September 20, 2016

Milford and Doubtful Sounds

No trip to the South Island would be complete without an excursion to Fiordland National Park. It’s New Zealand’s largest and filled with a huge number of must-sees. I toured two of them: Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. Most people just visit the former, but seeing both is even better!

Milford Sound is the easiest to access, but getting there isn’t exactly easy. There’s just one route for motorists — a two-lane road that twists through the mountains and, depending on the time of year, can serve up some pretty treacherous conditions, including an avalanche zone.

But what a ride! Here are a couple of photos from the journey:

I even crossed paths with a Kea — a South Island native bird.


A lot of people take their Milford Sound tour from Queenstown, which makes for a very long day. Here’s the roundabout route, courtesy of the fine folks at Google Maps.


My suggestion would be to explore the Fiordland using the town of Te Anau as a base. That’s what I did. It’s (relatively) close to both sounds, and all tours (even the ones from Queenstown) go through Te Anau anyway. In addition to saving almost five hours in travel time, Te Anau also offers somewhat cheaper accommodation options.

I stayed at a B&B with a very interesting history. It was once the Sisters of Mercy Convent and located in a mining town 100 kilometers from Te Anau. The convent closed in 1987, and the building was eventually purchased by the current B&B owner, split into giant pieces and moved to the edge of Te Anau’s city center. You can see a short video of the massive (de/re)construction process here.

I can’t speak for any other former convents, but I found the “mood” of this one to be very peaceful and relaxing.

The interior rooms were simple and comfy, with lots of chunky woodwork, stained/leaded glass windows and original, convent-y features.

Plus, a beautiful library with a massive shelf of books!!!


The first thing I did was make myself a little pile. 🙂


The town of Te Anau is on Lake Te Anau.


There’s a boutique cinema and bar in the town center that shows current feature films, plus several screenings each day of a beautiful, Baraka-style documentary called Fiordland on Film. It’s 32 minutes of stunning scenery with a haunting soundtrack. Here’s the film’s trailer:

My first Fiordland day tour was to Milford Sound. Even though the area gets several meters of rainfall each year, I enjoyed dry conditions and lots of sunshine.


And lots of snoozing seals!

Here are more photos from my cruise through Milford Sound:

As I mentioned above, Milford Sound is the more popular Fiordland day trip, but Doubtful Sound was actually my favorite.

And getting there? It’s even more of a challenge. If you try to plan the journey to Doubtful Sound from Queenstown, Google Maps has some bad news:

Sorry, we could not calculate directions from “Queenstown” to”Doubtful Sound”


Even if you start in Te Anau, the journey to Doubtful Sound requires several steps that you can’t DIY. My tour began with a 20 minute van ride to Lake Manapouri, followed by an hour-long boat ride across the lake, followed by a 50 minute bus ride on an unsealed, steep and winding road that only permitted vehicles could access. And that was just getting to the sound.

Another vote for staying in Te Anau … and with the Sisters of Mercy. 🙂

Taking an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound was another option, albeit a pricey one. In hindsight, though, it would’ve been a worthy budget buster. Being able to watch the sunrise/set and explore more of the sound’s nooks and crannies would’ve been a real treat.

That said, I was really happy with my “day” version. The weather was beautiful, and I got to see plenty of spectacular scenery — including the beginnings of a very choppy Tasman Sea.


And more snoozing seals!


Here are the rest of my photos from Doubtful Sound: