Fiordland may not be a traditional summer getaway but it has charms aplenty for holidaymakers looking for more than just another sandy beach.
Homer Saddle nature walk
Many Fiordland visitors drive straight through the Homer Tunnel, hell-bent on getting to Milford Sound to catch a boat. But pause on the Te Anau side of the tunnel along State Highway 94, take in the splendour of the Darran Mountains, read about the tunnel workers who lost their lives, and follow the short-walk track. Nature's version of the Chelsea Flower Show, it includes the Mt Cook lily (actually a giant buttercup), mountain daisies and tiny native orchids.
For more intrepid travellers, a day-walk up to the 1410m Gertrude Saddle will place them on top of the world. For a modest fee, a stay in the New Zealand Alpine Club's Homer Hut in the upper Hollyford Valley will ensure an early start and more time to enjoy the panoramic views. Gertrude is a cirque or deep bowl-shaped hollow, formed by ancient glaciers. It is at its charming best in summer when dense alpine herb fields burst into flower. Other rewards are staring down the barrel of Gulliver Valley, all the way to Milford Sound, and the chance of seeing or hearing a rock wren, New Zealand's only true alpine bird, which thrives in the alps as high as 2400m.
The construction of the controversial Manapouri power scheme in the 1970s also opened up new frontiers of tramping. The Borland Rd follows the lines of pylons that criss-cross the landscape, feeding electricity to Bluff's aluminium smelter. Pass the Borland Lodge and follow the gravel road up the 1000m-high Borland Saddle. From the lookout, take in the Hunter Mountains, where moa thrived and giant eagles soared. It is a little-known fact that this is also the site of one of the world's largest recorded landslides (about 12,000 years ago). An estimated 27 cubic kilometres of material slid into the Grebe Valley, triggered by an earthquake. Walk through beech forest to "the tops" or follow the track to Green Lake, festooned with Mt Cook lilies in spring.
The 67km Kepler Track, flanked by lakes Te Anau and Manapouri, can be walked in either direction and takes three or four days. But for the time-poor, both ends of the track can be done as day walks. Brod Bay to Luxmore Hut is a steady 8.2km climb along a manicured track. Towering, cathedral-like limestone bluffs are reached within several hours and the view from the hut of the Hidden Lakes and across the South Fiord to the Murchison Mountains is breathtaking. At the other end, a gentle 6km stroll from Rainbow Reach to Moturau Hut traverses beech forest, passing white heron fishing in the Waiau River and a wetland left behind by a retreating glacier about 14,000 years ago.
A three-hour round trip to Lake Marian leads to one of Fiordland's most dramatic hanging valleys. Nestled in a bowl, Lake Marian is surrounded by sheer granite walls about 1700m high, forming a natural, icy amphitheatre. The track starts a kilometre down the Lower Hollyford Rd. It is a playground, not just for trampers but for paradise shelducks, bellbirds in the surrounding stunted forest, and kea, the mountain parrot.
Less popular than the Milford Track and less accessible than the Kepler, is the Hollyford Track. It can be walked all year round because of its low altitude. The track's three-wire bridges and the 10km Demon Trail have earned their infamy, but the gentle amble from the end of the Lower Hollyford Road to the Hidden Falls Hut is well worth investing several hours in. Better still, stay overnight in the hut and wake to the sun shining on Mount Madeline's snowy peak.
The three-hour return walk to The Key from the Milford Rd offers a range of habitat from tall beech forest to miniature subalpine gardens and Lord of the Rings-style bogs. For a relatively easy climb, the summit offers the best views of the Darran Mountains and surrounding valleys. The track starts at The Divide car park and climbs 300m over an hour to the lower reaches of the summit. It also acts as the first - or last - leg of the Routeburn and Greenstone tracks.
By day, Milford Sound is awash with boats of all sizes and descriptions and planes buzzing overhead. But come late afternoon, the "city of Milford" clears out, and peace descends once more. This is the perfect time to climb aboard a boat and take an overnight cruise of the Sound. Waking up in the sheltered Harrison Cove to softly lapping waters and the sight of towering, snow-capped peaks is an unforgettable experience.
Guided kayaking trips are available in Doubtful Sound, even for people of little experience. Options range from day trips to a few days camping. Trips are usually fully catered, leaving visitors to bring personal effects and plenty of sandfly repellent. Doubtful Sound may not be as striking as Milford Sound, but it is larger and less busy. Wilderness kayak trips into Dusky and Breaksea Sounds are dependent on weather.
Be Peter Jackson for a day. Take a helicopter flight from Te Anau to Lake Norwest, his favourite film location. The lake has "pinch me" views over the Hunter Mountains and Lake Manapouri.
* David Hallet and Yvonne Martin are the authors of Fiordland (Penguin, $60) a beautiful hard-cover tribute to the region.