New Zealand's best boat cruises
Whether it's exploring our coastline, fiords, sounds, lakes or rivers, getting out on the water is a must-do for any Kiwi holiday. In our latest travel article we introduce our favourite scenic cruises & boat trips from the Far North to the Far South.
You’ve probably heard about cruising on Milford Sound or the famous Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu but have you taken a jetboat ride on the Whanganui River, sailed to secluded hot springs by Catamaran on Lake Rotoiti or seen the rare and majestic Kotuku on a wildlife cruise on Okarito Lagoon on the West Coast?
Being an island nation, nowhere is that far from the sea, you can follow in the wake of navigators Kupe and Captain Cook spotting plaques and memorials to them.
But it’s not just the coastline where we can get out onto the water. Thanks to Bill Hamilton, a New Zealander, who developed the jet boat we can discover some awesome lakes and rivers.
We've been touring all over New Zealand on our small group tours since 1971 and in that time we've lost count of how many amazing scenic cruises and boat trips we've done, here's a summary of our favourites from the Far North to the Far South.
Milford Sound cruise
You’ll probably want rain on this cruise. If it’s fine there won’t be as many waterfalls tumbling down the sheer cliff sides of Milford Sound/Piopiotahi.
Cruising all the way along the fiord to the Tasman Sea allows views of stunning fiords and waterfalls, photos don’t do it justice.
Your skipper will share all the history and point out wildlife, usually seals, penguins, sometimes dolphins but even whales from time to time!
- Milford Sound is in Fiordland, in the south-west of the South Island.
- Spend approximately 1.5 hours on-board.
- See Mitre Peak and other mountains, waterfalls and rainforest all the way to the Tasman Sea from spacious viewing decks or the observation lounge.
- You’re sure to see seals. Dolphins and penguins might make an appearance.
- Nature guides explain the history and geology of area and the flora and fauna.
- UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Milford Sound cruise with MoaTours
Our 9 Day Southern Beauty South Island tour includes an cruise on Milford Sound, which is always one of the highlights of the tour
Doubtful Sound overnight cruise
You’ll give this voyage a 10/10 after cruising across Lake Manapouri – arguably New Zealand’s most beautiful lake, with islands, sandy beaches, and encircled by mountain peaks.
Continuing onto remote Doubtful Sound you’ll reach the Tasman Sea on the 39-metre Fiordland Navigator. The weather can change quickly - waterfalls come and go, moody clouds hang, shrouding mist turns scenes mystical and mysterious.
Wake to mountain reflections on the sheltered waters and breakfast viewing ever-changing scenery.
- Doubtful Sound is located in Fiordland National Park.
- A 45-minute cruise across Lake Manapouri is followed by a 45-minute bus ride through dense rainforest over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, Doubtful Sound. Join Real Journey’s Fiordland Navigator for an overnight cruise, spending approximately 21 hours on-board before returning via the same route.
- Spot fur seals and dolphins, rainforest-covered mountains, cliffs, valleys and fiords from viewing decks or the observation lounge.
- The nature guide's commentary and after-dinner talk are really interesting.
- Take a kayak or hop in the tender with the nature guide and explore.
- The Māori name for the Sound is Patea, meaning the place of silence and a highlight is the morning’s five minute "Sounds of Silence" – no talking, photos, phones and a silent engine. Soak up the tranquil atmosphere listening to birdsong and waterfalls.
- Inaugural 100% Pure New Zealand Experience Award, Qualmark Awards 2019
Doubtful Sound overnight cruise with MoaTours
Staying overnight on Doubtful Sound is one of the highlights of our 7 day Doubtful Sound & West Coast Odyssey tour.
Hole in the Rock cruise, Bay of Islands
It’s not known as the Bay of Islands for nothing. Taking a catamaran cruise on turquoise waters amongst the idyllic 144 islands is memorable.
Mataatua, one of the seven waka that sailed from Hawaiiki in the 1400s, reached here and subsequently Māori tribes made the bay home. The golden sand beaches may not have changed since and you’ll see the 1910 lighthouse at Cape Brett.
