Sailing on a Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise, New Zealand

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise Real Journeys New Zealand

No visit to New Zealand would be complete without a trip to one of the South Island’s misty and magnificent fiords.

Fiordland National Park in the South Island of New Zealand is home to 14 fiords. Having been named as one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions, Milford Sound is arguably the most famous. However, if you want to avoid the crowds and experience a place just as breathtaking as Milford Sound, then read on.

With a surface area roughly ten times larger than Milford Sound and second largest of all the 14 fiords in Fiordland National Park, Doubtful is Milford’s mysterious sister. Doubtful Sound measures 40km / 25 miles in length and is the deepest of the South Island’s Fiords.

I embarked on a road trip from Queenstown to discover this lesser known fiord for myself. I was looking forward to getting out on the water and voyage through a world so untouched it was as if I’d stepped into Jurassic Park.

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How to get to Doubtful Sound from Queenstown

Getting to Doubtful Sound from Queenstown (or Te Anau for that matter) is part of the fun. Milford Sound is accessible by road whereas Doubtful Sound requires a little bit more effort – but it’s fun, I promise!

Either by car or by tour operator (more on that later), you’ll initially drive to Lake Manapōuri. This lake lies 172 kilometres from Queenstown. The drive from Queenstown to Lake Manapōuri is around 2.5 – 3 hours or 30 minutes from Te Anau.

There are plenty of beautiful photo opportunities along the drive to keep you entertained. My personal favourites are the sparkling glacial water of Lake Wakatipu and the views of Southland’s peaceful farmland.

Once I arrived to the edge of the lake in Manapouri I met the representatives of the Real Journeys tour that I was joining for my overnight cruise.

Sailing across Lake Manapōuri

Māori legend tells the tale of a woman discovering her injured sister in the forest and lying down beside her until they both die. The name Manapōuri means anxious or sorrowful heart because of the grief of the two sisters as they filled the area with their tears.

This poignant imagery may stick with you as you sail across the lake’s vast waters. At 444 metres, Lake Manapōuri is New Zealand’s second deepest lake after Lake Hauroko at 462 metres. The River Waiau is the lake’s only natural inlet and outlet, although once you get to the West Arm of Lake Manapōuri you’ll discover the gateway to the Wilmot Pass and the  Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Station.

Unfortunately you cannot stop and visit this place as it’s closed to the public, but it’s worth mentioning as you won’t be able to miss its incredibly large structure rising out from the edge of the lake. In its remote position, it’s quite a surreal sight!

WIlmot Pass Deep Cove Doubtful Sound New Zealand

Travelling from Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound

Disembarking the boat at the end of the West Arm of the Lake, I found a bus waiting for me that would shuttle me from boat to the vessel on Doubtful Sound. There is a small visitor centre here called the West Arm Visitor Centre. This features an information display about Fiordland National Park and the points of interest in the area, some toilets and if you’re lucky, a bit of mobile reception.

There is only one road here through dense forest – the Wilmot Pass Road – and it is completely remote. Once on the 30 minute bus journey, we drove along this winding pass where, at the top, we were allowed to jump out to take a peek at the view into Deep Cove. As I gazed down, the clouds conveniently cleared and enabled me my first glimpse of my final destination of Doubtful Sound.

All in all, expect the journey from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound to take around 5 hours. But that does include a 40 minute boat ride across Lake Manapōuri, so all in all, it’s quite an adventure.

How did Doubtful Sound get its name?

Doubtful gained its name due to Captain Cook’s uncertainty in 1770 that he could sail his ship from the Tasman Sea into the fiord. As it turned out, you can navigate the waters of the Sound along its three narrow arms, Hall, Crooked and First.

Captain Cook named it Doubtful Harbour originally, but this was changed to Doubtful Sound by whalers at a later stage. In 1998, Doubtful Sound was renamed Doubtful Sound / Patea (meaning ‘place of silence’ in Maori dialect).

New Zealand fur seals visit Doubtful Sound

Māori history of Doubtful Sound

It was wonderful to hear the Māori legends of how Doubtful and the other fiords were created, and the stories were as beautiful as the landscape I surveyed.

