A Doubtful Sounds overnight cruise provides an unforgettable experience. You will be immersed in untouched wilderness, discovering one of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand.
Awe-inspiring sheer mountain cliffs surround the pristine waters of the Fiords. An overnight cruise is an incredible way to enjoy the spectacular scenery and array of wildlife including penguins, seals, and dolphins.
However, we know there are a lot of questions about exploring lesser-known Doubtful Sound. We had those same questions ourselves! So, on our last visit to the New Zealand South Island, we decided to book a Doubtful Sounds overnight cruise and see this lesser-visited Fiordland gem.
In this travel guide, we will provide an honest review of our experience. Additionally, we’ll answer the most frequently asked questions, provide photos from our visit, and provide all pertinent info should you decide to book a trip of your own!
In the interest of absolute transparency, we were contacted by RealNZ who had seen our work and offered to have us on the cruise in exchange for photography they could use for marketing purposes. This blog post, however, is in no way associated. In fact, the blog itself didn’t even exist at the time of our cruise!
The review and information that follows is unsolicited and unsullied by sponsorship. We received no special treatment, nor were we incentivized to provide a review at all. In other words, this guide is written purely as happy and satisfied customers with a story to share.
Disclosure: In order to keep providing you with free content, this post likely contains affiliate links. If you make a booking or purchase through one of these links we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. So a HUGE thank you to you if you click one of these links 🙂
Frequently Asked Questions about cruising Doubtful Sound
We have attempted to identify the questions we had when researching a cruise to Doubtful Sound and answer them for you below. For more specific information on options, booking, and our full review, skip ahead.
Is Doubtful Sound worth visiting?
The answer is emphatically YES! While the photo opportunities from the shores of Milford Sound are likely the most striking of all the options, we preferred the length, diversity, and overall sightseeing opportunities of Doubtful Sound.
In addition to the infinitely-layered landscapes, the amount of wildlife we encountered was more impressive on the Doubtful Sounds cruise.
Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound: Which to visit?
We have written a comprehensive guide about travelling from Queenstown to Milford Sound that would be worth reading to help you decide.
However, if you are forced to make the decision between only visiting Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound, we recommend choosing Milford Sound for most people. We would particularly recommend Milford Sound if:
- You are only doing a day trip.
- You’re planning to visit some of the stops along the gorgeous drive to Milford Sound.
- You want to do some of the hikes through Fjordlands National Park.
The main reason for this recommendation is not the sounds themselves. However, the journey TO Milford Sound is incredible, as is the view and photo opportunities from the shore upon arrival.
🏔 FIND MORE INFO ABOUT MILFORD SOUND HERE: Queenstown to Milford Sound; Everything You Need to Know
Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise?
While we recommend Milford Sound for casual visitors, we strongly recommend the Doubtful Sounds cruise for those looking for an overnight cruise. Having done an overnight cruise at both Milford and Doubtful Sounds, the latter was easily our favourite.
The Doubtful Sounds cruise is a constant adventure. It never stopped moving throughout the day! We were continuously ducking in and out of different channels and offering a lot of diverse views.
The Milford Sound voyage, however, is over in a couple of hours at the most. It is very pretty, but we felt that too much of the time on the Milford Sound overnight cruise was spent finding ways to keep us entertained.
Should you do the Doubtful Sounds Overnight Cruise or Day Cruise?
If you are going to go through all the effort of visiting Doubtful Sound, we highly recommend the overnight cruise. You will see a lot of the same sights on either option. However, you do visit a few extra channels on the overnight cruise that you wouldn’t visit on the day cruise.
Most importantly, however, is the time of day that you will be out to sea. With the Doubtful Sounds day cruise, you will be boating around in the harsh afternoon light.
Whereas, the Doubtful Sounds overnight cruise guarantees you a sunset, sunrise, and multiple blue and golden hours. If photography is your goal, the overnight option is definitely preferred.
We would also be remiss in failing to mention the gourmet coffee and meals that were provided on the cruise we took. These “bonus” features took it from a “fun day out” to “an unforgettable experience”.
