Tucked away in the south-west corner of New Zealand’s South Island lies the Fiordland National Park, and within it, two of the most beautiful areas of the country – Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. However, if you don’t have the time to visit both, how do you decide between the two?
Back in another life, I lived in Queenstown on the South Island and worked for a company selling Milford Sound cruises. I visited both Milford and Doubtful countless times and came to love both in different ways. Here’s the lowdown on Milford and Doubtful Sound, to help you choose the best Fiordland experience for your trip to New Zealand.
Milford Sound (once described by Rudyard Kipling as the Eighth Wonder of the World) is a towering fiord around 5-6 hours’ drive west of Queenstown. It’s busier than Doubtful Sound, purely due to the easier drive and the number of cruise operators there, but don’t let that put you off.
Doubtful Sound is harder to reach but bigger, wider, greener and so very, very quiet. If you choose to visit Doubtful, you'll be treated to the ‘Sound of Silence’, when the cruise boats turn off their engines and ask everyone to ‘listen’ to the silence. It's a place of pure peace.
The coach excursion into Milford Sound from Queenstown is a long day, at almost 12 hours for the round trip. However, it really is worth it if you don’t have a car or you don’t want to drive it. If the weather is kind, you can even fly back to Queenstown and cut a few hours off your return journey.
The coach will pick you up from your accommodation at first light, so if you’re staying in Queenstown, you may even get to witness the gorgeous sunrise colours of Lake Wakatipu through your sleepy eyes. Next, you’ll set off to Te Anau for your first breakfast and much-needed coffee stop.
The first part of your journey travels mainly through farmland, but if you can stay awake you’ll hear the driver tell many an anecdote about the area and you may even see a kiwi traffic jam – you’ll feel the coach slowing down to wait for the herds of sheep to cross the road! From Te Anau, you will carry on to either Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound.
Travelling north from Te Anau, you’ll hit the Milford Road, a long and winding mountain road that will make you realise why the coaches have glass roofs. The scenery is staggering. You’ll stop along the way, not only to stretch your legs but to witness what’s behind the trees – the stunning Mirror Lakes. These are exactly as they sound, and on a bright day, the lakes perfectly mirror the tree-topped mountains. Even on a misty day, it’s well worth the short walk.
The next stop was always a highlight for me - The Chasm - a waterfall powering its way through the rock. The beautiful track to the waterfall takes you through thick, shaded forest. Just be careful not to spend too long on these walks, as you must be on time for the cruise. I almost got caught out once and had to run for the bus, because I was too mesmerised by my surroundings!
You’ll then continue to the Homer Tunnel, and you’ll usually stop at the lights before entering, so keep a look out for the cheeky green Keas (the world’s only alpine parrot) while you wait. The Homer Tunnel was built with bare hands back in the 1930s, and you’ll notice the narrow, rough walls as you pass through.
When you come out of the Tunnel, the Milford Highway opens up, and the views are incredible, with long roads twisting through the mountains. If you’re visiting during winter, the mountains will be snow-capped, but be aware that the weather can sometimes close the road.
During winter or any period of changeable weather, a scenic flight into Milford Sound is a great option. Even if the road is closed due to snow, the flights will operate on bluebird sky days. And even if it’s raining, don’t be disheartened. When it rains in Milford, hundreds of waterfalls begin crashing down from the cliffs to the water below – so there’s always a silver lining!
Arriving into Milford, you’ll join a cruise. If you’re coming by coach on a day tour, you’ll most likely take a lunchtime cruise, which will last around 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours. These are the busiest cruises of the day, so if you’re self-driving, it’s best to try to leave it until later in the afternoon or make a night of it. This way, you can stay at the Milford Sound Lodge or in one of the many accommodation options in Te Anau the night before and rise early for a quiet morning cruise.
All the cruises will take the same route, heading up past the iconic Mitre Peak and through the waterfalls. Some of the boats quite literally take you through the waterfalls! Be sure to grab a raincoat and get under the spray – Maori legend says it makes you ten years younger! If you don’t fancy getting wet, ask the staff to fill you a glass with the pure glacial water and drink your way back to youth!
Out into the open Tasman Sea, the boat will do a u-turn and head back towards land, but not before stopping to spot the local wildlife. Look out for the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin, Southern Fur Seal and pods of Bottlenose Dolphins.
If you miss all the wildlife, you can choose to get off at the underwater observatory and descend the spiral staircase to view the rare black coral (it’s actually white!) and the sea life of the Piopiotahi Marine Reserve. If you’ve pre-booked, this is where you take your kayaking trip around Harrison’s Cove. It’s suitable for all abilities and getting closer to the water makes you realise just how tiny you are in this part of the world.
In contrast to Milford, Doubtful Sound is three times bigger but so much quieter. It’s a place of astounding scenery and total solitude. If you’re looking for a more secluded and peaceful way to experience NZ’s Fiordland, it’s a perfect choice. The deepest and broadest of all the fiords, it stretches for over 40 kilometres, flanked by towering cliffs and waterfalls.
Doubtful Sound is less accessible, which is why there are far fewer tourists. The only way of getting here is by leisurely cruise across Lake Manapouri and then by coach across the Wilmot Pass. As there is no airport or landing strip here, flights aren’t an option either - although you can take a scenic flight over the area and witness the spectacular beauty from above.
Back down on the road, keep your eyes peeled for the first glimpse of Doubtful Sound through the forest as you come over the Wilmot Pass. From here, you’ll descend along the mountain road to the shore, where you can set sail on the fjord. Due to its remoteness, there are only a handful of cruises to choose from on Doubtful Sound, most of them running at around 3 hours.
While out on the water, the cruise will take you into 3 of the primary arms of the Sound, before heading out to the Tasman Sea. On the way, the onboard guides will share their passion and knowledge of the area with you. Keep looking out for the dolphins, seals and penguins!
If you want something a little bit special, join an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, making the journey to get there really worth your while. Doing this, you can get closer to the wildlife on a small tender craft, enjoy a sunset dinner on board (some operators let you catch your own crayfish) and - if it’s warm enough - take a dip in the water! Perfect for honeymoons and anniversaries, it’s full of remote romance.
We can put together New Zealand trips of all shapes and sizes, from campervan itineraries to self-drive adventures. Our expert consultants have travelled to New Zealand, so we can you first-hand advice, making sure that your holiday is top-notch from beginning to end. To get started, call us on +44 1273320580 or send us an email with your request.