Cruising New Zealand’s Doubtful Sound

View of Doubtful Sound from Wilmott Pass. photo by Cindy Bigras.
View of Doubtful Sound from Wilmott Pass. photo by Cindy Bigras.

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand: Marvelous, Majestic, Mysterious

By Cindy Bigras
Senior Travel Writer

It’s easy to believe that no human has ever set foot on these remote mountaintops, that no boy scouts have pitched tents and looked up at the stars. Fiordland National Park, New Zealand’s 3,000,000 acre refuge, has been designated a U.N. World Heritage Site, and Doubtful Sound is its most isolated and dramatic fiord.

Voted Top Story of 2010 by GoNOMAD's Readers. Congrats Shelley!Our plans included an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound. We’re not cruisers, so it seems to be an interesting choice until you realize that it is possible to experience this pristine wonderland on a small boat.

I had seen brochures of cruise ships offering spacious cabins with en suite bathrooms; some even have electrical outlets so hairdryers will work. Ladies, leave your cocktail dress and fancy shoes at home – Deep Cove Charters is not that kind of cruise. Pack mittens, a hat, raincoat, sweaters, a camera, and all your curiosity.

The itinerary warned us to be on time because the boat doesn’t wait for late-comers. We took that warning seriously and the evening before departure ventured down to the Visitor Center.

Not that we could have gotten lost — Manapouri is a burg of only 200 residents. Follow lakeside Cathedral Drive south and you inevitably find yourself in the right place.

It’s convenient to stay in Manapouri for this reason, but also plan to visit nearby Te Anu, a bustling little town filled with hikers, kayakers and boaters. For a memorable meal in a cozy setting visit the Redcliff Café. Reservations are almost always necessary.

Lunch inside the cozy Seafinn's cabin. photo by Cindy Bigras.
Lunch inside the cozy Seafinn’s cabin. photo by Cindy Bigras.

New Zealand is the youngest and perhaps the greenest country on earth; young because in geologic terms these islands are in their infancy, having been formed by glaciers a mere 500 million years ago.

Young because the Maori didn’t arrive until 1000 years ago, and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that European settlers began arriving in large numbers.

Youthful energy permeates the country and makes it an ideal spot for outdoor activity. You are now in one of the most marvelous, untouched spots on earth.

The following morning started out grey and misty as it often does here, in the rainforest where it rains 200+ days a year.

The view of Lake Manapouri surrounded by the rugged mountains is so spectacular that the clouds couldn’t dampen our moods. We had packed small overnight bags; the rest of the luggage would have to stay behind in the car’s trunk, laptops safely stored at the Visitor’s Center.

Deep Cove Charters

Doubtful Sound is so isolated that it’s necessary to take a 45-minute boat trip across beautiful Manapouri Lake and then at West Arm board a small van for the 45 minute trip over Wilmot Pass, straight through the rainforest. The scenery is spectacular, flora and birdlife abundant.

View from the stern of the Seafinn. photo by Cindy Bigras.
View from the stern of the Seafinn. photo by Cindy Bigras.

The driver, John, who turned out to be our captain, stopped a few times to show us staggering views of the sound from the winding road. He also talked about the lush vegetation of beech trees and lichen to name a few.

The Seafinn, a two-deck, 60-foot steel boat, was waiting when we arrived at Deep Cove. It has several cabins which comfortably sleep couples and also some twin bunks. The private cabins are designed for sleeping, not socializing.

That happens above in the lounge, dining area, and two viewing decks. There is a full kitchenette and two bathrooms on deck. You won’t find electrical outlets, wifi, or cell phone service. Ah, pure bliss.

Travel is about the people you meet. The shared experiences and glimpses into each others’ lives. Fortunately, Deep Cove Charters is all about that, too.

We were twelve strangers tentatively introducing ourselves as if it were the first day of summer camp. It seems that travelers who choose this type of experience are curious, interesting, and open-minded.

The Seafinn
The sturdy steel-hulled Seafinn, our home in Doubtful Sound.

