Review of "Doubtful Sound"

published 18/03/2015 | anwar
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Pro stunning trip in every way!
Cons none at all
Value for Money
Ease of getting around

"The sound of silence.."

Manapouri lake

Manapouri lake

Last November I traveled to New Zealand for a 5 week tour with my 12 year old son. Before leaving we spend time planning what we wanted to see and experience in the short time we had. We decided to spend most of our time in the South Island as it is less populated and held more appeal for us. Having read that Fiordland on the West coast is one of the most stunning places in the world, it came near the top of our * must see list*.


As I have already indicated Fiordland is located on the West coast of the South Island of New Zealand. We hired a car to give us maximum flexibility and to enable us to visit remote places not served by public transport. The roads in New Zealand are often narrow with single track bridges especially in this part of the country. I quickly discovered that journeys took a lot longer than I had anticipated partly due to the road conditions but also because there are so many stunning places to stop and stare! We traveled to Te Anau; the largest town in Fiordland and the journey took us about 2 hours from Queenstown.

There is a bus service from Queenstown to Te Anau that runs twice a day. Alternatively you could book a private tour from several destinations in New Zealand.


Fiordland is a world heritage site and also the largest national park in New Zealand. The area covers 1.2 million hectares and the coast is indented by 14 Fiords (glaciated narrow valleys with steep sides) spanning 215 km of coastline. The landscape has been carved by Glaciers over the past 100,000 years and the result is some of the most stunning scenery I have ever experienced. If that is not enough then the area also provides the opportunity to hike the famous Milford (53 km) or Kepler track.

However we wanted to take a cruise. The hard part was deciding whether to opt for the more popular and accessible Milford sound, or the more remote Doubtful sound. I have been told that Milford sound is reached via one of the worlds most beautiful drives. If this is your choice then there are several companies offering day trips. It is also possible to take a helicopter or small plane trip over the area. We did consider taking a kayak trip on Milford sound, but in the end it was the remote Doubtful sound that we choose. First a quick word about Te Anau


As this is a review about Doubtful sound I am not going to spend much time writing about the small town of Te Anau save to say it is where we opted to stay. I have already reviewed the Bella Vista motel and the review includes information about the town if you are interested. The important thing to note is that if you intend to book a tour of Doubtful sound the company that runs the tour will collect you from anywhere in the town. If you intend to take an overnight trip then it is worth checking that your chosen accommodation has somewhere secure for you to leave your car and possessions. Real journeys will also pick up from Queenstown and Manapouri.


Doubtful sound is in a very remote location with only a few tourists visiting at any one time. We booked our trip with a company called real journeys about 5 months in advance and it is essential you pre book if this is somewhere you want to experience. We opted to take an overnight trip as we wanted to spend as long as possible in the sound.

The company also runs day trips to Doubtful sound. To give you an idea of what’s involved day trips from Te Anau are about 10 hours in duration and cost $285 for an adult and $70 for a child from 5-14 years. The company will also collect you from Queenstown for an extra cost. Day trips are on a catamaran and you will get about 3 hours cruising time.

The booking process for the overnight cruise was easy to book via the company’s web site. I paid $578 (about £287) for myself and son. This included all transport and 2 berths in a quad share cabin. It is not guaranteed that you will not end up sharing with others if you only book 2 berths in the quad share but we took the risk to save cash! I was later contacted asking if I wanted to purchase the remaining 2 bunks but declined. We were lucky and had the cabin to ourselves.

Once I had booked and paid I was sent a confirmation email. I did have a few questions about the trip and these were quickly and efficiently answered via email.


Doubtful sound is located in a sub alpine area and the temperatures can be cold even in summer. We visited in November and the weather was warm and dry. It is recommended you pack a small overnight bag as there is little storage room on the boat. In addition to the usual overnight stuff I strongly recommend you take a fleece and waterproof jacket as it can get very cold and windy on deck. The trip gives you the opportunity to swim and if you fancy this then you will need swimming things.


We were collected at 11.30 am as promised and travelled for about 30 minutes by coach to Manapouri. We were issued with our boarding passes and then boarded a small ferry for the 50 minute lake crossing. We opted for outside top deck seats and it was really windy! The lake crossing is stunning with numerous little Islands and views of the Cathedral mountain range. The captain gave us an interesting and amusing commentary making the trip really enjoyable.

The ferry docks at West Arm, home to an underground power station that is an amazing feat of engineering. There are strict controls governing the power station aimed to protect the unique environment. West arm visitor centre has a small display telling you about the power station. There are toilets available. If I tell you the permanent population of West arm is 2 you will get some idea of how remote this place is!

