It's not like the rest of New Zealand, the locals will tell you with more than a hint of parrochial prride. And there's the first clue: Southlanderrs are the only Kiwis to have a distinct accent, those softly rolled "rrrs" that recall, for most, Scottish ancestry. The second clue, too: you don't hear it that often, because there are fewer folk in Southland than any other province in the country.

As a drive around this people-light vista and experience-heavy province will show, this is a land of opposites. Expansive plains of farmland and rivers of trout; Fiordland's rugged, isolated coast, fiords, lakes and mountains.

Curio Bay, Catlins, Southland. Photo / Venture Southland
Curio Bay, Catlins, Southland. Photo / Venture Southland

And a land of "-ests". New Zealand's highest waterfall. Its deepest lake. Our largest national park. And, because you might want to factor it in when you visit, the coolest and wettest winters.

Driving south from Dunedin, you leave the blue and gold of Otago and meet the maroon of Southland somewhere around the Catlins. Once barely known and seldom visited, this rugged coast entices visitors who seek walks, top-class surfing or just want to meet the local residents: birdlife including shy little penguins, seals sunning themselves lazily on the rocks, dolphins frolicking in the sea.

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You'll pretty much have to stop when you get to Bluff, because you can't drive much further south.

Rip-roaring in its past, closure of the freezing works late last century and fewer ships coming in and out of the rough-and-ready port mean life passes slowly now, but there's still a friendly feel to the place.

 The famous Bluff Oyster Festival. Photo / Venture Southland
The famous Bluff Oyster Festival. Photo / Venture Southland

Walk up and down Bluff Hill with its sweeping views of icy Foveaux Strait, pose at the world's southernmost signpost, then duck into one of Bluff's no-frills pubs to warm up and get to know the local fishers.

Inland to Southland's city, Invercargill, its Queens Park is an 81ha wonderland of spectacular rose gardens, duckpond with fairytale stone bridge and a mini-zoo with wallabies, alpacas and ostriches, perhaps a few degrees south of their comfort zones. Fancy a round of golf? You're in the right place.

Half an hour or so later, Riverton surrounds a picturesque harbour filled with fishing boats: save room for their blue cod.

In summer, the beaches are filled with picnickers and paddlers.

Fishing boats at Riverton. Photo / Venture Southland
Fishing boats at Riverton. Photo / Venture Southland

Further round the coast and slightly inland lies the sleepy hollow of Tuatapere, starting point for the three-day loop walk on the Hump Ridge Track. Privately operated, you can choose a guided trek or do your own thing, stopping at comfortable, well-equipped lodges. Decide how intrepid - and extravagant - you want to be from a number of levels of luxury. You'll walk through ancient and mysterious, lush forest and stunning seascapes, especially when viewed from the "top of the world" - a rocky ridge with sweeping vistas to Fiordland and Stewart Island, which is where the wild things are.

Clockwise from far left: The famous Bluff Oyster Festival; the spectacular Catlins Coast; fishing boats at Riverton; walking the Hump Ridge Track; Stewart Island offers many wildlife experiences. Pictures / Venture Southland

Te Anau is the gateway to Fiordland National Park, the village a nature haven on the shores of the country's second-largest lake. Decide how athletic you want to be: kick back in a punt to explore twinkling glowworm caves or stretch your fitness and stamina on the world-famous Milford and Kepler tracks.

Now we're well and truly in adrenalin country. Cycle, kayak, jet-boat and helicopter beneath, above, through or on the peaks of the Kepler and Murchison ranges.

Turn north and exercise your sense of wonder in Milford Sound. The sandflies are legendary, but the experience will scratch your itch for the spectacular.

Stewart Island offers many wildlife experiences. Photo / Venture Southland
Stewart Island offers many wildlife experiences. Photo / Venture Southland

James Cook wouldn't risk taking his ships into the inlet but 19th-century explorers were less cautious. The awe-inspiring fiord has been acclaimed as (take your pick) New Zealand's most famous tourist destination; the world's top travel destination; and "the eighth Wonder of the World" by Rudyard Kipling.

At least 750,000 visitors, mostly in tour buses, make their way here each year on a road that is difficult for the best of drivers, through the Homer Tunnel.

Turn north, and change scenery again, as State Highway 94 runs down towards Lumsden, deep in fertile heartland. Sheep reign here, although an hour or so down the road at Winton you'll run into the lately booming dairy industry.

Grab a hot sausage roll and cream donut at the famous-in-Southland Winton Bakery.

Just because - like so many other things around here - you can't do it anywhere else.

Last stop is Gore, the country music capital. Cast a rod into the Mataura River where the trout are always plump and healthy. Or so the locals will tell you. Rolling their rrr's as they do so.

Walking the Hump Ridge Track. Photo / Venture Southland
Walking the Hump Ridge Track. Photo / Venture Southland

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Invercargill via Wellington or Christchurch, with one-way fares from $128.

airnewzealand.co.nz

ONLINE

southlandnz.com