Bet you’ll be holding your breath through the narrow Hole in the Rock at Motukōkako!
- The Bay of Islands is in Northland, the cruise leaves from Paihia.
- Four hours cruising time.
- See marine wildlife – dolphins, whales, and a variety of birdlife.
- Fun, informative commentary on local history and wildlife.
- The captain manoeuvres the boat so everyone gets perfect views of scenic spots.
- In good conditions, pass through the spectacular 16m-high Hole in the Rock.
- Look out for the plaque marking where Cook anchored the Endeavour.
- Vessels have large outdoor decks for photo opportunities as well as indoor seating.
Hole in the Rock cruise with MoaTours
Guests on two of our Northland itineraries love getting out and cruising in the Bay of Islands to the Hole in the Rock, on our 6 day Christmas in Northland tour and then we run the same trip again a bit later in the season as our Summertime in Northland tour.
Okarito Lagoon wildlife cruise
Protected in the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, Okarito Lagoon is New Zealand’s largest pristine wetland and a truly magical spot.
It’s home to 76 bird species, most notably this is the only breeding area in the country of the Kotuku or White Heron and the best place in the entire country to see these regal birds in the wild.
Something else our guests always love about this wildlife cruise are the guides Swade & Paula, you’ll learn so much from the passionate guides who live here and know Okarito better than anyone else.
- Okarito is on the South Island’s west coast, around 27 kilometres from Franz Josef.
- Spend two hours exploring some of the 3,000 hectares of waterways.
- On a cloudless day see Franz Josef Glacier and the Southern Alps including Aoraki/Mount Cook reflecting in the lagoon.
- Scenery changes from tidal flats and reeds to rainforest plants and then a thick forest of rimu, rata and kahikatea upriver.
- So many birds! And especially at low-tide when lots feed. Among them are kotuku, royal spoonbills, pied stilts and migratory bar-tailed godwits.
- With a maximum of 12 on board, it’s easy to ask the guide questions.
- Recommended on TripAdvisor.
Okarito Lagoon wildlife cruise with MoaTours
On our 7 day Karamea and Wild West Coast Trails tour and our 9 day Southern Beauty: Aoraki Mt Cook, Milford & Franz Josef tour we make the trip down to Franz Josef and Okarito to experience the lagoon and also discover the amazing heritage of Okarito.
TSS Earnslaw Steamship on Lake Wakatipu
Commissioned to service Lake Wakatipu communities and launched in 1912, TSS Earnslaw is still sailing over 100 years later – the only hand-fired steamship operating in the southern hemisphere.
Cruise on New Zealand’s third largest lake, which scientists have rated 99.9% pure, and enjoy spectacular alpine scenery.
It’s not all about the landscape - join a sing-along around the piano, see the steam-engines at work and historic photos.
- One hour, 30 minute return cruise (45 min each way to Walter Peak Station).
- Lake Wakatipu is in the south-west corner of Otago, South Island. Queenstown lies on its banks.
- Views of The Remarkables... are remarkable!
- Watch a setting sun tinge the lake and reflecting mountains orange.
- TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence.
TSS Earnslaw with MoaTours
Another highlight of our 9 day Southern Beauty South Island tour and our 7 day Doubtful Sound & West Coast Odyssey tour, we make the stunning journey across Lake Wakatipu on the Earnslaw to Walter Peak for a taste of the high country before heading back to Queenstown.
Queen Charlotte Sound Cruise to Ship Cove
A favourite of Captain James Cook, Queen Charlotte Sound and tranquil Ship Cove/Meretoto might become one of yours too.
The Sounds have many island nature reserves and beaches nestled among dense native bush. With no roads into the area, it’s truly remote, but has been occupied for over 800 years by Māori, the sheltered Sounds providing safe haven for seafarers.
- Queen Charlotte Sound is the most eastern sound of the Marlborough Sounds, situated at the South Island’s northern tip.
- Spend two hours on the water.
- Stunning scenery - twisting and turning coastline forming secluded inlets and beaches surrounded by dense bush.
- Birdlife abounds: little blue penguins, gannets, shags, terns, shearwaters, white-faced herons, kingfishers and oyster catchers.
