SHOWDOWN: Milford Sound vs. Doubtful Sound

 The view from our Doubtful Sound overnight cruise with Real Journeys

The view from our Doubtful Sound overnight cruise with Real Journeys

It’s not an easy feat deciding which of the two south island destinations, Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound, is better to visit during your once-in-a-lifetime excursion to New Zealand.  Each is incredible in its own way, yet they are both breath-taking spots that you can’t really go wrong when picking one to explore.  Fear not, I will help you decide which better suits your travel needs during your unique trip through Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand meaning Land of the Long White Cloud).  I am going to put both to the test when looking at 10 different categories that define these famous travel spots.

 Best Milford Sound cruise ever

Best Milford Sound cruise ever

Whenever someone asks me, “Should I go to Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?” I always answer with a vague, “It depends,” response.  This seems like an annoyingly wishy washy reply, but really there are multiple factors to consider before you head to the Fiordlands.  Your budget, timeframe, what you want to do when you’re there, how much freedom or structure you want on your trip are all major factors to consider when planning out your itinerary.

For a bit of background, both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are not actually “sounds,” but rather fiords (the preferred spelling over fjords, which are commonly used for Norway’s great landscapes) located in New Zealand’s famous Fiordland National Park on the South Island.  Milford Sound, or Piopiotahi in Māori, was named after a Welsh town, Milford Haven, and Doubtful Sound received its name from Captain Cook who was afraid of navigating past the fiord’s mountainous opening to the Tasman Sea.  Rudyard Kipling deemed Milford the “8th Wonder of the World” and is more widely advertised making it better known of the two, but Doubtful sound comes in close behind as New Zealand’s second most famous tourist destination.

Now that you know a little about the two contestants, let’s get to work so you can get to holiday planning! 

 Milford Sound Cruise Terminal

Milford Sound Cruise Terminal

Let the showdown begin!

Area

Both Milford and Doubtful Sounds are impressive in size and will not leave you unsatisfied.

Milford Sound stretches 15 kilometers (9.32 miles) from its mouth at the Tasman Sea inland to its main departure point at the wharf and tourist center.  Some of the fiord’s rock faces tower at 1,200 meters (3,900 ft) on average with The Elephant standing tall at 1,517 meters (4,977 ft) and The Lion emerging at 1,302 meters (4,272 ft).  Milford has one main cove on the northeastern side and several permanent waterfalls lining the mountainous walls.  Most cruises follow a clockwise circular path out and in to give tourists a good look at the natural features adorning the fiord.

Doubtful Sound is more widespread than Milford covering 42 kilometers (26 miles) from its mouth inland.  It also takes the cake for being the deepest fiord in all of Fiordlands National Park hiding 421 meters (1,381 feet) of sea life below its surface. Doubtful Sound, unlike Milford Sound, has several arms that branch off it’s main body: First Arm, Crooked Arm, and Hall Arm, which open up a variety of paths to travel when cruising through.

WINNER: Doubtful Sound! 

Bigger isn’t always better in every scenario, but Doubtful Sound’s vastness definitely gives it the W here.

Milford Sound – 0

Doubtful Sound – 1

Accessibility/Travelling To & From

Unless you own your own boat and can slip into the Fiordlands by sea, you’ll need to get to Milford and Doubtful Sounds from Queenstown, Te Anau or Manapouri.

Milford Sound has multiple options for accessing its stunning landscape.  With daily bus tours leaving Queenstown, there is almost no excuse to miss the chance to find a ride to Milford.  Jucy, Southern Discoveries, Real Journeys, and InterCity Milford Sound are the most popular bus trips that depart every day from Queenstown or Te Anau (halfway between Queenstown and Milford Sound), which include a variety of cruise options – I’ll get to those later.  You can also fly in and/or out of Milford Sound by helicopter or scenic flight; Milford Flights, Real Journeys, Glenorchy Air, and Air Milford are commonly utilized companies for air travel here. 

