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Dunedin, the "capital" of Otago province; Southland; Invercargill; and Stewart Island have generally been lumped together as the south of the south; if visitors tend to overlook any part of the country, it would be this one. This is unfortunate because the area offers some of the most diverse and fascinating flora and fauna; some of the quaintest "real New Zealand" townships; and probably one of the least harried travel experiences of all.

Southland extends as far northwest as Lake Manapouri and as far east as Balclutha. It is the country's coolest and rainiest region, yet the even spread of its rainfall is the very foundation of its economy -- the production of grass and grass seed, which in turn supports large numbers of sheep and dairy farms. Southland also has the longest daylight hours in New Zealand, and the Percy Burn Viaduct (near Tuatapere) is believed to be the largest wooden rail viaduct remaining in the world.

The area's coastline saw early settlement by Maori sealers and whalers. Today, the region's fishing industry is a major force -- its contributions include those succulent Bluff oysters and crayfish (rock lobsters) you've devoured in your New Zealand travels.

Invercargill is a convenient central base for exploring the deep south. It lies an easy 2-hour drive from Fiordland and 2 1/2 hours from Dunedin, via State Highway 1. It is the central focus of Southland -- the only place in New Zealand where Scottish heritage has left a distinctive accent among the people, which you'll notice in the way many people roll the letter r. It is a place of incredible friendliness and hospitality, and the only spot in the world where people can see living tuatara, the only lizard left from the dinosaur age.

Stewart Island, the third-largest island of New Zealand, is an area of raucous birdcall, lush native vegetation, and unchanged Kiwi habits -- which goes for both the human and the ornithological species. It is a rare treat and I haven't heard of one person who has regretted making the effort to get there.

Stewart Island and Southland both come under the umbrella of the Venture Southland/Destination Fiordland Sustainable Tourism Charter and participating tourism operators are listed at www.southlandnz.com.