In Māori legend, the fiords – known as Sounds – in Fiordland were created by the god Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa as a refuge from stormy seas. As he hewed the rock, sea gods formed the arms of Patea: Hall Arm, Crooked Arm and First Arm.

Its Māori name is Patea, or ‘place of silence,’ and I certainly felt the serenity of an untouched world.

Onboard a Real Journeys overnight cruise

I experienced an overnight cruise on the Fiordland Navigator operated by Real Journeys. We set off from Deep Cove and cruised the full length of the Sound, ending up at Tasman Sea.

As we sailed through the fiord, I craned my neck to take in the sheer, craggy cliff edges coated in carpets of mosses and ferns. I spent a lot of time standing on deck, buffeted by the wind, taking in the cresting waves breaking around the bow of the boat. We dipped our cups into a waterfall tumbling down from staggering heights and tasted its purity.  

Out at the mouth of the Sound, fur seals slumbered on the rocks. I scanned the water eagerly for glimpses of Fiordland penguins and the elusive bottle nose dolphins. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to see them on this occasion, they both can be spotted in Doubtful Sound.

Everywhere around me, wisps of low-lying cloud clung to rocky outcrops and in the flat light of the weather produced a moody, monotone of sky and water.

This kind of environment fills me with an overwhelming sense of peace. Regardless of the weather, your surroundings are so different to what you know that you cannot fail to be touched by it. Its vast, remote beauty touches each one of your senses, so your mind empties of all ‘real world’ thoughts and problems just fade away into the silence.

Doubtful Sound Tasman Sea New Zealand

Activities included in a Doubtful Sound overnight cruise

The boat dropped anchor in a sheltered cove, giving all on board the opportunity to take part in some water-based activities. All the equipment is provided, so just remember to take your dry bag for any personal items and a waterproof case for your camera! Some of these activities are weather dependent and the crew will let you know on the day what is available for you.


You can take to the Sound in a kayak and paddle in the calm waters of a cove.  

Tender boat guided tour

As I had previously kayaked in Milford Sound, I opted for the tour on a small boat guided by one of the crew. 


Although a tad chilly – the water temperature in the fiord averages 11 degrees Celsius – there is the option to go swimming! Not a fan of submerging myself in such bracing waters, I opted to stay dry on board the tender boat, but if the weather was obliging it would certainly be a remarkable experience to wild swim in Doubtful Sound!

Nature guide

Throughout the cruise we were treated to commentary from a knowledgeable nature guide. He explained the history of Fiordland and its Māori legends, the unique flora, fauna and wildlife found in this untouched part of the world.

Sometimes guided commentary can produce a bit of an eye-roll reaction for me, but I thought there was a good balance between information and time for reflection.

Visiting the bridge

One option that is open to you is visiting the captain on the bridge.

The captain of the Fiordland Navigator was incredibly welcoming and patiently answered questions from guests who popped into the bridge to say hello. He allowed me to sit in his chair at a rather impressive dashboard of gadgets, screens and levers and I enjoyed looking at all of the charts, maps and monitors that were helping to guide our way through the Sound.

A small aspect of the cruise perhaps, but one that left a lasting impression as how often do you get to experience something like that?

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise Real Journeys New Zealand

On board the overnight cruise

Accommodation on board the Fiordland Navigator was very comfortable. I had travelled there with a friend, so we shared a twin room with an ensuite, but there are also double rooms for couples. For solo travellers or groups of friends there is a quad share bunk room.

Food on board was plentiful and we were treated to a three-course buffet style meal in the evening, plus a lunch and breakfast. There was a licensed bar on board and free tea and coffees available throughout the day.

Can you visit Doubtful Sound without an organised tour?

Partially, yes, however, with no road access, you will have to use an organised tour provider to take you across Lake Manapōuri (unless you have your own boat!), then over the Wilmot Pass by bus to Deep Cove.

Currently, the only company company that provides transport for this journey is Real Journeys.

The cost of a return journey from Lake Manapōuri to Deep Cove is approximately $188 NZ per person. You can book your transport when you make a reservation at The Deep Cove Hostel (details below).

Is there accommodation in Doubtful Sound?

There is one hostel at Deep Cove operated by The Deep Cove Outdoor Education Trust, a not for profit organisation established for the purpose of enabling students an opportunity to experience life in a remote part of the Fiordland National Park.

