The name ‘sound’ is actually a misnomer. These 'sounds' are actually 'fiords' -- water-filled valleys carved out by ancient glaciers. But no amount of literal inaccuracy can detract from their absolute beauty.
Comparing Doubtful Sound to Milford Sound is like trying to decide between two diamonds - both are spectacular, each is just a little different.
A two hour drive from Te Anau, Milford is the smaller of the two fiords, but feels more imposing. Sheer cliffs graze the sky, while waterfalls tumble on every side. Seals are frequent visitors, and (if you're lucky) dolphins can often be seen. One of the most photographed locations in New Zealand, Milford attracts a high volume of tourists due to its accessibility. Although relatively remote (there is no established town in Milford) a day trip can be easily done from Te Anau or Queenstown.
Plan to take a lot longer than two hours to travel from Te Anau to Milford. The drive into Milford is almost as amazing as the Fiord itself. Sub-tropical rainforest melds into grassy plains and towering mountains. It’s so wet the road is green with moss and there are many scenic points along the way. Known as the hiking capital of the world, two of New Zealand’s multi-day ‘Great Walks,’ the Routeburn and the Milford Track, begin here.
If you’re not one for cross-country trekking, there are other shorter hikes to be done instead. We recommend:
The Chasm - a fifteen minute return trip over the Cleddau River for spectacular views of a series of waterfalls,
The Lake Gunn Nature Walk - a 45 minute return loop through red beech forest,
And, if you’re feeling adventurous - the Key Summit track, off the start of the Routeburn. A three hour return trip through native vegetation and alpine scrub with awe-inspiring views of the national park.
You’ll also go through the Homer Tunnel that cuts through the imposing Homer Divide.
While you are here
There is no village in Milford, only a marina, a small cafe and an Discovery Centre and Underwater Observatory. Boat cruises leave on a fixed two hourly schedule and these can be done overnight or as a day trip. If time allows, we recommend an overnight cruise to get the most out of the experience. You can also view the sound by kayak - perfect for those who enjoy a more active adventure.
Both Milford and Doubtful Sound have a unique water composition.The top 10 metres of the fiord is freshwater and stained with tannins from vegetation runoff - which creates a reflective surface that stops the light penetrating the seawater underneath. Marine life seen only at great depths can be found just 30 metres below the surface, which makes it a world renowned diving destination, but if you’re not quite up for an icy plunge you can see it all from the comfort of a glass walled viewing room in the underwater observatory - a must do while you are here.
Doubtful Sound is Milford on a much grander scale.Three times the size of its smaller cousin with ten times the surface area, Doubtful is wide and winding with several distinct arms. Known as the ‘Sound of Silence,’ this fiord is far more remote and can only be accessed via boat, and then a short bus ride over the Wilmot pass.
When you’re in Doubtful, you feel dwarfed by nature, and this is it’s biggest point of difference. It’s glacier carved peaks are bathed in green and over 200 rainfall days per year ensure there is not a patch of brown in sight. Seals, dolphins and Fiordland crested penguins are the only inhabitants - there is no cafe here, or large marina full of boats. You can’t get phone reception, there are no helicopters and only a few tourism companies are allowed to operate. It’s a forced break from civilisation where you really get a sense of being alone.
It takes a lot less time to get to Doubtful than it does Milford but it is important to note you cannot travel there independently - you must be part of either a day or overnight tour to enter the Sound. A 20 minute drive from Te Anau, you'll arrive at Manapouri for a one hour boat ride across the lake, followed by a bus journey over the Wilmot Pass. The construction of the pass took two years to complete and is one of the few roads that traverse the Fiordland National Park. You’ll be privy to breathtaking views of the native rainforest, hanging valleys and several tumbling waterfalls. As you reach the top of the pass your bus will stop for a first glimpse of Doubtful sound, which even if it's raining is otherworldly.
While you are here
Arriving in Doubtful you will be part of a day or overnight cruise. At 421 metres it is the deepest of the fiords and has several spectacular waterfalls including the Helena Falls at Deep Cove and the Browne Falls which cascade an incredible 600 metres. While the day cruise is a wonderful way to experience the cloistered solitude of Doubtful, if you can spare the time an overnight is the ultimate. The opportunity to see the Sound in both daylight and under the cover of stars is not to be missed. You’ll also get a far more comprehensive understanding of the flora and fauna found here, not to mention a much greater chance at spotting the local wildlife! As in Milford you can kayak or dive, but everything is just a little wilder. There's no relaxing cafe for a pre-kayak coffee and there's no air-conditioned underwater observatory as a dive alternative. If you're coming to Doubtful, you’re here for the real thing - a true wilderness experience.
When deciding between Milford and Doubtful Sound, there is no wrong decision. Both are equally as beautiful, equally as amazing. Both have stunning natural features and an abundance of rare and native wildlife. It's just the little differences that make each Sound unique - and it's these aspects that will sway your decision. Do you want to self-drive, or be part of a tour? overnight or day trip? truly remote, or a little home comfort? Whichever you choose, you can be rest assured it will be an experience you won't ever forget.