When people imagine New Zealand, the scenery of the Fiordland Region often comes to mind. Situated in the southwestern corner of the South Island, Fiordland is dominated by the verdure of rainforests blanketed in ferns, the snow-capped Southern Alps, and imposing bodies of water such as Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. Aside from the tiny settlements of Manapouri and Te Anau, the area is and always has been virtually uninhabited. It remains one of the most pure manifestations of nature anywhere in the world.
Fiordland has achieved World Heritage status and rightfully so. Three of New Zealand’s Great Walks are located in Fiordland National Park—the Milford Track, Routeburn Track, and Kepler Track—presenting opportunities for world-class hiking in this unique corner of the country. In addition, the Hollyford Track follows the lowlands of the beautiful Hollyford River Valley out to the Tasman Sea, the only major track in Fiordland that can be walked year-round.
For those short on time, there are a number of terrific day hiking options, including sections of the Great Walks themselves (you don’t need any permits for day hikes!). One of the best is from Te Anau to the Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, which rises up from Lake Te Anau to the high mountains of Fiordland (16–27 km round trip). Another option is the Routeburn Track, which at 32 km is short enough that a decent chunk can be covered in a day. The most popular day hike on the Routeburn is from the Divide to Key Summit, a terrific viewpoint on a clear day (3 hours return).
The area tramping is legendary, but it doesn’t take an experienced outdoorsperson to get up close and personal with the Fiordland scenery. The Milford Road—a 119km section of World Heritage Highway running from Te Anau to Milford Sound—passes under dizzying sections of rock and ice into the heart of Fiordland National Park. Just the drive itself is superb and there is an abundance of short walks and scenic places to get out along the way.
The terminus of the Milford Road is the star of the show: Milford Sound. The buildup to some big-time natural attractions can cause them to underwhelm, but Milford Sound is not included in this group. Iconic Mitre Peak and the surrounding mountains plunge into the deep, dark waters, shrouded in mist and accompanied by the sounds of falling water. The best way to experience the enchantment of Milford Sound is a sunrise kayak trip during the calm early morning conditions, or alternatively a 2-hour boat cruise that traverses the entirety of the Sound out to the Tasman Sea.
Although Milford Sound is New Zealand’s most famous destination, Doubtful Sound is considerably bigger and deeper (it’s actually ten times the size). Known for its solitude and wildness—there are no roads to Doubtful Sound—it requires a boat trip from Manapouri and a shuttle across scenic Wilmot Pass (2 hours total). Day trips to Doubtful Sound allow for about three hours on the water, but far better is a night spent on the Sound aboard a small vessel. You will have the option of catching your dinner (or at least trying), kayaking, and will experience the majesty of the Sound as the sun sets and rises again. An overnight trip is expensive but returnees recommend it wholeheartedly.
Not Sounds but Fjords
A "sound" is a river valley that has been drowned by rising sea levels. A “fjord,” on the other hand, is a long, narrow inlet carved by glacial activity. New Zealand’s 14 named sounds are misnomers—they are, in fact, fjords. The region was renamed “Fiordland” to account for this error.