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All you need to know for your Doubtful Sound overnight cruise

Doubtful Sound is one of the most remote places in NZ, located in the South Island’s Fiordland National Park It is part of Te Wahipounamu – one of three sites in NZ given UNESCO World Heritage status. This must surely give you an indication of just how special this area is, and why YOU should experience a Doubtful Sound overnight cruise. Let me share why it will create an indelible memory for you.

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Doubtful Sound is an area where it appears time has stood still. To describe the scenery as spectacular seems to do it a disservice. Words cannot aptly describe the wealth of what you’ll see, which could vary from intensely serene, to majestically moody, or frantically exciting. Whatever the weather does, it is a landscape that will take whatever weather is thrown at it, and enhance it.

Tehnically a fjord rather than a Sound, you will sail on the deepest green waters, surrounded by incredible fjord walls, cascading waterfalls, and dramatic peaks. The view will be at one moment intimate, and the next vast.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A little history of Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Harbour was ‘discovered’ by Captain Cook in 1770, who did not actually enter the inlet as sailing past, as he was uncertain whether it was navigable under sail. It was later named Doubtful Sound by the whalers and sealers who lived there. And just like Milford Sound, neither of these is actually a Sound, but rather a Fiord.

It’s Maori name is Patea – which translates to the “sound of silence”. You’ll understand the significance of this on your trip.

It is the second-longest Fiord in NZ (approx 40kms) and the deepest (up to 421 metres). It receives rainfall on average 200 days of the year.

How to get to Doubtful Sound

Getting to Doubtful Sound is a journey in itself. Remember I said it is one of the most remote parts of NZ? That’s because it’s not easy to get to!!

Your journey begins in Manapouri. So if you’re self driving, you’ll drive to Manapouri and park there (overnight parking is available).

If you don’t have a car, you can choose a pick up through Real Journeys from Queenstown or Te Anau.

The fun begins at Pearl Harbour, in Manapouri. You’ll jump on a boat and head across Lake Manapouri to West Arm. (This is the site of the Manapouri Hydro Station, the largest in NZ.)

Here, your coach is awaiting. Jump on board for a fun and informative trip through lush rainforest, over the Wilmot Pass (NZ’s most expensive road). At the top of the pass the bus will stop so you can look down over the Sound – it’s one spectacular view, so you’ll want to ensure your camera is handy.

Each of these journeys takes about 45 minutes.

After your very picturesque journey, you arrive at Deep Cove where your boat awaits.

How long is the cruise?

Our pickup was in Manapouri at 12:30 pm, and we were returned there at 12 noon the following day. This includes approximately 2 hours of traveling each way to and from Deep Cove, so you’re actually only on the cruise ship for around 20 hours.

Your cruise ship

The details of your ship will depend on which company you choose to travel with. But all the ships sailing in the Sound are small. You are asked to just bring enough luggage for your overnight trip, and as you’ll be carrying this on the boat I highly recommend just a ‘carry on’ sized bag.

We booked with Real Journeys, and travelled on the Fiordland Navigator, which takes a maximum of 72 passengers.

Upon boarding, we were given a run down of where things were etc on the boat, and then handed the keys to our cabin.

On the Navigator all cabins are either double, twin or quad share. Our twin share cabin had an ensuite, two super comfy beds, and two good sized windows. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked. (Double cabins sell out fast.)

Our twin cabin for our overnight cruise

You are encouraged to roam the ship, and there are lots of areas for you to hang out with the crew and other passengers. Of course, the Fisherman (aka hubby) made a beeline for the bridge to chat to the captain.

The dining room has booths down each side, and large tables in the centre, so you’ll be sitting and eating with other passengers. This is a nice way to get to know other travelers. There’s also a hot drinks section that is available 24/7, and an onboard bar to purchase from.

In the main room / dining room of the Fiordland Navigator

The Cruise itself

In all honesty, with the word ‘cruise’ in the title, I expected to have a little relaxing time on the trip. I’d taken a book, because I thought it would be quite lovely to be able to plop myself somewhere peaceful, and read with a view.

How wrong was I!

Our cruise was exciting and engaging from the minute we left the dock, and I didn’t want to miss a minute of the everchanging landscape.

We encountered an unusual weather pattern, where we had extremely strong, gusting, warm wind. (It’s not usually warm). Forget about the beautiful serene image that’s often captured in Doubtful Sound pictures, ours was the opposite.

