An absolute must if you’re exploring the Southern Island of New Zealand is stopping for a cruise in the Fiordland National Park. This park is enormous, bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, and most of its wilderness isn’t accessible by anything other than a helicopter. Cruises are the exception.
The most popular cruise is the famous Milford Sound, which can be done in a day or an overnight trip and is the most accessible of the fiords. Following Milford is Doubtful Sound, which is slightly more remote and nearly double the size.
This is the cruise we opted for after some gentle peer pressuring from the travel desk at Base Queenstown. Despite a substantial price difference, we figured doing a longer, more secluded cruise might give us a chance to both wind down and really experience the fiordlands in a more intimate way. MJ had already cruised through Milford and after a couple of nights out in Queenstown we decided the quiet overnight cruise sounded like exactly what we wanted.
We booked our overnight through a company called Real Journeys. Fun fact about them is that they’re the first tourism company to begin operating in Fiordland National Park. Safe to say, we were in good hands for our journey. We debated Queenstown on a sunny Monday morning for the 2+ hour bus ride that would take us deep into the national park.
Getting to Doubtful Sound is no piece of cake. After our length bus ride, we hopped on a smaller ferry to cruise across Lake Manapouri, which separates Doubtful Sound from the town of Manapouri. We then boarded a second bus that took us over the Wilmot Pass, an incredible stretch of rain forest that is so dense you can barely see through all the trees.
What’s amazing about the Fiordland National Park is that there isn’t very strong or deep soil for trees and other vegetation to grow, but it’s absolutely covered in flora. The reason for this is because it rains in the National Park over two thirds of the days in the year. This makes for a seriously outstanding landscape covered in trees, moss, undergrowth, and waterfalls that can last all year or only for a few hours before it rains again.
So after making our way through this intense forest, we finally arrived in Deep Cove and boarded our home for the night: an old school sailboat called The Navigator. After claiming our two bottom bunks in our otherwise empty room and raiding the brownie tray in the saloon (yeah, they call it a saloon), we set off.
Doubtful Sound is enormous. One of the reasons we decided to do the overnight, and why it’s the primary choice for those trying to see this particular area, is because you get to see all of it.
During our first day, we cruised down Doubtful Sound, down into Crooked Arm, and out into the open sea. We managed to catch a glimpse of at least three Fiordland Crested Penguins and visit the New Zealand Fur Seal colony. Thanks to incredible weather, we were also able to take two of the boats 20+ kayaks out for a paddle on the sound to get up close and personal with the shoreline. It was absolutely fantastic.
Dinner was served buffet style in the Main Saloon and it was delicious. We’d been told by our friends over at the Queenstown hostel that it would be but even we were surprised and impressed with the quality. MJ even broke her vegetarian rule to sample some lamb (seconds, please and thank you). We even got our hands on a bottle of wine from Framingham’s, which was one of the wineries we had visited when we were staying in the Marlborough region.
After dinner we were treated to a nature presentation from the boat’s resident nature guide. New Zealand’s only native species are birds, and before the Maori arrived there were many more than there are today. Now, conservationists work year round to try and eradicate pests introduced to New Zealand, such as the possum and the rat, in an effort to preserve their amazing bird species, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
To learn more about New Zealand’s native species and what’s being done to protect them, check out this link.
The boat anchored in Bradshaw Sound for the night, which is a little off to the right of Doubtful Sound, and we were woken up at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast at 7 in order to explore Hall Arm, the “jewel” of Doubtful Sound, before making it back to Deep Cove by 10 a.m.
Hall Arm is everything that it’s talked up to be. We had a fairly misty and rainy morning, which we ended up loving because it gave us a chance to see many of the temporary waterfalls the Fiordland is known for as well as see the park in its most natural state.
We cruised as far into the arm as we could and finally came to a stop in the final bend. The crew silenced the boat and allowed us ten minutes of complete silence to enjoy the sounds of the waterfalls and the few birds we could hear throughout the surrounding mountains. It was breathtaking.
After a quick break to go in to a waterfall (like actually in the waterfall) to capture some of that fresh mountain dew (all rights reserved), we headed back to Deep Cove to make our way home to Queenstown.
Despite our best efforts, it’s truly impossible to explain with words or pictures the beauty of the Fiordland National Park. It’s something that must be experienced. If you get the chance to visit this area of the world, taking a day or overnight cruise to see this park cannot be missed.