Skip to Content

10 Things to KNOW Before Visiting Doubtful Sound, NZ (2024 Guide!)

10 Things to KNOW Before Visiting Doubtful Sound, NZ (2024 Guide!)

This blog may contain affiliate links. Read our disclosure policy for more info.

If you love traveling off the beaten path, then you should seriously consider a trip to Doubtful Sound. Located in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, Doubtful Sound is way more remote than its popular neighbor, Milford Sound, so you need to know your stuff before visiting!

Doubtful Sound is one of the deepest and longest fiords on the South Island. It’s sometimes nicknamed “the Sound of Silence” because its remoteness means it’s incredibly peaceful. The only things you can hear are birdsong and waterfalls. And unlike Milford Sound, you can’t visit Doubtful Sound without a tour.  

Since I live in Queenstown, I’ve visited Doubtful Sound many times and done lots of different cruises here. It’s not the easiest place to visit, but it’s definitely worth the effort, which is why I’ve written this complete guide to visiting. Keep reading so you can understand how to plan your trip and fully enjoy this destination.

Don’t have time to read the full article? Doubtful Sound is one of the most remote and untouched destinations in New Zealand! You’ll need a tour to get here, like this wilderness day tour or overnight cruise from the Manapouri/Te Anau area. If you’re coming from Queenstown, I recommend taking your time to enjoy the scenery on this 3-day overnight cruise.

1. About Doubtful Sound

Bailey sits inside on a Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise
Stunning!

Doubtful Sound is a huge and tranquil fiord on New Zealand’s South Island. In fact, compared to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is three times longer and ten times wider! It measures 40 kilometers (25 miles) from one end to the other and 2 km (1.2 mi) across. 

The name “Doubtful Sound” stems from the fact that Captain Cook believed that it would be impossible to sail into the fiord. He nicknamed it “Doubtful Harbour” in 1770, and over time, whalers and sealers came to know it as “Doubtful Sound.” In 1998, it was officially renamed Doubtful Sound/Patea.

Doubtful Sound is home to lots of amazing wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, Fiordland crested penguins, and fur seals. You can also see some beautiful waterfalls here, such as Browne Falls, which is 619 meters (2,030 ft) tall. 

Doubtful Sound is HUGE and full of beauty – and the best way to explore it is by taking a cruise. When I took a cruise here, I saw so much nature and wildlife, and there were hardly any other boats around. Honestly, this place feels so far removed from civilization, so it’s pretty magical to visit. 

Basically, this is the perfect off-the-beaten-path destination. It’s absolutely stunning and so peaceful. You definitely won’t be competing with other visitors for the best views because few tourists even make it here!

2. Where is Doubtful Sound located?

Views from the boat on a Doubtful Sound cruise in New Zealand
Views from a Doubtful Sound cruise in New Zealand

Doubtful Sound is located here in Fiordland National Park, which is in the southwest corner of the South Island. The closest town is Manapouri, which is where boats to Doubtful Sound leave from. Te Anau is also a 15 to 30-minute drive from Manapouri. 

Related Read: If you love nature cruises, check out my list of the best Milford Sound cruises (with my honest review +booking tips!).

3. When is the best time to visit Doubtful Sound?

RealNZ boat cruises through Doubtful Sound, NZ
What a place!
View of Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
The first look you get heading into Doubtful Sound!

While you’re planning when to visit New Zealand, I’m happy to say that you can visit Doubtful Sound at any time of year! However, most people (me included!) find the summer months to be more enjoyable. The average temperature ranges between 16-22°C (60-72°F) during the summer, which is nice and comfortable. It never really gets hot here! 

If you’re traveling to New Zealand in winter, you can still visit Doubtful Sound. It’s beautiful at this time of year, but you’ll need to dress warmly as temperatures can drop as low as 3°C (37°F). However, I still think it’s really nice to visit during the winter! 

4. Where can you visit Doubtful Sound from? 

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand on a cruise
Epic views!

Manapouri/Te Anau

I think the best place to visit Doubtful Sound from is Manapouri or Te Anau. 

