Experiencing the Silence: 3 days in Doubtful Sound with Real Journeys

It’s the incredible silence that reverberates through your soul here, and the ‘place of silence’ is the literal translation of Patea, the Maori name for Doubtful Sound. The English name was bestowed by NZ’s most famous European explorer, Captain James Cook when he decided it was ‘doubtful’ he would make it back out to sea if he entered the fiord, so he opted to carry on without ever knowing what beauty lay in wait for him. I bet he would be kicking himself now if he knew!

Doubtful Sound Crooked Arm Reflections

Visiting this remote part of Fiordland had long been on my bucket list, so when I saw Real Journeys were offering a new 3-day, 2 night cruise over winter for the first time in 2021, I jumped at the opportunity to experience this incredible part of New Zealand.

Thinking about visiting Doubtful Sound? Here’s 5 things you should know:

1. Real Journey Cruise Options

In 2021, Real Journeys are running 3 day, 2 night cruises in May, July, August and September (departing twice a week on Friday and Sunday), with 2 day, 1 night cruises available every night in the warmer months from October to April. You can also visit Doubtful Sound as a day trip, but I highly recommend spending longer here to truly appreciate this place and let it really get under your skin - especially as takes some effort to get here, it really is tucked away in the bottom southwestern corner of New Zealand.

View of Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass
View from Wilmot Pass down into Doubtful Sound after fresh snowfall

Going in winter may seem a bit risky weather wise, but given how much annual rainfall Doubtful Sound experiences, you're just as likely to get rain and bad weather in summer as in winter. Though it might be too cold to swim (think 4-5 degree water temperatures - far too cold for me!), you have the added bonus of potentially seeing fresh snow on the incredible 1,000 metre peaks - that's well worth braving the cold for in my opinion!

2. Doubtful Sound vs Milford Sound - which should you choose?

I've visited Milford Sound by driving the the jaw-dropping scenic route from Te Anau many times. I've also seen it from the air on scenic flights, taken a 2-hour cruise along the length of Milford Sound, and hiked the 54km Milford Track in April 2021, so I was intrigued to see just how different Doubtful Sound and this more remote part of Fiordland would be.

Calm waters Crooked Arm Doubtful Sound
The calm waters of Crooked Arm, a sheltered part of the fiord
Doubtful Sound Tasman Sea Boat Albatross
Experiencing the open sea - a nearby boat disappears into the swell as an albatross soars above

For a start, Doubtful Sound is 3 times larger than Milford Sound, so it’s not a place you can easily do justice to in a day trip. Over the course of our 3-day cruise, we were able to explore every inch of the Sound and its many sheltered coves and arms, as well as taking 2 trips right out to the Tasman Sea to experience the exhilarating force and swells of the open water. The time out at sea felt like a juxtaposition, and a real assault on the senses compared to the perfectly calm inner reaches of the fiord we'd sailed through only a couple of hours earlier.

3. Getting to Doubtful Sound, Accommodation & Food

The journey departs from Lake Manapouri, which is about 20 minutes south of Te Anau, and includes an hour’s cruise across Lake Manapouri. This is followed by a 45-minute bus ride over Wilmot Pass to reach Deep Cove, the innermost area of Doubtful Sound where the cruise departs.

Getting to Doubtful Sound with Real Journeys
Crossing Lake Manapouri Real Journeys
Crossing Lake Manapouri to start the journey

We journeyed on the Milford Mariner (a 64 berth vessel) although this route is normally sailed by the Fiordland Navigator over summer which is a slightly bigger boat (72 berth). There are three decks from which to view the scenery - the lower decks where the cabins are based, the deck with the dining room and forward saloon, and the upper deck where the captain's bridge is - this gives you options for viewing the Sound from many different angles.

Milford Mariner Real Journeys Doubtful Sound
Three levels of Real Journeys Milford Mariner

There are various cabin options available on the boat: quad-share bunk room style, twin-share or double, and some with external deck views (it will depend on your vessel as to what options are available on your individual cruise). We had a twin-share room with an external deck, which meant we could step right outside to enjoy the fiord views.

There is an incredible selection of chef-prepared food on board, and you will be spoilt for choice with an array of NZ meat, seafood and vegetarian dishes as well as cooked and continental breakfast options. It’s hard not be completely stuffed after every meal! My favourite dishes were the NZ lamb and Stewart Island smoked salmon. There are snacks and complimentary tea and coffee available throughout the day, as well as a great selection of beer, wine, soft drinks and snacks available to purchase on board too (not that you really need it!).

