CURIO BAY, New Zealand
As a chilly dusk fell on this tiny bay famous for wildlife and Jurassic-era fossilized trees, a white-coated figure waddled gingerly across tide-slicked rocks — me, trying to get out of sight to prevent scaring off yellow-eyed penguins I hoped would come ashore.
A 2-foot-tall penguin popped out of the ocean, gave me a puzzled stare from its lemon-hued eye and marched to its nest in the cliffs.
Far closer to the South Pole than to New York or London, first settled by Maori around 950 and by Europeans 900 years later, the southernmost part of New Zealand's South Island is so pristine it's a tossup who feels most surprised in meeting, you or the wildlife.
During an eight-day drive along the 380-mile two-lane Southern Scenic Route, I watched some of the world's rarest penguins commute home, rode horses across rivers where The Lord of the Rings was filmed, and sailed in fjords and hiked mountain trails among tree-sized ferns and moss-draped beech trees that looked like giant bonsais.
I started in late June (winter in the Southern Hemisphere) in Queenstown, a buzzing ski-and-outdoors town on a turquoise lake, and ended in the stately Edwardian city of Dunedin, with a detour to its Otago Peninsula and up to Moeraki. In between, endless vistas opened up of swirling ocean and massive mountains in all hues of South Island's precious pounamu, the green stone that's crucial to local Maori culture.
From Queenstown to tiny Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park, snow-capped ranges, corrugated by the ongoing collision of the world's two largest tectonic plates, cascade to the horizon. In their expansive shade, I trotted by horse along a fast, steely river near Glenorchy and hiked a few miles of the Alpine Routeburn track, starting through a rainforest filter of draping moss and ending by a tarn at Key Summit with peaks 360 degrees around.
Imagine mixing Hawaii with the Alps, then magnify it by a million: 3,000-foot ridges tumble into the still, dark waters of Milford and Doubtful sounds, where it rains about 22 feet a year and waterfalls sprout everywhere. The car-antenna-chewing kea, the world's only alpine parrot, lives here, as do dolphins and seals in large colonies where the fjords end in the Tasman Sea. Tourists flock to Milford, with its picture-perfect Mitre Peak, but Doubtful Sound is three times as long and its remoteness far more mesmerizing.
Along the southern and eastern coasts, the mountains fade into ubiquitous sheep pastures. Deserted beaches stretch out, from the pebble-covered Gemstone Beach near Riverton to the sandy half-moon of Tautuku Bay in the Catlins region, where dirt roads meander past farms shielded by thick tree stands doubled over by the winds.
It was here that I saw my first hoiho, as yellow-eyed penguins are called in Maori, one of only 2,000 estimated to exist. Farther up the coast at Katiki Point, I happened upon their evening rush hour and watched half a dozen paddle out of the ocean after a day of fishing, preen, then hurry up the cliffs as their mates called out.
On Otago Peninsula, royal albatrosses soared on their 10-foot wingspans at Taiaroa Head, while at Sandfly Bay, sea lions plopped belly-down and wiggled their 700-pound-plus bulk in the sand like sunbathers.
Just opposite the peninsula, in 19th century Carey's Bay Historic Hotel, I had the best dish on the trip, fresh green-lipped mussels and Otago clams and scallops in white wine and cream. Runnersup: homemade gnocchi with wild venison at Etrusco and blue cod at Plato, both in Dunedin; "swine" burgers at Queenstown's Fergburger; lamb roast at Te Anau's the Ranch; and fish and chips at Hampden's Lockies. Of Otago's wines, my favorite was the intense Felton Road Chardonnay Bannockburn.
One late afternoon toward the end of the trip, I accompanied a surfer friend to Aramoana beach, 15 minutes from Carey's Bay. After I had strolled to where the white beach ended in a rocky cove, he called out from the waves, asking about my wildlife sightings of the day: Had I seen any penguins? Sea lions? Seals?
As I bellowed back successive "Nos," a mustachioed head rose from the wet boulders next to me. There was no mistaking the message in the fur seal's groggy eyes. Mumbling an apology, I walked softly away, while the seal settled back into its post-deepwater-fishing nap.