- Perhaps encounter dolphins or spot stingray, blue cod and orca.
- Learn lots from the commentary.
- You’ll stop at the historic anchorage of Ship Cove where a monument commemorates Cook’s visits and carved pou whenua (pole) illustrate the legend of Kupe and the giant wheke (octopus). Kupe chased it across the seas subsequently discovering New Zealand. The octopus was pursued into Tōtaranui/Queen Charlotte Sound.
- Ship Cove is listed as a Category 1, Historic Place, New Zealand Heritage List.
- Cougar Lines has more than 25 years’ experience in the Sounds and is a recipient of Qualmark Silver Award for Visitor Transport.
Queen Charlotte Sound with MoaTours
No visit to Marlborough is complete without getting out on the Sounds, as guests discover on our 6 day Christmas in Marlborough tour and our 7 day Early Explorers from Queen Charlotte to Akaroa tour.
Whanganui River Jetboat
Jet boat thirty-two kilometres in this wild, isolated area on New Zealand’s third longest river from Pipiriki, a small riverside settlement, to Mangapurua Landing. You’ll be following in the canoe path of Tamatea, captain of Tākitimu, one of the great waka from Hawaiki.
The Whanganui became an arterial route through the central North Island with many pā and villages built on its banks and cliffs. Hear the local history and stories that have been passed on by generations and take an optional walk to the historic Bridge to Nowhere.
- Pipiriki is on the Whanganui River’s east bank, west of Raetihi and 79 kilometres upriver from Whanganui on the North Island’s west coast.
- Spend two hours on the water.
- You’ll pass through areas of rapids and deep river gorges covered in ferns and native vegetation, which in places reflect in the still waters. Spot caves and waterfalls.
- TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence.
- Department of Conservation Approved, symbolising the significant contribution made to conservation.
Jet Boat the Whanganui River with MoaTours
One of everyone's favourite activities on our 7 day The Bridge to Nowhere and Forgotten Worlds tour, this is a beautiful corner of New Zealand with a rich history.
Waiau River Jet boat, Te Anau
Take a spin on an exhilarating jetboat tour through wilderness along the largest of Southland’s rivers to Lake Manapouri.
This will be one of your trip highlights as you explore this remote scenic and serene, 217 kilometre waterway.
- Waiau River is in Fiordland National Park.
- Spend 90 minutes on the water.
- Ancient beech forest lines the river and Lake Manapouri is surrounded by mountains
- Maybe spot rainbow and brown trout.
- Learn about Maori culture and European history from passionate guides.
- Small boats take up to 13 passengers, with Fiordland Jet being the only commercial scenic operator.
- Heated hand rails and blankets or jackets are provided in chilly weather.
- Waiau River is Anduin River in Lord of the Rings. Find out how it was filmed here.
- TripAdvisor five-star rating.
- Qualmark Silver Award for Sustainable Tourism Business.
- Finalist, AWS Legal Fiordland Tourism Operator of the Year Award, 2019 Annual Fiordland Tourism Awards.
Jet boat the Waiau River with MoaTours
When visiting Fiordland on our Wanaka Warbirds & Southern Wheels tour we always love getting out on the Waiau with our mates from Fiordland Jet.
Abel Tasman National Park cruise
Cruise from Kaiteriteri, a favourite holiday spot, to Awaroa in Abel Tasman National Park, well known for its golden sand beaches.
At 22,530 hectares Abel Tasman is New Zealand's smallest national park, named after the first European to sight New Zealand back in 1642 sailing into this very place.
This cruise, combined with a walk from Awaroa back to perhaps Tonga Quarry, is a great way to experience the park.
- Kaiteriteri is one hour’s drive from Nelson on Tasman Bay at the top of the South Island.
- Spend two hours on the water.
- You’ll see fur seal colonies, dense green coastline, bays and islands, passing sweeping sandspits and tidal lagoons and Split Apple Rock, a huge granite formation perfectly split down the middle.
- Common dolphins and little blue penguins may also be spotted in the turquoise waters of the Tasman Sea.
- Abel Tasman Sea Shuttle boats have on-board ramps for easy access onto beaches.
