Every year the best-selling Lonely Planet travel guide raves to overseas visitors about the stunning experiences New Zealand has to offer. In the latest of a series, reporter Jarrod Booker explores the picture-perfect natural wonder of Doubtful Sound.
Captain Cook may have had his doubts about entering this remote, other-worldly place. But there is no doubt that those who do visit here will never forget the wonders of it.
Fiordland's Doubtful Sound, named after Cook's concerns he would not be able to navigate this stunning fiord or sail out again, is less known and less visited than its celebrated cousin Milford Sound.
But at 10 times the size, it's hard to imagine scenery more picture-perfect - from the snow-capped mountains, to the dense rainforest and mosses covering the soaring stone cliffs of the fiord, to the sparkling waterfalls that tumble down them.
To soak it all in, I join a group of tourists overnighting onboard Real Journeys' 40m-long Fiordland Navigator, with three levels of viewing deck, and a flat bottom that allows us to get in close to the many islands dotted throughout the fiord, and the amazing wildlife on them.
To get onboard the Navigator first means a 50-minute ferry trip across Lake Manapouri, which in itself has pleasant views to offer, before a coach trip over Wilmot Pass through thick rainforest, along a winding 21km road which our driver tells us cost $2 a centimetre to construct in 1965.
Any more than three encounters with other vehicles on this road is considered a busy day for traffic.
In this region, the annual rainfall is measured in metres rather than millimetres, and on my trip it is true to form, with the rain falling almost continuously and forming a layer of fresh water over the salt water of the fiord.
While you might curse the rain in most circumstances, it is all part of the charm of this region. Without it, you would not have the spectacular sights of ribbons of grey cloud draped across the towering tree-lined cliffs.
As the weather eases, the Navigator finds refuge in a sheltered part of the fiord for the passengers to explore further afield on kayaks or small boats called tender-craft. Some even take up the dare of swimming in the chilly waters off the back of the Navigator, which judging from the shrieks of some, is not for the faint-hearted.
A highlight comes late in the day as the setting sun breaks through the clouds, and a sail is hoisted to take advantage of the winds buffeting the motorised Navigator as it edges towards the mouth of the fiord and the Tasman Sea. The bow of the vessel begins to rise and fall dramatically as the intensity of the waves builds, and the passengers hanging on at the front of the vessel are taking it all in.
"There could be worse places to be right now," says skipper Dave Allen over the PA system. "Like being stuck in traffic in Spaghetti Junction."
Here we get to see seal colonies, just metres from the boat, on small rocky islands at the mouth of the sound, where large males are fighting each other for supremacy.
The next morning, the wildlife sightings only get better as our nature guide Wattsie points out a group of little blue penguins leaping through the water, then we see a trio of dolphins travelling along the coast.
A black-bellied storm petrel seabird gets closest of all, taking shelter from the rough weather on the back of the Navigator. Wattsie lifts him up and sets him on his way again when conditions have eased.
Late in the trip, we get to experience one of the many spectacular waterfalls first hand, when the Navigator draws in close enough to land so that Wattsie can stand on the tip of the bow and fill a bowl from the water cascading down the hill.
Wattsie promises it will be some of the purest water we have ever tasted as he pours glasses for us all, even though the tannins from the vegetation have made it a yellowish-brown colour.
Looks can be deceiving, and as drinking water goes, it's hard to beat.
Before the cruise comes to an end, we find a spot near land, the engine is shut off and Wattsie asks for a few moments of total silence to truly appreciate the tranquillity of this place. The only sounds are the waterfalls striking the ocean, the rain pelting the boat and distant birdsong - a rare and amazing experience.
It's hard to imagine leaving this place and returning to a city again, even after such a short visit.
"You really have seen it at its spectacular best," the skipper says in a final address to the passengers. "And that's what it is all about."
Activity: Doubtful Sound overnight cruise with Real Journeys.
Accommodation: I'm fortunate enough to be accommodated in one of the twin bedrooms on board the Navigator after originally being booked in a quad share bunk quarters on the lower deck, where the rooms are closed off by curtains and bathrooms are shared.
My room is small, with just enough space for two single beds, a bedside table, with walking space in between, and a small adjoining en suite with shower and toilet. Two small windows provide views to the spectacular surrounds of the fiord.
When I first enter my room and take a seat on one of the beds, the ship's heavy rolling motion makes me wonder what my night's sleep will be like. But I needn't have worried because the skipper finds us a sheltered part of the sound to put down the anchor, so calm that it is hard to discern any difference from sleeping on land.
Sleeping in is not an option when the anchor rises noisily and the engine fires up at 6.30am, and breakfast is served at 7am, but why would you want to laze in bed when the wonders outside await?
Eating: When you're cruising overnight in one of the most remote locations in New Zealand, your dining options are limited to what is dished up on board.
The evening meal is a three-course buffet, and it's hard to know what quality of fare to expect when the chef is operating in a small kitchen at the mercy of the the rolling waves.
But the results are impressive.
I fill my plate with generous slices of New Zealand lamb (beef is also on offer), a soy chicken dish, roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables, coleslaw and pasta salad.
The meat is cooked beautifully, and the vegetables and salads are more than adequate.
The range of desserts offered is mouth-watering, and a combination of delicious pavlova, berry crumble, custard and fresh fruit salad soon makes for a full stomach.
From the breakfast buffet in the morning I help myself to bacon, sausages and eggs, which perhaps have been sitting in the buffet drawers a little too long, but such is the price you pay when there are constant wildlife sightings to keep you from the morning meal.