Trip Report: Wanaka, Queenstown, and Doubtful Sound

This is part 9 in a series about my November 2016 trip to New Zealand, booked off a $215 mistake fare.

My trip to New Zealand had five segments, and the only one that wasn’t particularly good was my time in the Queenstown area.  There were three reasons: (1) I had a very disappointing stay at the Doubletree Queenstown, which will get its own post; (2) spending a day going to and riding around Doubtful Sound ended up not being a waste of a day; (3) the trip back from Doubtful Sound involved a break down (literal, of a bus) and a break down (more metaphoric) as election returns came in. In this post, I’ll cover the trip from Mount Cook Village to Wanaka and Queenstown, my short stay in Wanaka, my trip to Doubtful Sound, and my few hours in Queenstown itself (which were actually spent above the town).

After my short morning hike, I was on the road from Mount Cook Village by 9:45.  I hit the town of Twizel at around 10:30, after pretty much retracing the road I’d come up on.  It was time for my first gas refill of the trip, and, oof, it was expensive  – 75 NZD-  about $52 – for a little more than half a tank.  I stopped at a small supermarket in town and picked up some more snacks and caffeine for my day of driving, before finding a cute little café, the Musterers Hut, for a yummy breakfast and flat white.

Lake Wanaka

Back on the road, it was about an hour and forty minutes to Wanaka, which was one of the nicer drives of the trip – very green through winding valleys. Wanaka  is a resort town perched on the edge of the very pretty Lake Wanaka.  It’s a great base for excursions – particularly on the lake in summer or for snow activity in the winter.   The town itself is pretty small, though, with less than 8,000 residents.   I had thought about spending a night there, but from talking to people it seemed that I should choose either Queenstown or Wanaka, and not do both on a relatively short trip.  But it was still on the way to Queenstown from Mount Cook, so I stopped for lunch and a walk around town.

Downtown Wanaka

I had expected to find more galleries and shops, and a generally more interesting town.  It was actually very difficult to find parking in one of the lots along the lake, and it was fairly chilly.  But I walked the whole “downtown” in about fifteen minutes before finding what turned out to be a quite delicious lunch, the daily special which was an open-faced lamb flatbread, at Relishes Café, sitting at one of its outdoor tables facing the water.

Lunch at Relishes Cafe, Wanaka

Then it was back in a car for the hour drive from Wanaka to Queenstown.  Despite the short length, it was the most anxiety-filled drive of my trip.  While I guess it was pretty, you basically drive all the way up some mountains on very curvy roads, then back down them on equally curvy roads, without any guardrails. I was driving around the speed limit, but people were still tailgating me around tight curves where I felt like I would lose control of my car at any minute.  The drizzle that started on my way down had me thinking about losing control and plummeting to my death, not the breathtaking view.   But an hour later, I hit the Doubletree, after going through some pretty rough traffic due to the fact that the bridge from the road to Queenstown to the area where the Hilton/Doubletree complex is is in the process of being replaced.

That first night I had originally planned on going into Queenstown, but the rain was pretty heavy, and I didn’t want to drive or take the water taxi.  So instead I just ate at the pub on property, which was the only restaurant open between the Hilton and Doubletree combined. (Explained more later)

The next day, I had an early departure for Doubtful Sound.  Nearly everyone I spoke to told me I needed to go to either Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound while in the Queenstown area.  Basically, they are two fjords in the middle of nowhere on the Tasman Sea, where you can cruise by day or overnight, or kayak.  You can spend a night en route to either in the town of Te Anau or do a full day tour.  It’s a long drive to do on your own, so I decided the daytrip would be better – though the whole thing sounded pretty boring to me, I made the mistake of listening to everyone who insisted it’s a must do. For Milford Sound it’s a 4-5 hour drive each way for a 3 hour boat ride; for Doubtful Sound, it’s a 2 hour drive, followed by 1 hour boat, and then another 1 hour drive.  Doubtful Sound is much larger, and is supposedly more pure as it’s more isolated, and there are fewer tour operators there – which results in higher prices.  Nonetheless, breaking up the 4 hour bus sounded better to me.

Boat #1:  Manapouri to the West Arm

The two operators for Doubtful Sound daytrips are Real Journeys and their “low-cost” sister Go Orange.  Neither are cheap.  My full day trip to Doubtful on Go Orange, including a box lunch, cost over $200 (in US Dollars).  Pickup was at 6:50am at the Z Petrol station about halfway between the Doubletree and the town of Queenstown, as Go Orange doesn’t come to the Hilton or Doubletree.  I called the company the day before to try and figure out where I was supposed to park, and got unhelpful information, but found a street not far from the random gas station, 10 minutes away from the hotel.  I was a bit worried as the sign said 10 hour parking only but I didn’t really have any choice.

The first bus ride was on a standard coach bus, that made a few more pickups, before a two-hour drive to Te Anau.  The ride was pretty, and the driver narrated much of the way.  I hadn’t realized that the bus would be a combination of passengers for both Milford and Doubtful Sound, so when we got to the town of Te Anau, four of us were dropped off and told to wait on the side of the road for another bus.  (I did find a pay toilet on that short stop.)  One thing I noted is that there were lots of Asian tourists on the Milford trip, but none on the Doubtful trip.