- Indoor and outdoor seating is available on comfortable catamarans.
- Informative commentary.
- Stops at scenic highlights giving ample time to photograph.
- TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence 2017 and 2019.
- Voted one of New Zealand’s top 100 bucket list experiences.
- Qualmark Gold Award for Visitor Transport.
- Department of Conservation approved, symbolising the significant contribution made to conservation.
Cruise the Abel Tasman National Park with MoaTours
A scenic cruise of Abel Tasman is always a guest favourite on our 7 day Molesworth Station, Abel Tasman & Golden Bay tour.
Paterson Inlet cruise & Ulva Island, Stewart Island
Learn about Stewart Island’s history, while cruising in the 100 square kilometre, island-dotted Paterson Inlet on a modern catamaran.
It’s definitely not what the Polynesians, who had reached Stewart Island/Rakiura by the late 1200s, used, or the Māori, who made regular trips to the island to hunt mutton birds.
If you’re into wildlife, you’ll want to stay longer on the easy walking tracks of predator-free Ulva Island where native birdsong serenades.
- Patterson Inlet is on the east coast of Stewart Island, the largest inlet island being Ulva.
- Stewart Island Experience’s tour takes between 2 ½ and 3 hours (includes a 45 minute walk on Ulva Island).
- View hidden coves and unspoilt beaches.
- Part of Patterson Inlet is a marine reserve.
- When waters are crystal clear, see many fish species and seaweeds, including starfish, mussels, paua, kina, sea cucumbers and anemones.
- Fur seals, sea lions, leopard and elephant seals, sharks, bottle-nosed dolphins and penguins hang out here sometimes too.
- Discover the area’s logging, whaling, Māori and European history.
- $5 from each visitor/booking goes towards conservation efforts.
- TripAdvisor Certificates of Excellence 2015 – 2019.
- Qualmark Gold 2018 Sustainable Tourism Business, classified "Endorsed" visitor activity.
Stewart Island cruises with MoaTours
Our 7 day Southern Odyssey - Stewart Island & the Catlins tour includes a two night stay on Stewart Island with a day out exploring Patterson Inlet and Ulva Island, as well as a night in the Catlins Coast to complete your Southern Odyssey. We also offer this experience on our 7 day Christmas in Otago: Catlins & Stewart Island tour.
Sailing Lake Rotoiti, Rotorua lakes
Locally owned and skippered yacht Tiua is a 53-foot catamaran that sails on Lake Rotoiti’s green waters. The lake is surrounded by tree-covered ranges and holiday homes handed down over generations.
- Lake Rotoiti is east of Rotorua, connected to Lake Rotorua by the Ohau Channel.
- Sail for one and a half hours.
- On this 13 kilometre long, sheltered lake discover secluded bays along green shorelines where rata and pohutukawa blaze red in the summertime.
- Soak in Manupirua Hot Springs, outdoor thermal pools on the lake’s southern side, only accessible by boat and used by Māori and Europeans alike for nearly 200 years.
- Hear Māori legends of how the lake was discovered and its thermal activity source.
- Help the crew raise the sails (or sit back and watch),
- Nominated for World's Leading Private Cruise Company 2019, World Travel Awards, recognised globally as a sign of industry excellence.
Sailing Lake Rotoiti with MoaTours
Sailing on Lake Rotoiti with Matt and the Pure Cruise team is something we have enjoyed for many years, now it's included in our Christmas in Bay of Plenty tour.
Port Fitzroy Cruise, Great Barrier Island
When you visit Aotea Great Barrier Island, getting out on the water is an absolute must and for us this means heading out with our mates from Hooked on Barrier. Chris and his friendly skippers are local experts and they know exactly where to head.
Cruising the inlets around Port Fitzroy and Kaikoura Island offer plenty of scenic highlights and stops along the way. It’s like cruising with an old friend, Chris has a really relaxed style and loves sharing all his local knowledge and history.
We love to stop at Glenfern Sanctuary to learn about all the awesome work the local volunteers are doing there to protect our precious native tāonga.
