Not a Doubt about Doubtful Sound

For a long time I’ve been wanting to write about the 20 hours I spent with my family on a beautiful boat in an insanely remote part of New Zealand, one I would highly recommend you visit if the chance ever comes your way: Doubtful Sound. Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos that capture this bewilderingly beautiful place, but I’ll do my best to bring it to life for you in words.

My family traveled to New Zealand to visit my younger brother, who was spending the semester studying at the University of Otago, in Dunedin. Dunedin is located on the South Island, and we spent our entire trip traversing the island in a big loop. Towards the end of our journey, we embarked on an overnight cruise of Doubtful Sound- and it was no ordinary cruise.

Doubtful Sound is so remote that to say “there’s no easy way to get there” is an understatement. We drove to a port and left our car in the car park. We took a boat ride to a remote little terminal, where we boarded buses and took a lengthy bus ride to the dock where our cruise would begin. So, nearly two hours of journeying to get to the start of our journey.

When we were finally aboard the Fiordland Navigator, operated by Real Journeys,  we saw an unusual itinerary laid out for us. Not only did the cruise include a naturalist on board to provide tons of insight about the fiord’s wildlife, but there were awesome activities to enjoy. This sounds like I’m describing a bad Carnival cruise, right? I don’t mean bingo and lounge singing. I mean kayaking and visiting a fur seal colony on the Tasman Sea.

Recipe for an ideal trip.

When we boarded the ship, we first checked out our accommodations. Tiny AF for a family of four, but suitable for the night. The close quarters and uncomfortable beds didn’t matter much given the wonder we had in store.

Our cozy room

Once we were settled in, we headed to the top deck to check out the view. Though it was rainy and gloomy, as is typical of Fiordland in fall, we were amazed to find dolphins playing in the surf of our ship! Several huge dolphins were frolicking alongside us, and it was a total delight to watch.


Back inside the dining area, we played cards and met a shy British woman who was taking six months off from real life to travel through Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii, spending two months in each. Pretty amazing, right? She’d never been kayaking before and joined us for the excursion, sporting a knit unicorn hat. Gotta love making new friends while you travel!

No photos from kayaking, alas, but let it be known that it is totally awe-inspiring to paddle through enormous fiords in virtual solitude (if you can ignore the fleet of 19 other people paddling in your wake), regardless of how gray the day may be. I raced ahead of our guide and got in trouble for it a few times, but how can you not just want to explore and drink it all in, feasting your eyes and saving up that beauty for later? Apparently only four boats operate on Doubtful Sound, so it’s incredibly peaceful and seems untouched by humans. You feel lucky to be there.

Once we returned to the ship, we quickly chose to depart again…for a swim. In the 13 degree (Celsius) water. Invigorating!

Chilled to the bone, we desperately tried to restore warmth to our system by bundling up and checking out a fur seal colony on the Tasman Sea. Then of course, excellent wine and delicious, authentic New Zealand food.

The following morning, it felt far harder to leave the Navi than it should have. We hadn’t even been on the boat for 24 hours, but it still didn’t feel like a long enough stay! We were grateful to conclude our time on board with something special: “The Sound of Silence,” conducted by the ship’s naturalist. It felt gimmicky at first, sure, but when they turned off the engine, refused to let anyone move around, and just let the silence settle all around us for a full 5 minutes, it was pretty amazing. It’s just you and the nature, all around you, for miles.

So that was that. 20 hours in Doubtful Sound, and not a doubt in my mind that it’s a spectacular gem on this Earth. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it.

Also worth mentioning: Real Journeys is a pretty amazing company. They’re family-owned and really care about people and conservation. While in Te Anau, we went on a Real Journeys tour of the glowworm caves, which was pretty fantastic too. Yelp review here. I’d highly recommend Real Journeys if you’re ever traveling in New Zealand! You can learn more about the company here.

For more on my New Zealand travels, check out this post about the city of Christchurch.