If you want to experience the remote beauty of Fiordland without the numbers of people you’ll see on the Milford Sound cruises then Lake Manapouri will appeal. It’s just over two hour’s driving from Queenstown. The small township itself is nothing remarkable but carry on round to Pearl Harbour and join a cruise on the lake, considered by many to be New Zealand’s most beautiful.
There are 35 islands dotted around the lake, which is almost encircled by high mountains, often with their high peaks thrust into the cloud. Deep dense native forest drops to the lake front and, apart from Manapouri township, there is almost no settlement around its shores. This place is hauntingly beautiful – if the weather is fine the water is dark blue, fringed by emerald green bush. If not, the water is steely grey, tossed by whitecaps, and the mountains stand smothered in cloud, drenched by high waterfalls and broken by dark, eerie valleys.
Most cruises end up at West Arm, the site of New Zealand’s most contentious hydro-electric scheme. Back in the late 1950s a proposal was made to raise the level of the lake by 30 metres, combining it with neighbouring Lake Te Anau, and using the resulting super-lake to generate power for the proposed aluminium smelter at Tiwai. Following a huge environmental protest through the 1960s this plan was eventually squashed but a smaller underground hydro station was constructed at West Arm where water from Lake Manapouri was harnessed through a tail race under the mountains and sent out to sea through Doubtful Sound.
Some cruises allow you to follow that story to its end where at West Arm you can choose to do a tour of the underground power station. Here a coach will take you down a two kilometre spiral underground tunnel to the power house deep below lake level. or you can catch another coach across the Wilmot Pass to drop down to sea level at Deep Cove where you can join a cruise on Doubtful Sound. This stunning waterway of deep fiords and soaring mountains winds its way out to the Tasman Sea, providing you with some of the most beautiful scenery in New Zealand. Unlike Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is quiet, remote, brooding and almost empty of other boats. There are no public roads to Doubtful Sound. It’s a pristine wilderness well worth the effort to visit.