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Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound - which one?

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Milford Sound is one of the most visited attractions in New Zealand and in the world on a proportionate population. The postcard instagram photo with Mitre Peak in the background is one of the most famous shots in the world. But what about Doubtful Sound? 130km south sits another magical Fiord that is often forgotten about. In this article we discuss which one should be your priority.


The answer is of course a personal decision for you. Thats the short of it.

real nz doubtful sound

Milford Sound is popular and much more well known in part because it is much more accessible. Due to Milford Road leading you 120km from Te Anau, you can travel door to door in your own vehicle or with a tour in under two hours. Compare this to Doubtful Sound, which while it takes about the same time to get to Deep Cove, the harbour of Doubtful, it does involve a boat ride over Lake Manapouri to West Arm, followed by a coach over Wilmot Pass to get there.


Doubtful Sound is really only accessible for visitors by taking a tour. There are options to take yourself over by boat and meet up with a West Arm or Deep Cove local but this is generally very limited for.


The other reason Milford Sound tends to be more popular is due to the amount of tour and cruise operators that take visitors there. There are at least five main cruise operators inside Milford Sound and more than a dozen tour operators on the Milford Road. In comparison to Doubtful Sound, there is really only one main operator - RealNZ and a handful of smaller exclusive operators inside Doubtful Sound but who still rely on RealNZ for the Manapouri boat trip. These include:

Where will cost me more?


Doubtful Sound is most likely to cost you more overall compared to Milford Sound. If we look at the main tour operator that does both Doubtful and Milford - RealNZ, we can compare costs for a standard day tour from Te Anau including coach transport and required cruises.

Doubtful Sound

$379 (adult)

Milford Sound

$230 (adult)

The reason for Doubtful being more costly is down to the need for the extra boat cruise across Lake Manapouri and the sound itself is a lot larger with the nature cruise offered covering quite a bit more distance than the Milford cruise. RealNZ also offers a stunning one or two night tour starting from $599.


So is it worth the extra cost? Absolutely, Doubtful Sound truly disconnects you from the real world and takes you on an adventure deep through Fiordland. There are less boats in Doubtful, less busyness and a real sense of serenity.


If you want to make the most of Fiordland, we strongly suggest adding Doubtful Sound to your itinerary, as well as Milford Sound. If you would like to combine it with a Milford Sound Day Tour, contact us at bookings@luxetours.co.nz and we can assist you in booking our Milford Tour and the Doubtful Tour with RealNZ in a package deal. Read here our Ultimate Guide to Te Anau to see why it would be great to use Te Anau as your base between days in Milford and Doubtful Sounds.

Where will I see more waterfalls?

Milford Sound is renowned for its waterfalls when the weather is wet in the area. Hundreds of small mountain top lakes and streams come alive, spilling over onto the mountain faces below. On a wet, rainy day, Milford Sound could arguably be one of the most beautiful spots in the world at that time. Stirling Falls and Lady Bowen Falls become massive torrents of power water and most cruises will give you an up close and personal experience, sometimes referred to as a 'glacial facial'.

Doubtful Sound's well known waterfalls include Helena Falls, seen in Deep Cove as you initially come into Doubtful Sound and Stella Falls, seen from the bus as you come down from Wilmot Pass. Doubtful also has an element of waterfalls that fire up from the mountain tops during rainfalls but not to the same degree as Milford.


Where will I see more wildlife?


dolphins in doubtful sound

This is where Doubtful Sound can take the win. While both Doubtful and Milford are home to large colonies of seals at their entrances, as well as many different species of birds such as blue ducks, kea and albatross, Doubtful Sound does tend to be frequented more often by dolphins. A full pod of Bottlenose dolphins reside in Doubtful Sound and the chances are medium to high of meeting them during a nature cruise. In both sounds Fiordland Crested Penguins can also be spotted, but again due to Doubtful Sound being slightly further south, there tends to be a higher occurrence of visits there compared to Milford. Very rarely both sounds may be visited by whales, an experience that only a handful will get to share.


Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound: Summary

Milford sound or doubtful sound

There is no doubt (excuse the pun) that a visit to Doubtful Sound should also be on your bucket list when exploring Fiordland but if you have to make a choice, we think on the whole that Milford Sound is going to give you a very well rounded, easily accessible day tour of what Fiordland as a whole has to offer. It is hard to find a better photo shot than that in front of Mitre Peak, or a selfie video of waterfalls coming down overhead during your cruise.


Milford Sound is about 30% more affordable, includes a lot more well known photo stop opportunities and does have a lot more tour and cruise options to choose form that include various levels of travel experience.


If you want to know all the typical photo stops that tours, including ours, make on the way into Milford Sound, check out our tour breakdown here.


Check out our other articles that may help you make your decision:

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