The wind ricocheted off the cliffs, creating mini tornados that danced across the water in front of us. It was utterly mesmerising. Every way we turned was a new dance, and we couldn’t stop looking. Despite the wind, the boat was surprisingly stable, so thankfully we didn’t feel any seasickness from it.

Wind dancing across the water on our Doubtful Sound overnight cruise
The wind provided a truly captivating show

Watching the wind from the bridge was fascinating, but stepping outside onto the deck into the wind was ….. invigorating. It was so unusual because it was warm (it would have been bitter had it been cold). It was Mother Nature showing off, showing just how powerful she can be. Honestly, you had to hold on tight to maintain your position. Taking a photo was a huge challenge, and of course, photos cannot do the sights’ justice.

At one stage our views were disrupted by a pod of bottlenose dolphins who decided to play in our bow waters.

We traveled along the dancing waters to the mouth of the Tasman Sea. Here seals lay on rocks, seemingly oblivious to the wind. This is where Captain Cook first viewed the entrance to the Sound, but chose not to enter because it was ‘doubtful’ he’d be able to navigate the channel.

Seals on the rocks at the mouth of the Tasman Sea on Doubtful Sound overnight cruise

We retreated from here to cruise to calmer waters. It seemed unthinkable in these winds that we’d find them, but the Captain knows all the secret spots, and delivered the goods.

We anchored, and were offered the opportunity to explore the shoreline in kayaks, or in a tender boat. We chose the kayaks, and loved being on the water like that.

Kayaking on our Doubtful Sound overnight cruise

After everyone was back on board, there was then the chance for any hardy souls to jump into the water. I say hardy, because the water sits at a stable 13-15C (around 60F). A few took the chance to plunge into these special waters. (Although the Sound is obviously sea water, it has a layer of fresh water on top (2-10 metres), fed from the high rainfalls that the surrounding mountains receive).

Hot soup and freshly baked rolls was offered for all, as a starter while chef prepared our delicious buffet dinner.

After dinner, the onboard nature specialist delivered a presentation about the area. This is a wonderful way to learn more about the history, and the flora and fauna that you’re seeing. Our guide was available for questions throughout the journey, which really adds to the value you get from this trip.

Sadly for us, there was a lot of cloud cover, so star gazing was not an option. Probably just as well, as for some reason we were exhausted, and happily head to our cabins for the night.

Day 2

I’m an ‘early bird’, and hoped this habit of mine would reward me with a beautiful sunrise. However, I hadn’t factored on the sun coming up so much later this far South, AND the rain. I think other than the chef I was the first one up on the boat, so got to enjoy a coffee in the lounge, staring out at the inky black. As the sun rose, the rain started, and so began the next transformation of our view.

It started with a moody, misty mysteriousness, with peaks receding into grayscale shadows.

Moody scenes on our Doubtful Sound overnight cruise

Then the rain developed, and turned on the waterfalls. We had seen a few beautiful falls as we explored the Sound yesterday, but nothing can prepare you for what happens when it rains in Fiordland. You almost feel sorry for those who only have sunshine and calm.

Thousands of waterfalls appear, you’ll be busy pointing out this one and that one, and this one and that one, and on it goes.

Waterfalls spring up everywhere when in rains in Doubtful Sound

We tore ourself away only to devour our hearty cooked breakfast.

Then it was time for a special moment on the cruise. We traveled up Hall Arm, to find an incredible scenic spot to stop.

The captain turned off the engines, and we had 5 minutes to experience the ‘sound of silence’. No talking, no whispering, no camera clicks, no noise. Just 5 minutes, being with yourself in the environment. For many this is a very profound moment. It’s certainly very special to be so still, in an area where the only noise was the waterfalls entering the sea, and birds singing in the rain.

As we motored back to Deep Cove, we passed a small island where rare crested penguins were spotted. How special it is to see them was evident in every crew member stopping what they were doing, to join us all in viewing them.

And then just like that, we were docking, and jumping back into a bus to head back over the Pass.

What’s included in your overnight cruise?

Our fee with Real Journeys included the boat trip across Lake Manapouri, the coach trip over the Wilmot Pass, the cruise, activities (kayaking, tender excursion, nature talk), a 3 course dinner, hot cooked breakfast, and the hot drink station available 24/7.