4. Nature & Wildlife

Commentary throughout the cruise by an onboard nature guide is the right mix of being informative, educational and fun. Wildlife spotting opportunities abound - you may see Tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin), bottlenose dolphins, albatross and seals depending on the time of year. You’ll also hear all about the impressive conservation efforts in the Sound on Secretary Island - NZ's biggest predator-free island, the history of the Lake Manapouri Dam (which has provided the road access to the Sound), and each night you can choose to hear more with a 30 minute nature presentation - I highly recommend these!

bottlenose dolphin doubtful sound
A bottlenose dolphin playing beside the boat in Doubtful Sound

The kayaking and tender craft boating options (and swimming depending on your bravery in the cold water!) are a great opportunity to experience the serenity of the Sound away from the noise of the main boat, and this experience only further enhances the enormous sense of scale in the fiord.

Kayaking First Arm, Doubtful Sound
Kayaking in the calm waters of First Arm
Real Journeys Boat First Arm Doubtful Sound
Real Journeys boat dwarfed by the mountains in First Arm

5. Weather & Gear

The views and weather conditions are ever changing: be prepared for combinations of sunshine, rainbows, snow, misty drizzle and atmospheric low cloud, or torrential rain and raging waterfalls - this can all happen in the same day within a few hours and it's surprising how many microclimates exist within the different areas of the fiord.

Sunshine at Tasman Sea entrance Doubtful Sound
Blue skies and sunshine at the Tasman Sea entrance to Doubtful Sound
Mist and rain create a monochrome mood the following morning

Photo opportunities are endless: think glacier-carved mountain valleys with the occasional perfect reflection (these are rare but you may get lucky in the calmer parts of the fiord like Crooked Arm), wildlife that might appear at any minute, and sunrises and sunsets with layered mountain backdrops.

Golden Morning Rays Doubtful Sound
Fiordland mountain layers during golden hour

It’s very hard to use a tripod on board or take long exposures due to the boat movement, but a circular polariser is VERY handy to cut glare from the water, and a graduated filter as well if the sky is much brighter than the foreground, I choose to use Kase Filters for their high quality glass and clever design.

Camera gear to take: 90% of the time I shot with my Sony a7RIV + 24-70mm GM lens, swapping to a 70-300 lens for longer shots down the fiord or when trying to capture wildlife (not always successfully I might add!). A waterproof camera sleeve is also super handy to be able to shoot in the rain AND a good microfibre cloth - you’ll be wiping your lens clean a lot!

Clothing wise: it’s sensible to take windproof and waterproof layers. As our cruise was in the depths of winter, we had puffer jackets, rain jackets, hat and gloves. Sometimes it was almost warm enough for a T-shirt in the sunshine and the more sheltered parts of the cove, while at other times I needed at least 4 layers on in the rain and wind.

Top Ten Highlights of our 3 day journey:

It's hard to pin the highlights of this trip down to a manageable number due to the tremendous variety of weather and scenery we experienced but here are my picks:

View to Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass
1. Our first view of Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass covered in fresh snowfall
rainbow over island doubtful sound
2. Rainbows, sunshine and snow on the peaks - all happening within our first few minutes of leaving Deep Cove
bottlenose dolphins doubtful sound
3.  Seeing bottlenose dolphins playing beside the boat - this happened both days as we headed past Seymour Island out to sea
Sunrise on Real Journeys Doubtful Sound
4. Experiencing sunrise from the deck of the Milford Mariner in First Arm
First Arm Reflections in Doubtful Sound
5. Getting off the boat to explore the fiord up close in First Arm
Crooked Arm Doubtful Sound Reflections
6. The incredible reflections that appeared out of nowhere lasting only a few minutes in Crooked Arm
Dawn hues mist doubtful sound
7. The surreal dawn hues that appeared through low cloud and mist on the last morning
Buffet dinner Real Journeys
8.  The incredible selection of food on board - we didn't go hungry that's for sure!
Courtney Nature Guide Real Journeyk
9. The incredible Real Journeys crew (including Courtney our nature guide (above) and AJ (below)
AJ Real Journeys Crew
AJ - taking us for a spin in First Arm
monochrome mist mood doubtful sound
10. The mood and mist turning Doubtful Sound monochrome on our last morning

I hope this post has inspired you to plan a journey through Doubtful Sound, it truly is one the most incredible places I've ever been. I believe it's a place everyone should have the opportunity to experience in their lifetime.

I travelled courtesy of Real Journeys on this 3-day voyage, but all opinions are my own.

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