parking permit from the office inside and parked our rental car in the bus bay near the visitors centre.
Doing the check-in with Real Journeys was quick and easy, and we were asked to go wait out on the dock next to our boat, the Milford Mariner.
Just before 4:30 they opened the gangway and the group signed up for the overnight Milford Sound cruise loaded into the vessel.
The friendly staff directed us upstairs to the dining room, where we met our fellow passengers and listened to the safety briefing.
Afterwards we received our room key and headed back down to our cabin.
The room was cosy without being cramped, with a private bathroom and large, comfortable queen-size bed. The size didn’t really matter though, as we knew we’d be out admiring the views most of the time.
We dropped our small backpacks in the corner and headed back upstairs.
Soon enough the Mariner was leaving the pier, and we were navigating our way through the misty scenes of Milford Sound.
The weather stayed grey but the clouds lifted above the mountains, giving us tremendous views down the fjord.
All of the passengers gathered on the outside deck as we cruise through Milford Sound, jaws agape as forested cliffs soared above us in every direction.
We chatted excitedly as we made our way towards a sheltered and stunning cove, and the Mariner dropped anchor.
Kayaking In Milford Sound
Rather than being a completely passive experience, the crew at Real Journeys want to make the trip in Milford Sound immersive and memorable, so with the Mariner anchored we got ready for the afternoon’s activities.
The passengers were given the choice of either exploring the cove in zodiacs, or jumping in single-person kayaks and paddling around.
Naturally we had to go for the kayaking option!
The passengers split up into two groups, and us kayakers were given a paddle and life jacket. The crew helped us load into the kayaks off the back of the Mariner, and off we went into the cove.
It was a magical experience paddling around, surrounded by the mystic peaks of Milford Sound. The water was crystal clear, and offered amazing reflections of the forests on the shore.
One of the Real Journeys guides kept us company, telling us stories about the fjords and filling us in on the marine life that calls Milford home.
We were given about an hour to enjoy the kayaking experience then made our way back to the Mariner.
While we waited for everybody to return from the trip, the guides suggested that if anybody was feeling particularly adventurous, and wanted to try something very few do, we could go for a swim.
A handful of us couldn’t say no, so we took turns jumping and backflipping off of the back of the boat into the chilly waters. Such an incredible end to the adventure.
Dinner And Drinks
After the cold swim we rushed off to our cabin and jumped into a hot shower to warm up. The sun (if you ever see it) sets quickly in Milford Sound, and by the time we got dressed again it was well on the way to getting dark outside.
It was almost time for dinner, so we moved back upstairs and hit the bar for a glass of delicious Kiwi wine.
For the meals we had seats already allocated, which ensured there was no awkward walking around trying to choose who to sit next to.
We were put with 2 other couples, and immediately started swapping travel stories.
The meal was a buffet style, with enough delicious food to cover anybody’s dietary needs, and we gorged ourselves on fresh seafood and New Zealand lamb.
When we were eating we were drinking wine with our new friends, having a great time. The captain then came out and introduced his entire crew to us, which turned into a bit of laughter.
Now that we were properly acquainted with the team from Real Journeys, the head chef, a Frenchman, came forward and told us a bit about the local food we were eating.
Naturally he saved the best for last though, and suddenly platters of dessert made their way to the centre of the room, including cheesecakes, brownies, ice cream, fruit and of course pavlova.
Ladies were given first choice, but there was plenty of food to go around, and nobody missed out on their favourites.
With the meal finished we were invited to the front room of the ship to have an entertaining talk from the onboard naturalist.
Sharing photos of Milford Sound, the wildlife and the crew, he kept the 30-minute presentation lighthearted and humorous, and not only did we laugh along with the show, we also learnt a lot about the area.
It was about 9pm when the presentation finished, and while a few people stayed up to enjoy a few more glasses of wine or beer, we decided to head to bed, ready to get up early in the morning.
A New Day, 1000 New Waterfalls
We woke up before sunrise hoping to get golden rays shining on the tops of the peaks and mirror-like waters.
Instead we woke to torrential downpour, strong winds and the mountains shrouded in low-lying cloud.
Anywhere else in the world this would be a downer on your holiday, but not here in Milford Sound. In fact the weather had transformed the fjord into a new beast, and it was even more beautiful than we could have imagined.
As ambient light filtered into the channel we started to see thousands of small waterfalls cascading down the mountains all around us.
Milford Sound receives a tremendous amount of rainfall, and when the skies open up the mountains have nowhere to hold the water, which results in raging torrents falling from the cliffs.
It was quite a spectacular scene, and even though it was freezing we withstood the cold for the views as the Mariner made its way towards the open ocean.
