Now that I have been living in New Zealand for over three years, and especially because I work in the whacky wide would of tourism, people tend to treat me like I’m their unofficial guide, as if my sole purpose in life is to help them plan their most perfect/epic/magical/mystical/one-of-a-kind trip to New Zealand.
And for the most part I don’t mind. I love the crap out of this country and I don’t mind sharing it with whoever asks me.
Though there is a fine line between asking my opinion about a place at a dinner party and dragging me into a corner for three hours to plan out every single day of a month-long honeymoon. I mean COME ON, there are only so many social opportunities for me to meet young single guys in this tiny ass town; I need those three hours to flirt if I am EVER going to trick a guy into marrying me.
Don’t forget I’m hosting my own tour around New Zealand in March if you want to come (only a few spots left)
But I digress. Where was I? Ah yes. Planning your magical mystery tour in New Zealand. Let’s start by taking a journey as far south as you can pretty much go here. Destination Fiordland.
Fiordland is the region you imagine when you picture epic landscapes in New Zealand. Boom.
Ok, a bit of context. In the southwest corner of the South Island is a fairytale land called Fiordland, a remote and wild region home to huge steep mountains, crazy glaciers, cheeky kea parrots and lord knows what else (hint – the elusive Fiordland Moose and maybe even some shy kākāpō birds). It’s vast, untamed and empty, and it’s a MUST-SEE on any trip to New Zealand. Its coastline is marked by 14 fiords or sounds spanning 215 kilometers and most of which are very hard to access.
The main two fiords that people visit are Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, though Milford is definitely the most popular.
As you might have inferred by my whining, one of the questions I get asked the most is choosing between Milford Sound versus Doubtful Sound on a trip to New Zealand for a boat cruise. Now I am very very lucky because I have been to both multiple times and in various forms of transport, like hiking, fixed wing small plane and even a helicopter (seriously guys, what is my life????).
Well, my obvious answer is do both every which way possible, but I’m not oblivious enough to presume that is a viable option for most people on their once in a lifetime magical mystery tour of New Zealand. Unfortunately.
So here we go – check out my thoughts about how to choose between Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound: an informal guide by a blonde American expat who wishes she was a kiwi.
Here is my very simple answer that probably many would disagree with, but really who cares?
I’d say, Milford Sound is for New Zealand first-timers, people who want to tick it off a bucketlist, who are short on time or who are after the New Zealand highlights. Doubtful Sound is for people looking for a more intimate, peaceful wilderness experience and who want that whole “one with nature” vibe.
RealNZ does amazing boat cruises around both Milford and Doubtful so there is something for everyone here, don’t you worry. And if you don’t like wilderness? Well, you’re in the wrong country then.
Ok, let me break it down for you. I’ll start with Milford.
Milford Sound is ridiculously epic. Hell, even before you get to Milford Sound it’s ridiculously epic. The drive there has to be one of the most beautiful in New Zealand, especially the bit between Te Anau and Milford itself. And oh my god if you go by helicopter you’ll be peeing your pants with excitement the whole way. It’s also the only sound that’s reasonably connected with the rest of New Zealand, but that being said it’s still a four hour drive from Queenstown and sometimes in bad weather or in winter, the road gets closed.
Kea hang out by the Homer Tunnel so it’s a good chance to interact with New Zealand’s alpine parrots. Lorded over by the iconic Mitre Peak, Milford has earned the reputation of being the most beautiful and most dramatic of the sounds in Fiordland, no questions about that – in fact Rudyard Kipling named it the 8th wonder of the world. High praise indeed.
You will probably not have Milford Sound to yourself – one million people visit it per year after all. There are helicopters buzzing about on fine weather days, boats up and down and generally people about, though in comparison, it really isn’t that many people compared with the rest of the world. New Zealand is such a sparsely populated country, it’s warped my sense of what’s crowded. I go on a hike here and if there are other people in the huts, I’m like MAN WHY IS IT SO BUSY? THIS SUCKS.
So don’t picture thousands of people in Milford or anything, it’s still really peaceful just with a few tour buses. Milford doesn’t have a town or anything either, it’s very remote and most people just come as a day trip. There is only one place to stay and like only one cafe. It’s not really crowded by any sense of the word, but it’s a popular place for people on holiday.
There are a lot of activities to choose from in Milford, like boats, kayaking, diving, helicopters, hiking and climbing so it’s a good place if you want to get stuff done. In my opinion it’s worth staying out there if you can for a few days and doing a few activities and hikes, especially the Milford Track if you can get a spot. There is no phone reception within hours of Milford so it feels quite special, and you get those dramatic peaks and waterfalls you’ve likely seen pictures of.
You can easily go to Milford Sound as a day trip from Queenstown but it’s definitely more amazing if you can fit in a few days there. The cruises there also tend to be more affordable.
I think the trick to Milford Sound is staying the night. You’ll have the place to yourself once all the tour buses and daytrippers have gone back to Queenstown. There are even overnight cruises in Milford, which I imagine are pretty awesome if their day trips are anything to go by. Along with their big efforts in conservation around Fiordland, they are a family-owned, pretty ethical and responsible company.
In my “expert” opinion, Milford Sound is great for people visiting New Zealand for the first time, people who are getting around on buses or don’t have a hire car because you can easily catch a bus from Queenstown as part of a day trip package with RealNZ. It’s also great for people who want a helicopter or aerial experience in remote Fiordland because you can fly in and out, often with reasonable rates or deals in combination with a cruise. It’s also great if you don’t have much time on your New Zealand adventure. If you’re one to tick things off a list, Milford should definitely be at the top of your list.
I honestly don’t know which place I prefer because I love Milford and Doubtful for different reasons. I’d probably have to say Doubtful Sound is my favorite just because it is so special and peaceful, and it really feels like you have the place to yourself. As you drive towards Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland, you veer off towards Manapouri, a little blip of a town on the edge of a great lake. There are only a few ways to get to Doubtful Sound, which is even more remote than Milford.
As part of a trip with a RealNZ cruise, you get all the transport involved to and from Doubtful, depending on how you book. You’ll start with a boat cruise across Lake Manapouri which is gorgeous, before catching a bus over the Wilmot Pass towards Doubtful Sound where you’ll catch your boat for the actual cruise. For me, the whole journey is an adventure and much more worthwhile than all the time you would spend commuting out to Milford for a few hours on the water.
Also did I mention you will likely see no one else?
As you board the boat in Deep Cove, there are literally no other boats around, except for a few old fishing boats docked up unlike Milford where there is a big marina of various cruise boats.
If you are after a remote wilderness experience? Head straight to Doubtful Sound. I did a cruise with in Doubtful Sound a few years ago in winter, and I fell head over heels for the place. It feels much bigger and more wild than Milford but the peaks don’t often seem as vertical. Within Doubtful you’re likely to see some great wildlife like the very rare Fiordland Crested Penguins. Many of the islands in Doubtful Sound have been cleared of mammal pests and many of New Zealand’s great native birds have returned to live and thrive here.
Doubtful Sound feels ancient and prehistoric, as if it gives you a glimpse of what all of New Zealand must have looked like before humans arrived.
While I did the day cruise a few years ago, I was dying to go back to Doubtful Sound for their famous overnight cruise. Over the years, I had heard over and over and over again from fellow travelers and kiwi locals that the overnight trip in Doubtful is one of the biggest New Zealand must-dos. And finally last month I had my chance!
I was lucky enough to be joined by one of my favorite humans, Jane from Queenstown Life, as we headed out to Doubtful for two days. We caught the bus from Queenstown so we could just sit back and catch up and gossip for a few hours before catching the boat in Manapouri. It was the most magical two days, cut off from the world, where we made new friends, played a ton of Yahtzee and Scrabble with wine of course and just enjoyed taking a break from the world and being in a remote and beautiful location.
We had the place to ourselves, awoken in the morning at sunrise by a pod of dolphins. It was the perfect trip to step and recalibrate. I would go back in a heartbeat.
So which should you cho0se? It’s up to the kind of experience you’re after. But if it were me, I’d pick the Doubtful Sound overnight cruise.
Both are super epic in any weather, especially in the rain. Fiordland is one of the wettest parts of the world, so make sure you bring waterproof clothes. Hundreds of temporary waterfalls form on the cliffs around Milford and Doubtful on rainy days, and it is so special to see.
Make sure you go to one or the other if you find yourself in New Zealand because they are both freaking awesome.
Have you been to Milford or Doubtful Sound? Which would you choose?