 The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound just before Homer Tunnel

The drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound just before Homer Tunnel

Driving is another standard way to access Milford Sound with the crazy Homer Tunnel (a 1.2 km/0.75 mile portal that took 18 years to complete) providing access across the Darran Mountain range connecting Queenstown and Te Anau to Milford Sound.  Travel tip: Ensure you fuel up because there are no gas/petrol stations anywhere beyond Te Anau and even into Milford.  You don’t want an empty tank to ruin your trip!  Lastly and most ambitiously, you can walk to the Fiordlands by means of the Routeburn Track, which serves as a link between Glenorchy (head of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown) and the Divide, Te Anau Downs, and Milford Road.  The Milford Track also provides a unique look at Milford Sound, but each track typically takes several days and some transport coordination.  Walking either of them, however, may be one of the best ways to explore the Fiordlands.

Doubtful Sound is far more remote and much less accessible than Milford Sound, but that isn’t always a bad thing.  Because this naturally hidden gem is 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the nearest inhabited place, Manapouri, it diverts thousands of travelers from laying eyes on its great vistas.  In order to access Doubtful Sound, you must find a ride by bus or car to Manapouri, jump on a one-hour boat cruise across the lake, onto another bus that traverses Wilmot Pass (the most expensive, non-linked road in New Zealand), and into Doubtful Sound where you can climb aboard a day or overnight cruise.  Real Journeys and Go Orange are the main companies operating out of Manapouri for either day or overnight trips.

WINNER: Milford Sound! 

With multiple modes of daily transportation, Milford is the clear winner of the accessibility category.

Milford Sound – 1

Doubtful Sound – 1

 Doubtful Sound kayaking on the overnight cruise

Doubtful Sound kayaking on the overnight cruise

Popularity

With both Milford and Doubtful Sound drawing in hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, it’s no wonder they won awards for coming in first and second for New Zealand’s most popular travel destinations respectively.  This will be a tough one to judge, as popularity could be a benefit or a drawback for you.

Milford Sound is without a doubt tangibly more popular due to its relatively easy access and more obvious marketing presence around the world and in New Zealand.  Every travel shop around Queenstown and Te Anau is displaying their offers for discounts and special rates to get you to Milford Sound.  One of the first places you even learn about before you step onto Kiwi soil is most likely Milford Sound.  So, of course, it will be more popular.  With the incredible drive to lure you in, waterfalls galore, and a teem of wild life, you can easily see why the masses flock to Milford Sound.  Its beauty speaks for itself.  That said, though, the more options you have to access the place, the more people will be there.  Significantly more boats are zipping around giving you plenty of options to jump on a vessel whenever you’re ready.

Doubtful Sound is still a popular tourist destination, however, the long journey to get there often puts people off when they have limited time on their adventures.  My personal preference is to go where there are less crowds, less boats, less noise, but that comes with a larger price tag and a bit more of your energy to get to this more out-of-the-way fiord.  Don’t worry if you can’t make it to Doubtful Sound, though, Milford is mesmerizingly popular for a reason.

WINNER: It’s a TIE!

Milford should win the popularity vote by the simple fact that it IS very evidently more visited, but if you can manage it, the reduced popularity of Doubtful Sound is ideal for a less crowded experience.  Going to a place based on its popularity is 100% personal preference, which is why I had to go with a tie here.

Milford Sound – 2

Doubtful Sound – 2

 Milford Sound cruise operators docking at the cruise terminal

Milford Sound cruise operators docking at the cruise terminal

Cruise Options

As mentioned earlier, there are multiple companies with a variety of cruise options.  There are day cruises and overnight cruises, short/medium/long cruises, nature cruises, eco tours, luxury cruises, etc.  Your choice of cruise will almost always be the right one, because you get to see Milford or Doubtful Sounds on it, so you’re already winning.

Milford Sound has day cruises running from morning until late afternoon.  Operational hours and quantity of cruises vary depending on the season.  There are, of course, more cruises in the summer and less in the winter due to the lasting daylight hours.  It is highly recommended that you book your cruise ahead of time either going online, calling a cruise operator, booking with your hotel/hostel concierge or front desk, or a local travel agent.  Some people drive down to Milford Sound without anything planned and may find that all cruises are booked up and they’ve driven there for nothing.  You cannot truly see Milford Sound from the wharf, so don’t think you can just rock up and explore on your own.  Book ahead and be there on time!  People come from far and wide to see Milford Sound and you don’t want unpreparedness to ruin the potential one chance you have to see the “8th World Wonder.”