Manapouri is a small town where you can access Doubtful Sound. This requires taking a boat across Lake Manapouri followed by a bus to Deep Cove. There are only a few places to stay here, or you can also stay in Te Anau, which is a 15-minute drive from Manapouri. 

There’s a wider choice of accommodations in Te Anau, and further down, I’ve highlighted my favorite options, but spoiler alert: this is my favorite Doubtful Sound cruise from Te Anau!

Te Anau is also home to the famous glow worm caves, so it’s a fun place to stay! It’s also a good base for visiting Milford Sound if you plan on traveling to both fiords. 

I highly recommend staying in either of these towns if you can. It cuts down on so much travel time. From Queenstown, it takes about 4 hours to drive to Doubtful Sound. However, it only takes 2 hours from Te Anau.

Queenstown

Queenstown is much further away, so visiting Doubtful Sound from here means a really long day. Queenstown is 171 km (106 mi) from Manapouri, which is roughly a 2-hour drive. So in total, it will take you around 4 hours to get to Doubtful Sound from Queenstown, which is pretty exhausting. 

However, Queenstown is the most popular place to visit on the South Island. It’s a huge tourist hub with so many things to do, and there are lots of fantastic day trips you can enjoy from here. So if you’re only in New Zealand for a short amount of time, you might find it more convenient to stay in Queenstown instead of Te Anau or Manapouri.

Related Read: Coming from Queenstown? Read about the best brunch and breakfast spots in Queenstown – and make sure to fill up before heading to Doubtful Sound!

5. Can you visit Doubtful Sound without a tour?

Views of Doubtful sound from our boat tour
Views of Doubtful Sound from our boat tour

No, you can’t visit Doubtful Sound without a tour because it’s simply too remote. Getting there requires a boat and a bus, and there aren’t enough visitors to warrant any kind of public transport system. As a result, a small selection of tour companies have set up tours to take visitors to Doubtful Sound. But again, it’s impossible to get here on your own.

banner asking people to click to join the Queenstown Diary Facebook Group

6. What are the best tours that visit Doubtful Sound?

Views from the front of the boat in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
The wilderness cruise!

Doubtful Sound Wilderness Day Cruise from Manapouri

If you’re staying in Te Anau or Manapouri, I highly recommend this wilderness cruise. Not only do you get to cruise through Doubtful Sound, but the journey there is pretty scenic as well! You’ll cross Lake Manapouri by boat at either 7:30 am or 10:30 am (although I think it’s better to go early!). Then, you’ll travel by bus through the Fiordland rainforest until you reach the sound, where you’ll board your nature cruise.

This boat is a spacious catamaran, and there’s food and drink available to purchase on board. You’ll be accompanied by friendly naturalist guides who will teach you about the history, ecology, and cultural significance of Doubtful Sound, and help you spot wildlife, of course! 

This tour makes everything nice and easy, and it delivers a really personal experience. You can tell that the guides are just so enthusiastic about nature and wildlife. I love that this cruise isn’t just about admiring pretty views; you also learn a lot along the way. 

It costs $329 NZD per person during the winter months or $379 NZD during the summer. All prices include your guides and roundtrip transportation between Manapouri and Doubtful Sound. Tours last 7 hours, so you’ll be back in time to enjoy dinner in Te Anau.

I think that this is the best way to enjoy a Doubtful Sound cruise if you’re staying in Manapouri or Te Anau! It does sell out, so secure your spot online here.

Bailey enjoys a coffee on the back deck of a Doubtful Sound overnight cruise
Mornings in Fiordland on an overnight cruise!

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise

A day trip is always an amazing experience, but did you know that you can also stay overnight in Doubtful Sound?

This 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! 

Doubtful Sound is always incredibly quiet, but when you take an overnight cruise, you 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 I went, I spotted penguins and a couple of dolphins.

The boat will moor in a cove, where you have the option to kayak on the sound. If you have the energy, I’d go for it! You’ll feel even closer to Doubtful Sound’s beautiful scenery – and the water is just so calm!

When you do this overnight cruise, you also get to enjoy a 3-course meal in the evening and breakfast in the morning. Alcoholic drinks aren’t covered, so plan to spend extra if you’d like wine or the occasional beer.

