Fiordland National Park

A Doubtful Sound Cruise: The Best Day Trip in New Zealand?

Doubtful Sound (which is a fjord, not a sound) is possibly the most beautiful place in New Zealand. It’s similar to the far more popular Milford Sound (also not a sound) but the experience is very different. To visit Doubtful Sound, you’ll need to go on a tour, which first takes you across Lake Manapouri and then over the Wilmot Pass. The views from every part of the trip are stunning and getting so far away from civilization like this is a great experience. Keep reading for everything you need to know about the Doubtful Sound cruise (and everything else about the day trip).

Cruising Across Lake Manapouri

The trip to Doubtful Sound starts in Manapouri, a small town close to Te Anau. It takes around two hours to drive to Manapouri from Queenstown – pickups are available from either Queenstown or Te Anau if you don’t have your own transport. I’ve heard Lake Manapouri described as New Zealand’s most beautiful lake, which I originally thought was wild exaggeration. That all changed when I got out on the water. Lake Manapouri is home to dozens of islands and with snow-capped mountains all around it was like cruising through a narrow fjord. The trip takes around 45 minutes and is the perfect entrée for what’s to come.

Wilmot Pass

The boat trip ends at West Arm, a small bay where you’ll see the Manapouri Power Station. From there you’ll file onto a bus which will take you over a very scenic stretch of road to Doubtful Sound. This road is used by tour buses and fishermen and passes below mountains and giant waterfalls. The bus we travelled on (we went with Real Journeys) had big windows and it was a relaxing 30 minutes or so on the road. The highlight is the viewpoint at the top of Wilmot Pass, where you can see right down to Doubtful Sound.

Doubtful Sound Cruise

It was straight off the bus and onto another boat for the three-hour Doubtful Sound cruise. I’d already been to Milford Sound a few times before so I knew what to expect (they are similar), but I had no idea just how incredible the scenery would be. We were the only boat on the water for most of the journey and the views started out strong and didn’t relent. You can never get sick of seeing granite peaks like these covered in trees and rising sharply from the water. Throw in some waterfalls and you’ve got yourself some of the most unique scenery in the world.

The Doubtful Sound cruise takes you out to the Tasman Sea (if conditions play along) where you’ll see fur seals lounging around on small rocky islands. You’ll also pass by Secretary Island, surely one of the coolest islands in New Zealand. If they ever need to film another Jurassic Park movie it should be here. We also saw a couple of penguins along the way and if you’re lucky you might see dolphins.

Once the boat turns around you could be forgiven for thinking you’ll just head straight back the way you came, and that the scenery won’t really change. You’d be wrong — the return journey is even better! Doubtful Sound has a few different arms (which kind of seem like separate fjords) and we cruised down two of them. Crooked Arm was first and in my opinion is the most scenic part of the Doubtful Sound cruise. You’ll be surrounded by hanging valleys, waterfalls and snow-capped (in winter and spring at least) granite peaks. The captain might even turn off the engine and implore everyone to be quiet for a minute so you can enjoy the serenity of this place without man-made noise. All you’ll hear is the lapping of the water and birds singing in the distance.

Before reaching the end of the cruise you’ll also go down Hall Arm.  The captain said he rated it as the most beautiful part of Doubtful Sound and I probably would have agreed if the light was a bit better (it had started to get a bit cloudy by then). Still though, we weren’t even expecting to cruise down another arm of Doubtful Sound, so we were happy just to be there!

Doubtful Sound Cruise FAQs

  • How much does it cost? We went with Real Journeys, which will generally set you back around $250. It’s a lot of money but it’s worth splashing out for. We only paid $129 each as Real Journeys has a “Locals Special” in August and September (it’s open to residents of Otago and Southland).
  • How long does it take? Our tour started at 9.45 am in Manapouri and finished up at 5 pm. It’s a long day but for the money you’re spending you’d be disappointed with anything less! It may be a long day but it’s an easy one – there’s almost no walking required so just sit back, relax and appreciate the views.

  • What about the overnight cruise? If you feel like splashing out and want to spend as long as you can at Doubtful Sound you should consider doing an overnight cruise. I haven’t done one, but I reckon it’d be a great experience.
  • What’s the boat like? The boat we went on was a decent size and had some great viewing areas. The top deck is good, but we preferred to be out the front most of the time. The inside area is nice and has some comfortable seats. These tend to fill up quick so it’s a good idea to get on the boat early, grab some good seats and then go in and out when you need to (it gets cold outside, so you won’t want to spend the whole cruise out there). Make sure to save your seat by leaving a bag or something on it! There’s food and drink available on board and you can also order lunch when you book (on Real Journeys at least) which you’ll collect before leaving Manapouri.

  • Doubtful Sound VS Milford Sound? With two such similar places, it’s hard to know which one to visit (or should you visit both?). In my opinion Doubtful Sound is better – it’s bigger, there is more variety in the views you get and it’s far quieter. Milford Sound is still awesome though and I recommend visiting both. If you only want to shell out for one cruise, I’d go for Doubtful Sound. To me, the biggest appeal of Milford Sound is the fact that you can drive straight to it and that there is so much to see nearby, including some of the best hikes in New Zealand. So, in an ideal world you should do both, but if you’re short on money do Milford Sound (and spend a day or two nearby if you can) and if you’re short on time do Doubtful Sound. Or do the Doubtful Sound cruise and then drive to Milford Sound and see it from the foreshore and do some hikes nearby but skip the cruise. There are so many options!

  • Where to stay nearby? Te Anau is only 20 minutes from Manapouri and is the logical option. There are heaps of hotels in Te Anau and you’ll easily find something in your price range. Otherwise you could stay in Manapouri or keep driving to Milford Sound and either camp there or stay in one of the lodges.

Did this post inspire you to do the Doubtful Sound cruise? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who has just returned home after 6 years abroad. Join me as I see as much of the South Island as I can.

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