Milford cruises can run anywhere from one hour 45 minutes to over two hours.  Be sure to give yourself time to find parking and get to the check-in desk with at least 20 minutes before your cruise is due to depart.  All of the cruises follow the same trajectory, which depart from Milford Wharf and follow a clockwise route out to the Tasman Sea and back. Each boat will stop or cruise slowly along allowing you to see many notorious features such as Mitre Peak, Fairy Falls, Anita Bay, Seal Rock (where you’ll most likely see seals catching some zzz’s), Harrison Cove, and Bowen Falls.  The cruise ships vary in size and with that so does the cost.  Smaller vessels with fewer passengers tend to be more expensive while the larger boats that can carry more are noticeably cheaper.  I’ll touch more on that in the cost section soon.

Doubtful Sound cruises are primarily operated by Real Journeys and Go Orange, which all depart from Manapouri.  Both companies run a 7.25 – 8 hour round trip one-day experience from start to finish.  Starting on a boat journey across Lake Manapouri and transitioning to a coach ride through the Fiordland rainforest on Wilmot Pass, the central part of your experience will be spent cruising through Doubtful Sound listening to educational commentary provided by wildlife experts and enjoying the views leading out to the Tasman Sea.  You will return the way you came and may find yourself dozing off after a big day with big views, which is completely understandable!

The overnight option in Doubtful Sound can be booked with Real Journeys, Fiordland Expeditions, and Deep Cove Charters for a more private experience.  Based on my experience, the overnight option is well worth the price.  As mentioned, it is quite the excursion to get to Doubtful Sound, so you may as well stick around for longer than three hours to really soak it in.  I can personally recommend the overnight cruise with Real Journeys as it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced.  The staff were lovely and informative; the sleeping quarters were clean and tidy; the food was delicious and plenty; and the activities were unforgettable.

WINNER: Milford Sound!

With a wide variety of cruises to chose from, you can’t go wrong booking any of the boats coasting through Milford’s fiords.

Milford Sound – 3

Doubtful Sound – 2

Activity Options

Both Milford and Doubtful Sounds have means of spicing up your trip to the fiords with on and off-ship activities.  Depending on how active you are, you can see some parts of the fiordlands from a pretty unique perspective.

Milford Sound, although teeming with boats, can also be known to welcome the amateur or experienced kayaker.  If you’re looking for a unique way to see the cascading waterfalls or if you want to be up close and personal with the dolphins, kayaking is the way to go.  Rosco’s, Real Journeys, Southern Discoveries, and Go Orange are some of the companies that offer kayaking or kayak + cruise options to see Milford Sound.  You can also see what Milford is hiding under the surface if you head to the Underwater Observatory or the Milford Sound Discovery Centre.  If you’re feeling brave, curious, and can fork out some coin, you can even scuba dive in Milford Sound.  Lastly, the aforementioned Milford Track (one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks) is another spectacular way to see Milford Sound if you have the time, leg power, and proper gear.  It is, without a doubt, the best way I have seen Milford Sound yet.  Travel tip: Book this WAYYYYY in advance or you won't get a bed in the hut or a ride to/from the start/end of the track – check out the DOC website for availability.

 Fiordland Expeditions overnight cruise with Real Journeys

Fiordland Expeditions overnight cruise with Real Journeys

Doubtful Sound may not have a Great Walk weaving through its surrounding rainforest, but it does offer kayaking with a far less trafficked setting.  Doubtful Sound Kayak offers day kayaking trips and Real Journeys provides kayaks to those doing the overnight cruises.  Some companies out there also provide kayaks and canoes to people interested in exploring Lake Manapouri.  While on the Real Journeys overnight cruise, my friends and I attended a wildlife education talk that was surprisingly impressive!  I never thought I would be interested in birds, but after that session, I found a new curiosity for the creatures most commonly associated with New Zealand wildlife.  The facts I learned that evening have still stuck with me as I explore more of my South Island backyard.