As well as school groups, visitors of all ages can stay at the hostel. You can use the hostel as a base to explore the forest surrounding the area on several walking trails, study the variety of flora and fauna and go boating and fishing on the Sound.

Expect to pay about $40 NZ a night for a single bunk bed in a shared dorm, or $30 NZ for a twin bunk room if you’re travelling with a friend or partner. There are also single rooms available and even a 3 bedroomed apartment. Bedding can be provided at extra costs and you must bring all of your own food with you.

Read more about Deep Cove Hostel and make your booking via their website.

Doubtful Sound waterfalls Real Journeys overnight cruise

Hints and tips for visiting Doubtful Sound

A couple of extra useful points for you if you are planning a trip here:

Phone reception

If being connected to Wifi and mobile reception is integral to your happiness then you may struggle a tiny bit. Expect to receive no mobile service for most of the trip. Use this an opportunity to mentally switch off the notifications from the rest of the world and enjoy being present in such a wonderful, timeless place.

Let’s talk about the sandflies!

Let’s remember our friend Tu-Te-Raki-Whanoa, the god in the Māori legend who was carving up the landscape of the South Island with a giant axe. Apparently, once he’d finished, Hine-nui-te-po (the goddess of the underworld) deemed the fiords so beautiful that she feared they would become modified by man.

“As a deterrent, she released a liberal dose of sandflies. Her ploy worked. Most Maori restricted their visits to the area to occasional hunting, fishing and greenstone-gathering trips. Even today, the human population density of Fiordland remains virtually zero.” (Source: NZGeo).

These vicious little critters indiscriminately bite any exposed area of flesh they can land on, causing itchy bites so maddening you’ll want to tear off your own skin.

Insect repellent is only marginally effective, so really the best advice is to cover up all exposed skin by wearing long trousers and long sleeves and to keep moving so sandflies cannot settle on you. Wet and windy weather is also a blessing as they do not settle as prolifically. 

What is the the best time of year to visit Doubtful Sound?

Be prepared and bring your wet weather clothing.

Fiordland is one of the wettest places in the world! With a mean annual rainfall of 6813mm (268 in), it rains for about 180 days a year in this part of the South Island.

Temperatures range from about 19C in summer (Dec – Feb) to around 9.5C in winter (Jun – Aug).

I was lucky enough to not experience any rain, although it was very overcast. It was windy out on the deck of the ship, which I expected, so I made sure I packed multiple warm layers and waterproof clothing to keep me dry and snug.

The weather is an integral part of this area of New Zealand and whatever Mother Nature decides to throw at you will shape your experience to make it unique and different to the next person’s.

  • If it’s raining a lot, expect to see the cliffs of the fiord around you surging with waterfalls cascading into the water below. Plumes of water gush, tumble and drip off every last rock and fern.  
  • If the cloud is low, drift through the swirling mists of the fiords, catch glimpses of the peaks jutting above the clouds and marvel at the sheer silence of the fiord.
  • If it’s a sunny day, lucky you!

Doubtful Sound waterfalls Real Journeys overnight cruise

What to pack for a Doubtful Sound overnight cruise

Clothing will make or break your experience in Doubtful Sound.

Bringing along plenty of warm, waterproof clothing will mean that you can get fully involved in the activities on offer and stand out on deck whenever you want.

So, bearing in mind the sandflies and the weather forecast, my recommendations are:

  • Warm hat/ sun hat and gloves
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Your camera
  • Insect repellent
  • Cash for bar and snacks on board the boat
  • Swimming costume – if the weather is good and you fancy taking a dip!

As a lover of getting off the beaten track, this trip came as somewhat of a thrill to me. Although I knew Doubtful Sound is a tourist attraction – the very fact that I was there proof of this – in this place of silence you truly feel like you are one of only a very few people lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this untouched world.

Over to you!

Have you visited Doubtful Sound or is it still on your New Zealand wish list? Share your experience below or if you have any questions, drop them in the comments!

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    • May 23, 2019 / 10:11 AM

      Thank you! Doubtful Sound is a beautiful place and well worth a visit if you are in New Zealand.

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