Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?

It’s understandable that if you are coming to New Zealand you may be short on time which gives rise to the question of what do you see when you come here? One of the most popular destinations is Milford Sound but many people neglect the hidden gem of Doubtful Sound based in Fiordland National Park.

Whilst Milford Sound is great for a quick day trip – particularly popular for visitors driving/coaching/flying in from Queenstown, it can make for a rather long day. Being a long-time local of Queenstown I have had the pleasure of doing both and it quite often lands up being a question of time for most visitors.

Milford Sound is stunning, don’t get me wrong, but do be prepared for a lengthy day as you tend to get picked up early in the morning from your hotel (typically around 7.00am), then have a guided trip by coach for a few hours via Te Anau (a great little town you will love to see right on the lake and quite often missed out which in itself is a shame) before getting to Milford Sound for a late morning/lunch cruise.

The cruises’ are great depending on what your after, the larger ones typically offer a lunch – some included in the price, other’s you have to buy or bring your own and definitely worth doing, generally seeing most of the following:-

  • The Sound itself which is just breathtaking and you get taken to where it joins the Tasman Sea
  • Waterfalls up close and personal – typically they will take you right up close to underneath one and you can even get wet if you want too
  • Natural New Zealand flora and fauna
  • Penguins
  • Dolphins
  • Seals

The Cruises normally last around 1hr 30 mins - 1 hr 40 mins before you return to harbour and hop back on the bus again to Queenstown.

All up you can expect about a 12 hour day. Some people opt to fly back which will bring the trip down to around 9 hours and if you aren’t interested in the coaching aspect you can fly in, do the Milford Cruise and then fly back which will take around 4 hours.

Obviously if you are driving in these times won’t apply to you but I would suggest that if you do want to break the journey do overnight in Te Anau and perhaps see the glow worm caves there or do one of the Jet Boat rides with FJet or if you’re up for something a bit different why not do a Water Plane ride with Wings and Water.

If you need somewhere to stay there’s a lovely little homestay you could try out called Alpine Rock Cottage, alternatively High Leys Lodge. If in a camper or looking for something more budget the Te Anau Top 10 Holiday Park is right on the waterfront and walking distance into town.

So that’s Milford – now let’s take a look at Doubtful Sound!

Doubtful Sound

Well this is an absolute must, must, must have on your bucket list! This is so worthwhile doing, this ‘Sound of Silence’ will simply blow you away (well it did me!)

Whilst there are options to do day trips I would highly recommended spending the extra money on doing one of the Doubtful Sound overnight cruises. Which one will depend on what you are after.

If you are more akin to larger boats with bigger numbers then one of the larger well known branded operators will appeal.

However, I prefer the more personal approach. I like small, personal and where the Owner/Operators are directly in touch with the Customers on-board. This is where Deep Cove Charters come in – having done one of the trips with them I can highly recommend them if a small Operator is what you are after and you get so much more than you can with Milford:

My top Reasons for loving Doubtful Sound over Milford Sound

  1. Well for starters it’s not so rushed – you depart at 10.00am which is far more reasonable and you don’t have to rush back at the end of the day – you get back around 11.45/12.00 the next day.
  2. The boat transfer over Lake Manapouri itself was a treat
  3. Seeing the Power Station on the other side was interesting and
  4. Having Chris Lemin give us a guided talk whilst driving over Wilmot Pass from Deep Cove Charters was a wonderful education in itself stopping to take some spectacular photos of Doubtful Sound at the top – just beautiful.

    We then boarded the tailor-made SEAFINN – a very comfortable and well looked after boat, very neat, very clean and you can just tell Chris really cares about it from its presentation.

    The boat was comfortable – it only takes 12 passengers so you’re not overcrowded, there’s enough room to move around, there’s an outdoor deck to go fishing from and to take your photos, the rooms are clean, comfortable and warm and the dining area is in the lounge section and made for a good venue to meet the other passengers from all over the world.

    I was thinking this trip would be a cruise where they would turn off the engines so we could listen to the ‘sounds of silence’, but quite the contrary it was all go!

  5. We saw a resident seagull who trailed the boat as launched.
  6. We saw New Zealand bottlenose dolphins
  7. New Zealand fur seals
  8. Fiordland Crested penguins
  9. New Zealand Albatross – they are huge and followed the boat as Chris threw out food for it to eat – it was fantastic.

    We were greeted with a freshly caught Crayfish and Blue Cod luncheon and salad (of course this would depend on the Operator you go with) – not a buffet style or packed lunch you get in Milford.

    Chris has a wealth of information under his belt being a true blue local giving us a whole raft of information about the amazing flora and fauna we could see around the area (much like being in a calendar!), about the history of Doubtful Sound itself and the wildlife.

  10. We stopped to fish and caught Perch and Blue Cod – you don’t get to do that in Milford.
  11. Then pulled up a pod of crayfish the size of which I have never seen before! Deadliest Catch has nothing on these guys and is an experience in itself for sure! Again this is not something you will get to do in Milford Sound.
  12. We were lucky enough for the weather to be good enough to go kayaking as well and that truly was amazing. Very gentle, drifting down Sound getting right up close to the waters edge to see the natural vegetation (do bring your insect repellent though!) and this is when you can experience the ‘Sound of Silence’ in it’s true form. Really quite spectacular!

    Now you can do this in Milford but you have to book it as a separate trip and would of course incur the price tag to go with it.

    Once back on the boat you can enjoy whatever drinks you’ve bought with you whilst the crew cook up a delightful dinner – we had a very tender New Zealand Venison Casserole whilst mingling with the others on-board. (If you elect to do an overnight trip in Milford you’d have to check what they would be serving).

    There is the option to have a nice hot shower, before setting off to bed for the night and waking to continental breakfast before heading back.

So all up it is quite a different experience and what we loved about it was at the end of it we were all exchanging emails to keep in touch – after 1 night!

So all-in-all I prefer Doubtful Sound over Milford as it’s:

  1. Not as rushed
  2. It is worth the spend because you get fishing and kayaking (weather permitting) included which if you do separately in Milford would certainly add up
  3. You get the experience of sleeping out on the water
  4. All food and transport is included (this of course would depend on the company you decide to go with)
  5. It’s less crowded
  6. And if you choose a smaller Operator like Deep Cove Charter’s you get the more personal smaller group touch.

Milford is great especially if pressed for time but doing Doubtful Sound will most certainly be an experience you will remember forever and one you will be sure to enjoy!

Fuller's Albatross