WINNER: Milford Sound! 

Easier access to Milford Sound means more activities to keep the travelers happy and active.

Milford Sound – 4

Doubtful Sound – 2

Wildlife

Both of the sounds' fiords open up to the Tasman Sea, which means loads of sea and bird life migrate in and out of Milford and Doubtful.  It is not always guaranteed you will see a wild animal on your trip, but it is highly likely.

 Fiordland cruise wildlife: seals!

Fiordland cruise wildlife: seals!

Milford Sound, though more travelled by humans, doesn't seem to scare off any sea creatures when boats are constantly circling its waters.  When visiting Milford Sound, you may come to discover penguins, seals, bottlenose dolphins, whales and tons of species of birds.  Seal Rock, as made obvious by its name, often has seals taking a rest or sunbathing on its surface, giving most Milford Sound cruisers a chance to see seals pretty close up.  If you’re lucky enough to see any dolphins, you can tell people you’ve seen the southernmost population of bottlenose dolphins in the world.  It seems rare, but humpback whales have also been known to show themselves amongst Milford’s waters.  Fiordland penguins have given Milford Sound a name in the bird world as it has been deemed an “Important Bird Area” by BirdLife International for the breeding grounds it provides.

Doubtful Sound located farther south than Milford Sound, though the same Fiordland National Park, tends to see more varied whale populations.  It is claimed that orca, minke, humpback, and sperm whales as well as long-finned pilot whales frequent the waters of Doubtful Sound.  Similarly to Milford, Doubtful also welcomes fur seals and penguins to its waters and has the same special title of “Important Bird Area” as it provides sanctuary to many endangered species of birds.

WINNER: Doubtful Sound

As well-kept and well-respected landmarks, Milford and Doubtful Sounds open the depths of their waters and openness of their valleys to any and all wildlife that find its way there.  You will find yourself very fortunate should you see any of the majestic creatures that visit the Fiordlands throughout the year.  Doubtful Sound goers have more often claimed to see a variety of whale species than Milford Sound, especially because its waterways are less populated, giving it the win.

Milford Sound – 4

Doubtful Sound – 3

 One of many Milford Sound waterfalls.  Not a bad view, is it?

One of many Milford Sound waterfalls.  Not a bad view, is it?

Views/Landscapes

Milford Sound has some incredible features that have truly taken my breath away.  From the small, temporary waterfalls to the massive, permanent cascades, the views feel like something out of a Jurassic Park film.  Rain or shine, iPhone or DSLR, I can guarantee you will get some amazing photos.  And if you have no camera, your mind will never forget the landscape permanently imprinted into your memory.  Even the drive to Milford Sound provides incredible views with the Mirror Lakes and the Chasm as stop-offs building up to the grand finale that is Milford.

Doubtful Sound feels like a bigger, wider, vaster version of Milford Sound.  Both comparable in the awe-factor, both spots rarely get a bad review.  The best way I can describe Doubtful Sound is what I imagine cruising through a computer background on the Black Pearl with Captain Jack Sparrow is like.  When it rains, it has a magical and somewhat ominously eerie feeling to it.  When it’s sunny, it shows off its tall peaks, deep coves, still waters, and ever-flowing Browne Falls.

WINNER:  Another tie! 

I can’t help it; they’re both stupidly gorgeous.

Milford Sound – 5

Doubtful Sound – 4

Cost

You may already have a clue as to where I’ll go with this one, but I’m going to do it anyways.

 Doubtful Sound kayaking!

Doubtful Sound kayaking!

