In the chilly paradise of Fiordland, Winston Aldworth experiences a luxury overnight stay on the water.

It's sunrise in Milford Sound, but on a chill winter's day, it takes a long time for the sun's warmth to reach down to us on the deck of the luxury launch.

The famous towering peaks, their tops fading in and out of cloud and mist, run from the heavens to the ocean floor.

We're pretty much the only ones here. A couple of distant crayfish boats buzz past on their way out to harvest the magic white meat from their Tasman pots. Eventually, other day cruise boats will bring the day-trippers to see the sights that we've had to ourselves.

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A Heli Glenorchy helicopter lands on the Fiordland Jewel. Photo / Andrew Rae Photography, Ignition Self Drive
A Heli Glenorchy helicopter lands on the Fiordland Jewel. Photo / Andrew Rae Photography, Ignition Self Drive

We've just spent the night, you see, aboard the Fiordland Jewel, the only overnighting visitors on the water — we had Milford Sound to ourselves.

You don't need to touch the water to feel its cold grasp. The surface is as black as an ink spill and across the other side of the fiord, the waterline shows up most distinctly where epic falls have streaked down the mountainsides, some running for a couple of hundred metres. They meet the saltwater with a hiss and a blast. In some parts, high on the cliffside, the water breaks away from the fall, fading into mist, the rest chunders downward, thin white scrawls on a vast black canvas.

Most of them are "temporary falls". They'll be gone in a few days, or redirected at least, when fresh rain cuts a new track from the heights to the ocean.

" This is the real New Zealand," the South Islanders had been telling me the night before as we watched the twilight claim the scenery. "This is what we're talking about when we tell people from overseas about New Zealand."

I'm sure we mention a bit of Waiheke and Rotorua, too, but the South Islanders have got a point. The empty, towering corridors of Milford Sound are like nowhere else on Earth.

Maybe a hint of the Andes, (but with water), perhaps a touch of Norway (but, somehow, more isolated).

Our course in the Fiordland Jewel that night had taken us from the wharf in the fresh-water basin out past Dale and Greenstone points, Bridal Veil and Fairy falls, and Mitre Peak alongside the lionesque outline of Mt Kimberley before settling at a mooring in the Arthur River where half a dozen of us took to kayaks for some freezing exercise. My hands have seldom felt such cold, but the chance to paddle near the waterfalls is not to be missed.

Winston Aldworth kayaking in Fiordland. Photo / Fiona Farquhar
Winston Aldworth kayaking in Fiordland. Photo / Fiona Farquhar

Blood returned to my extremities with a late-night dip in the rooftop hot tub.

We catch sight of penguins, a trio of rare whio, a couple of seals, and a sad, sick kereru.

"In winter, you see a bit more of the wildlife," says skipper Rob Swale. "It's cold so they have to work harder to get food."

Rob tells me he'll often see dolphins and orcas, even the occasional humpback whale. He shows us footage from his underwater drone; seven-gilled sharks follow divers as they pick out giant crayfish and, deeper, unidentified species squirm on screen.

Come dinner time, some of those crays ended up on our plates, along with blue cod, the deep south's oceanic gold.

"A lot of what's 40m down is uncharted," Rob says. "It's a unique place, and we've found species down there that no one's seen before."

The next morning, we left the boat by helicopter, lifting clear and racing away a few metres above the waters of Harrison Cove, before rising, circling, and looking down as the Fiordland Jewel found its proper sense of scale in the scenery, an ant among giants.

Warming up in the hot tub. Photo / Supplied
Warming up in the hot tub. Photo / Supplied

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Jetstar

flies from Auckland to Queenstown with return fares starting from $148.

DETAILS
For information on the Fiordland Jewel, go to fiordlanddiscovery.co.nz.

Heli Glenorchy are at heliglenorchy.co.nz

For information on luxury car rentals for the drive from Queenstown to Fiordland, go to ignitionselfdrive.co.nz.