You can’t travel all the way to New Zealand without visiting the Fiorland National Park. The park is home to fifteen fiords created from glacial activity over millions of years. The most accessible spots to visit are the more popular Milford Sound and the more remote Doubtful Sound.
We struggled to decide exactly how to spend time in these two areas so naturally, we spoke to as many tourists and locals about it as possible.
You can visit Milford Sound via day boat, plane, kayak and overnight boat. Milford Sound is much smaller so it can be easily seen in its entirety on a two hour boat ride. For that reason, we decided to do a day trip in Milford and an overnight in Doubtful.
We drove from Queenstown directly to our Milford Sound day cruise that was late in the day. The drive is about five hours including the occasional stop on the side of the road for lunch or just to take in the gorgeous scenery. With the amount of hours we have logged in the car, we are so involved in our audio book 11.22.63 that it flew by.
It was a gorgeous day in Milford Sound so we got lucky. The typical weather in the Fiordlands can be cloudy and wet but reviews said that even rainy weather can enhance the beauty by creating healthier waterfalls. The day cruise was $120NZD for the two of us. Through a local tip, we used Book Me which saved us about $30NZD. There are multiple tour companies that offer different incentives (smaller boat, last ride of the day, less people etc) but we chose Southern Discoveries because they offered the latest boat of the day at the best price.
We estimated about 200 people were occupying the two decks of this boat, the lower deck being indoors. The two hour cruise chugs through the sound and out to the Tasmen Sea then returns. You get your first glimpse of fiords and waterfalls in Milford Sound but if you are willing to go a little further it is worth the trip into Doubtful Sound.
After the cruise we drove to the closest town with accommodations which is two hours away. Te Anu, a small lake town, had a hostel waiting for us at Te Anu Lake Backpackers. Book in advance, I suspect most people are staying in this town when visiting the Sounds. We had a delicious pasta dinner at Restorante Pizzeria Da Tony and fell asleep immediately returning to our efficiency apartment.
We left Te Anu the next morning around 11:30 am, the drive to Doubtful Sound is only a thirty minutes but that is only your first stop. We checked in with Real Jouneys, a company that had excellent reviews for their overnight experience. The tour is 24 hours and is all inclusive (except alcohol). We paid $700NZD for two beds in a quad bunk room. We were priced out of the private doubles. You spend ZERO time in your room so it was no big deal. The demographic is varied but on average, most guests are over the age of 50.
We got checked in and a few minutes later began the journey. A medium two decker boat first has to cross Lake Manapouri which takes 50 mins. Once you’ve crossed the lake, there are two coach busses waiting our arrival and all 75 of us load onto those for another 50 mins ride on land. The next destination is the final yacht that is our home for the next 20 hours.
The crew greeted everyone in the main dining room and gave out a few details before showing everyone to their rooms. The facilities are very nice.
We dropped our overnight bag and went back up the main room where the chef had freshly baked blueberry muffins to greet us and unlimited hot tea and coffee. This is fantastic because every time you go outside the wind chills you. If you go on this trip, pack cozy/warm clothes for lounging.
A crew member on the speaker reported that we were free to move about and that hot soup will be served before kayaking and after kayaking would be dinner.
Having a couple hours to kill chugging out to the sound, we scoped out all the outdoor levels, including the captains chamber.
At the speed we were going along with the damp weather, it wasn’t comfortable to be outside for long periods of time so we settled into a booth that overlook the water and played intense games of connect four and scrabble.
Soon enough, the crew was serving hot rolls and soup. A potato leek or a pumpkin coconut. Per “youzh”, we got one of each and split them. Warmed on the inside and more energetic, we put on our kayak clothes. The boat had moored up for the night and you had a choice to go on a small boat ride, a kayak or stay warm indoors. We elected the kayaks. I am so bad at kayaking that it was me, Nate and one of the crew members on a private tour far behind the 20 other kayakers.
We went at our own pace and cut the corner to ultimately meet back up with the group. The sand flies in this part of New Zealand are killer and were bad on the kayaks, so pack bug spray and use it or cover up. After everyone returned from their elected adventure, they opened up swimming to anyone who is crazy. Queue Nate. The water is ice cold but he says “yes” to just about anything, so he went for it, misty flip and all.
Hot showers and dry clothes were calling our name. Upon exiting the showers, the crew had already laid out drying racks on each sleeping floor to lay out your wet clothes. The speaker announced that dinner was ready sprinted upstairs to the sight of a ridiculous buffet. We ordered beers and patiently waited our turn.
The meal had a variety of salads, cooked veggies, rice and curries, smoked salmon and two carving stations. They have so much food, every person could eat until their hearts content. After dinner they set up the dessert bar with six cakes, hot apple crumble with custard, fresh cream, pudding and a cheese platter. To top it off, they did a surprise birthday dessert for Nate!
We hadn’t indulged enough, because we rolled up to the bar to order birthday shots at the treat (and demand) of Nate’s brother Charlie back in Chicago. He sent him $20 for shots on his birthday and wanted a photo to prove it. With limited options in the middle of Doubtful Sound we threw back two makeshift Irish Car Bombs. Thanks Charlie!
It was extremely dark out so most people retreated to their rooms for bed. There is no true sunset or sunrise worth noting. The mountains and fog block any warm colors that might be created.
We retired after another beer and a few rounds of cards but we were the last ones in bed. Rockstars to this crowd!
The next morning we were greeted to yet another meal of the breakfast variety. We were still stuffed from the night before so we eased into it. The real magic of Doubtful Sound started to come out with the daylight. We had made it to the most special spot deep into the sound that only the experience can do it justice but pictures will have to do.
At one point, the captain announced that he would shut the entire boat off, including the generators, so there would be no power, no light, nothing making a noise. We sat for a solid ten minutes like this outside but instead of silence we heard the surrounding waterfalls, the chirping of different birds and a few rain drops hitting the water.
Check out our Instagram feed for the video.
The staff on the boat were incredible. In all of our travels we have never seen a crew that could match their level of professionalism, teamwork, work ethic, and versatility. The six person team seemed to do the work of twice as many people with smiles on their faces. Everywhere you looked you could see the same person who acted as your kayak guide, cleaning dishes, tending the bar or baking a cake. We can not recommend Real Journeys more for a completely top notch quality tour.
A great addition to our experience was the opportunity to meet so many interesting people onboard. Nate was greeted with a high five from a woman who shared his birthday, albeit her’s was a more impressive 70th. She had treated her husband, her two daughters and their families on the cruise with her. We met a proud couple celebrating their 57th wedding anniversary and two sisters that travel every year with their spouses because they live so far apart from each other. But, by far the most interesting couple we met were Jim and Caroline from New Jersey.
Jim and Caroline were in their late 70’s, although vibrant they were not familiar with the term “dink”. However, whoever invented the term must have done so after meeting these two “dink”ing it up. (For anybody not familiar, dink stands for dual income no kids.) They still do multi-day treks with there hiking club and ski every year, Jim skied 70 days the year he turned 70. When they are not traveling by cruise ship or their own two feet, they are jetting around on their personal plane, which they are both licensed to fly, or crossing the country in their new RV. They have been all over the world and show no signs of slowing down. #couplegoals #lifegoals
The trip to Milford Sound is impressive and stunning but if you have the chance to experience the overnight tour toDoubtful sound, it is a once in a lifetime trip. Book your flights and go, take it from Jim and Caroline because it is never too late.