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The southwestern section of the South Island holds some of New Zealand's greatest natural beauty. At its heart, the Fiordland National Park is but a small portion of Te Wahipounamu, the South West New Zealand World Heritage Area -- 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) that make up about 10% of New Zealand's total landmass.

The area gives a whole new meaning to the word "wilderness," and you don't have to be a pack-carrying tramper to appreciate its grandeur. From mountain peaks, lakes, and rivers to native bush, waterfalls, rural towns, and more organized tours and adventures than anywhere else in New Zealand, you'll find plenty to satisfy your recreational appetite.

Before you hit Queenstown farther south, you'll come to Wanaka, a lakeside settlement that serves as the gateway to the Mount Aspiring National Park and World Heritage Area. It's a pretty town that quickly seduces you into a state of total relaxation. Mount Cook, which the Maori named Aoraki ("the cloud piercer"), is the highest point in New Zealand. It lies close to the West Coast, but the only road access is from the south, turning off State Highway 8, approximately 2 hours north of Wanaka.

Queenstown is undeniably the hub of it all. Spreading out from the foot of the Remarkables on the northeastern shore of Lake Wakatipu, it's an international resort, and ever since gold was discovered in the region in the 1860s, the town has been on a winning streak. Today it is booming and spreading in every direction -- and Queenstown real estate values are the highest in New Zealand.

Just over the hill as the crow flies, Te Anau is the hub for exploring Fiordland National Park. Situated on the tranquil shores of Lake Te Anau, this little township is renowned as a walking capital. It is the stepping-off point for several world-famous tracks -- the Milford, Routeburn, Hollyford, Greenstone, Kepler, and Dusky. It is also the departure point for explorations of Milford Sound, once astutely described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world.