There is nothing like hanging out overnight in Doubtful Sound to reset the soul. Well, anywhere in Fiordland will probably do the trick, maybe anywhere in New Zealand.
As someone with chronic poor work/life balance, I often need a good rebooting. Since most of my work involves staring at screens for hours, I have to balance it with the opposite. For me, that means going offline into nature, working with my houseplants, or even leaving the house.
About a month ago, we celebrated Mental Health Awareness Week here in New Zealand. This is a topic close to my heart, as I have long struggled with severe anxiety and depression. As part of my work with RealNZ (formerly Real Journeys), I escaped to Doubtful Sound on one of their three-day trips. Going out into nature, especially places like Doubtful Sound, which has a compelling conservation story, often has a profound and mindful impact on us.
By looking after nature, we are looking after ourselves.
Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound are the only two relatively easy-to-access fiords in Fiordland. And yes, they’re fiords, not sounds, carved out by glaciers over millions of years.
Visiting Fiordland is often high on the bucket list of many visiting New Zealand. Milford Sound has long held the top spot of most popular place with foreign tourists, while Doubtful Sound is beloved more by those seeking an even more off-the-grid experience.
RealNZ has long offered overnight boat trips in both sounds; an absolutely incredible experience often sold out far in advance. During the covid lockdowns in New Zealand, they began to make more two-night boat trips out in Doubtful Sound. This was incredibly popular, especially with kiwis looking to spend more time in their backyard.
As someone who has visited here quite a few times in the past eight years, here are some ways an overnight in Doubtful Sound has helped me relax and unwind.
Enjoy the journey to get there
One of the coolest parts of visiting Doubtful Sound is that it’s a bit of a mission to access it. That being said, most of the other fiords are only accessible by quite a long boat trip or helicopter.
You get to Doubtful Sound by cruising across Lake Manapouri on a boat before hopping on a bus to cross the Wilmot Pass before catching another boat in Doubtful Sound for the cruise. Manapouri is less than half an hour away from Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland. Often the lake here is super calm, reflecting the forest and mountains all around it. There are some lovely, quiet walks around Lake Manapouri.
The Wilmot Pass is the road that connects the West Arm of Lake Manapouri to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound. The pass is 671 meters high and named after E.H.Wilmot, a former road surveyor. He noted the pass while checking the area in 1897, and construction began in 1963. It is said to be the most expensive road to be constructed in New Zealand. It’s also not connected to other roads; it connects lake to fiord.
Soak up the powerful conservation story
Doubtful Sound, along with Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau, is what we could call the birthplace of New Zealand’s conservation movement. And RealNZ was leading the charge. In the late 1960s, it was proposed to raise the levels of Lake Manapouri by thirty meters for hydropower generation for the Manapouri power station so it would merge with Lake Te Anau.
You don’t need me to tell you that it would have destroyed so much incredible biodiversity and unique landscapes.
But this was 1969, not 2022, and land conservation was not what you’d call mainstream, even in New Zealand. Leslie and Olive Hutchins bought the Fiordland tourism company in 1954, eventually becoming RealNZ. Alongside many conservationists, they were some of the founding members of the Save Manapouri campaign – hundreds of thousands of kiwis were against the dam.
It was such a big issue that it was part of the 1972 elections, and Les became one of Lake Manapouri’s first Guardians.
Lose your mind at the views
Back in 1770, when Captain Cook was sailing around New Zealand, he named this fiord Doubtful Harbor because he was doubtful he could navigate inside the narrow inlet by sail. Little did he know, Doubtful is enormous. Later on, during the whaling and sealing, it was renamed Doubtful Sound.
Milford Sound tends to get all of the attention when it comes to a visit to Fiordland. And I get it. It’s dramatic and beautiful, and I never tire of visiting it. And if you asked me to choose between Milford and Doubtful Sounds, I don’t think I could.
While Milford is certainly “busier” than Doubtful, primarily because of daytrippers from Queenstown, it’s not busy in the global sense of the word. You don’t feel crowded there. But Doubtful is even quieter.
