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New Zealand has no shortage of incredible outdoor escapes, and Doubtful Sound is perhaps the best place to get off the main tourist track. Situated in Fiordland National Park in the southwest part of the South Island, Doubtful Sound is one of the most remote places to explore – it’s a haven for outdoor enthusiasts!
Having lived in Queenstown, I’ve been able to visit Doubtful Sound a few times. While a tour from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound can make for quite a long day, there are even more ways you can explore it. Perhaps take an overnight cruise to break up the journey or even take a scenic flight for a totally different look at this giant fiord!
Whichever you choose, you’re in for a treat – how could exploring a fiord that’s been formed over millions of years be anything short of amazing!?
There is a bit to know about visiting Doubtful Sound, so to assist in the planning process, I’ve put together this guide on the 5 best Doubtful Sound cruises and tours. This will lay out all the options and answer a few questions along the way, so read on and get excited for a trip to Doubtful Sound!
Don’t have time to read the full article? You either need to book a Doubtful Sound cruise or tour to visit this remote fiord, so here are my favorite options.
Can you visit Doubtful Sound without a tour?
No, the only way to get to Doubtful Sound is with a tour. Doubtful Sound is located deep within Fiordland National Park, so it’s too remote to access on your own. Instead, it requires a boat ride and a bus ride. It is far less busy than Milford Sound, so there hasn’t been any sort of public transportation established, which is kind of nice as it’s super peaceful!
There are a handful of local tour companies that can take visitors to Doubtful Sound, but unfortunately, you are unable to get there by yourself. However, this isn’t all a negative, as some of the remote areas you’ll see are simply gorgeous and only accessible by taking a Doubtful Sound cruise. So you’ll get a very unique experience this way!
Manapouri is the closest town to stay in to reach Doubtful Sound, but Te Anau is another great option and only a 15-20 minute drive. Most tours will depart from Manapouri, and some will provide hotel pickup if you’re staying in Te Anau too. Plus, the drive from Queenstown to Te Anau is quite scenic, so it’s a fun journey to take!
Should you book a tour of Doubtful Sound in advance?
Yes! There aren’t many companies who operate tours to Doubtful Sound, so they book up fast. You should definitely try to reserve your spot a few weeks in advance, particularly during the summer. This is especially true for the overnight cruise, as this is even rarer than the daytime cruises!
While visiting Doubtful Sound isn’t as popular as Milford Sound, it is becoming an increasingly attractive destination. People are catching wind of how awesome a Doubtful Sound cruise is and want to see it for themselves. I don’t blame them, I felt the same way!
Related Read: If you are curious about the differences between Milford and Doubtful Sounds, I wrote up a whole review and my unbiased comparison. Hopefully, this helps you decide which to visit (if not both!).
5 Best Cruises and Tours to Doubtful Sound
1. Doubtful Sound Wilderness Day Cruise from Manapouri
There are a variety of options to see Doubtful Sound, but this 7-hour wilderness cruise tour is the most straightforward, so you can have a relaxing day! It departs from Manapouri, so if you are staying here (or in Te Anau) you won’t have a full day of driving before you even reach Doubtful Sound.
This tour will travel by boat, bus, then another boat! You will first cruise along Lake Manapouri, which is just the start of the beautiful scenery you’ll see today. Once you reach the other side, you’ll hop on a bus to drive through the Wilmot Pass and the Fiordland rainforest, catching glimpses of Doubtful Sound. But once you get there, you’ll be in awe of just how big the fiord is – it’s even bigger than Milford!
You’ll get to experience the vast landscape as you board your Doubtful Sound cruise. It is a catamaran boat (which seems so luxurious to me!) and you’ll spend 2 hours and 45 minutes exploring the fiord. The naturalist guide will be along the whole way, explaining the history, geology, and cultural importance of the fiord. Doubtful Sound is nearly 2 million years old, so it’s seen a lot in its days!
You’ll also be able to spot a ton of NZ wildlife on this cruise, such as Fiordland crested penguins, fur seals, and dolphins. Food and drinks are available to purchase on this cruise, in addition to the indoor/outdoor viewing areas so you can stay warm and comfortable no matter the weather!
This is a relaxed way to experience Doubtful Sound and see all of its beauty, all while learning a ton about the area. I highly recommend booking this Doubtful Sound cruise in advance, as it is a popular option with the well-known tour company RealNZ. You can reserve it for $329 NZD per person during the winter months, or $379 NZD during the summer.
2. Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise
A day trip to Doubtful Sound is always an amazing experience, but did you know that you can also stay overnight? Known as the “Sound of Silence” this remote part of Fiordland National Park is so far out that it’s eerily quiet. Taking an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound is perhaps the best way to experience it!
This 2-day overnight cruise allows you to spend the night in Doubtful Sound on a 3-mast motorized boat. It’s comfy and modern inside, but from the outside, it looks like the kind of boat Captain Cook might have sailed to New Zealand on! You’ll spend the afternoon cruising around, and eventually will drop anchor and can use the kayaks to explore the fiord even closer.
Doubtful Sound is always incredibly quiet, but when you take an overnight cruise you quite literally get the entire fiord to yourself. This also means that you get to enjoy a way deeper exploration of Doubtful Sound and you’ll have more time to spot wildlife. When they turn the motors off and you can sit and simply take in the massive, peaceful fiord, it will blow your mind!
On this overnight cruise, you’ll have a private cabin and shared bathrooms. You also get to enjoy a 3-course meal in the evening, breakfast in the morning, and alcoholic beverages are available to purchase!
The overnight cruise costs $799 NZD per person for two people to share a twin cabin, which includes transport from Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. You can also request transfers from Queenstown or Te Anau when you book, and the tour company will be happy to sort that out for you, too.
Since it takes such a long time to get to Doubtful Sound, I think that doing an overnight cruise really makes all of that travel time worth it. Unless you live in Queenstown like me, you might only ever come to Doubtful Sound once, so why not spend as much time there as possible?
Be sure to book this overnight Doubtful Sound cruise in advance, as it is one of the best ways to experience this gorgeous area!
3. Doubtful Sound Helicopter Scenic Flight from Te Anau
One of the reasons why Doubtful Sound is so lovely to visit is because of its remote location, however, that also means it’s a bit of an effort to get here! If you don’t have an entire day to dedicate to a tour or time for an overnight cruise, you might need another option. This scenic helicopter flight is not only convenient, but it also gives an incredible perspective of the fiord!
Seeing Doubtful Sound from the air will showcase its incredible size, as it’s a massive 40 kilometers (25 miles) long and 2 km (1.2 mi) across. Plus, as long as the weather cooperates, your pilot will land in an isolated spot so you can get some panoramic views (and plenty of photos!).
A 1-hour helicopter tour is plenty of time to observe the fiord below and learn all about its structure and history from the pilot’s commentary. I have taken a few helicopter flights throughout my travels, and this Doubtful Sound scenic flight is perhaps the most astounding! Because it’s so hard to reach, seeing it from a helicopter is a special experience.
You can book this helicopter flight of Doubtful Sound for $845 NZD per person. It departs from the Te Anau Airport, but they can provide transfers from your accommodation in Te Anau and Manapouri.
Related Read: If you love this scenic flight and want to take even more, check out the best Milford Sound Flights! The amazing views are endless.
4. Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise from Queenstown
Traveling from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound means a very long day out, so if that’s your plan then I highly recommend booking a tour that includes transfers from Queenstown, such as this one. At least that way, you can nap on the drive from Queenstown to Manapouri!
Once you reach Manapouri, you’ll board a catamaran to cross Lake Manapouri and then change onto a bus which will take you to Wilmot Pass. You’ll also stop at a viewpoint on the journey to snap amazing photos of Doubtful Sound.
Finally, you arrive at Doubtful Sound and enjoy a nature cruise! The experts on board will help you spot wildlife including penguins, porpoises, dolphins, and more. You’ll be able to marvel at the dramatic landscape and beautiful waterfalls, and you can also buy food and drinks on board. The cruise lasts for almost 3 hours, and then it’s back to Queenstown.
This is a long day, but it’s so worth it if you only have one day to take a Doubtful Sound cruise. You can just sit back and enjoy the experience! The drive to Doubtful Sound from Queenstown is about 4 hours each way.
This tour costs $429 NZD during the winter or $479 NZD during the summer. If you want to take a day trip from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound, I think that this tour is the way to go. You can book it in advance here!
