Milford Sound Cruise & Kayak Tour | The Best Way To See Milford Sound

Milford Sound is fondly referred to as the 8th wonder of the world by local Kiwis and it’s impossible not to agree once you enter the enchanting fiord and witness its magic. And there is no better way to experience the ancient ice-carved landscape than on a Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak Tour.

The aptly named Fiordland National Park encompasses over 12,000 km² of the South Island’s rugged southwest, making it the largest of the 13 national parks found in New Zealand. And within that grand mass of fiords, lakes, granite mountains and rainforests, Milford Sound is by far the most popular and awe-inspiring destination.

Milford Sound Fiord on a dark moody day while on the Souther Discoveries Cruise and Kayak Tour

When we visited Fiordland National Park, we couldn’t decide between taking a tour of Milford Sound or the second most popular (and accessible), Doubtful Sound. After much debate, we landed on Milford Sound for a host of reasons and chose the Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak Tour with Southern Discoveries.

In this guide, we will share our honest opinion on the Southern Discoveries Cruise and Kayak Tour, including why we chose Southern Discoveries and our favourite and not so favourite elements. Plus, you’ll find details on everything you need to know to book your Cruise and Kayak tour and the best alternative tours if this isn’t the right fit for you.

Kayaking in Harrisons Cove with a rainbow on the Southern Discoveries Cruise and Kayak Tour in Milford Sound

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Everything You Need To Know About The Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Cruise And Kayak Tour

What And Where Is Milford Sound?

Despite its name, Milford Sound is actually a fiord cut by ancient glaciation millions of years ago. The 16 km long fiord spills into the Tasman Sea on the southwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island and is filled with precipitous mountain peaks, plunging waterfalls and thriving rainforests clinging to the sheer granite rock faces. 

Being the only fiord within the mighty Fiordland National Park accessible by road and boasting such a wealth of unmatched beauty, it’s no surprise that Milford Sound is the most popular destination within the park. In fact, it’s the most visited natural attraction in all of New Zealand.

Milford Sound Cruise Ships hugging the misty coastline of New Zealands most popular national park

Why We Chose The Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Cruise And Kayak Tour

When we were planning our trip to Milford Sound, the one thing we knew for certain was that we wanted to kayak in the fiord. We found two companies that offer kayaking tours to all visitors and another (Milford Lodge) that cater exclusively to their guests.

While Rosco’s Milford Kayaks looked the best in terms of the route covered and the variety of kayaking options, Southern Discoveries offered a more extensive tour that included a boat cruise along the length of the fiord, a visit to their underwater observatory and a tasty lunch with unlimited hot drinks.

We had just one day to explore Milford Sound so the Cruise and Kayak tour suited our needs best. We truly enjoyed our time and had a very positive experience with the Southern Discoveries tour and the staff who were friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.

However, a major thing to note is that the kayak tour stays within Harrison Cove beside the underwater observatory. If you’re after a kayaking journey rather than simply exploring one cove, then we suggest considering one of Rosco’s Milford Kayak tours instead.

What We Loved About The Cruise And Kayak Tour

  • Provided the best bang for your buck, including the most activities in one day – which is beneficial if you only have a day to explore Milford Sound
  • The boat has a hanging rack for your rain jacket which sits beneath a heater to help dry them while you warm up inside
  • Well-organised and seamless tour
  • The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable, they really seemed to enjoy their job and working for Southern Discoveries
  • The included lunch was generous with good variety and it was very tasty

What We Didn’t Like About The Cruise And Kayak Tour

  • The kayak tour would have been better if you went on more of a journey rather than staying within Harrison Cove

How Much Does The Cruise And Kayak Tour Cost?

The Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak tour costs between $275 NZD and $295 NZD depending on who you book with. While this is a big sum to swallow – especially if you’re travelling on a budget – it’s quite competitively priced considering what is included.

*Prices as of February 2024

For the cheapest prices on the exact same tour book with Get Your Guide.

Milford Sound Harbour Terminal on an overcast moody day

How To Book Your Milford Sound Tour

You can either book your tour directly through the Southern Discoveries website or use an outside provider such as Get Your Guide or Viator.

Get Your Guide offers the cheapest price while Viator matches the price on the Southern Discoveries website. While there used to be a winter discount, there is no sign that there will be one this year. However, the price is increasing to $300 NZD from October 1st on Viator and the Southern Discoveries website, but Get Your Guide is currently staying at $275 so I highly recommend booking in advance if you can.

We booked our Cruise and Kayak tour with Get Your Guide and had a seamless experience. We especially liked the fact that the tour information was accessible on an easy-to-use app and we could access it without the internet – which was useful as there is no service in Milford Sound.

What Does The Milford Sound Cruise And Kayak Tour Include?

The Southern Discoveries Cruise and Kayak Tour offers the most bang for your buck with the inclusion of the underwater observatory which is exclusive to Southern Discoveries customers. The observatory provided a refreshing break from the boat and we found it surprisingly fascinating and worthwhile.

