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Review: RealNZ Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise

Doubtful Sound, the sound of silence, is quite different to Milford Sound, its very popular cousin just 100km away to the north. Doubtful Sound is much longer than Milford Sound, 40km in fact from the entrance to the Deep Cove basin tucked inland.

There are a few cruise and tour operators in the area, but due to its remoteness, challenge of infrastructure and environmental concerns of having too many, there is one key operator in Doubtful Sound who provide both a three-hour day cruise and a longer 24-hour overnight cruise.

In this article, we review RealNZ and their very popular Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise departing daily in the spring, summer and autumn seasons.

Who are RealNZ?

RealNZ are a big player in the Fiordland Tourism scene with tours operating in Doubtful Sound, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Queenstown, Stewart Island and even two ski-fields near Wanaka and Queenstown.

RealNZ Owners Les and Olive Hutchins

They are a family owned business with the children & grandchildren of original founders Les and Olive Hutchins still involved. Les and Olive purchased the Manapouri-Doubtful Sound Tourist Company in 1954, taking tourists into Doubtful Sound, It was their first tour and remains among RealNZ's most popular.

RealNZ has been known as several other names including Fiordland Travel, Wayfare and most commonly between 2002 and 2021 as Real Journeys. It has since repositioned itself to a 'conservation company, enabled by tourism'.

Are RealNZ a good tour operator?

RealNZ are a well established tourism company that is spread all over the lower South Island of New Zealand, as well as a supporter of local events, community and conservation initiatives here in Fiordland.


It has a large staff network of well over a few hundred across Queenstown and Fiordland. Having travelled on their tours excessively over a few decades, we can say they tend to run to a strict schedule and on time with only the rare interruption - mainly caused by weather.

RealNZ do have fairly flexible change & refund policies on their day cruises and tours up to 24-hours to go, but it is important to note that they are stricter on the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise with no refunds within 14-days of the tour, mainly due to logistical planning and associated costs needed for overnight excursions.

What cruise options does RealNZ have in Doubtful Sound?

RealNZ have two main cruises operating out of Deep Cove harbour in Doubtful Sound - their three-hour day cruise and 18-hour overnight cruise.

Doubtful Sound Cruise

Wilmot Pass Bus to Doubtful Sound

What is unique about these cruises is that, unlike Milford Sound, they cannot be accessed solely by road. While a road is involved, it only covers 45-mins of the journey crossing over Wilmot Pass, a gravel 21km stretch of road that peaks at 671m above sea level before descending down into the sound. A stunning drive on a road originally constructed for supplying construction materials to the building of the Manapouri Power Station.

Before this, a 45-min boat trip across Lake Manapouri to 'West Arm' (location of the Power Station) must be completed.

All up, the day cruise in and total tour to Doubtful Sound requires 7.5-hours of time, with the overnight cruise needing almost 24-hours.

A MUST do: Book well in advance

We cannot stress enough the importance of booking your Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise well in advance if possible. We often get enquiries here at Luxe Tours for booking just a month away however most times there is very limited capacity, if any at all.

If you are considering the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise for anytime between September 2024 and May 2025, we would suggest enquiring now!

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise Booking

Booking for Couples

It is particularly important if you are booking as a couple, or two people, that you try to do this at least a few months out from when you want to travel, and if you are wishing to travel in November - March, we suggest booking up to six months out, especially on the Navigator boat as the Double/Twin-Share Ensuite rooms are extremely popular.

Booking for Families/Individuals

If you intend on booking into a Quad-Share room as a family, individual or even two people, then it is easier to find availability within a month of booking but we really wouldn't leave it to just a few weeks to go. These rooms will eventually sell out also so guarantee your spot early.

What will my RealNZ Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise involve?

Crossing Lake Manapouri

You will check-in to your cruise and tour 30mins before departure - currently 12:30pm. From there you will board a large high-speed catamaran cruise boat to cross Lake Manapouri to the western tip. This journey is about 45-mins in length and there many seating options, as well as outside decks to enjoy.

Driving over Wilmot Pass

Next you will jump on a large bus and head over Wilmot Pass, taking again about 45-mins and guided the entire way. A stop at the top of Wilmot Pass is likely on a clear day, otherwise their drivers will try on the return leg if there is cloud cover.

Boarding Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise

Finally on day one, around 2:30-3:00pm, you will board your Overnight Cruise Boat which either takes 36 or 72 people depending on the exact boat at the time (more on that below).