5. 3-Day Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise and Glow worm Tour from Queenstown
Sometimes having the planning taken care of for you is worth the extra cost, especially when you’re trying to visit places that are out of the way! This 3-day tour covers a lot of remote areas, and I love that I don’t have to worry about arranging the logistics of transportation, accommodation, a Doubtful Sound cruise, and the Te Anau glow worm caves – it’s all taken care of by the tour!
Day one of this tour provides transport from Queenstown to Te Anau, which is about a 2-hour drive. Once you reach Te Anau, you’ll embark on a glow worm cave adventure, to see one of the most unique sights in New Zealand! Glow worms are bioluminescent larvae (not worms) that live inside of caves, so as you take a boat ride through the caves, it looks like a starry night sky! Te Anau is one of the best places to see glow worms in New Zealand.
The tour includes an overnight stay at a 4-star hotel in Te Anau so you can be well-rested to head to Doubtful Sound the next day! The best part is that you will get to spend a night on a Doubtful Sound cruise, so you get an incredible experience in the Sound of Silence. This experience is by far my favorite way to see the fiord, so I love that this tour includes it! The cruise includes a private cabin, shared bathrooms, dinner, breakfast, and fun activities like kayaking.
After an incredible night on Doubtful Sound, you will spend the final day driving back to Queenstown. This tour is a fantastic option because it isn’t rushed and lets you see more of the beautiful places in New Zealand as you explore. It feels like a real vacation too, as you won’t have to worry about any of the logistics, planning, or details. You can simply enjoy Doubtful Sound!
This 3-day tour is $1,730 NZD per person. It includes 2 nights of accommodation, transportation, any entrance fees, and dinner and breakfast on the cruise. All other meals and alcoholic beverages are at your own expense, so be sure to bring more money with you!
You’ll want to book this tour as far in advance as possible to secure your spot. You can check the details and reserve this tour here!
Related Read: Queenstown is a great home base for exploring the South Island. Read about the best day trips from Queenstown so you can have even more epic experiences!
Why I Book Tours with Viator
Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:
- Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
- Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
- Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
- Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.
Check out the Viator website here!
Is visiting Doubtful Sound worth it?
Yes, visiting Doubtful Sound is one of the best things to do on the South Island! While most people flock to Milford Sound, I love the tranquil atmosphere of Doubtful Sound. It is a breath of fresh air (literally) to spend some time exploring this stunning fiord – the massive cliffs, cascading waterfalls, wildlife, and sheer size will stick with you for a long time!
And while you can’t get to Doubtful Sound on your own, these tours offer a unique adventure, which makes it much more meaningful! In somewhere as beautiful as Doubtful Sound, you’ll appreciate having an awe-inspiring experience. Whether you book a Doubtful Sound cruise, a scenic helicopter flight, or get to stay overnight, visiting Doubtful Sound is 100% worth it.
Other Activities to do While You’re in Te Anau
If you’re visiting Doubtful Sound, chances are you’re staying in Te Anau. This small town is worth exploring in its own right since there are so many incredible things to do here! To get an idea, check out some of my favorite activities below.
- Glow worm caves – If you haven’t seen these magically bright creatures, it’s a must while in Te Anau! This guided cave tour allows you to get up close with hundreds of these glow worms. It combines both walking through the narrow cave passages as well as a boat cruise through the caves. One of these tours includes a stop here, but you can also add it to your itinerary if you take another tour!
- Explore Milford Sound – Visiting Doubtful Sound doesn’t mean you can’t also see Milford Sound, right?! You can always drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound, but there are also many tours from Te Anau to Milford. One of the most popular and affordable is this Nature Cruise of Milford Sound, which covers all transportation, the scenic boat ride, and lunch.
- Go jet boating – With close proximity to awesome rivers, jet boating is one of my favorite activities here! This tour will have you jetting down the Waiau River at speeds of up to 80 km (50 mi) per hour. Your driver will also perform high-speed spins and sharp turns before bringing you across stunning Lake Manapouri, where you will hop off for a guided walk.
- Hike Kepler Track – One of the best hikes in New Zealand is the Kepler Track, a 60-kilometer-long (37 mi), 3 to 4-day loop that follows the shoreline of both Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri. If you don’t have the time or interest to do the full-length version, opt for this shortened guided Heli-hike tour and see these sights from high above.
- Eat at Miles Better Pies – There are several awesome restaurants in Te Anau. But when you’re visiting New Zealand, you have to try its famous pies! One of the best places to do this is at Miles Better Pies. This place is a bit of an establishment, and my personal favorite pies are the Lamb and the Thai Chicken Curry.