The overnight cruise starts at $799 NZD per person, which includes transport from the Manapouri Visitor Center to Doubtful Sound, your cruise, dinner, and breakfast. 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. The tour departs from Manapouri at 1 pm, returning late the next day.

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 come to Doubtful Sound once, so why not spend as much time there as possible? Click here to check availability and book your overnight cruise.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand as seen from a scenic flight
Just mesmerizing!

Doubtful Sound Helicopter Scenic Flight from Te Anau

It takes a long time to get to Doubtful Sound, so if you’re dying to see this beautiful fiord but don’t have enough time to travel there and back, fly over it on this scenic helicopter ride from Te Anau.

You’ll really be able to appreciate Doubtful Sound in all of its glory as you soar high above. You’ll also get aerial views of Lake Manapouri and Fiordland National Park. Plus, if the weather conditions are right, your pilot will land the helicopter at a viewpoint so that you can snap some amazing panoramic photos. 

I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy scenic helicopter flights all over the world, but doing them at super remote locations like Doubtful Sound is extra special. It’s a convenient way to access a part of the world very few people ever get to see!

The flight costs $845 NZD and lasts for an hour. The price also includes transfers from Te Anau or Manapouri to the heliport. Or, if you’ve rented a car, you can drive yourself to and from the airport.

Just because you’re short on time doesn’t mean you should miss out on this gorgeous destination. Book your helicopter flight over Doubtful Sound right here!

Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise from Queenstown

Traveling from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound means a very long day out. If that’s your plan, I highly recommend booking a tour that includes transfers from Queenstown, such as this full-day one. That way, you can nap on the coach from Queenstown to Manapouri! 

After the drive, you’ll board a catamaran at Lake Manapouri and change onto a bus which will take you to Wilmot Pass. While it is a long journey, I actually enjoyed it because it’s just so scenic. Plus, you’ll also stop at a viewpoint on the way to snap Instagram-worthy photos of Doubtful Sound. 

Once you arrive at Doubtful Sound, you’ll enjoy a nature cruise. When I went on this cruise, the expert guides helped us spot all the 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’re traveling to Doubtful Sound from Queenstown. It’s actually one of my favorite day trips from Queenstown because you can just sit back and enjoy the experience! 

This tour costs $429 NZD during the winter or $479 NZD during the summer. Prices include roundtrip transportation from the Queenstown meeting point. Tours last roughly 12 hours, so I’d bring water and snacks and plan to spend extra on meals.

If you want to take a tour from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound, I think that this tour is the way to go. It can sell out, so secure your spot well in advance.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

3-Day Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise and Glow Worm Tour from Queenstown

This 3-day tour is an awesome way to enjoy both Doubtful Sound and the amazing glow worm caves in Te Anau. All of the logistics are taken care of for you, so you don’t need to worry about arranging transport, accommodation, and a Doubtful Sound cruise separately. It’s all rolled into one! 

I also really like the fact that this tour breaks up the journey, so you don’t have to travel all the way from Queenstown to Doubtful Sound in one fell swoop. On the first day, you’ll travel from Queenstown to Te Anau, which takes around 2 hours.

On day one, you’ll also enjoy a guided exploration of the glow worm caves by boat. Seeing these caves lit up by bioluminescent worms is a truly magical experience, and it’s honestly one of my favorite things to do in the whole of New Zealand.

The tour includes a night in a 4-star hotel in Te Anau, and then in the morning, you’ll head off to Doubtful Sound for an amazing overnight cruise. This cruise has both private and shared cabins, as well as viewing decks so that you can spot plenty of wildlife. It also includes a buffet dinner, breakfast, and activities like kayaking and tender boat rides. 

I think that this is such a fantastic extra because exploring the fiord on kayaks and tender boats allows you to get even closer to nature. When I ventured out on the kayak, I spotted lots of wildlife close to the shore, like seals and penguins! 

You’ll spend the night in Doubtful Sound and then head back to Queenstown the following day. This is such a great way to see some of the South Island’s best scenery in a short space of time without a ton of planning. 

This tour costs $1,730 NZD, including both night’s accommodation, the glow worm cave, the cruise, and dinner and breakfast aboard the ship. Tours depart from Queenstown CBD at 7 am, and you’ll need to arrange hotel pickup with the tour company in advance.

