When it comes to must-dos on New Zealand's South Island, there's one question that many travelers inevitably ask:
Should I go to Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?
Both are fjords (not actually sounds; they were misnamed) on the southeast coast of New Zealand's South Island within Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is the more famous of the two (Rudyard Kipling once called it the eighth Wonder of the World), but Doubtful Sound is also marketed to tourists.
The good news for the decisionally-challenged (like me) is that these are really the only two fjords you can visit and cruise through in New Zealand.
The bad news is that choosing between Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound can be really difficult!
Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound
In order to help you decide which New Zealand fjord experience is right for you, I've put together this “smackdown” that compares the two.
Neither Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound are particularly easy to get to. Fiordland National Park itself is pretty remote, and you have to cross a mountain range to get to it. The routes to both spots can sometimes close in the winter, and you'll pretty much need to allow a full day to visit either one.
Milford Sound is usually reached by the Milford Road, which anyone with a vehicle can drive when it's open. You can also reach Milford Sound via air, as it has a tiny airport within walking distance of where all the boats launch. Coach tours run almost daily to Milford Sound from both Queenstown and Te Anau. To give you an idea of driving times, you can expect to spend 5-6 hours one-way on a bus from Queenstown.
Doubtful Sound, in comparison, has no direct road access. In order to reach this fjord, you have to drive or take a bus to Manapouri, take a boat across Lake Manapouri, and then get on a bus to go over the Wilmot Pass and down into Deep Cove. As with Milford, tours run to Doubtful Sound from both Queenstown and Te Anau.
WINNER: Milford Sound, because it's easier to get to
Milford Sound – 1
Doubtful Sound – 0
Once you get to your designated fjord, the thing to do, of course, is to go on a cruise. This is the best way to see the towering mountains, dark tea-colored water, and waterfalls that these fjords are so well-known for.
At Milford Sound, many companies offer cruises, either on their own, or packaged with transport options. Popular companies include Real Journeys, Mitre Peak Cruises, Great Sights, Jucy,Cruise Milford, Southern Discoveries, and Fiordland Discovery. Most companies offer options for full tours including coach transport (or sometimes air transport!), or just the cruise part if you're driving yourself to Milford. (See the end of this post for some suggested tours.)
At Doubtful Sound, there are fewer choices. In fact, Real Journeys used to be the only company that operated tours/cruises in Doubtful Sound. Today there are a few more choices, including Deep Cove Charters, Relaxing Journeys, and Fiordland Expeditions, though Real Journeys is still the leader in Doubtful Sound tours.
You can also do overnight cruises and kayaking tours on both Milford and Doubtful sounds, though the overnight cruise is a more popular option at Doubtful Sound since it's more remote.
WINNER: Milford Sound, because you have more options to choose from
Milford Sound – 2
Doubtful Sound – 0
At Milford Sound, prices for cruises alone can be as low as $50 or $60 for a multi-hour sail around the sound. Cruises usually include some commentary about the waterfalls and wildlife you'll see, and there are usually hot drinks and snacks on board (for purchase, unless you book a tour that includes lunch). If you're booking a roundtrip coach trip from Te Anau or Queenstown, prices will usually be in the $115-$200 per person range, with tours starting in Te Anau always being cheaper. If you want to fly to Milford from Queenstown or Wanaka and then go on a cruise, expect to pay $250-$500 per person.
Doubtful Sound cruises tend to be a little pricier simply because you can't drive to Deep Cove yourself; every cruise will also include transport from Manapouri. Prices for Doubtful Sound cruises/tours will generally run in the $150-$300 range, with overnight tours running anywhere from $300 to $1000, depending on the company, time of year, and degree of luxury you're looking for.
WINNER: Milford Sound because of its more budget-friendly options
Milford Sound – 3
Doubtful Sound – 0
Number of tourists
Milford Sound is New Zealand's top tourist attraction; multiple boats from multiple companies sail the fjord every single day. And while the boats are usually on the small-ish side and not packed full, there's no chance that you'll sail Milford Sound alone. You'll definitely see other boats and probably kayakers, too. (Some New Zealanders will tell you that Milford Sound is crowded during the high season, but this is subjective – it is more crowded than other parts of New Zealand, but we're definitely not talking Disney-level numbers of people.)
Conversely, since it takes more effort (and usually more money) to reach, Doubtful Sound sees far fewer tourists than Milford. When I went to Doubtful Sound in the off-season (in May), the boat I was on was the only one sailing in Doubtful Sound that day. We saw no other humans, and even stopped at one point to turn off the boat motor and just listen to the sounds of the fjord.
