A Night In Doubtful Sound With Real Journeys In NZ’s South Island

A Night In Doubtful Sound With Real Journeys In NZ’s South Island
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| 5 min read

When talking about New Zealand’s South Island, it probably goes without saying that Milford Sound is one of the most popular places for tourists. However, there is another less visited sound farther south. The name Doubtful Sound might not seem appealing at first and the fact that it is not easily accessible might put people off from visiting. However, it more than rivals its more famous counterpart and you can visit this lesser known sound with Real Journeys.

A hundred waterfalls

As the sky clears up after a heavy rainfall, some waterfalls are still visible.

Doubtful Sound was previously named Doubtful Harbour by Captain Cook in 1770 due to the uncertain navigation conditions. It was later renamed Doubtful Sound by whalers.

Being in an area with heavy rainfall most of the year, hundreds of waterfalls stream down the sides of the mountains into the sound, making a rainy day one of the best times to view the sound. From all this rain, tannin, the same substance found in black tea, is carried from the soil and deposited into the sound’s water through the rainfall. While the fresh water with tannin remains at the surface, the sea water underneath receives little sunlight, making it a growing ground for deep sea plants. This is easily noticeable in sunlight and you can scoop up some water in your hand and you will see that it has a reddish-brown colour.

Doubtful Sound is also home to marine wildlife such as bottlenose dolphins, fur seals and the rare Fiordland Crested Penguins, as well as birdlife such as the Kiwi and Kea, the endemic alpine parrot. By sailing in the sound, you will get a glimpse of the large part of Fiordland National Park that is not open to the public.

Getting there

a night in doubtful sound with real journeys in nz’s south island | getting there

Doubtful Sound is only accessible via licensed tour operators as it is located in the protected Fiordland National Park.

To get there, you will first need to board a passenger ferry from Manapouri, a small town south of Te Anau. The ferry is located at the Real Journeys Visitor Centre next to the Waiau River. If you are traveling by car, there is a free overnight parking lot that overlooks the river. However, Real Journeys also offer coach transports from Queenstown and Te Anau.

The ferry will leave Manapouri around 12 pm, returning at 11.45 am the next day. You will dock near a hydroelectric power plant where there is a small Department of Conservation building with information over the area and its wildlife. There are toilets at the facility. From there on, you will be taken on a transfer bus that drives over a small mountain road to Doubtful Sound.

Passengers are limited to one luggage each and a carry-on bag as there is not a lot of space on the transfer bus or the overnight boat for extra luggage.

Wildlife cruise

A Fjordland Crested penguin on a rock.

Just like its name, the aim of this cruise is for visitors to get a chance to see the native wildlife that live in the area. This includes both land and sea animals. The ferry will travel towards the opening where the sound meets the ocean. The wildlife guide on board will tell you about the history and facts about the area, as well as trying to spot some wildlife. Dolphins, penguins, seals and occasionally whales are seen in the area, as well as the Kea, the New Zealand alpine parrot.

The scenery is absolutely stunning with the lush green forests on both sides of the water, but it is even better right after a heavy rainfall. In bad weather, you will see hundreds of waterfalls streaming down the mountain slopes, something which does not occur on nearly the same level on a sunny day. The majestic sight is akin to a setting from a fantasy novel.

Once at the sound’s mouth, there is a small rocky island where a fur seal colony resides. If you are lucky, you might be able to see some of the rare Fiordland Crested Penguins hanging about. Not leaving the sound, the ferry will turn back and find a spot to put down its anchor for the night.

Late afternoon activities will provide you an opportunity to further explore Doubtful Sound. You can choose to go on a guided kayaking trip, do a small sightseeing tour on a dingy or even go for a swim. The calm waters make it easy to carry out any of the activities as the sound is sheltered by mountains and forests on both sides. Life vests are provided.

After dinner, if you are not ready to call it a day yet, there is a free informative video and talk session with your wildlife guide on the issues of conservation and New Zealand’s diverse environment and its wildlife.

Overnight cruise

A surfacing bottle nose dolphin.

There are three bedroom choices, a double or a twin with a private bathroom or a shared four-person bunkbed room with shared bathroom facilities. The rooms have a small heater and is relatively warm; however, if you are unsure, bring extra layers. The bedrooms are not noise-proof so just bear that in mind when entering and exiting your room, as well as when flushing the toilet late at night.

The price for the overnight cruise is 445.00 NZD or 320.87 USD per person and 223.00 NZD or 160.80 USD per child. Children under the age of five can travel for free with a paying adult. The cost includes transfers to and from the cruise ferry. This is the price for a double or twin room. For a full list of room rates, visit Real Journeys’ web page. There is also a day tour option.

The stay includes two buffet meals on board; dinner on the day of your stay and breakfast on your day of departure. Picnic lunch can be pre-ordered or you can bring your own on board. Dinner is a three-course buffet prepared on board and you can expect delicious desserts. Breakfast is the good old English breakfast with baked beans, bacons and sausages with additional hash browns and toast.

Morning call

Morning in the Doubtful Sound.

On the morning of your departure, the wake-up call is at 6 am. This is to give you the opportunity to witness the beautiful sunrise and enjoy the tranquil scenery. After breakfast is served, the wildlife guide on board will try to spot and point out more wildlife. If anything is spotted the guide will announce the sighting via a loudspeaker. It is a good idea to wait out on the deck as the animals can make a very impressive but brief appearances. Dress warm, the morning breeze can be chilly, especially while the ferry is moving. You can also keep a lookout inside the bridge with the captain.

Once back on land, you will be transported via bus and then passenger ferry back to Manapouri. If the weather is favourable, there will be a few short photo stops along the mountain road.

No doubt it is worth a visit

Despite its name, Doubtful Sound is a real wonder. Unlike in the busy Milford Sound, you get to experience Fiordland National Park away from the busy busloads of tourists and the sounds of scenic helicopter flights that make their rounds from Queenstown.

Going on a tour with Real Journeys to Doubtful Sound, you will experience the area up close in its pristine state. The tour is well-managed and makes the sound accessible and enjoyable for all ages.

Whether it is the reflection of the mountains in the glassy waters or the hundreds of waterfalls and the luscious forests, Doubtful Sound is going to leave an impression.

Disclosure: Trip101 selects the listings in our articles independently. Some of the listings in this article contain affiliate links.


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A bit of a globetrotter, Natsha has spent many years living in a number of different countries. Her love for travelling and photography grew over those years. After finishing a BA in Iceland,...Read more

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