Locals Chris and Diane Lemin have offered cruises in Doubtful Sound since 1991. For several years these were mainly day trips with fishing, diving and hunting. It is only in the last eight years that they began offering overnight cruises.

They also offer small group charters to other fiords for anywhere between 5-9 days. Their boat is ideal for couples or singles – if you’re traveling with children or require special assistance such as a wheelchair, you will be better served with the larger Real Journeys Cruises which operate throughout the country and have an excellent reputation.

The boats they use are larger, but then, you lose the intimacy that we cherished on our voyage.

Spray of the Waterfalls

As we began our excursion the clouds lifted and a blue sky appeared; John led the Seafinn in and out of coves showing us how the boat’s sophisticated GPS system works. The boat was small enough that we could nestle up close to cliff walls and actually feel the spray of waterfalls, all of which were pouring water from on high.

Cod fresh from the Tasman Sea. photo by Cindy Bigras.
Cod fresh from the Tasman Sea. Voila! Dinner for 12!

Doubtful Sound is deep – 421 meters – and is surrounded by lush, haunting mountains. It took ice ages, volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers to form these majestic fiords over millions of years. At every turn you’re surrounded by nature’s embrace and teeming life.

There are limits on the number of boats that can operate in these waters; Deep Cove Charters and Real Journeys are the only boats that can operate every day of the year. Because of this, it is entirely possible that you won’t see another boat once you set off.

Unless of course, you decide to get into the water yourself with one of Seafinn’s kayaks. Depending on the weather, you may be able to dive in and take a refreshing swim, too!

Twenty-something First Mate Tracy prepared lunch in the kitchenette as our attention turned to the landscape unfolding all around. An elegant spread of rock lobster, and salad was put before us. We learned that the lobster had been harvested that morning from the traps John had laid out in the sound.

Binoculars and sunscreen were passed around, It wasn’t long before dolphins appeared and gave us a thrilling show chasing in the boat’s wake. Dozens of bottlenose dolphins were jumping, twirling, and splashing on all sides of the boat.

Those of us who ventured out on the bow felt a windy thrill and water splashing as these creatures frolicked just ten feet away. They followed us for nearly an hour as we headed out to the Tasman Sea. En route, we saw shy penguins and sunning seals. Seagulls and albatross soared overhead.

Waterfall in Doubtful Sound. photo by Cindy Bigras.
Waterfall in Doubtful Sound. photo by Cindy Bigras.

Catching Cod for Dinner

John stopped the boat and with a twinkle in his eye invited us to the back deck where he prepared fishing rods. This wasn’t just entertainment…this was dinner preparation. A haul of cod, tarakihi, and trumpeter fish was later deftly prepared by John, the cod in the oven and the tarakihi as delicate sushi.

The group talked late into the night around the dinner table, helping ourselves to hot water on the stove and wine in the fridge. Some of the others were touring New Zealand in rented campervans, some were staying in home exchanges, and another kiwi couple on their first tour of Doubtful Sound. The intimate setting of the cozy cabin brought out stories to share and memories to be made.

Goodnight Moon and Stars

Alone on deck after the others had gone to sleep, I gazed up at the heavens. Aided by vast wilderness, bright stars, and the music of silence, my imagination conjured up night creatures peeking down from treetops, underworld spirits floating upward and perhaps Maori flutes in the distance. Lands untouched by human intervention possess a spiritual essence and it was all there in mysterious Doubtful Sound.

Find out how you can cruise Doubtful Sound

Official web site of New Zealand Tourism

Deep Cove Charters

Manapouri Lodging Options
Kepler Mountain View B&B
Cathedral Peaks B&B

Dining Nearby

Redcliff Café; 12 Mokonui Street; Te Anau – try this for a cozy fireside meal while in the area. Chances are some of the diners sitting at the next table will become your friends on your cruise the next day, as happened to us!

Charter Companies in Doubtful Sound
Real Journeys Charters

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