That second bus – a little jankier — made a few stops at hotels in Te Anau before continuing only about 10 minutes outside of town to a small structure by a dock in the town of Manapouri, where we had to go inside and collect boarding cards for the ferry across Lake Manapouri.  (I had also been handed my box lunch on bus #2.)  We waited there a bit longer for a 10am ferry, joined by people who had driven themselves,and there was a snack bar, before boarding a ferry-like, fairly large and modern boat, complete with snack bar, that would take us across the Lake.  I started out on the top deck of the boat, but it got too cold, even with my hat and gloves, so I went back into the main interior cabin for the remainder of the one hour trip.

Crossing Lake Manapouri

Crossing Lake Manapouri

As we got off the boat, people from overnight Doubtful Sound trips were waiting to board. Typically, the daytrip includes a tour of the Manapouri power station, which fuels most of the South Island, but apparently it’s been closed to tours for a few months.  There was a visitors’ center in Manapouri where we had one last bathroom stop, before we boarded the final bus – a very basic bus with large glass windows, and umbrellas at each seat, which would essentially drive us out of civilization-  I would have no cellphone reception until the boat back, which kept me from obsessively checking the internet on Election Day back home.

Bus #2: Western Arm to Doubtful Sound

At this point, I realized  our driver was joined by his wife and infant child – who apparently was making his/her maiden Doubtful journey.  The driver narrated the journey as he drove us through what seemed to be untouched wilderness, with tons of waterfalls as we descended into the valley.  I attempted to take some shots through the windows of the bus, but the reflection got in the way. We did pull off at one insane viewpoint, though, where I got some shots of the fjord below, and also got up close to some keas – a bird unique to New Zealand.

Hey keas

On the last ground leg to Doubtful Sound

About an hour in, we reached the landing for the next (and final) boat, which would take us around Doubtful Sound.  The group was a mix of American, British, Australian, and random European (I heard some German) tourists, mostly middle-aged couples, about 20 people in all.  It was a relatively small boat, with an upper deck that was far too windy for me, but where a lot of people stayed the whole time. I mostly was inside the lower deck, which had about bench and table seating, an area with coffee, and the captain.

On the sound

It was so very boring.  Maybe I can’t appreciate nature, but I didn’t actually find the views so spectacular – certainly not three hours’ worth.  It reminded me of my whale cruise in Seward, Alaska, which I equally found boring (and I think had better scenery).  I had my Kindle and sat inside and read most of the time.  There were some nice waterfalls, and it was cool how unspoiled things were, but, meh.  There were a few birds and penguins, as well.  I had my box lunch I had pre-ordered which was surprisingly hearty, with a small thing of hummus, cheese, bread, chicken on a salad, salad dressing, nuts, cake, an apple, and a fruit drink.

Doubtful Sound box lunch

More scenes from Doubtful Sound

After three hours, we repeated the process in reverse, sort of.  As cell reception came back on the ferry back to Te Anau, I got the pit in my stomach as polls in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina showed very bad things a-comin’.  As someone whose livelihood is tied to the election results, this was particularly rough.

It got rougher.  Back in Te Anau, they first told people who were waiting to go back to Queenstown to just wait 15 minutes for the bus that would take us back (presumably a bus that was coming by on its way from Milford Sound).  So as I watched the news and cried, I sat on the floor of the building there.  Then they said that the bus broke down, so we had to wait another hour for a different bus.  Just what you want as you are freaking out over the election results.  I called home and commiserated with my parents, convinced the election meant I needed to quit my job immediately and what would I do about my mortgage.  Then the Go Orange people told me that the new bus wouldn’t drop me off where I had been picked up, but they *insisted* it was actually going to be closer to where my car was, though I had pretty good confidence in my map-reading abilities.

After one of the longest hours of my life, the new bus came and four of us squeezed on.  Sure enough, the bus dropped me about a 15 minute walk on a dark road from my car.   I had planned to do dinner in downtown Queenstown that night but I was so depressed I just wanted to get back to my hotel and grab a Xanax.  So I had dinner at the hotel pub again.

I was melodramatic that evening and wasn’t sure if I’d go on my prepaid zipline adventure the following morning, but I rallied and did. Queenstown is the adventure sports capital of the world, with bungee, turbo jet boating, ziplining, etc., and in retrospect I wish I’d done kayaking or something instead of Doubtful Sound.  But with a flight leaving at 1pm up to Auckland, I had time for one morning activity.   I purchased my zipline tickets at Bookme.co.nz, a website that offers discounted activities throughout New Zealand, with its best discounts last minute for times that may not otherwise fill up.  The zipline I purchased was with Ziptrek, which operates at the top of the Queenstown Skyline Gondola – meaning you also have to purchase a ticket to ride the gondola.  There was no line for the gondola when I went, shortly after opening, and the gondola ride itself is quite pretty (though I spent it on a call for work discussing the impact of the election the night before – yay!)

Riding the Gondola up

There are a ton of activities at the top of the Gondola, including bungee jumping, luge, mountain biking, and walking tracks.  There’s also a few different restaurant options, and there are nighttime stargazing packages as well.  The zipline was awesome.  Unfortunately I didn’t get video on the last one which was actually by far the prettiest – but you can check out some of it out at the Youtube links below.

Atop the Skyline Gondola summit, Luge tracks



And then it was off to the airport for the trip back to the North Island.

One thought on “Trip Report: Wanaka, Queenstown, and Doubtful Sound

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