Where to Stay in Te Anau
Most people who visit Doubtful Sound use Te Anau as a base. It’s the closest place with a wide variety of accommodations, and although only a small town, Te Anau boasts lots of amazing places to stay. I’ve stayed here plenty, so to help you out, I’ve rounded up my favorite options for each budget. Read on to learn about each one.
Luxury – $$$
The Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments offers everything from studios to 3-bedroom townhouses. These are fully equipped apartments, and some have magnificent views of the lake as well as access for those with limited mobility. The property also has laundry, BBQ facilities, free parking, and a car wash. These accommodations are quiet, clean, and super spacious – perfect if you like privacy and comfort.
Prices for studios start as low as $275 NZD when you book a few months in advance.
Mid-range – $$
Aden Motel is just a 2-minute walk from Lake Te Anau and a 15-minute walk to the city center. They have studio,1 bedroom, and 2 bedroom apartments that are absolutely beautiful. It’s an eco-friendly property with a playground (and a big trampoline!), BBQ, and lovely gardens. The staff are super friendly, and the units stay nice and warm in the wintertime.
For the price, it’s the best value place in town, and I’ve seen prices as low as $168 NZD on Booking.com.
Budget – $
For budget travelers, you can’t beat staying at the Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park & Motels. It’s perfect for those on a road trip in a campervan or motorhome and has budget rooms available. They offer self-contained studios, bungalows, and private rooms with views of Lake Te Anau and the mountains. Some units come with private cooking facilities and balconies. Rooms are clean, showers are hot, and the whole property feels like a giant park. Prices start at $68 NZD and you can reserve your room online.
If you’re a social traveler, the Lakefront Backpackers is another good budget option, and they have dorm beds and private rooms. Staying here also feels like you’re in a park, although you’re just a 5-minute walk from town. They offer indoor/outdoor kitchen facilities, BBQ, laundry, free unlimited WiFi, storage, and a movie room to relax after a long day exploring Doubtful Sound. Dorms start at $39 NZD, and private rooms at $92 NZD. You can book your stay on Booking.com or through Hostelworld.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to rent a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It’s what most budget travelers use for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping…and be prepared for an adventure of a lifetime! My favorite campervan rental company is JUCY because they have a huge selection of campervans to choose from, plus multiple pick-up/drop-off locations. You can browse JUCY’s campervan selection online here. Alternatively, you can easily compare all campervans available in NZ on Motorhome Republic here.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. My top choice for a motorhome company is Star RV because they have beautiful motorhomes at affordable prices. You can check prices and availability for Star RV motorhomes online here. Alternatively, you can use Motorhome Republic to search all motorhomes in NZ. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your JUCY or Star RV campervan or motorhome before the end of June 2024! Simply click here to select your JUCY campervan, or click here to select your Star RV motorhome, and then use the code DTRAVEL24 at checkout to get 5% off – it’s that easy! One thing to note is that this code is only valid for travel before Dec 21, 2024.
Travel Insurance Has Your Back!
Life can be unpredictable and when you’re traveling abroad, the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick or injured and having to pay out of pocket for treatment.
If this concerns you, SafetyWing can help! SafetyWing specializes in very affordable and comprehensive medical and travel insurance that is aimed at digital nomads, remote workers, and long-term travelers. It costs just $45 USD per 4 weeks!
To start coverage, you must purchase it after leaving your home country, so we usually buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
Since using SafetyWing we’ve been reimbursed thousands of dollars when we’ve gotten sick. During the pandemic, they’ve even gone as far as to pay for our last-minute flights back to Canada before the border closed!
Thanks for reading!
Having traveled all over New Zealand’s South Island, I can confidently say Doubtful Sound was one of the most relaxing and remote areas I’ve been to. If you’re looking to explore the incredible landscape and enjoy the great outdoors, Doubtful Sound will deliver. Taking a Doubtful Sound tour is the best way to get out there and explore, especially if you can stay overnight and spend hours here!
I hope you found this blog helpful as you set off on your next adventure! If you’re looking for more travel inspiration or planning tools, be sure to check out my other New Zealand blogs. Having lived here for quite some time, I love sharing my expertise with fellow travelers! Here are a few of my favorite places below: