How to Decide Between Milford and Doubtful Sound

Milford Sound

New Zealand’s Milford or Doubtful Sound, which is better to visit or is it just a toss of the coin ? ‘Carnation or rose, morning or night and so you choose’, said famed Kiwi mountain poet Claver Esmond. I John Dunne, aka Dunney - think of that comparison when drawing the contrast between these two iconic destinations though here are some clear differences for you to consider.

Aerial shot of Doubtful Sound

When contemplating the breathtaking natural wonders of New Zealand, the choice between visiting Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound stands as a pivotal decision. Nestled within Fiordland National Park, both destinations boast unparalleled beauty, characterized by majestic fjords, towering peaks, and serene waters. However, distinct nuances in accessibility, wildlife encounters, and the overall immersive experience differentiate these iconic locations. Delving into the parameters of travel, one must navigate the unique attributes of each sound to make an informed and unforgettable choice.

Getting to Milford Sound

Both are situated in the south west of New Zealand’s South Island and in that regard are relatively remote from the rest of the country for starters. The usual launching point for accessing both these areas is Queenstown. It boasts an international airport which also offers helicopter and light plane flights direct to Milford and Te Anau especially. 

A return day trip from Queenstown is an arduous undertaking to Milford as the return trip is in excess of 12 hours!

My recommendation is to using Te Anau as your staging post as this will cut the drive time in half!

Coaches also depart from Lake Te Anau township, Te Anau has a great range of accommodation from budget to 5 star, all the other services you’ll need and friendly locals. From Te Anau the driving time is cut in half, leaving time to take stop and admire the landscape, with short walks available either at popular Key Summit or the easy short walk up to Lake Mistletoe. 

Getting to Doubtful Sound

All tours depart from Manapouri which is a 2.5 – 3 hour drive from Queenstown and 30 minute drive from Te Anau. As the trip is 7 hours, again if you prefer a more leisurely pace then stay the night prior or after in Te Anau.  

There’s no direct road access, so the only way you can to get to Doubtful Sound is a cruise across the picturesque Lake Manapouri, followed by a bus trip over Wilmot Pass - New Zealand's most expensive (and majestic) road. We’ll pause along the way to experience the dense Fiordland rainforest and view Doubtful Sound glistening below. This isolation makes this fiord a very special place, only those in the know get to see. 

Helicopter flight Milford Sound

The Milford Road

The Milford road is well maintained and the drive to Milford Sound encompasses everything you’d imagine from such a scenic route. The Milford road travels through the Homer tunnel under the mountains to the Sound and is an engineering feat in its own right. Look out for a mate of mine Simon aka ‘grasshopper’ who patrols the tunnel area, which is susceptible to heavy snow in winter.

The advantage of joining a coach from preferable Te Anau is that you will have an informative friendly driver to explain the background and key points of interest. The benefit of the self drive will mean that you have more opportunities for photo stops and walks along the way.

This means Milford is very busy for a few hours and the voracious sandflies are gorging themselves! Without doubt a scenic flight or helicopter from Queenstown, is the best way to reach Milford. This ease of access is a huge timesaver and bypasses issues such as bad weather or cruise cancellations.

Dolphin swims at Doubtful Sound

Travel Time and Accommodation Options

Milford can be done comfortably in a day if flying return from Queenstown and therefore is so much easier to get to than Doubtful Sound.

Doubtful Sound would require a minimum day and half overnighting in Te Anau or Manapouri if flying from Queenstown. Add at least another day otherwise.

Flight costs will depend on numbers. For example a return flight to Manapouri will be about $250, while to Milford add quite a bit more with both taking around 40 minutes or so. While the bus option to various stops will start from approx. $30.

It’s worth remembering Milford is seen as the ‘cash cow’, therefore explaining why it’s so busy.

Accommodation in Queenstown is world class. The major international hotel chains operate here, as do famed private resorts and lodges, B and B, private house rentals and backpacker options.

Te Anau, Milford and Manapouri also offer 5 star accommodation as well as lodges, B and B, rental homes and backpackers.

Cruise Boats and Bookings

Milford Sound

Milford Sound operates all sorts of on water cruises and things to see. From small boats, to the underwater marine observatory, to the nearby Bowen Falls walk, to cruising the sound out to the Tasman Sea with a light lunch and canapes, pretty much everything is catered for. 

Duration: Cruises range from 1 hr 45 mins to 3 hours in duration

Bookings can be easily arranged in Milford, Queenstown, Te Anau or online and cancellations are easy.

