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Doubtful Sound is a gorgeous and totally untouched fiord on New Zealand’s South Island. When compared to Milford Sound, it’s ten times longer and three times wider. It’s also much harder to access, so you have to take a tour to get here. In fact, its name stems from the fact that Captain James Cook assumed it would be impossible to navigate!
Since Doubtful Sound is so remote, only a handful of tours can take you there. Staying in Te Anau is a wise choice because this is the closest city with decent accommodations and tour options. These tours handle all your transport to Doubtful Sound and include a nature cruise once there. I love this because it lets you get even closer and admire the fiord’s waters, mountains, and wildlife.
For most people, visiting Doubtful Sound is the kind of thing you only do once, so you want to make sure you choose the right cruise! As a Queenstown local, I’ve been lucky enough to do several Doubtful Sound cruises. From my experience, I consider this tour the best of the bunch, which is why I’ve written this whole guide about it! Keep reading to learn why it’s my top choice and how to book it.
Don’t have time to read the full article? Doubtful Sound is one of the most remote and untouched destinations in New Zealand! If you’re coming from Te Anau, this is the best tour because everything is arranged. Plus, you get an incredible nature cruise to spot wildlife like dolphins and fur seals.
About Doubtful Sound
It’s often compared to Milford Sound. However, Doubtful Sound is much larger, even more remote, and harder to access. It measures 40 kilometers (25 miles) from one end to the other and 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) across.
Captain Cook actually believed it would be impossible to sail into the fiord. As such, he dubbed it “Doubtful Harbour” in 1770. Over time, it became known as “Doubtful Sound,” and it was officially given the name Doubtful Sound/Patea in 1998.
Because it’s so remote and untouched, this place feels absolutely serene. The native wildlife here is incredible and includes Fiordland crested penguins, bottlenose dolphins, and fur seals. Doubtful Sound also boasts gorgeous waterfalls. One of my favorites is Browne Falls, which is 619 meters (2,030 ft) tall.
This is one of the best places to visit if you want to escape civilization for a while. I’ve never felt more connected to nature. When coming here, all your stress just melts away as you listen to birdsong, spot wild animals, and breathe in the fresh air. And with such few visitors, you’ll pretty much have the place to yourself.
Since it is so remote, you’ll need a tour to visit. And if you’re staying in Te Anau, this is my favorite option! Keep reading to learn exactly why.
Related Read: Planning to drive here from Queenstown? Check out the best stops between Queenstown and Te Anau.
What is the best Doubtful Sound Cruise from Te Anau?
Doubtful Sound Wilderness Day Cruise
This Doubtful Sound Wilderness Day Cruise departs from Manapouri port. You’ll cruise across Lake Manapouri to get to the road over Wilmots Pass, where you’ll change to a bus that will take you to Doubtful Sound. It’s a bit of a journey to get there, but honestly, it’s gorgeous every step of the way!
If you’re staying in Te Anau, which is around a 15-minute drive from Manapouri, you can drive to Manapouri and park at the visitor center for free. Or, you can arrange a bus transfer after you’ve booked the tour, which usually costs $20-$30 NZD.
The cruise across Lake Manapouri is a great experience in itself. On the drive over Wilmots Pass, you’ll stop a few times to admire the dense Fiordland rainforest and enjoy panoramic views over Doubtful Sound.
Then, when you get to Doubtful Sound, you’ll board your catamaran and glide through the fiord. I absolutely love this cruise because it’s so picturesque. Keep your eye out for wildlife, including dolphins, NZ fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins, and whales.
The expert nature guides on board not only help you spot wildlife but teach you about their habits and behaviors. I also learned so much about the natural history of Doubtful Sound.
The nature cruise lasts for around 3 hours, and there are drinks and snacks to buy on board. You can also pre-purchase a picnic lunch up until the day before the cruise. Or, you can let the tour operators know when you book online.
This cruise costs $329 NZD during the winter, including all the transportation mentioned. Prices are a little higher in the summer at $379 NZD. I do think the summer is the ideal time to go due to the warmer weather. However, the fiord is still beautiful in wintertime, and you’ve got a better chance of spotting whales!
There are departure times daily at 7:30 am and 10:30 am. Food isn’t covered, so plan to bring snacks and spend money on meals. But since the whole experience lasts 7 hours, you will be back in time for dinner in Te Anau! However, you should bear in mind this tour does sell out fast, so check availability and secure your date in advance.
What I love about this cruise
The main thing that I love about this specific cruise is that it allows you to experience an insanely beautiful and incredibly remote part of New Zealand. Everything is handled for you, and the tour is super well organized, so you can access Doubtful Sound without any stress involved.
The cruise boat is also modern, comfy, and spacious. There’s a maximum of 135 passengers on board, so it doesn’t get too crowded. Luckily, it’s small enough to get close to the limestone karsts emerging from the water, which means you can get a closer look at their flora, fauna, and waterfalls.
Plus, Doubtful Sound is just so serene and peaceful that it’s impossible to not feel relaxed on a cruise here. The staff are super knowledgeable so this is a great chance to get to know New Zealand’s wildlife and learn about this unique fiord.
All in all, I think that this Doubtful Sound cruise is such an amazing way to experience a rare and beautiful part of New Zealand, and it delivers a fantastic experience.
If you love the sound of this wilderness cruise, you can easily book it online right here!
Should you book this Doubtful Sound Cruise in advance?
Yes, most definitely. This Doubtful Sound Cruise is very popular! There aren’t many Doubtful Sound cruises available in general, and this is one of the only tours with 24-hour cancellation when you book through Viator. For this reason, lots of people book it well in advance, so it’s often unavailable during the summer months.
Basically, I recommend booking as far in advance as you can!
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?
Truthfully, I do prefer Milford Sound because it’s easier to access. However, who’s to say you can’t see both? Doubtful Sound is just so untouched you really feel like you’ve immersed yourself in the wilderness here. Plus, this tour offers such a serene and relaxing experience, making it a wonderful escape.
If you’ve decided to go for it (which you should!), book this wilderness cruise from Te Anau right here!
Related Read: If you do plan to visit Milford Sound as well, read about the best tours and cruises from Te Anau.
Other Activities to do While You’re in Te Anau
Taking this Doubtful Sound cruise is just one of the many fun things to do in Te Anau! So if you’re looking to fill your itinerary, keep reading. I’ve highlighted 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 dark caves.
- 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 – $$$
The Fiordland Lakeview Motel and Apartments offers everything from studios to 3-bedroom townhouses. These are fully equipped apartments, and some have magnificent views of the lake as well as access for those with limited mobility. The property also has laundry, BBQ facilities, free parking, and a car wash. These accommodations are quiet, clean, and super spacious – perfect if you like privacy and comfort.
Prices for studios start as low as $341 NZD when you book a few months in advance.
Mid-range – $$
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 $189 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 $98 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!
Doubtful Sound is one of the most remote places in the country, which is why it requires a tour! And if you’re based in Te Anau, this wilderness cruise is my favorite option. It takes all the stress out of planning, and you’ll get to experience an awesome cruise, spotting the scenery and wildlife as you go.
To learn about Doubtful Sound or other destinations in New Zealand, read my other blogs here. To help you out, I’ve linked to some more articles below. Thanks for reading, and safe travels!