Doubtful Sound is three times longer than Milford Sound and ten times as large, with beautiful narrow inlets curving off it leading to unexplored regions of Fiordland. Like Milford, it has steep, rugged peaks, epic rainforests, and views for days. Literally.
Go offline and relax.
The Māori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea which means “the place of silence.” I’ll be damned if they didn’t nail the name with that one.
Doubtful Sound is peaceful, serene, and silent, except for the birdsong, which is slowly returning. Back in the day, Captain Cook described the birdsong in New Zealand as “deafening,” but sadly, with the introduction of mammals, many species have gone extinct or have dwindled. Only with considerable effort in recent decades by conservationists, including RealNZ, is this changing.
For me, the best part of Doubtful Sound is going offline. You’ll lose phone reception when you arrive in the West Arm of Lake Manapouri. Say goodbye to 5g until you’re back a few days later.
Now, without pings and distractions, you can slip into a more relaxed state of mind and focus on being present in one of the most beautiful corners of New Zealand. I traveled to Milford with fellow creatives Alex Ayling, his partner Carrie Rad, and Kate Hall, and we had so much fun relaxing off the grid.
And don’t get me started on the meals. The food they serve is incredible. You almost need to skip lunch to make room for the epic dinner.
Hang with the wildlife
Fiordland is home to some of my favorite wildlife in New Zealand, and Doubtful Sound is no exception. As the boat cruises up and down the fiord, usually, you’ll pop out in the Tasman Sea, which is a primo spot to see New Zealand fur seals. You might also see the local pod of bottlenose dolphins, whales, and even albatross if you’re lucky.
The color of the water changes from the dark tannins that stain the surface from the rainfall washing through the rainforest to the turquoise blue of the sea. You’ll begin to feel the swell beneath your feet as we hang out on the deck, looking for wildlife.
We were lucky and managed to spot two tawaki / Fiordland crest penguins hanging out on a rocky outcrop. These are some of the rarest penguins in New Zealand, and it’s pretty special to see them in the wild. They breed in the winter and spring, which is usually the best time to see them.
Kayak along the mountains
While on board the Fiordland Navigator overnight in Doubtful Sound, you’re far from stuck. There are plenty of opportunities to kayak or head off in a tender boat. Our first afternoon in Doubtful was sunny and calm, and we kayaked for hours around the shore. I didn’t take my camera just to enjoy it.
There’s something so cool about steep mountains that drop straight into the water. It’s otherworldly.
And getting to kayak beneath waterfalls? Well, that’s even better.
Dream of rain and waterfalls
Fiordland might be one of the only places you’ll travel to where you dream for rain.
Beautiful in any season and weather, I’m a longtime believer that Fiordland shines the best in the pouring rain. Getting over seven meters of annual rainfall gives Fiordland’s temperate rainforests their bright green color and creates a few layers of darker fresh water that sits on the surface of the fiords.
The best part is soon after heavy rainfall begins, hundreds of temporary waterfalls pour down from the mountains. With their tall peaks often cloaked in cloud, the effect is otherworldly.
We were lucky in that we had every weather imaginable in Doubtful Sound. It was sunny and warm the first day, moody and still with rain the second day, snowfall overnight, and thundering waterfalls. In short, it was epic.
Go for a swim
Do you know those people that are always keen for cold water jumps and swims? I’m not one of those people.
I don’t know when this trend started, but it should disappear. I’ve run out of excuses to bail. One of the top memories for people on their overnight in Doubtful Sound adventures is jumping off the boat. I’ve swum and dived in Fiordland before, but it was summer. And the water wasn’t warm then either.
That being said, I enjoyed watching everyone else jump off the boat while we were exploring Doubtful Sound. It was always hilarious. Maybe I’ll join in next time, but let’s be honest, probably not.
Have you been to Fiordland before? Is an adventure overnight in Doubtful Sound on your bucket list? Spill!