Milford Sound having more options will obviously lead to more price variation.  From as little as $40 to well into the thousands, you can see Milford Sound with almost any budget.  Cruises have the biggest selection as you can choose if you want food included, transport from/to Queenstown/Te Anau/Wanaka, a regular coach bus, a coach bus with a glass ceiling, a smaller van, a boat with a bar, a stop at the Underwater Observatory, etc.  Flights/helicopter rides won't be the cheapest, but if you have the money, flying over Milford Sound (especially seeing Sutherland Falls) must be one of the greatest excursions you can splurge on.  Air travel can vary from $335 to $685 or well beyond that depending on the type of experience you are looking for.  Kayaking trips will also vary in price depending on how long you’d like to be out exploring and if you would like a picnic lunch included or not.  Prices start at $99 and can go up to $219 or even $685 if you want to fly in and out to do some paddling.  Travel tip: The Jucy cruises offer half price to Jucy rental car drivers if you show your keys (Ts + Cs apply)!

Doubtful Sound with all of it’s obstacles naturally drives up the price to visit.  Day trips range from $240 departing from Manapouri/$275 from Queenstown/$255 from Te Anau with Real Journeys and $199-269 with Go Orange.  Overnight cruises will typically run at about $465-$525 in the busy season (summer months) with Real Journeys depending on where the journey begins and chartered boats can reach well over $1000 for a private trip.  All of the overnight options include meals, snacks, coffee, and tea.  Again, you’re likely going to pay more for the Doubtful Sound options, but if you have the money, it’s well worth every penny!

WINNER: Milford Sound! 

(No shocker there.)

Milford Sound – 6

Doubtful Sound – 4

Weather

 Doubtful Sound weather varies, but you'll always get a great photo!

Doubtful Sound weather varies, but you'll always get a great photo!

What I always tell people when they are heading to Milford or Doubtful Sounds is not to worry about what the weather is doing.  Yes, it seems ideal to have sunshine and blue skies when going to any outdoor attraction, however, the Fiordlands are one of the only places I’ve been where I preferred it to be rainy.  December through February is the warmest time of year to visit the fiords and the coldest is June through August.

Milford Sound gets over 6,400mm (over 250 inches) of rain each year.  It is one of the wettest places on earth.  Why do you think the rainforests are so lush and the waterfalls rarely slow down?  Embrace the rain!  Bring a rain jacket, drink hot tea that most boats provide, keep your camera as dry as you can, and enjoy this wet playground.  Pack a dry set of clothes, but don’t be afraid to dance in the rain – the seals are doing it!  Most of the boats have cabins you can hunker down in during your cruise if you really don’t want to get wet and still want to see the scene.  Most people experience rain when they come to Milford Sound as it rains over 180 days a year.  If you do get sunshine, then slap on that sunscreen (don’t forget about the pesky ozone layer being thin here!), grab a beer, and enjoy the view.

Doubtful Sound isn’t too different from Milford’s forecast as it receives 3,000-6,000mm (120-240 inches) of rainfall per annum, though some say it is not as rain-swept as Milford’s skies.  But alas, when it does rain in Doubtful Sound (as well as Milford) it means more waterfalls, more picturesque, low-lying clouds, and a sense of humility that something can still be so beautiful even in the “worst” weather.  There is something spectacular about the wide water valleys and tall, mountainous walls of Doubtful Sound, even with its unpredictable weather that can go from sunny skies one moment to torrential downpours the next.  If you find yourself there regardless of the weather, you have definitely done something right!

WINNER: An undeniable TIE! 

Weather is not something anyone can control, but your attitude towards the sky’s mood is.  It’s always a good day in Milford and Doubtful Sounds – remember that!

 Milford Sound – 7

Doubtful Sound – 5

 

Showdown Winner: Milford Sound!!!

 Bowen Falls in Milford Sound, Fiordlands

Bowen Falls in Milford Sound, Fiordlands

The score doesn’t lie, but it’s how you interpret the information and utilize it for your trip that is important.  The tally indicates Milford Sound is better overall, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for everyone.  Doubtful Sound is my personal favorite of the two with fewer crowds, bigger fiords, and a more off-the-beaten-path experience worth every single extra dollar.  Along with its fame, Milford Sound comes first in cost, accessibility, activity options, and cruise choices.

Enjoy whichever option you choose and count yourself very fortunate you are even having this debate.

If this article was helpful, please leave a comment below.  If you’d like to see more articles about other activities or experiences in New Zealand, let me know!

Happy traveling!


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Kelsey PowellComment