The only thing not included in the fee was purchases from the onboard licensed bar. (You will need cash or a credit card to make purchases).

It’s obviously not a ‘cheap’ cruise, but once you’ve experienced it, you’ll know it was money well spent.

Should I do a Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound overnight cruise?

Gosh, this is a hard question to answer.

In a nutshell, I’d recommend you do the DAY trip on Milford Sound, and the overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound.

Getting to Milford Sound is a journey in itself. There are lots of places to stop along the way, and it is a stunningly beautiful drive, with scenery you won’t see anywhere else.

The peaks in Milford are higher and more dramatic than Doubtful, and the open sea areas larger.

So if you’re short on time, my recommendation would be Milford.

But if you’re tossing up between a cruise on either, then Doubtful is the way to go.

Doubtful Sound is a much larger area to explore by boat, so the environment you’re sailing in has much more diversity. And because it’s so remote, you’re likely only see another boat or two whilst on your trip. You’ll see a landscape not many get to see and experience.

How much does it cost to cruise on Doubtful Sound?

Depending on when you go, and who you choose to travel with, will determine how much you pay.

If budget is a consideration, you can bring the price down by sharing a quad share cabin. This really is a good option, as you’ll likely spend very little time in your cabin anyway.

Prices start from around $300 and go up to around $700.

There is the chance for a day trip on Doubtful Sound also, but I can’t help but think you’d miss out on so much only doing the day trip.

When should you book your cruise for the best weather?

In short, anytime and any weather is a good time for your cruise.

This area in Fiordland receives on average 200 days of rain a year – so there’s a good chance it could rain on your cruise. Trust me – this is a good thing! It’s probably one of the few trips you’d ever do where you want rain. I almost feel sorry for the people who only get to experience Doubtful on a sunny day.

When it rains in Fiordland, it turns on the waterfalls, and it is truly spectacular.

When it’s sunny in Fiordland (and calm), the reflections on the water are inspirational.

When it’s misty and moody in Fiordland, it’s extraordinary.

And when it’s snowing, I can only imagine how magical it is.

In short, don’t worry about the weather, it will be perfect and special whatever you get, and will add to your experience of an overnight cruise in Doubtful Sound.

What companies offer an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound?

This was a trip I’d been lusting after for a while.

We booked it when NZ came out of their first Covid lockdown, and struggled to get a booking. In fact, I’d picked a date, but when I went back into book, it had sold out, as had 5 days either side of my original choice.

When I finally found a date that worked, we couldn’t get a double cabin.

This trip is very popular, whether or not NZ is open to international tourists. So make this the first booking you make if you’re planning a trip in the area, then work everything else around it.

At the time of writing, these are the companies I found that offered the overnight cruise option;

What should you take on your overnight cruise?

As mentioned at the beginning, it is recommend you only take what you’ll need for your overnighter, and nothing else. You will be required to carry your bag up and down stairs, so you don’t want it to be too heavy.

My usual roll on cabin bag for flights was the perfect size.

These are what I’d suggest you put inside it;

So – don’t delay, book today.

And let me know how much you enjoyed it when you get back!

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PS. Don’t forget to pin this before you go.

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12 Comments

  1. Cathy Macdonald says:

    This looks amazing Megan. I want to do it!!

  2. What a fabulous trip. And thanks for the advice on doing day trip to Milford Sound and overnight to Doubtful Sound. I’m hoping to get to NZ soon and both are on my radar.

  3. This area looks so serene! I love the mist atop the water. The kayaking looks like great fun, too.

  4. This looks so cool. I had no idea Doubtful Sound even existed. My husband and I are planning a trip to NZ and I will check on adding this to the list! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  5. We did a day cruise on Milford sound and it was just absolutely stunning…I now need to come back to NZ to do a night cruise on doubtful sound!

  6. This looks like such a unique trip! Doubtful Sound wouldn’t have been on my list if I hadn’t checked out your blog. Thanks for sharing your recommendations and tips!

  7. Thanks for giving me a taste of home! I grew up in NZ, but have never cruised on Doubtful Sound (all those things you don’t do if you live in a place, right?!). At least the pandemic taught us to appreciate our own countries a bit more!

  8. I don’t know how I haven’t heard of this place before. This sounds incredible and is exactly the type of trip I love. Thank you for sharing!

  9. I will definitely look at a one night cruise in Doubtful Sound when I travel to NZ!

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