No New Zealand holiday would be complete without a visit to the World Heritage area of Fiordland National Park, for it is here that you will find some of the most stunning scenery on earth.

This remarkable environment includes the magnificent fiords of the Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound. A cruise on one or other of these scenic stretches of water is an experience which will long stay in the memory of most visitors. We recommend a visit to either Sound as part of a Silver Fern South Island itinerary.

Where is Doubtful Sound?

Located in the far South West of South Island, Doubtful Sound is the deepest of the fiords at 421m deep and is long and winding with three distinct arms between Deep Cove and the open sea; a distance of over 40 kilometres.

The soaring 900m sea cliff of Commander Peak marks an imposing entrance to Hall Arm, one of the most beautiful arms in all of Fiordland.

The Sound is remote and almost inaccessible; it is about 50 kilometres (31miles) from the nearest town of Manapouri surrounded by mountain peaks of 1,300-1,600 metres (4,300-5,200 feet).

Looking down over the Doubtful Sound from above

History of Doubtful Sound

Despite its name, Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord, carved out by massive glacial forces over two million years ago. It was named Doubtful Harbour in 1770 by Captain Cook, who did not enter the inlet as he was uncertain whether it was navigable under sail. It was later renamed Doubtful Sound by whalers and sealers in the nineteenth century.

In 1793 the sound was visited by a Spanish expedition commanded by Alessandro Malaspina, whose cartographer, Felipe Bauza y Canas made the first chart of the entrance and lower parts of the Sound, naming features of it, including Febrero Point, Bauza Island, and the Nee Islets, Pendulo Reach and Malaspina Reach.

Following the passage of the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act 1998, the name of the fiord was officially altered to Doubtful Sound/Patea.

Cruising Doubtful Sound

The starting point for your cruise on Doubtful Sound is the Manapouri Boat Dock. You can drive there and park up for the day (or overnight) whilst you enjoy your cruise, but do make sure no valuables are left in the vehicle. Alternatively, Real Journeys offers connecting coach transport from Queenstown or Te Anau. These coach connections and cruise can be booked as part of your Silver Fern Holidays, New Zealand itinerary. From Queenstown the coach journey is two hours, from Te Anau, 30 minutes.

Depart from the boat dock for a cruise across beautiful Lake Manapouri, followed by a bus journey over the rugged Wilmot Pass. This 22km road connects West Arm in Lake Manapouri to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound, and was built during the construction of the hydro-electric power project. A trip to the underground power station at West Arm to view the massive turbines inside the mountain cavern make an interesting side trip.

The road across Wilmot Pass follows the Spey Valley with views of river, forest and mountains. Prolific growth of ferns and mosses amidst the podocarp forests are testimony to the high rainfall in the area, and create an attractive display on the rock face known as the Moss Gardens.

On reacting Deep Cove, you will join your daytime wilderness or overnight cruise.

Boat making its way through the Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound Daytime Cruise

At Deep Cove, you’ll board a modern catamaran vessel, the Patea Explorer, for a three-hour cruise exploring the waterways of this tranquil and isolated fiord. There is plenty of time to view the spectacular alpine scenery including waterfalls, rainforest and mountains out to the Tasman Sea. It is home to bottlenose dolphins and fur seals and when in season, the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin.

An on-board nature guide with specialist knowledge of the region’s history, flora and fauna, provides detailed interpretation with a roving microphone. On the return cruise the boat’s engines are turned off and visitors are treated to the “sound of silence”, complimentary tea and coffee are available on all vessels and Silver Fern also includes a deluxe picnic lunch.

We recommend that you overnight in Te Anau following your cruise in the Sound; this is a full day trip from the visitor centre at Manapouri of eight hours, so the shorter drive to Te Anau (30 mins) is preferable to a longer drive of three hours back to Queenstown.

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise

An overnight cruise on the Doubtful Sound is a very special experience. It gives you the opportunity to experience the Sound, as one of only seventy two passengers aboard the Fiordland Navigator, and probably the only vessel in the Sound. As evening draws near, the Captain will drop anchor at a sheltered mooring. Then you can explore the shoreline by kayak or small boat. There is also the opportunity to go swimming. In the evening you can relax in the saloon and enjoy a delicious three course meal. Local wines, beer and spirits can be purchased from the bar.

The next morning, following the cooked and continental breakfast buffet, there is time for further cruising before returning to Deep Cove and retracing the steps back to Manapouri. On the return cruise, the vessel’s engines are turned off and passengers are treated to the “sound of silence”, where guests experience floating in silence on the fiord, only birdsong and the rush of waterfalls break the silence.

Kayaking on the Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound v Milford Sound

We’re often asked the question, “Which Sound should I experience, Milford or Doubtful?”  It’s a touch question, since both are spectacular in their different ways and it’s often down to personal preference. However, to help you make that decision we’ve put together a summary of the key differences, the pros and cons, if you like, of the two sounds.


Milford Sound; You can reach Milford directly by road within two hours from Te Anau, and four hours from Queenstown. This accessibility means you will be sharing the waters with a host of other boats and people. The harbour area is extremely busy in peak season.

Doubtful Sound; There is no road to Doubtful Sound – you cross Lake Manapouri by boat and then you bus over the Wilmot Pass so there are only a limited number of visitors to the area and without doubt Doubtful Sound remains relatively untouched and is more of a wilderness experience.


Milford Sound; Although Milford is the smaller Sound, it is more enclosed, and narrower than Doubtful, which means it feels more imposing. You are constantly looking upwards, craning to view the steep waterfalls and vertical cliffs.

Doubtful Sound; By contrast, Doubtful is three times longer than Milford and ten times larger; it is more open and spread out.

The Doubtful Sound from above

The “Experience”

Milford Sound; Because there are a considerable number of boats on the Sound, cruise operations on Milford have to be more regulated. This means there are set departures of 2 hour boat cruises which follow a beautiful, but set route, out to the Tasman Sea and return. You will see other boats on the Sound.

Doubtful Sound; Cruises on Doubtful Sound, on the other hand, are not structured and the boats have more freedom to explore. Overnight cruises on Doubtful Sound are much longer and allow people to swim, kayak and fish from the boat.


The cruises on Milford are much cheaper, because the cruises are shorter (2 hours), the boats are bigger and there are more passengers. Hence, the Milford cruises start at $55NZD per person, whereas Doubtful Sound cruises start at $210 and last eight hours. Overnight cruises on Doubtful Sound start at $395.00.

In Conclusion


If you can afford it we would plump for the overnight Doubtful Sound cruise, of all those available –  purely for the magnificence of the scenery in such a remote location and the once in a lifetime opportunity to float amongst an almost primeval, pristine environment.

If it’s a day trip you’re more interested in, the Milford Sound cruise provides the iconic highlights of the area within a sensible journey timescale.

If you’re still undecided about which Sound to choose, or require any further details of these wonderful trips, do contact us today. Our friendly staff are experts in tailor made holidays to New Zealand and will be able to help you start planning your dream holiday today!