Kayaking in Doubtful Sound

Kayaking & Wildlife

During the Overnight Cruise you can (always weather dependant) enjoy kayaking or exploring by small tender boat with guides. Wildlife encounters are a highlight including seal colonies near the entrance to Doubtful Sound, or even Dolphins in the Sound itself when they feel keen to interact. Dolphins are more frequent in Doubtful Sound compared to Milford Sound, as well as the little Fiordland Crested Penguin.

Dinner & Entertainment

A gourmet buffet dinner is provided, an absolute highlight of the trip with fresh local cuisine prepared by the cruises own onboard chef and team.

The evening is time to enjoy the sunset and surrounding silence, or listen to the onboard guide give a nature talk. The boat remains moored overnight, usually at the very end of a narrow arm where shelter is provided so there is very little, if any, movement.

Breakfast & Return

The morning brings another prepared continential breakfast, followed by some more cruising throughout the fiord including the very tranquil 'Hall Arm' where the captain is likely to turn off the engines and allow you to experience the 'Sound of silence' first hand.

Around 9:30am you begin your return journey to Manapouri and by 12pm you will be stepping off the final cruise back across Lake Manapouri.

How do you get to Doubtful Sound, Luxe Tours NZ

What boats does RealNZ operate on the Overnight Cruise?

Navigator: 72 People (Sep-May)

Wanderer: 36 People (Dec-Mar)

RealNZ uses up to two boats on their Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise in the peak of summer.

Fiordland Navigator

The regularly used boat is the 'Fiordland Navigator', a purpose built boat that was commissioned by RealNZ in the early 2000's. It holds 72 people and has a mixture of private rooms with ensuites for two people, or a quad-share room with four beds in a bunk style configuration for families, singles or a more affordable style of travel.

Milford Wanderer

In the peak season (December - March), RealNZ brings across the Milford Wanderer to Doubtful Sound to support their numbers, adding a further 36 beds to the excursion.

The Wanderer is effectively one deck smaller than the Navigator and has modern facilities in the boat. It's bedrooms do not have ensuites however, instead going for larger shared bathroom facilities throughout the boat but these are tidy and modern.

Like its partner boat, the Wanderer has rooms for two people, or the larger quad-share option. All the beds onboard are single beds with no double beds available. The shared bathroom facilities, no ensuites and single beds are often seen by potential guests as a drawback, however the size of the boat and smaller travelling group size which makes for more interaction with the captain and crew, is a big plus so there is a tradeoff.

Explaining the Rooms

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise Beds

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise Beds

Quad-Share rooms - important point

The Quad-Share rooms are not exclusive to your group unless you have four people, or you pay for the remaining beds. This means that the other beds in the room can be sold and will result in other people being in the room with you.

Is this an issue?

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise Beds

For some people - yes it is and thats perfectly understandable. Everyone likes a certain degree of privacy.

We think it is important to understand that on the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise, you spend very little time in your room. It is unlike a normal 7-day or longer cruise where you would be in your room more often, there is so much to see and do on the Doubtful Cruise and it is a compressed space of time so you tend to be outside a lot.

The Quad-Share rooms are ideal for people who are travelling alone, families, people looking for affordability, or the number three, five or seven of a group (multiple of three).

How much does the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise cost?

Navigator: $279 - $1049

Wanderer: $319 - $859

It really depends on the time of year that you are looking to book with the season that the cruise can operate in warmer conditions really starting in September and then ending in May.

Another consideration is that there is a price difference between the Wanderer and Navigator boats, a reflection of the different sleeping options and no ensuites on the Wanderer.

Below is an example of 2023 season pricing on both the Navigator & Wanderer boats

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise Price

Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise Price

For the 2024/2025 summer season, pricing will increase approximately $50 across on the key rooms such as Adult Double or Twin-Shares.

The big thing about pricing is that it is dependant on group size and group make up. Every booking is different and as an example, at Luxe Tours we take an online enquiry first so that you can give us the details of your group first, then our team will work out the best few options and prices for you.

What food is provided on the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise?

Navigator: Buffet Dinner, Continental Breakfast.

Wanderer: Three-Plated Dinner, Continental Breakfast.

Crossing Lake Manapouri on the first cruise, there is tea, coffee & water provided, with limited snacks being available to be purchased. At Luxe Tours, we highly recommend pre-ordering a 'Cold Seasonal Lunchbox' from either RealNZ or through us if you are booking through Luxe Tours. These are given to you right at the start of your journey and provide some yummy, filling snacks to keep you going until you get to the Overnight boat in Doubtful Sound.