From West Arm we boarded another coach for the 45 minute journey over the sub alpine Wilmot pass. The driver gave an interesting commentary about the pass. I was surprised to hear that snow was forecast for the following week. The road was built to service the power station and is little more than a track with some very steep hills to navigate. The road passed numerous waterfalls and dense rain forest. We stopped to look down at our first view of Doubtful sound below, before arriving in Deep cove where our boat awaited.


When I first saw our boat with the crew lined up waiting to welcome us on board I was completely overcome! It looked liked a large sailing boat from a bygone era complete with white sail and wooden hull. The staff were all very welcoming and once in the main salon we were greeted with delicious cakes and hot drinks. After a brief safety talk we were allocated our cabins and left to explore.


I booked a quad share cabin and it was small and basic. The bunks were made up and everything was clean and well presented. The porthole was quite high and the only view was of the water. There was a shelf to store your bag but otherwise little storage space. However it was all we needed. If you fancy something better and have the budget there are double ensuite room’s berths as well as single and twin berths on offer. If you have a baby then you are not allowed to book a quad share as there is no room for a cot.


There are several toilets on board including a couple near to the sleeping area. The wash room and showers are located at the end of the cabins and are unisex. The shower pressure was surprisingly good and the water was hot. Although the wash room serves several cabins I had no problem getting a shower when I got up at 7.


The boat has a lovely dining salon with antique type table lamps. There is a fully licensed (expensive) bar. There is also an observation lounge with large picture windows. I don’t know exactly how many passengers were on board ( 60?), but the boat never felt crowded.

We set sail at about 12.30 and most passengers wanted to be on deck to get the best views. There are 2 decks and limited seating is available.


Soon after setting sail we anchored and everyone was given the opportunity to either kayak or go out in one of the tenders. My son wanted to Kayak but I have a back problem so opted to follow in the tender. We were accompanied by the on board nature guide and I enjoyed learning about the wildlife in the area. We enjoyed getting close to the side and watched a native Kea bird (a bit like a parrot). Once back on board we were given the opportunity to go for a swim! The water here is freezing and only a few brave souls ventured in.

We sailed along the sound to the Tasman Sea. In the sound we were relatively protected from the wind by the sleep sides, but once at the mouth of the open sea it was a different story! The wind was wild giving an insight into what Captain Cook must have experience when he sailed here in 1770. He named the sound Doubtful as he thought the lack of wind in the sound would prevent him being able to sail back out to sea. At the mouth of the sound we saw our first Rare Fiordland crested penguins. We were happy to turn back into the calm waters of the sound.

Doubtful sound has numerous waterfalls that are best seen after heavy rain (this is one of the wettest places in the world). When we visited it had been dry and the waterfalls were not at their best. However we had clear visibility so could really appreciate the beautiful scenery. What ever the weather this place will delight!


To be honest I had not expected the food to be up to much. After all we were in the middle of no where and everything has to be bought in over long and difficult distances, how wrong could I be! The food was some of the best I have ever eaten. The evening meal started with the chef explaining each dish on the buffet. The buffet included roast lamb, salmon, beef, vegetables and imaginative salads. There were also vegetarian options. The buffet was a self service, all you can eat affair and there was plenty for everyone. Once the starters and main course were over the deserts arrived. Again they were exquisite!


After dinner we were treated to a talk and slide show by the on board nature guide about the area. The only disappointment was that the night was cloudy and so we were unable to see the stars; something we had both been looking forward to.


We both had a good nights sleep as it was surprisingly calm and quiet as the generator was turned off overnight. We went on deck to be treated by a display from the resident bottle nose dolphin pod. We also watched more penguins scrambling up the steep slopes.

Another highlight was the so called * sounds of silence* when the motors are switched off and everyone is asked to remain silent for about 30 minutes. All you can hear is birdsong. It was a truly humbling experience and I think everyone felt at one with nature.

Breakfast was another feast. Again everything was perfect and the food plentiful.

In addition to the meals offered, there are tea and coffee making facilities always available in the salon.

We were really sad when it was time to disembark for the journey back to our accommodation. As you will have gathered I loved every minute of this trip. It really was the trip of a life time and worth every penny.

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Comments on this review

  • Secre published 28/08/2015
    Excellemtly reviewed.
  • supercityfan published 22/04/2015
    Excellent write-up
  • euphie published 13/04/2015
    e :o)
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Listed on Ciao since: 10/05/2005