In the Land of the Fiords

A Stunning Overnight Cruise on Doubtful Sound

The South Island of New Zealand is full of beautiful scenery. (The North Island may be too; we just haven’t been there yet.) The most breathtaking landscapes we’re seen so far are a pair of fiords in New Zealand’s largest wilderness area, Fiordland National Park, on the rugged southwestern corner of the South Island.

We spent a week exploring the national park from our base in the pleasant lakeside town of Te Anau. Fiordland is home to some of the most famous long-distance hikes in New Zealand, such as the Milford, Kepler, and Routeburn Tracks. Years ago I saw an article about the Milford Track and was enchanted by the idea of hiking it. But it requires camping equipment we couldn’t easily fit in our luggage on this trip, and the limited number of permits to hike the track must be reserved many months in advance. So instead we spent our time in Fiordland doing day hikes, going for scenic drives, and taking boat trips on the two most accessible fiords, Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound.

What is a fiord (sometimes also spelled fjord)? It’s a U-shaped valley carved by a glacier that meets the ocean and fills with seawater. A sound is similar, but it’s a valley that was carved by a river and then flooded with seawater. Fiords are generally narrower than sounds, with steep walls of hard rock that were scoured smooth by the grinding power of a glacier. The fiords in Fiorldland National Park were misnamed “sounds” by the European explorers who mapped New Zealand’s coasts in the 18th century, and the names have stuck. One of those explorers, Captain James Cook, gave Doubtful Sound its name because the waterway looked so narrow from the sea that he doubted his ship would get the right winds to sail out again if it sailed in.

The highlights of our time in New Zealand so far were overnight cruises on Doubtful and Milford Sounds on 70-person ships operated by RealNZ Adventures. Both trips fill up quickly, so if you visit this area, be sure to book them in advance. We went back and forth trying to decide which cruise to take. In the end we decided to splurge and do both.

Milford Sound is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New Zealand. It is stunning, but we enjoyed our time in Doubtful Sound even more. If you’re trying to pick only one overnight boat trip to take, we recommend doing the one on Doubtful Sound (and then visiting Milford Sound on one of the many bus-and-boat day trips available from Te Anau).

Introduction to the Fiord

Our cruise on Doubtful Sound was nothing short of extraordinary. It began in the rain with a short boat ride across Lake Manapouri, a lake ringed by mountains a 20-minute drive from Te Anau. At the far side of the lake, two buses picked us up for a half-hour ride through lush rainforest to the end of one arm of Doubtful Sound, the only way to reach the fiord overland (other than by a long, steep hike). As the bus reached the top of a pass, we got our first, misty glimpse of Doubtful Sound far below: a narrow band of water snaking its way through mountains.  

Our first view of Doubtful Sound on a rainy bus ride over the Wilmot Pass
Our ship, the Fiordland Navigator, which sleeps 72 people

Down at the shore, as the skies started to clear, we boarded the only tour boat on Doubtful Sound, the beautiful blue Fiordland Navigator. Everything on board was clean and well organized. The crew, who had just started their weeklong shift, were friendly and enthusiastic. During our 20 hours on the Navigator, we were fed copiously and well, and Dev, the staff naturalist, gave us lots of information about the natural features we were seeing.

Doubtful Sound is one of the longest fiords in the park, extending 25 miles in from the sea. For much of that length, the fiord is less than a mile wide. As you motor along, you feel very close to the mountains that rise steeply on either side. They’re covered in thick green vegetation from the waterline to the ridgetop, except where they’re dotted with gray or white rockfaces or long ribbon waterfalls. We got lucky with the waterfalls: The recent rains created many temporary falls and swelled the permanent ones. And the clearing skies meant we could see to the very tops of the mountains where the waterfalls began.

Now and then, as we cruised along, breaks in the mountains offered a view of side arms of the fiord, with a succession of hills on either side receding into the distance. At other times we saw hanging U-shaped valleys, with their floors high above the water, looking like hidden worlds. Our guide said the producers of one of the Jurassic Park movies looked into filming here but were deterred by the frequent rain. It’s no wonder they considered Doubtful Sound; it feels like an ancient, untouched landscape.

Much of the vegetation on the mountains consists of several types of New Zealand beech tree. These distant relatives of northern beeches are well adapted to colonize steep mountainsides. Once a bare rock face has been covered with lichens and mosses, beech trees can get a toehold. Their roots spread far and wide, finding every cleft in the rock and twining around other plants. Naturalists estimate that only one in five beech trees on these mountains is actually attached to the surface! The rest are hanging on by their roots to the roots of other beech trees. With such precarious perches, a minor treefall can trigger a “tree avalanche” that creates a bare stripe all the way down a mountainside.

Natural Wonders All Around

Lest we get bored of only mountains and waterfalls, Doubtful Sound gave us lots of other natural wonders to enjoy. When our ship moored so passengers could get out on the water in kayaks and small motorboats, a complete rainbow formed low over the water, with one end near the ship. Later we saw another, higher rainbow over the fiord.

In the late afternoon, we reached the mouth of Doubtful Sound, where it meets the open Tasman Sea. There, we saw dozens of fur seals lying on rocks, soaking up the late-day sun, as several albatross circled over the water nearby looking for food. (Our visit to the Royal Albatross Centre on Otago Peninsula the week before made us good at recognizing the big seabirds.) We were also wowed by the waves breaking on rocks in the mouth of the fiord—a small taste of the excitement that the Tasman Sea is capable of dishing out to sailors.

Sunlit seals on a large rock
Two dolphins skimming along the surface of the water

After a peaceful night moored in a quiet arm of the fiord, we were greeted by sunny weather—and a pod of six to eight dolphins next to the ship! They’re bottlenose dolphins, the southernmost population of the same species we see in Florida or the Caribbean. These dolphins are about one and half times bigger than their counterparts farther north because they need extra padding to live in the much colder waters here. Once we spotted them, the skipper gunned the ship’s engines, and the dolphins surfed and skimmed our wake, sometimes leaping out of the water entirely. Our guide said the local dolphins often do that, apparently just for the fun of it.

An hour later we reached the far end of Doubtful Sound, where we’d boarded the Navigator the previous day. As we left the ship for the return bus ride and Lake Manapouri crossing—this time in bright sunshine—we felt as joyful as those leaping dolphins had looked.

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