Doubtful Sound

Similar applies to cruising the massive Doubtful Sound. Charter vessels cater for fishing, diving and hunting trips, where’ll you’ll get everything from a sea perch or blue cod, to a crayfish or score a deer and all from the deck of your well appointed small ship. Then cook or BBQ your catch onboard with your new mates enjoying a chilled New Zealand Sav Blanc or beer.

Duration: The Wilderness Cruise is 3 hours long - however including the bus and boat segments the total duration of the  Wilderness Cruise is 7 hours - add on whether you are returning to Queenstown or Te Anau, for families with younger children you may need to consider whether or not this is too long if the weather turns wet.

Overnight Cruises

Both Sounds are available to experience as an overnight cruise - allowing you time on the water with out all the other watercraft shuttling back and forward. Here you will experience the famed Sound of Silence that these flooded fjords are reknowned for. The sleeping configuration is private doubles/twins or shared quad bunks. 

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise: Boarding at Manapouri at 12pm disembarking  the following morning at 12.30pm

Milford Overnight Cruise:  Boarding at 4pm and disembarking the following morning at 9.15am.


Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise

The ‘Dunney summary’ and preference to date. 

So far I’m thinking, Doubtful Sound.

Best Scenic Experience, Milford or Doubtful Sound?

Both destinations are stunning, sought after and globally famous. 

Milford Sound is dominated by the incredible Mitre Peak which rises with almost sheer drops to near 1700 meters or more than 5 and half thousand feet above sea level. Its pic dominates post cards and is popular all round the world.

Milford Sound is a true U shaped feature with enormous ancient glaciers which are now hanging valleys with multiple spectacular waterfalls.

Whereas the Doubtful Sound at 3 times the size of Milford, has many bays and inlets and islands with lush beech forest down to the ocean shore. While both are remote areas, Doubtful Sound is probably more so and therefore the most unexplored.

How busy are these places?

Milford Sound is busier due to it’s to its global fame and perceived easier access from central points such as Queenstown. As indicated Milford’s busiest times are when the bus trips arrive en masse and fill the available parking areas. Throw in a typically heavy Milford rain storm which is more often than not and the place gets pretty crazy. Yet that wildness is part of the attraction. Remember to allow plenty of time for car parking if you are self driving to Milford Sound, as there is some walking involved if the main carpark is full. The 2nd carpark you need to allow 30 mins for a scenic walk.

By comparison Doubtful Sound is less frenetic as it’s more remote and much larger. 

What else is going on nearby ?

Te Anau township on the shores of the lake of the same name and Lake Manapouri township are also great destinations in their own right. Both offer comprehensive water sport and tourist launch and jet boat operations, with Manapouri often described as New Zealand’s most beautiful lake.

Hiking is also hugely popular with the Mt Luxmore track opposite Te Anau town one of the most popular walks. It climbs to a stunning mountain cabin overlooking the lake and was once considered as a skiing area.

I’ve already mentioned the glow worm caves and the Milford track. Another famous walkway, the Routeburn track, has a start finish point on the Milford road between Te Anau and the Homer tunnel. 

Further south from Manapouri is yet another iconic New Zealand lake, Hauroko. This is New Zealand’s deepest lake and can be accessed by road. The jet boat excursion available at Lake Hauroko is arguably one of the country’s best. 6 hours of negotiating lake and river waters, with walks, a tour guide and lunch included through some of New Zealand’s best wild, open spaces. Information on bookings in Te Anau and also Manapouri.

Further south again and at the bottom of the South Island is the third island in the great Kiwi trinity, Stewart Island with a population of around 500 people. Separated by the Foveaux Strait, this is a must google, must research trip for another time.

Remember in New Zealand the ‘locals’ are often the best tour guides. They’re friendly, always happy to help and we love showing off our beautiful county !

Luxmore Hut

The ‘Dunney summary’ and recommendation

You’ll get the same feeling of wonder, power and untamed nature in either Milford or Doubtful Sounds.

As much as a budgetary consideration, is one of the available time you have. The photo opportunities are pretty much identical and the weather issues somewhat similar.

With about 200 days of rain a year in the area, you should be prepared to get wet which ever way you go.

Anyway, my preference is Doubtful Sound and this is influenced by the chance of exploring Manapouri and Hauroko as stunning side trips. Though feel free to prove me wrong, why don’t you..

Do you like the sound of incorporating Milford or Doubtful Sound into your New Zealand itinerary?

Click here to find out more about planning your trip in New Zealand with First Light Travel. They already have a number of fantastic itineraries to choose from. Or, you can message their NZ travel experts directly and they will help you put together (and book) your own, personalized dream New Zealand trip.

John Dunne - broadcaster, writer, skibum, sailor
John Dunne
: 27 Nov 2023 (Last updated: 14 Mar 2024)

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