WINNER: Doubtful Sound if you want a more intimate fjord experience
Milford Sound – 3
Doubtful Sound – 1
Milford Sound is most well-known for Mitre Peak, the iconic mountain that's one of the first things you see when you arrive at Milford. Cruising in this fjord, you'll also see waterfalls (Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls are the two that will be there even if it's not raining), towering mountains, and eventually the Tasman Sea. And the Milford Road should be mentioned here, too, because it and its stunning scenery will inevitably be part of your trip, too. Be prepared for snow-topped mountains, naughty kea birds, and glacier-fed rivers.
When you go to Doubtful Sound, you'll see similar towering mountains and waterfalls to what you find in Milford – but even more of them, since Doubtful Sound is considerably larger than Milford. Here, you'll also cruise into some of the narrower “arms” of the fjord, which really hit home how tall the mountains are and how deep the water is. And don't forget that a trip to Doubtful Sound actually includes *two* cruises, since you also get to cross Lake Manapouri by boat.
WINNER: Tie, because the Milford Road and Mitre Peak are cool, but I also loved cruising into some of the narrow arms at Doubtful Sound
Milford Sound – 4
Doubtful Sound – 2
The wildlife you can see in both Milford and Doubtful sounds are very similar: sea birds, penguins, and fur seals are common (there's even a large rock in Milford Sound called “Seal Rock,” where you can often find seals sunning themselves). And it's not uncommon for pods of dolphins or even the occasional whale to be spotted in the fjords. In both places, the captain/crew on your boat will keep an eye out for wildlife and let you know if/when anything is spotted.
WINNER: Tie, because you can see the same wildlife in both places
Milford Sound – 5
Doubtful Sound – 3
The weather in Fiordland National Park is often characterized by how wet it is; the region sees rain more than 200 days per year, with rainfall totals usually measured in feet rather than inches. Weather at both Milford Sound and Doubtful sound can be hit or miss, and a rainy day can suddenly become sunny – or vice versa. I've visited Milford Sound twice in mostly-sunny conditions, while it rained during my whole tour of Doubtful Sound.
You should essentially plan for rain when going anywhere in Fiordland National Park, and then be pleasantly surprised if you get a sunny day.
The good news is that both sounds are incredible no matter the weather. When it's raining, the mountains flanking the fjords become covered in thin waterfalls. Add in some low-hanging clouds and mist, and it's equally as magical in the rain as it is in the sun.
WINNER: Tie, because both sounds have very similar weather
Milford Sound – 6
Doubtful Sound – 4
Winner for overall experience
So, if we go by the tally, Milford Sound is the “winner” of this smackdown. The famous fjord is more accessible, generally cheaper to visit, and is home to all the awesome views and wildlife you see on all the postcards.
BUT, that doesn't necessarily mean I think you should skip Doubtful Sound. 😉
I actually think each fjord is better suited to a specific type of traveler.
Who should go to Milford Sound?
I think Milford Sound is best for:
- People traveling on more of a budget
- Those who want to have more control over their fjord visit (i.e. those who want to self-drive)
- People who have never cruised a fjord anywhere else in the world
Who should go to Doubtful Sound?
Meanwhile, I think Doubtful Sound is best for:
- People who have already visited Milford or similar fjords elsewhere (like in Norway)
- People who are looking for a more intimate fjord tour with fewer tourists
- Those who want to do an overnight trip (I think Doubtful is better suited to overnight stays!)
Or, you could of course just visit both fjords and decide for yourself which one is better!
Here's some useful information for those who want to book a trip to either Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound:
Want to plan a trip to either Milford Sound of Doubtful Sound? Here are some tours I'd recommend:
For Milford Sound:
- Milford Sound Nature Cruise (cruise only)
- Milford Sound Cruise + Kayaking (cruise only)
- Small-Group Milford Sound Day Trip and Cruise from Te Anau
- Full-Day Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park Tour (from Queenstown)
- Milford Sound Scenic Flight and Nature Cruise (from Queenstown)
For Doubtful Sound:
- Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise from Te Anau
- Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise from Queenstown
- Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise
If you want to wait to book (i.e. if you want to try to plan around weather), bookmark bookme.co.nz, where you can often find really great last-minute deals on all sorts of Milford Sound cruises and tours.
Where to stay
Milford Sound actually does have accommodation options right at the head of the fjord; check out the Milford Sound Lodge for some relaxing luxury before or after your cruise.
What to pack
Like I mentioned earlier, both Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound can be very wet. I therefore would pack a good rain coat (this one is my current favorite), comfortable shoes, and warm layers. A hat and gloves would not be a bad idea, either, even if it isn't winter – it can be very windy and cold on the water!
And check out my New Zealand packing list for even more suggestions.
So after reading this, which Sound would YOU visit?
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