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How much does the Doubtful Sounds Overnight Cruise cost?
You should expect prices for a Doubtful Sound overnight cruise to begin around $500 NZD (~$300 USD). Depending on upgrades, place of departure, and other factors, the cost may creep up from there.
Click here to check current prices and availability.
Is the Doubtful Sounds Overnight Cruise worth the cost?
Here is how you should attempt to answer this question…
Factor how much you would spend on all your meals, lodging and entertainment for the time you are on the cruise. Now deduct that from your cost at $500 NZD ($300 USD) per person. This is how much the experience is truly going to cost.
If you are seeking our personal opinion, then the answer is yes. It is very worth the price IF you are on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation and have budgeted for a trip to match those expectations.
Of course, the value of a dollar is different for all of our readers! If you are a backpacker on a budget who can stretch $500 NZD out for weeks, you will probably not find this experience justifies cutting your time short in New Zealand.
Where do you depart from on a Doubtful Sounds Cruise?
The company we went with (RealNZ) arranges pick up in Queenstown, Manapouri, and Te Anau. While each company will have its own policy, this arrangement is fairly typical.
What will you see on a Doubtful Sounds Cruise?
Most notably, you should expect to see some of the most beautiful New Zealand landscapes on a Doubtful Sounds cruise. You will spend the better part of the day cruising in and out of various channels, observing the incredible sheer cliff drops for which the region is known.
In addition, there is a variety of wildlife that is never guaranteed, but you have a high likelihood of seeing. Bottlenose dolphins, Fjordland Crested penguins and fur seals are seen regularly. And, if you are VERY lucky, you could even encounter Southern right whales and/or humpback whales!
If you book the Doubtful Sounds overnight cruise, which we highly recommend, you will also enjoy a sunset and sunrise in the highly photogenic sound.
Things to consider before you book a Doubtful Sounds Overnight Cruise?
There are a few important factors that you need to consider before booking a Doubtful Sounds overnight cruise. If any of these important considerations are not in your favor, you may want to hold off on booking for at least the time being.
While planning, you may also want to queue up our guide to the best time to visit New Zealand to give you a better idea of the pros and cons of each season.
The Fjordlands National Park receives more rainfall than any other region of New Zealand. However, this is not necessarily all bad. The heavy rain can actually bring the landscape to life with hundreds or even thousands of temporary waterfalls spilling from the cliffs to the sea.
With that in mind, you will also find heavy rain challenging if you plan on doing much photography. You will also find the foul weather causes a bit more of a swell, which makes everything a bit more difficult. And brings us organically to our next factor…
Most of our experience was absolutely fine. Adam is prone to seasickness, which is amplified when he is trying to photograph (which is always). However, even he never had an issue on our cruise. That said, there were other passengers who struggled in the worst of it. But we had mostly favorable weather and the crew keeps the ship primarily in calm water.
It is worth noting that RealNZ makes an effort to anchor in a location where the water is extremely calm. We slept like babies, bellies completely overstuffed by the gourmet feast we had just gluttonously consumed!
To summarize, we do not think sea sickness will be a problem for most. However, if you are exceptionally sensitive to the condition then being stuck on a boat overnight may not be the right choice for you. Consider a day cruise through the calm and short Milford Sound instead! Or you may at least want to bring some medication!
Trip Duration / Available Time
Perhaps the most important thing you will have to consider is whether or not you can afford to use two full days of your visit to NZ doing an overnight cruise of the Doubtful Sound.
As much as we absolutely loved our experience, we would only recommend it if you have 3-4 weeks or more to explore the South Island. You could certainly make it a priority if you have any amount of time, of course. However, you will be missing out on a lot of other very special places.
You will need to draw your own conclusion on this of course. However, our recommendation is to only consider this experience if your trip is longer than 3 weeks.
