Milford Sound vs Doubtful Sound – Which is better?

21 June 2019

Fiordland National Park is one of the most loved national parks in New Zealand. Every year thousands of tourists travel to this remote region in search of stunning views and breath-taking scenery. If you’re heading to the beautiful South Island and are looking for some great places to see, Milford and Doubtful Sound have likely appeared on your to-do list! This raises the age-old question of “which is better – Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound?”

The answer isn’t exactly straight forward, and there are a few things you’ll need to consider before making your choice. So keep reading to learn how these popular New Zealand destinations compare! Which will you choose?

Where are Milford and Doubtful Sound?

Both Milford and Doubtful Sound are located in Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island. Milford Sound sits to the north of Fiordland and is the last fiord in the national park. Doubtful Sound, on the other hand, is located much further south and is roughly in the middle of Fiordland National Park.

Milford Sound is easily the most visited place in Fiordland National Park and arguably the most beautiful. However, many visitors are shocked to find out that Fiordland National Park itself is actually home to not one, but 15 glacier-carved fiords! Many of these are far too remote to visit on a tour and for the most part, remain untouched by tourism.

What’s the weather like in Milford and Doubtful Sound?

Despite being so close to each other, both fiords have very different climates. Both are famously unpredictable but Milford Sound receives much more rain than Doubtful Sound. (Don’t worry, Milford is just as beautiful in the rain)!

On average Milford receives around 7 metres of rain per year whereas Doubtful Sound only gets about a third of that. Interestingly though, both have around 200 rainy days per year on average! So when it rains in Milford, it RAINS! All of this rain is one of the many reasons the region is so spectacular as it comes alive with waterfalls during and after the rain.

Both fiords see snow in the winter months but temperatures on the ground are usually too warm for it to hang around. But that isn’t the case for the mountains surrounding you, they will be wearing a thick blanket of snow for around six months a year.

How do you get to Milford & Doubtful Sound?

Milford

Milford Sound is the only fiord in the national park that has direct road access. In fact, getting to Milford Sound is very easy and there are a few transport options available. The first and most convenient is via coach.

Our comfortable coaches can get you to Milford Sound from the two closest towns, Queenstown or Te Anau. The journey only takes four hours from Queenstown and two hours from Te Anau, stopping along the way at all the most beautiful attractions. We also provide live commentary and FREE WiFi for the first half of the journey – the WiFi capabilities drop off not far after Te Anau for everyone.

The next option is to drive yourself. You’ll need your own vehicle but with Milford’s well-maintained road it’s a great option. Be sure to read up on all the best stops on the road to Milford Sound before embarking on your trip. This way, you won’t miss any of the stunning places to stop. Always drive safely, the road is windy and can be icy during the winter months!

The third option (and easily the most exciting) is to fly to Milford Sound. This is a very unique and much faster way to get there. Our Milford cruises can be paired with a coach ride and flight giving you the chance to enjoy Milford from the ground, sea, and air – the ultimate Milford experience! A flight to Milford Sound only takes around 30-40 minutes from Queenstown and we take the most scenic route!

Doubtful

Getting to Doubtful Sound isn’t as easy as Milford Sound. In fact, the journey is a little more complicated and can only be done on a guided tour or scenic flight. The reason? There is no direct road to Doubtful Sound and the journey by bus requires a ferry across Lake Manapouri.

On a tour, you can reach the fiord in around four hours from Queenstown and two hours from Te Anau. Although this time is very similar to Milford Sound the prices certainly aren’t. In fact, a tour to Doubtful Sound will cost a lot more than Milford Sound despite the similar travel times.

You can take a scenic flight to Doubtful Sound, however, you can’t land in the fiord like you can in Milford Sound. Instead, you’ll simply fly to the town of Manapouri from Queenstown and begin your ferry/coach journey from there.

What experiences are on offer?

Milford Sound

Milford Sound offers the widest range of experiences out of the two fiords. This makes Milford an easy front runner for those who love to personalise their experience and make it one the whole family will love.

Here are some of the things you can do in Milford Sound:

Day cruises

The most popular way to explore Milford Sound is on a cruise. There are so many day cruise options to suit everyone’s budget and interests. We offer four different cruise options in Milford Sound – Scenic Cruise, Nature Cruise, Encounter Nature Cruise and our Discover More cruise. All cruises range in duration and cater to the specific interests of our guests. And the fun doesn’t end there, all of our cruises can be paired with the other experiences below!

Helicopter/plane rides

A scenic flight in Milford Sound is a great way to explore Fiordland from a different perspective. Milford has its own airport and all flights tour around Milford Sound before landing. The best part is that you can choose between a helicopter or plane and make this adventure one you’ll remember!

Milford Underwater Observatory

Milford Sound has its own Underwater Observatory and we own and operate it! This means we can take you out on a cruise and make a short stop along the way so you can see Milford Sound from ten metres below the surface! From the underwater viewing deck you can learn about Milord’s unique underwater habitat and even see the rare black coral!

Kayaking

From a kayak, you can gauge Milford’s true size as you paddle alongside its sheer cliffs. Our kayaking tours leave from Milford Underwater Observatory deep in Milford Sound in Harrisons Cove. We’ve also made kayaking easier with our specialised lowering platform that makes getting in and out of your kayak a breeze! Kayaking in Milford is an experience for the whole family.

Stay overnight

The only thing better than seeing Milford Sound for the first time is seeing it at sunrise or sunset. To do this you’ll need to stay the night. Luckily Milford Sound is home to a gorgeous lodge. The Milford Lodge offers a range of accommodation options from powered campsites to luxury apartments. The lodge is only a  five minute walk from Milford Sound’s foreshore and the only accommodation option available in the whole area.

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound doesn’t offer as many experiences as Milford Sound, however, there are still some great options:

Cruises

Like Milford, exploring Doubtful Sound is most commonly done on a cruise. Taking a boat cruise is generally the best way to see somewhere as remote as Doubtful Sound as you can get up close and personal with the incredible landscape! In saying that, there’s only one cruise option available in Doubtful, which might not be as exciting but it certainly makes choosing a cruise much easier!

Kayaking

Kayaking in Doubtful Sound is super popular and as mentioned above, is a great way to take in the sheer size of Fiordland National Park.

Night cruises

Because of Doubtful Sound’s remote location it’s common for travellers to turn their day trip into an overnight cruise. It not only gives you more time in Doubtful Sound but it also breaks up the long journey! An overnight cruise is a perfect way to avoid the crowds and see the fiord with almost no one around. However, they aren’t cheap so be sure to start saving early!

How do the experiences compare?

Even though both Milford and Doubtful Sound are in Fiordland National Park the experience you’ll have in each will be totally different.

Doubtful Sound is a rather untouched paradise that’s off the beaten path. It’s an adventurous journey and one you’ll share with fewer people. It’s also relatively more expensive than Milford and offers fewer options when it comes to activities and cruises in the fiord – but you’ll still be blown away! Because of this, it can be a bit harder to personalise your tour as you’re more constrained by a guided tour.

Visiting Milford Sound lets you cross off the bucket list place that’s talked about all around the world. With more infrastructure than Doubtful, it’s quite convenient for visitors – there’s accommodation, a couple of cafes, a campground and as we’ve mentioned, you can drive yourself! Visitors are welcome to spend as much time as they’d like in Milford. Prices are also more manageable for the everyday traveller, so it’s potentially a better place to come to with a larger group. Driving to Milford, whether by coach or in your own vehicle, is spectacular. We reckon this part of the journey is just as amazing as the cruise itself. As we’ve mentioned, there’s a variety of experiences you can do in Milford, so personalise it to get the most out of the trip that you can. Yes, Milford Sound is a lot busier than Doubtful Sound but they didn’t build a road through some of the harshest terrain in New Zealand for nothing – it is breathtakingly beautiful and worth the journey!

So there you have it! If you’re still torn between travelling to Milford or Doubtful Sound, why not do both? New Zealand has so many incredible places to explore. Our advice? Try and see as much of it as time and your wallet will allow! If you choose to come to Milford Sound, jump on one of our day cruises or coach trips! We would love to show you around our favourite slice of Aotearoa.

Want to read more about Milford Sound? Check out some more of our blog posts below:

What’s the weather like in Milford Sound?

7 reasons why Southern Discoveries is the best Milford Sound cruise company

Six unmissable sights on a Milford Sound cruise

How to prepare for a Milford Sound bus trip

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