It’s a brisk early morning in mid-May, and I am cruising through stunning Doubtful Sound, in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, when suddenly our 131-foot sailing vessel, the Fiordland Navigator, is joined by a pod of bottlenose dolphins.
For the next 10 to 15 minutes the dolphins swim with us, playing in our wake and jumping from the water in that graceful, inimitable way that dolphins do. Below, the dark water of this glacier-carved landscape passes beneath the boat. Around us, sheer green mountains rise out of the sound, the highest among them cresting at 5,800 feet.
Doubtful Sound — isolated, undeveloped and splendid — is indeed one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, I tell myself.
Our encounter with those bottlenose dolphins came as the Fiordland Navigator was making its way back to the dock following a one-night cruise through the sound. The cruise, which is offered by the New Zealand South Island tour operator Real Journeys from September through May, lasts 24 hours, and that includes the two-hour journey each way to the Doubtful Sound boat launch from the excursion’s base in the small town of Manapouri.
The Fiordland Navigator sleeps 72 for its overnight Doubtful Sound trips. Photo Credit: Robert Silk
Fortunately, the commute to the launch is a worthwhile experience in its own right. An hour-long catamaran ride across Lake Manapouri passes through Fiordland National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the lake’s smattering of islands as well as the surrounding mountains serves as a sort of preview of Doubtful Sound itself.
From the lake, a 45-minute bus ride on a gravel road passes through more undeveloped landscape as it crosses the 2,200-foot Wilmot Pass, offering striking views of the sound below.
Once aboard the Fiordland Navigator, we made way at 11 knots, covering the length of the 24-mile sound and reaching the edge of the Tasman Sea in a few hours. Doubtful Sound is 10 times as large as the more famous and more visited Milford Sound to its north, and along the way I took in the surrounding peaks and rain forest as the ship’s naturalist explained the geological and human history of the area.
We reached the far point of our journey at the Nee Islets, where New Zealand fur seals rested along its rocky surface.
After that, we retreated inland toward our evening’s resting place on an offshoot of the sound called Crooked Arm. Waterfalls, which on rainy days can fill the surrounding mountains, were largely absent as the area had been going through an unusual May dry spell.
Shortly before sunset, I joined perhaps 25 other cruise passengers on a kayak excursion near the shoreline. Being right on the water offered a more intimate perspective to Doubtful Sound. I wished the light would linger awhile longer.
The Fiordland Navigator itself is comfortable, but I’d call it more functional than luxurious. The vessel sleeps 72, including 16 quad bunks with shared bathroom. My private cabin had its own shower but offered just enough space to fit the bed and a nightstand. The vessel doesn’t have TV or WiFi.
It does, however, serve up plenty of food. Dinner consisted of an expansive buffet featuring, among other items, New Zealand green-lipped mussel, a lamb and beef carving station and plenty of other main courses, as well as vegetables, salads and several dessert choices. Alcoholic beverages were on sale at a stocked bar.
Breakfast was also offered in the form of a buffet and was served in the predawn hour — all the better so that we were ready with our cameras for the spectacular lighting as the sun rose over our nook in Crooked Arm.
Overnight cruises on the Fiordland Navigator start at about $320 per adult in a shared twin cabin. Bookings are commissionable. Visit the Real Journeys website for more information.
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