  • A boat cruise that travels the length of the fiord to the Tasman Sea
  • Up to 90 minutes kayaking around Harrison Cove with a guide
  • A guided tour of the underwater observatory
  • Unlimited tea and coffee
  • A picnic-style lunch that includes a sandwich, cheese and crackers, chips, a mandarin, an apple, a chocolate bar and a cookie (vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options available)
  • Dry bags, towels, waterproof pants and jackets available to borrow for the kayaking trip

Where Does The Cruise And Kayak Tour Start And How Do You Get There?

Southern Discoveries Cruise Ship docked at the Milford Sound Terminal before our tour

The Cruise and Kayak tour departs from the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal, located at the northern end of the small Milford Sound Village. You’re advised to arrive at the terminal 20 minutes before departure, which gives you just enough time to use the bathrooms and check in at the information desk.

Milford Sound is located 118 km north of Te Anau – the closest town – at the end of the beautifully scenic Milford Sound Hwy (State Highway 94). The drive can take anywhere from 1.5 – 2.5 hrs depending on the condition of the road, traffic and how comfortable you are on winding highways.

We allowed 3 hours for the drive and the walk to the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal, which ended up being just enough as we got lost trying to find the 30-minute ‘foreshore walk’ that takes you from the free car park to the terminal.

Waling through the beautiful forests flanking the Milford sound Foreshore Walk towards the Ship Terminal

A word of advice – the Milford Sound foreshore walk doesn’t follow the shoreline from the beginning but rather dips into the treeline beside the highway.

Parking At Milford Sound

There is no parking at the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal. Instead, you have two options which include a very expensive paid car park ($10 for 1 hour) beside the information centre and cafe, or a free car park located south of the centre on Deepwater Basin Rd. The terminal is a 10-minute walk from the paid car park and a 30-minute walk from the free car park.

Note: The car parks can fill up quickly in summer so it’s advised to arrive 45 minutes early to find a spot – which will most likely be in the free car park.

What To Expect From Your Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak Tour

The Southern Discoveries Cruise

Standing on the upper deck of the Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Cruise Tour in the rain

Starting with the cruise, you’ll board one of Southern Discoveries’ warm and spacious boats and settle in for the first 2 hours (roughly). Free tea and coffee are available from the moment you step onto the boat – which may or may not have been one of our highlights!

Your picnic-style lunch is available to pick up from the fully licenced bar and cafe at any time throughout your cruise, where you can also purchase additional food and drinks.

Your captain provides detailed commentary along the journey through the magical fiord, imparting interesting facts and pointing out the stand-out features and waterfalls you pass by. The cruise hugs the granite coastline, drifting close enough to the monstrous waterfalls to feel the spray – which the staff have dubbed the ‘glacial facial’.

Southern Discoveries Tour Ship receiving a glacial facial on one of the massive waterfalls in Milford Sound

Our favourite section of Milford Sound is the Hanging Garden, which looks as if it should be part of the Avatar movie set. On the way out to sea, you’ll brush past the curtain of fresh water falling from the ‘Hanging Garden’ but on your return, you’re treated to a broader view of the breathtaking saddle.

Hanging Garden in Milford Sound shrouded in cloud and mist with the waterfall gushing into the Fiord

Once you reach Anita Bay, you’ll venture out onto the Tasman Sea (if the weather permits) and feel the surge of the rolling tide beneath the surface. This was the only section that made me feel a slight bout of seasickness but you don’t linger for too long.

The cruise hugs the opposite coastline on the return journey, allowing you to view the fiord from a new perspective. And finally, you’ll pull into Harrison Cove and disembark the boat to begin the next part of your tour.

Beautiful Waterfall in Milford Sound
Seal sun baking on the rocks in Milford Sound

Keep a lookout for dolphins and seals throughout the entire cruise. Dolphins are frequently found swimming alongside the boat and we saw two baby New Zealand fur seals bathing just off the rocks.

Exploring New Zealand’s Only Floating Underwater Observatory

Kayaks at the underwater observatory in Milford Sound

After your 2 (ish) hour boat cruise, you’ll disembark at New Zealand’s only floating underwater observatory that is exclusive to Southern Discovery customers only. 

Splitting into two groups, a staff member will guide you through the well-laid-out exhibition that describes the ecology, geology and history of Milford Sound and the observatory. Afterwards, you’ll descend 10 metres into the underwater observatory where you’ll learn about the black coral, and the deep-water emergence and watch scores of various fish species weave in and out of coral and anemones. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a shark dwelling in the shadows.

Fish swimming with the Black Coral found in Milford Sound

After roughly an hour, the guests that aren’t joining the kayak tour will return to the boat and you’ll get ready to jump on the water.

We weren’t entirely fussed about visiting the underwater observatory but it actually became one of our highlights of the trip. It was hard to hear the captain on the boat explaining various geological and historical features of the fiord so once we were broken into our two small groups and guided through the exhibition, we were able to really gain some insight on Milford Sound and its inhabitants.

