a tall waterfall gushing into the fiord from the cliff top

What Makes Cruising The Sounds New Zealand Spectacular

The Sounds were part of our Australia and New Zealand Cruise on Celebrity Solstice, but what makes cruising The Sounds New Zealand spectacular? Most cruisers will tell you that sailing through Milford, Doubtful, and Dusky Sounds was the highlight of their New Zealand cruise, and Rudyard Kipling described it as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. Around 946,000 people visited Milford Sound in 2018. Before COVID hit, 1.2 million were forecasted to visit by 2023, making it one of the most popular attractions in New Zealand and it frequently tops lists of the most beautiful places in the world.

This post may contain affiliate links (of companies I book through). This means I may receive a small commission if you book through them. You can read the disclaimer for more information.

Where are The Sounds?

Milford, Dusky, and Doubtful Sounds are on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand and form part of the Fiordland National Park.

What are The Sounds New Zealand?

The Sounds are actually not sounds, but fiords. Early European settlers incorrectly gave them the name but sounds are formed when a river valley is flooded by the sea, whereas Milford Sound was formed by the erosion of ancient glaciers over millions of years.

Fiordland National Park covers 1.2 million hectares and encompasses mountains, lakes, and rainforests. The characteristics of a fiord can be seen by the high cliffs on either side of the U-shaped glacial valleys.

a ship entering a fiord with mountains on each side cruising the sounds new zealand
The Celebrity Solstice cruise ship entering Milford Sound

The History of Milford Sound / Piopiotahi

Māori people travelled to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) to fish and hunt and collect pounamu (greenstone/jade). According to Māori legend, Milford Sound was formed by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, an atua (godly figure) who shaped the Fiordland coast. He chopped at the towering rock walls with his toki (adze) while chanting a powerful karakia (prayer) and carved it from the earth. Piopiotahi is an extinct bird that is said to have flown here in mourning for the legendary hero Maui who died trying to win immortality for his people.

John Grono, a sealer, was the first European to visit, and he named the fiord after Milford Haven along the Welsh coast. However, Donald Sutherland was the first permanent resident in 1877 when he sailed down the Fiordland coast with only his dog for company and decided to stay.

In 1890 Donald married Elizabeth, and they built the first hotel in Milford Sound to provide accommodation for the hikers along the Milford Track. Elizabeth sold the hotel to the government when her husband died in 1919.

The Milford Track started to attract more walkers, and in 1935 work began on the Homer Tunnel. When it opened in 1954, it allowed road access to Milford Sounds.

The Fiordland National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990.

a waterfall cascading down a forest clad mountain cliff

Cruising The Sounds New Zealand

We were worried that we might not see The Sounds as the weather can be temperamental, and cruise ships can’t access these fiords in bad weather. However, luck was on our side, and we spent a whole day cruising through Milford, Doubtful, and Dusky Sound. You will notice on the itinerary that it is classed as a sea day as you cannot get off the ship for day excursions. However, our cruise had the option of an overnight land trip to Queenstown, which caught up with the ship at the next port. You will be advised what times you will enter the fiords, and most cruise ships make a public announcement as well.

A balcony is beneficial with scenic cruising, so we decided to pay extra for one. You can read this Celebrity Solstice Veranda Stateroom Review for more information and photos.

Milford Sound

We began to enter the narrow fiords of Milford Sound around 7.30 am and planned to have breakfast on our balcony to make the most of this stunning natural wonder. Mist and cloud were around, but that added to the atmosphere of this magical place.

Our cabin was on the port side of the ship, but as the cruise ships turn around, you will get to see both sides of Milford Sound. We enjoyed having a balcony, so we didn’t have to jostle with the crowds to take photos on the top deck.

It was awe-inspiring to see the dramatic high mountain cliffs plunging into the inky dark waters as we cruised through Milford Sound. Due to the amount of rain in this region, the waterfalls are spectacular.

Stirling Falls is three times higher than Niagara Falls and is one of only two permanent waterfalls here. It drops 146m which makes it the second-largest waterfall in the fjord. It is named after Captain Stirling when he brought the HMS Cleo into Milford Sound during the 1870s. The cruise ship stops here and makes a 360º spin to give passengers in all parts of the ship a great view of these stunning waterfalls.

a tall waterfall gushing into the fiord from the cliff top
Stirling Falls

Bowen Falls, Milford’s highest and most powerful waterfall, provides power and water to the area and is the other permanent waterfall. It drops 160m from a high valley in the Darren Mountains and is named after the wife of Sir George Bowen, one of New Zealand’s early governors.

a waterfall flowing down from the mountains into a fjord
Bowen Falls

As you get towards the end of the fiord, you will see more boats and kayakers around the edges. At the most inland point, there’s a small town with road access, where small boats and helicopter tours depart from. Here the cruise ship will make a 180º turn and head out of the fjord.

Doubtful Sound

a cruise ship entering the sounds

Doubtful Sound is the deepest of the fjords at 421 metres and is long and winding. We arrived around 12.30 pm, and it took about an hour to cruise through the tranquil waters. It was named ‘Doubtful Harbour’ in 1770 by Captain Cook because he was doubtful that he could navigate the waters.

You cruise through (entering at one point and exiting at another) both the Doubtful and Dusky Sounds, so staying on your balcony would potentially limit your ability to see both sides of the fjord.

Doubtful Sound is much quieter than Milford, and you won’t see any roads while cruising through, which gives it a more solitary feel.

Keep a look out for bottle-nosed dolphins, fur seals, and whales (we saw dolphins on our trip).

forest clad cliffs with clouds

Dusky Sound

stunning waterfall flowing into fjord

Dusky Sound is 40 km long and the largest fjord in New Zealand. It was first sighted on 13 March 1770 by Captain Cook, who named it Dusky Bay when he sailed through it around sunset.

Our cruise entered Dusky Sound at 3 pm, and it took about 2 hours to cruise through. The misty waterfalls and craggy cliffs were striking, and we spotted a colony of fur seals lazing around on a large rock, aptly called Seal Rock.

Milford Sound Cruises

If you aren’t on a cruise ship but would still like to cruise Milford Sound, there are sightseeing cruises like this Small Boutique Cruise Experience. I like this tour as the spacious boat has a limited number of passengers making the cruise more intimate. Hopefully, you will get close-up views of New Zealand fur seals, dolphins, and Fiordland-crested penguins, as well as the spectacular scenery. You can enjoy complimentary coffee, tea, and biscuits in the luxury of the lounge in the upper cabin as you listen to the commentary.

Don’t miss out on experiencing one of the world’s top travel destinations. We use Viator due to their free cancellation policy and lowest price guarantee. Click the links below to find out more and read the excellent reviews.

If you found this article helpful, please consider booking through one of our links. It won’t cost you anything but will help towards the cost of running this site. Thank you.

For more travel content, follow us on Facebook.