READ MORE: ULTIMATE New Zealand Itinerary
A Full Review of our Doubtful Sounds Overnight Cruise Experience
Let us start by saying we did our overnight cruise through the Doubtful Sounds with RealNZ, and it was one of the top 5 experiences of all of our time in New Zealand. To give you an idea of what rare air that is, the other experiences on that list include:
- Seeing the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights)
- A scenic flight over the Milford Sound
- Flying a prop plane over the Southern Alps
- Exploring a glowworm cave
It also made it onto our Dream Destinations for your Travel Bucket List!
You are likely reading this because you are trying to decide if it’s worth doing. Budget and time are really the only two reasons we cannot recommend the Doubtful Sounds overnight cruise for everyone.
If you can afford it in terms of time and cost, however, there are few experiences we enjoyed more!
With that out of the way, allow us to walk you down memory lane while providing insight as to what you can expect on your journey to the Doubtful Sound!
Getting to Doubtful Sound
You are in for a bit of a journey just getting to Doubtful Sound. But your nose will be pressed to the massive bus windows throughout this beautiful drive. The bus picks passengers up in Queenstown, Manapouri, and Te Anau, delivering everyone to a boat on Manapouri Lake.
This boat takes you across Manapouri Lake, a stunning destination in its own right, then drops you off at yet another bus which will take you to the very edge of the Doubtful Sound.
It is worth noting that even the bus ride, usually tolerable at best, was fun and enjoyable. The driver provides history, facts, and commentary throughout the entire drive.
Our driver had been with the team for something like a decade and had a brilliant, dry humor that had everyone shaking their heads and laughing the entire drive.
From here, you will board a large, beautiful cruise ship where the friendliest staff we have ever encountered will greet you. This is no exaggeration, we befriended and remained in touch with more than a few of the team following our trip!
About the Cruise Ship
You will board the ship and receive all the mandatory safety and crew information. After this, you will locate your rooms for the night. The main deck is beautiful and offers complimentary tea, coffee, and snacks throughout. This is not drip coffee either, it comes from a machine but it was a proper latte!
The rooms are very small, but they each have their own shower and toilets which is all you really need. Its not like you’re going to be spending much time in there anyway!
You are free to walk pretty much anywhere in the ship within reason. Plus, the entirety of it is covered in large glass so seeing out is never a problem. You are even welcome to join the captain in the bridge and have a chat; the crew is truly hands-on and service-oriented.
There are also a few different levels you can access on the outside, with various seating and such. Basically, you will never suffer for a good view!
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Exploring Doubtful Sound on an Overnight Cruise
The route the ship takes through the Doubtful Sounds provides a diverse collection of landscapes and scenery. We dipped in and out of a few various channels, learning about the history, climate, geography, and wildlife of the area.
Most of our time was spent as you might expect; running around the decks photographing everything in sight! We did not have much luck with wildlife the first day, though we did get a resident dolphin pod to do a few tricks for us.
What truly impressed us was the untouched scenery. As the Doubtful Sounds are so remote and New Zealand so protective of its natural resources, there really is almost no development here. The generous yearly rainfall creates such a lush environment. Additionally, the terrain itself seems to form weather patterns and microclimates that change by the second!
While nature’s creatures were being a bit shy during our first day out at sea, amends were made in the form of a truly epic sunset. The entire sky was absolutely on fire! We shot until our memory cards were full, then went inside for a highly anticipated gourmet dinner!
Doubtful Sound Kayak Experience
If you feel so inclined, Real Journeys also offers a kayaking experience for those willing. The boat will anchor for about an hour, giving the passengers a chance to row around the waters of the Doubtful Sound.
We have heard stories of dolphins and even whales interacting with some lucky groups. Try as we might, however, the only wildlife activity we experienced was a few adorable fur seals.
While you can’t help but be mildly disappointed that you didn’t win the Southern right whale lottery or penguin lottery, we still very much enjoyed photographing from the water. Of course, the views were not dissimilar from those you get on the boat. However, it was nice to be able to get some actions shots of each other. You also get a better perspective of the enormity of the sounds from the kayak.
To that end, be EXTREMELY careful with your camera gear. The water in the sounds is saltwater and will cause great damage and destruction to your electronics. It is extremely challenging to paddle a kayak without getting some splash, and it doesn’t take much salt to spoil the party.