Once on the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise boat, main meals are provided, as well as thoughtful options such as freshly baked scones when first arriving to the boat. There is also a fully licensed bar.

The main dinner on both the Navigator and Wanderer is one of the highlights of the cruise. The onboard chefs go above and beyond to create a food tour within the main tour, providing local cuisine favourites such as venison, lamb, seafood and this is served as a buffet on the Navigator and a three plated meal on the Wanderer.

Special Dietary Requirements

RealNZ cater to any dietary need such as Gluten-Free or Vegan. When booking, you will be asked for this information and the onboard chef shall ensure there are food options in both the buffet or plated dinner that are available to you.

What should I be aware of with the Overnight Cruise?

Booking in groups of three

One point we would make about the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise to be aware of is that group bookings in multiples of three (3, 6, 9 etc) can be tricky as all rooms on both the Navigator and Wanderer boats are configuered ideally for multiples of two.

It is absolutely still doable and is not a concern, but it is important to understand that you will need to either book a Quad-Share room if you want to be together in your group of three, or you will need to book a two-person room and then add on a 'Single Occupancy' room which is a room just for one person.

With a Single Occupancy room, you effectively pay the same price as two people.

Infants & Children (0-15)

This is absolutely a cruise and tour for children although there are a few key things to understand:

  • An infant/child must sleep with an adult in the same room.

  • Twin-Share or Quad-Share rooms tend to work best for children as they can be with their parents/caregivers.

  • Adults must supervise their children at all times around the boat and in some rare situations, children may not be able to partake in certain activities such as kayaking if there is deemed to be a safety risk.

Weather & Cancellation

It is extremely rare for the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise to be cancelled due to weather. The cruise does not run between June & August which are the winter months where the Wilmot Pass is susceptible to snow coverage.

It is also rare to have enough snow coverage on the road in the spring/summer months to close the road however can occur from time to time.

In the event of a cancellation due to weather, a 100% refund is guaranteed by both RealNZ or us here at Luxe Tours.

Going to Sea

The Overnight Cruise does usually go out to sea at the entrance of Doubtful Sound where it connects to the Tasman Sea. For some, this can be a nervous time which is completely normal.

It is important to note that the captain will only go out past the entrance to the sound if it safe to do so and there is a low chance of having any impact on guests, such as sea sickness.

We have a great article on dealing with sea sickness here.

What is our honest opinion of the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise?

Opinion from Toby - Owner of Luxe Tours

"At the end of the day we sell and book the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise on our website so of course we advocate for it but if we remove bias - before we started Luxe Tours, we were travellers just like our guests and we ourselves have done this cruise several times.

When comparing it to Milford Sound, the cruise in Doubtful Sound is simply spectacular whereas the drive to Milford Sound is the highlight in our opinion.

But when it comes to the Doubtful Overnight Cruise, the entire 18-hours on the boat was unmatched in being a highlight. From the cruising through the fiord, seeing the large seal colony out at sea, dolphins guiding us back into the fiord and then the dinner which blew my mind to be honest - the whole experience was so relaxing and incredible to share with my wife. I felt by the end of it that I had had the break we needed away from technology, work and kids! Nobody could reach is in the middle of Doubtful Sound!"

"The part I enjoyed the most of the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise was sitting out in the middle of the fiord in the kayak. All you could hear was a distant waterfall and the sound of birds. It was a moment of true disconnect from the real world and so relaxing! The staff were amazing, they know when to leave you to it"

Katelyn, Owner Luxe Tours

Is the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise for me?

A lot of people look at the pricing and think it may be out of their reach, however there are always options such as booking a Quad-Share room or the odd deal that may appear at certain times of the year. We suggest booking early though as pricing always tends to go upwards as the season becomes booked out, not the other way round.

If you have the budget and the time, then we highly recommend doing the Doubtful Sound Overnight Cruise. You can even package it together with our Milford Sound Tour, as well as add-ons such as the Te Anau Glowworm Caves or Helicopter Flight.

If you are looking for serenity, silence, wildlife and more time in this unique part of the world, then we are happy to recommend this tour to you.

Luxe Tours provides a personal tailored service (at no cost) with our booking team to find the best time, room and price. See more information here:

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