Bring your togs for a swim, Chris will find the right spot and his home-made carrot cake for morning tea is always a winner.
- Cruise the scenic protected bays of the Barrier.
- Meet the custodians of Glenfern Sanctuary Regional Park.
- Morning tea included.
- Local knowledge & history.
- MoaTours guests enjoy exclusive access on a private departure.
Cruising on Great Barrier Island with MoaTours
Our 5 day Great Barrier Island Escape tour visits all corners of Aotea Great Barrier Island and our half day cruise with Chris is always a real highlight for everyone.
Lake Taupo Māori Rock Carvings Cruise
The Mine Bay Māori Rock Carvings are a representation of Ngāti Tūwharetoa ancestor Ngātoroirangi, carved by traditional carver Matahi Brightwell. The 14m tall carvings are an extraordinary example of contemporary Māori artwork and are accessible by boat only.
Super experienced Lake Taupo cruise operator Chris Jolly has been showing visitors around Lake Taupo for over 40 years, and now has partnered with local Iwi Ngāti Tūwharetoa to operate this memorable Māori culture and scenic cruise.
You’ll hear the story of how the artist had a vision of a tattooed face on the rock when he paddled out there one day in 1976, and how that vision has become a memorial to his ancestors.
- The only way to see the carvings, there's no road access.
- 90 minute return cruise.
- Great viewing and plenty of space on board.
- Live commentary.
- Friendly and personal service.
- Complimentary morning tea.
Lake Taupo Māori Rock Carvings Cruise with MoaTours
Lake Hauroko Cruise
If visiting New Zealand’s “off the beaten track” spots is a passion of yours then you’ll love Lake Hauroko in Fiordland. Most people don’t even know where it is, but if you look on a map it’s pretty big and actually New Zealand’s deepest lake.
Lake Hauroko tours have been operating here since 1980 and we’re excited to now include this natural gem in our own trips. To visit Lake Hauroko is to really see New Zealand, this is the expansive Fiordland countryside of legends.
To quote a recent traveller “snow capped mountains, lush green forests and deep dark still waters made for an unforgettable afternoon”.
- Local Fiordland guides with decades of experience
- Private departures for MoaTours
- Have an entire Fiordland lake to yourself!
Cruise Lake Hauroko with MoaTours
New in 2020/2021, the Lake Hauroko cruise is part of our Far South: Hidden Treasures 7 day tour.
Glass Bottom Boat Cruise from Whitianga
One of only two glass bottom boat cruises in New Zealand and the only one in the Coromandel, this is a truly unique experience that you can only really understand by experiencing yourself.
Any pictures of the Coromandel will show you the beautiful coast and ocean views, but this cruise goes deeper as you explore both above and below the surface! The glass bottom boat gives you an extra perspective into the submarine world you would otherwise miss completely.
These boats are quite small and the skippers take advantage of this and really poke their nose into little bays, inlets and entrances everywhere.
They’ll share all their local knowledge and help make the most of any wildlife encounters, which include dolphins, orca, stingrays, sea birds and fish.
- Cruise from Whitianga to Cathedral Cove.
- 2 hours on board.
- Full commentary and guiding.
- Explore Te Whanganui a Hei marine reserve.
- Full marine mammal viewing permits.
- Time for swimming or snorkelling.
Cruising the Coromandel on the Glass Bottom Boat with MoaTours
Our sweet 6-day Coromandel Caper tour includes the Glass Bottom Boat cruise to Cathedral Cove.
New Zealand's best scenic boat trips & cruises
Over the years guests on our tours have experienced and enjoyed these cruises and boat trips and we have come to know the operators very well and they're all friends now.
Exploring the coastline, lakes and rivers of New Zealand is something we all think about for the great Kiwi holiday and these are our favourite scenic boat trips and cruises we've discovered while operating our small group tours all over New Zealand since 1971.
We love the off the beaten track nature of these smaller experiences which can only be visited on small group tours like ours and we know you will too.
Our tours are all inclusive, small group experiences designed for mature travellers to all the favourite spots in New Zealand we loved as kids. For more information about us or our trips please get in touch or request a brochure now.
We hope to see you out on the water soon!