READ MORE: Best Camera Gear for Epic Travel Photos
On a Doubtful Sounds cruise, you could see the adorable Fjordland crested penguin, bottlenose dolphins, fur seals, humpback whales, and Southern right whales… of course, they call it wildlife for a reason.
On our cruise, we only saw bottlenose dolphins and fur seals the first night, but that was pretty exciting. Sometimes the resident dolphin pod will be in a playful mood and follow the boat, doing tricks and flips from the wake of the ship. Unfortunately, we got the tired dolphins!
The following day, the captain worked extremely hard to go to the places that had the highest expectancy of Fjordland crested penguins. We thought it was incredible that he went through such an effort due to the vocal interest of so many of the passengers. Thanks to his efforts, we had success and ended up finding some of the adorable silly birds!
These clumsy, cute critters are some of the rarest penguins on the planet and are only found in New Zealand! We may not have had the fortune of high-fiving a dolphin (not that we would ever actually touch wildlife!). But we counted ourselves very fortunate to have the chance to photograph these rare penguins.
Sunset / Sunrise
As we’ve mentioned a few times, one of the biggest advantages to exploring the Doubtful Sound on an overnight cruise is that you will be out to sea when the light is best for your photos, including sunset and sunrise!
It seemed the late clouds were going to snuff the colors we had hoped for at sunset. However, no sooner had we grabbed a cup of coffee than the first shades of pink and orange began to appear!
A few minutes later, the entire sky was just ablaze with color. It was a truly magical way to end what had been a lovely day already, and what Sophie considered the best was yet to come; a gourmet dinner!
This is not your ordinary buffet. The dinner we had on the Real Journeys overnight cruise was the best we can remember having in all of New Zealand, throughout all of our trips.
While we cannot attest to what the other tour companies offer, Real Journeys provides a top-notch chef to prepare 3 meals, as well as an incredible desert, with snacks throughout. We ate past the point of comfort. We just had to try absolutely everything, then go back for our favorites.
Suffice it to say, the fact that we have spent so much time talking about the food despite being on a trip exploring the beautiful Doubtful Sound should say a lot about just how much we enjoyed that element of the experience as well.
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Booking a Doubtful Sounds Overnight Cruise
We, of course, encourage you to do your own research on what companies are offering, but we strongly encourage bookings with Real Journeys. Their prices are the lowest we have found and the experience is absolutely top-notch.
In addition to staff that feel like old friends, what truly put them over the top for us was the authentic gourmet meals that accompanied the experience. We are not using that term figuratively, they actually had a gourmet French chef prepare the meals for our experience.
To check availability and book a tour with Real Journeys, click here.
Related New Zealand Travel Guides
We have a variety of guides for New Zealand that you may also find helpful:
- ULTIMATE 7 Day South Island Itinerary
- South Island New Zealand Map
- Campervanning New Zealand: A Complete Guide
- Best Time to Visit New Zealand
- New Zealand Landscape Photography Locations
- Guide to Hiking Roys Peak Track
- Queenstown to Milford Sound
Final Thoughts on the Doubtful Sounds Overnight Cruise
We hope you have found this guide to a Doubtful Sounds overnight cruise useful in coming to your own conclusion on whether or not to include it in your itinerary.
If you have any questions or insight to provide, we always appreciate and welcome that! Please leave it in the comments below, or email us directly if necessary.
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4 thoughts on “🛳 Doubtful Sounds Overnight Cruise: Complete 2023 Guide”
Aww I’m dreaming of visiting Doubtful Sound! I hope we can make it while we are in the South Island! Thank you for all those amazing details!
Ohhhh I hope so!! It was definitely one of our fondest memories. We hope you found the guide helpful and truly hope you’re able to travel to NZ right now!
The penguins!!! Omg, this place would be amazing to visit. And I’m sure there is some awesome whale watching and other activities here!!! Thank you so much for sharing such a hidden gem!
It was one of our fondest memories of our time in New Zealand. Anywhere with a rare species of penguins and dolphins is bound to make the top of the list 🙂