A Bucket List Trip to Doubtful Sound with Real Journeys

Fiordland is one of the most stunning parts of New Zealand. And having seen so many incredible photos showing its beauty, Doubtful Sound has been on my bucket list for a very long time. In August, I finally got to experience the magic of Patea – “the place of silence”.

Reflections in Crooked Arm, Doubtful Sound Fiordland New Zealand
Beautiful morning scenes in Crooked Arm of Doubtful Sound

As a photographer, I often chase the weather and make short notice decisions on where I am headed next. But you can’t visit Doubtful Sound like that. It’s a conscious decision you must make because there are several steps to the journey, and you can’t just drive a car there. This is one of the things that make it so special to visit. Booking my trip back in May, I was counting down the days until I could go – the anticipation levels were high!

Read on and I will tell you a bit about an amazing three days in this special part of the country.


Real Journeys as a company actually started back in 1954 with trips Doubtful Sound – fulfilling a vision to take visitors to one of the wildest and most remote parts of New Zealand. Back then, the trip involved a very slow boat ride, followed by a 20km hike in either direction, up and over the formidable Wilmot Pass. These days it’s a whole heap easier, with the long journey replaced by a comfortable one-hour boat cruise and forty-five-minute coach ride.

Our journey to Doubtful Sound started at the edge of Lake Manapouri. We took the opportunity to enjoy some morning photography at the lake before we headed to the visitor centre. Having snowed the night before in Fiordland, the ride across Lake Manapouri to West Arm was spent admiring the stunning surrounding snow-capped mountains.

Lake Manapouri at sunrise after recent snow
Snowy and misty mountains around Lake Manapouri
A calm misty morning on Lake Manapouri
Crossing Lake Manpouri on the way to West Arm
Lake Manapouri mountains with snow, Doubtful Sound Fiordland New Zealand
Nearing West Arm of Lake Manapouri, the snow caps were gorgeous

After disembarking and a short stop at the West Arm visitor centre, we boarded our coach for the ride over Wilmot Pass. Our bus driver kept us entertained with informative and hilarious commentary. The road over Wilmot Pass was built in the 1960s to provide easier access for the construction of the hydro station, and passes through lush rainforest, past roadside waterfalls, stunning river gorges and beneath the towering mountains. At the top, the coach stops to take in the first, distant view of Doubtful Sound. We were lucky to see this view after the recent snowfall, which made it even more beautiful and unique.

Wilmot Pass, Doubtful Sound Fiordland New Zealand
Beautiful views of Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass

Arriving at Deep Cove, you immediately get a sense of the isolation. Deep Cove is nothing like Milford Sound, with its huge visitor terminal and expansive parking lot. There were just a few fishing boats floating in the cove, and a small, cantilevered wharf. There is also an outdoor education facility and a small hostel located in Deep Cove, although both were completely quiet the day we arrived. We boarded the boat (we sailed on the Milford Mariner, as the slightly larger Fiordland Navigator was having its annual maintenance) and started our cruise.

Milford Mariner Doubtful Sound Fiordland New Zealand
First view of The Milford Mariner - our home for three days

Here are five highlights from my time cruising the beautiful Doubtful Sound.


Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord rather than a sound. It is carved from huge ancient glaciers, that created massive U-shaped valleys stretching to the sea. Towering peaks stretch steeply up to 1,000 meters into the sky and carve to a depth of more than 400m below the surface of the water. And it’s huge – the fiord is three times longer than Milford Sound and has a sea surface roughly ten times larger. This is where the one and two-night cruises shine – there is just no way to take everything in on a day trip. During our time on board, we were able to cruise up all five arms of the fiord, travel the full length of the main channel twice, and take two trips out beyond the entrance and into the rolling Tasman Sea.

We spent our first night anchored at the end of First Arm – although close to the entrance of the fiord, this is the place to shelter from a southerly. On our second night we anchored in Precipice Cove. During the two days we sailed Thompson Sound, both sides of the massive predator-free Secretary Island, and along both Crooked and Hall Arms. The cruise also twice took in the tiny Seymour Island, where we had a lot of our wildlife sightings. We were able to really appreciate the enormity of Doubtful Sound and also stop and relax for periods of time without feeling like we would be missing out on seeing something incredible.

On board Milford Mariner, Doubtful Sound Fiordland New Zealand
Sailing the Main Arm to the Tasman Sea
Doubtful Sound from Tasman Sea, snow capped Fiordland mountains
View back into the fiord from the Tasman Sea
Coastline around the entrance to Doubtful Sound
Coastline around the entrance to Doubtful Sound
Sunset Doubtful Sound Fiordland
Crazy clouds forming at sunset in Doubtful Sound