Bear in mind this tour is only available from October to April, so you won’t be able to do it during the winter. If you’re visiting in wintertime, choose from one of the other tour options or check out my list of the best winter activities in NZ! If you are visiting Queenstown in the summer, don’t hesitate to book this tour online through Viator!

Why I Book Tours on Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! I almost always book all of my 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

7. Do you need to book a Doubtful Sound tour in advance?

Steep cliffs in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
Steep cliffs in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

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 1-day overnight cruise and the 3-day overnight cruise from Queenstown, as these are even rarer than the daytime cruises!

Related Read: Want to see even more of New Zealand? Check out my top choices for multi-day guided tours of NZ.

8. Can you stay in Doubtful Sound?

Bailey on a kayak in Doubtful Sound during an overnight cruise tour
Kayaks are included on the overnight cruise!

Yes, you can, but only on an overnight cruise. There are no hotels or properties in Doubtful Sound because it’s completely untouched, so you can only spend the night here on a boat.

If you do decide to go this route, an overnight cruise is an amazing experience, and you can either take one from Manapouri/Te Anau or book the 3-day tour from Queenstown, which also includes a night on the boat. 

9. What wildlife can you see in Doubtful Sound?

Fiordland Crested Penguins in Doubtful Sound
Fiordland crested penguins in Doubtful Sound

Bottlenose dolphins

You can see friendly and curious bottlenose dolphins swimming through Doubtful Sound. In fact, the fiord is home to one of the southernmost populations of bottlenose dolphins anywhere in the world! The most common place to see them is at the mouth of the Sound.

Fiordland crested penguins

Doubtful Sound is an amazing place to spot Fiordland crested penguins, which are both super cute and very rare. These penguins are unique to New Zealand, and they breed between July and December, so if you visit Doubtful Sound during this time, you might even see some babies! 

New Zealand fur seals

New Zealand fur seals are adorable brown seals with pointy noses and huge eyes! You can often spot them on the islets throughout Doubtful Sound, and you can get extra close to them if you go kayaking during this overnight cruise.

Whales

It’s also possible to spot whales in Doubtful Sound, especially near the entrance to the Sound. You can see humpback whales during the winter months, particularly June and July. You may also be able to spot southern right whales during winter and spring. This type of whale is known for its docile nature and slow swimming speed.

10. Is visiting Doubtful Sound worth it?

Viewpoint on the way to Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
Gorgeous!

Yes!

Okay, I will be honest, I do prefer Milford Sound, as it’s easier to access and has more dramatic scenery. However, Doubtful Sound is also amazing because it has to be one of the most remote and tranquil places in New Zealand! It’s an amazing off-the-beaten-path destination, and its wild beauty is hard to beat. 

Related Read: If you’re staying in Queenstown, read about the best Milford Sound flights. They’re a great way to see this amazing destination, especially if you’re short on time.

Other Activities to do While You’re in Te Anau

Glow worms in a cave in New Zealand
Aren’t they beautiful?

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.
  • 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.
  • 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

Our campervan at a holiday park 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

Bailey stands in front of a right green JUCY campervan
JUCY is one of my favorite campervan rental companies (read below for a discount code!)
Bailey stands behind her Mad Campers campervan cooking in the kitchen at Piha Beach
I also really like Mad Campers!

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.

EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNT CODE: I’ve managed to snag a discount code for 5% off for my readers if you book your campervan or motorhome through JUCY or Star RV! 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!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey smiles at the camera on the back of a Milford Sound cruise
Thanks for reading!

If you want a remote destination, Doubtful Sound delivers! I’ve never been somewhere that feels so untouched and serene. Since it is so remote, you’ll need a tour to get here and travel across its gorgeous waters to see incredible wildlife and epic views. This list includes my top choices for tours, so I hope you found one you like!

If you found this guide helpful, check out my other blogs about New Zealand. There’s just so much to see and experience in this beautiful country, and I love helping others take advantage of it all. To get started, click on one of the links below.

31 Awesome Things to do in Wanaka

12 Best Hikes in Milford Sound

6 BEST Hot Pools in Queenstown, New Zealand