Should I visit Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound as a Day Trip from Queenstown
It’s no surprise that Milford Sound is top of the to-do list for most visitors to the South Island. And while Doubtful Sound may not be as famous as Milford, it is on the wishlist for many intrepid travellers. So the question we are often asked is which one is best.
The simple answer is, they are both spectacular and it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed by your choice. But there are a few things you should know that might make the decision easier.
MILFORD SOUND OR DOUBTFUL SOUND?
WHERE IS IT?
Located on the remote and pristine south-west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Milford Sound lies within the World Heritage area of Fiordland National Park. The journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound is not quick or easy, but then, the good things never are. For most travellers to Milford Sound, Queenstown is the starting point and the drive takes around 4 – 4.5 hours. From Te Anau, the drive to Milford Sound is 1.5 hours to 2 hours.
Further south, Doubtful Sound is also located on Fiordland's pristine coast. Unlike Milford, Doubtful Sound is not directly accessible by road. So, a trip to Doubtful Sound will mean taking a cruise with a tour company.
The journey to Doubtful Sound begins at Manapouri with a short boat trip across Lake Manapouri to the fascinating underground Manapouri Power Station. From here, you’ll take a coach over the Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove where you will board a boat for a day cruise or an overnight cruise. Because of its remoteness, Doubtful Sound receives fewer visitors than Milford Sound and remains relatively untouched.
WHAT IS IT?
Despite the name, Milford Sound is not a sound at all; it’s a fiord. It is a body of water carved out by a network of glaciers that once flowed to the sea. What’s left behind is a sea-flooded inlet of water surrounded by staggeringly steep cliff walls.
Carved out in the same way as Milford, Doubtful Sound is three times longer and a staggering ten times larger than Milford Sound. You’ll find equally spectacular scenery and an abundance of wildlife, flora and fauna. Doubtful Sound is the second largest fiord in Fiordland National Park.
WHAT TO DO THERE
To truly appreciate the beauty of Milford Sound, you need to get out on the water. There are plenty of options for short day cruises and overnight cruises on Milford Sound. The 16klm journey from the marina to the open sea is a breathtaking journey as Milford Sound’s highest peak, Mitre Peak towers over the fiord, dwarfing the cruise boats.
Scenic cruise tours can start from Queenstown, Te Anau or directly from the Milford Sound ferry terminal. Whichever company you go with, you will take pretty much the same route up the fiord. Don’t expect a remote experience as there are always plenty of boats on the water during the day.
Because of its remoteness and the time it takes to do the trip, most visitors choose a Milford Sound experience. Because of this, Doubtful has only a handful of cruise options. The boats are not as rigid in the routes they take so you can enjoy fewer boats and fewer people. At night, expect the captain to find an isolated arm of the fiord to drop anchor for the night. Enjoy the silence!
The beauty of an overnight cruise is that you will have more time to explore. Doubtful Sound cruises include opportunities to kayak, explore and soak up the silence of the fiord by night.
WHAT TO SEE THERE
Once out on the water you’ll enjoy stunning waterfalls cascading down from the steep cliff walls (hundreds appear on a rainy day). The dense lush rainforest is native beech and podocarp forest. Inhabiting the dense rainforest is some of New Zealand’s finest bird specimens like Takahe, Kakapo and Kea. The Fiordland Crested Penguin is one of the world’s rarest penguins and there’s a good chance you’ll spot one in Milford Sound. You may also see dolphins (Bottlenose, Dusky or Hector’s) and New Zealand Fur Seals.
Doubtful Sound is dramatic and unspoilt. The landscape is virtually unchanged since early Maori and European visitors passed through. Thesteep hills are home to hundreds of waterfalls during the rainy season, and some of the larger ones are Helena Falls at Deep Cove and the Browne Falls.
Along with the sound of rushing waterfalls, expect to hear a lot of birdsong. Doubtful Sound is home to abundant wildlife, and like Milford Sound, you have a good chance of spotting bottlenose dolphins and fur seals at play and the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin.
There are no losers here. Whether you choose Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound, you're in for an unforgettable experience. Whatever you do, just make sure you do one of them (or both).