Kayaking In Harrison Cove

Kayaking in Milford Sound on the Southern Discoveries Cruise and Kayak tour

Once the majority of the cruise guests have gone (the kayaking portion of this tour attracts a much smaller and more personalised group), your guide will take you to the kayak shed where you’ll gear up and listen to a brief explanation on how to kayak and what to expect out on the water.

You’ll then move out to the kayak lift (which was a favourite feature of mine) and hop into the kayaks before being lowered into the water. This allows you to keep your feet dry and prevents you from falling into the water – which occurs most often when you’re entering or exiting a kayak!

Paddling out into Harrison Cove, your kayak guide leads you in a little loop around the cove while enlightening you on various other features and interesting facts about Milford Sound. If the weather is playing nice, you’ll also get to gaze up at the distant Pembroke Glacier almost 2,000m above and admire the sheer size of the surrounding 1,000 m+ peaks.

The peaceful nature of the paddle allows you to take the time to absorb the sounds of the fiord and watch the waterfalls cascade from the granite mountains. And finally, after roughly 1 hr 30 minutes, it’s time to return to the kayak shed and dry off with complimentary towels if you got wet. 

A new boat will pass by and collect you to take you back to the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal. The return journey allows just enough time for one last complimentary tea or coffee to warm up before ending your tour.

Other Important Information About The Milford Sound Cruise And Kayak Tour

Is Southern Discoveries A Sustainable Tour Company?

Southern Discoveries is a member of the Tourism Sustainability Commitment and they are also Qualmark Gold endorsed. They also donate a portion of their ticket sales to DOC and sponsor two conservation organisations – the Sinbad Sanctuary Project and the Tawaki Project.

What you can take away from the above information is that Southern Discoveries are taking actions to be a sustainable tour company. While we still had to use single-use coffee cups on board and and there was plastic in our lunch boxes, it was obvious they were making a conscious effort to reduce plastic.

What To Wear And Pack For Your Milford Sound Cruise And Kayak Tour

Wearing a rain jacket while getting soaked in the rain on the bow of the Southern Discoveries Cruise Ship

Milford Sound is famous for its rainy weather, which adds to the ambience, but also means that bringing warm layers and a rain jacket is highly advised for your Cruise and Kayak tour. For the most comfort and flexibility while kayaking, we recommend wearing stretchy and comfortable clothes such as tights or hiking pants.

We also suggest bringing a reusable water bottle with you for the kayak – which you can fill up in the delicious freshwater river! But most importantly, bring insect repellent!! I can’t stress just how incredibly annoying and itchy sandfly bites can be – they will attack in mass armies no matter the time of year.

Southern Discoveries recommends bringing a change of clothes on the off chance that you might fall in while kayaking and they provide towels for you to dry off if need be. But due to their nifty kayak lift that lowers you onto the water, it’s more likely that not even your feet will get wet.

Will The Tour Be Cancelled If It’s Raining?

Your tour won’t be cancelled if it’s raining and even your kayaking adventure will go ahead unless there is a severe storm or weather condition that will hinder your safety. Southern Discoveries has additional warm and waterproof clothing you can borrow to stay as dry as possible on your kayaking trip.

But honestly, the fiord comes alive in the misty rain and we actually found this to be the best weather to experience the enchanting landscape. Plus, the waterfalls are even more prevalent during rainy weather.

Best Time To Do The Milford Sound Cruise And Kayak Tour

Beautiful Sunset over Milford Sound with a Cruise Ship returning to the Terminal

The Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak Tour operates year-round, with three tours running daily at 9:30 am, 12:15 pm and 1:15 pm between the 1st of October to the 30th of April and one tour leaving at 10 am between the 1st of May and the 30th of September.

We highly recommend choosing the 1:15 pm slot during the summer season so that the sun is slouching low on the horizon when you hop into the kayaks. This will allow for better photography and you’ll also have the chance to witness the first hints of sunset in the sky – especially if you visit in April or October.

While summer provides the warmest weather and the lowest chance of rain, visiting in winter would be our top choice as you’ll often be gifted with snow dusting the tallest peaks and there’s something even more magical about kayaking on crisp winter days.

Other Tour Options For Milford Sound

The Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak tour was a highlight of our New Zealand South Island road trip. But if you’re still undecided, perhaps one of these other tour options will be more appealing to you.

Final Thoughts

The Southern Discoveries Milford Sound Cruise and Kayak Tour surpassed our expectations in almost every aspect. The staff were friendly and helpful and the facilities were top-notch, our only wish was that the kayak tour was a little more of a journey rather than simply staying in Harrison Cove.

Having a great time kayaking in Harrisons Cove on the Milford Sound Kayak Tour

However, if you’re a beginner or haven’t kayaked before then this is the absolute perfect tour to gain confidence and experience the wonders of Milford Sound without the buzz of an engine drowning out the natural sounds.

We hope this has helped you decide whether the Cruise and Kayak tour is the right choice for you. If you have any additional questions or want to share your review on the tour, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Happy Adventuring 🙂