We ran back inside to have breakfast, but wanting to make the most of the scenery we decided to have a quick bowl of cereal rather than tuck into the large cooked spread that was available, and headed back outside as soon as possible.
We grabbed our Kathmandu rain jackets to try and keep dry and stood on the deck, watching as the Tasman Sea made its appearance.
The fjord opened up ahead of us, but the bad weather meant the ocean was quite rough. Rather than pushing right out to give the passengers a look along the coast, the captain hugged the headland then aimed back towards the shelter of Milford Sound.
By now most of the passengers had decided the views were worth the drenching, and we stood on the bow of the ship in complete awe.
With these new waterfalls tumbling dramatically in every direction, the captain started to veer towards one of the largest ones, and made an announcement over the PA that anybody outside was going to get much wetter in a second.
This was an experience many of the guests had been waiting for, and with GoPros at the ready we stood defiantly as the Mariner was commanded expertly into the rush of the cascading falls.
Water hammered us from above, the sound completely deafening, but for a few seconds we were in the heart of the waterfall. It was exhilarating.
The captain did this to us two more times, and each shower proved to be as fun as the last. Now we were thanking our lucky stars for the weather.
It was only now, with the trip about to finish, that we started to see some more ships in the fjord, and we suddenly realised that the Mariner had been on its own pretty much the entire time we were in Milford Sound.
We could see the visitor’s centre and parking lot up ahead, so we ran inside to pay our alcohol bill and collect our bags from the cabin.
Sadly all good things must come to an end, and the Mariner crept into the dock and the crew tied us to the pier.
We said goodbye to the crew and our new friends, exchanged some email addresses and farewelled the Milford Mariner.
Our adventure with Real Journeys was over, but the memories would stay with us for a long time.
The hype over Milford Sound had been justified, and we couldn’t believe our luck at fitting in on a cabin at the end of high season.
For something we hadn’t originally planned on doing, our overnight Milford Sound cruise was a real highlight.
No trip to New Zealand’s South Island would be complete without immersing yourself in the majestic wonder of the atmospheric Milford Sound.
Day Cruise vs Overnight – Which Should You Choose?
You have two options for cruises in Milford Sound: A short day cruise or an overnight cruise. While a lot of it depends on your time and budget, we highly recommend going for an overnight cruise if possible.
As Milford Sound is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, seeing it without any other people is next to impossible.
And with the vast majority of visitors coming just for a day trip, you’ll find yourself in the fjord with plenty of other boats.
While this doesn’t make Milford Sound any less beautiful, it does make it a little less magical. There’ll be a constant stream of people flooding into and out of the visitor centre, and boats seem to be disembarking every few minutes.
After 4pm however, when most of the people have loaded up in the tourists buses and headed back to Te Anau or Queenstown, only a few ships have licenses to head out into the evening.
By joining a Milford Sound overnight cruise you’ll have the opportunity to see this majestic place without the crowds, which is in itself a real highlight of any trip to New Zealand.
Not only that, you get the chance to see Milford Sound for sunset and sunrise, something that’s not really possible any other way unless you stay at one of the expensive lodges there.
If you can extend your trip to be an overnighter, we highly recommend making this your main choice for a truly memorable Milford Sound cruise!
Driving To Milford Sound
There are lots of tour buses making the drive from Queenstown or Te Anau to Milford Sound every single day, but in our personal opinion it is much better to rent a car and self-drive. If you do, you’ll understand why.
The road to Milford Sound is almost as epic as the fjord itself, with steep valleys shrouded in fog coming alive with thousands of waterfalls after heavy rain.
On the drive from Te Anau you’ll come across rivers and cascades in raging torrents, plains of wildflowers leading into mysterious peaks and old growth forests twisting into the sky.
The road is narrow and winding, meaning progress is slow, but that just means more time to enjoy the unreal scenery. Trust us when we say it might be one of the most beautiful drives you do in all of New Zealand!
There are plenty of excellent stopping points along the way too where you can park your car, get out and do some exploring. Rather than us listing our favourites, do yourself a favour and just stop at every single one you pass (marked by big signs).
A word of warning though – This road is extremely busy, filled with rental cars and tour buses, and there are a lot of drivers using it that may not necessarily have much experience with driving on the ‘wrong side of the road’, or with driving in general.
There are a lot of accidents on this road. Drive slowly, drive carefully, and give yourself plenty of time to get to Milford Sound for your overnight cruise.
[box] We joined our overnight Milford Sound cruise as guests of Real Journeys. All thoughts, opinions, and thousands of waterfall pictures are, as always, our own.[/box]