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Natural Mystery

For an excellent cinematic introduction to the greater Fiordland region - much of which you will never lay eyes on otherwise - make sure you see Fiordland on Film - Ata Whenua, a stunning and unforgettable cinematic journey. See it at Fiordland Cinema, 7 The Lane, Te Anau (tel. 03/249-9089; www.fiordlandcinema.co.nz); screening times are on the hour 9am to 9pm in summer and 4 to 7pm in winter (closed Dec 25). It costs NZ$10 for adults, NZ$5 children 5 to 15.

Exploring Te Anau & the Sounds

Milford and Doubtful sounds are the primary draws of this area, and in Te Anau you'll discover a number of options for exploring one or both. You can drive, fly, or take a coach to Milford Sound from Te Anau, and you can fly over or take a scenic cruise through Doubtful Sound.

You'll quickly discover that people in Te Anau are reluctant to recommend one sound or one excursion above another, so explore the choices carefully. Consider your available time and the amount of money you want to spend. My advice would be to drive to Milford and, if you can, overnight on one of the boats; then, if you're still keen to see Doubtful and Dusky sounds, take the 40-minute flight. Not only does this take just a fraction of the cruise time, but you also get a thrilling perspective of otherwise inaccessible areas. Either way, don't try to see everything in 1 day. It is definitely worth staying in this area for 2 to 3 days if you can.

Air Fiordland, Manapouri Airport, Te Anau (tel. 0800/107-505 in NZ, or 03/249-6720; www.airfiordland.com), has several Milford Sound flight packages, some combining cruise options, plus an excellent 40-minute flight over Doubtful Sound.

Southern Lakes Helicopters, 79 Lakefront Drive (tel. 0508/249-7167 in NZ, or 03/249-7167; www.southernlakeshelicopters.co.nz), has a 50-minute flight over Doubtful Sound that passes soaring peaks and waterfalls. The highlight is the flight into Campbell's Kingdom, which is accessible only by helicopter. Call for prices of all their flights. Fiordland Helicopters, Te Anau Airport (tel. 03/249-7575; www.fiordlandhelicopters.co.nz), offers trips that range from 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. It's a little cheaper than Southern Lakes, but it's based farther out of town.

If a full-day bus tour (from Te Anau) is more your style, join the Milford Sound Day Tour run by Great Sights (tel. 0800/744-487 in NZ; www.greatsights.co.nz). It runs daily, departing 10:15am from Te Anau Travel Centre and returning at 5:15pm. It costs NZ$153 for adults and NZ$75 for children ages 5 to 14. You can include lunch for an extra NZ$15 to NZ$30 per person. You'll travel in a glass-topped coach, which gives you great views on the road to Milford Sound. Once there you board the boat for a 1 3/4-hour cruise of the sound. Another good option is the popular Milford Sound Barbecue Bus  (tel. 0800/421-045; www.milford.net.nz), which departs from either Queenstown or Te Anau. It's a smaller group tour and includes a classic barbecue lunch in spectacular Hollyford Valley rather than on the cruise boats. It links with the 2pm Milford Sound cruise, which is the off-peak and therefore less crowded time; and if you like you can fly back to Queenstown. From Te Anau to Milford and back to Te Anau, it costs NZ$155 for adults and NZ$95 for children ages 4 to 14.

Doubtful Sounds

Doubtful Sound makes an idyllic day excursion from Lake Manapouri. At 21m (69 ft.), it's the deepest of the fiords. Filled with ancient rainforest, cascading waterfalls, towering peaks, and abundant wildlife, it's an unforgettable experience. An air of complete silence, broken only by birdcall, adds to the mystery.

Doubtful Sound is 10 times bigger than Milford, and although it can't boast Mitre Peak, its still waters mirror 1,200m (3,900-ft.) Commander Peak. Another difference between the two sounds is that you always know Milford is close to civilization because of the buzz of aircraft going to and from the airstrip and the multitude of buses that make their way there on a daily basis. Doubtful is much more remote.

There's no way to get to Doubtful Sound on your own. Real Journeys transports visitors from Manapouri, then takes a launch trip to the West Arm, followed by a 20km (12-mile) coach trip to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound. The coach takes you up and over Wilmot Pass, 662m (2,171 ft.) above sea level, stopping on the way to visit Manapouri Power Station, where you spiral 225 eerie meters (750 ft.) downward to view the seven immense underground turbines. A second launch then takes you out into the sound, and if you're lucky, you'll spot the resident pod of 60 or more dolphins, fur seals, and rare crested penguins. You'll get close enough to waterfalls to feel the spray, and you'll be able to savor total silence when the captain shuts off the engine.

Real Journey's Doubtful Sound day excursions use a modern, purpose-built catamaran, Patea Explorer. It carries 150 passengers over two decks and departs daily from Manapouri with connecting coaches from Queenstown or Te Anau. Visitors can self-drive from Queenstown in 2 1/2 hours and from Te Anau in 40 minutes. Reservations are essential. From Manapouri, the Wilderness trip costs NZ$198 to NZ$265 for adults (price depends on time and season), NZ$65 for children ages 5 to 14. From Te Anau, add about NZ$25, and about NZ$75 from Queenstown. Preordered picnic lunches start at NZ$17. From September to May, Real Journeys offers overnight cruises on the Fiordland Navigator. Prices vary depending on the season, starting at NZ$473 for an off-peak cruise from Manapouri; children's fares start at NZ$237.

A Sound Difference

Real Journey's Doubtful Sound cruise is a longer cruise than the Milford Sound option and much more remote. You'll see far fewer people at Doubtful - and given that there are around 100 buses a day going into Milford, that says a lot. Milford Sound is more dramatic and awe-inspiring, but Doubtful is a lot more untouched and remote. You're also far more likely to see wildlife at Doubtful - not that the dolphins are on the payroll! The cruise has English-only commentary and two styles of picnic lunches are available for purchase.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.