There's a point along New Zealand's Queen Charlotte Track where turquoise waters, forested mountains and lush ferns make up such a dazzling landscape that you realize tourism officials who dreamed up the country's "100% Pure" campaign had so much to work with.
As far as the eye can see, the sparsely populated land remains almost as untouched as the day Captain Cook landed in 1770. Yet, here on the South Island's north tip, modern life is close by. It's a half-hour plane ride from the capital of Wellington to the town of Blenheim; after a 30-minute transfer to the seaport hamlet of Picton, travelers are deep in the Marlborough Sounds.
The Maori lived for centuries along these fingers of mountainous land stretching between long, narrow inlets, hauling canoes across ridges from one bay to another, when Cook and his men sought shelter here.
Today's visitors explore in comfort, water taxis zip across the sounds, transporting travelers to lodges with fine restaurants. Many come for one of New Zealand's best-known hiking trails, Queen Charlotte Track, which stretches from Ship Cove 44 miles to a point near Picton.
One firm, the Marlborough Sounds Adventure Co., offers guided and self-guided programs along the trail, with nights at lodges. All that hikers carry is a daypack for essentials; their baggage is transported to lodges.
The trip is designed for those in good physical condition, but it's mostly easy walking. Those who want to avoid the most difficult section, 14.7 miles with a 600-foot climb, can take a water taxi around it.
The four-day program starts with the boat ride from Picton that runs the length of Marlborough Sounds to Ship Cove trailhead. After a packed lunch at a marker that commemorates Cook's landing, you start on the first stage of the track, which runs along high ridges, passing historical sites, outcroppings of kora ferns, quiet bays and subtropical bush overlooking clear, blue-green water.
After a nine-mile hike, the first night is at Furneaux Lodge, where rooms are comfortable and outdoor lounging areas invite kicking off hiking boots and relaxing with a glass of Marlborough wine. Meals, as with the rest of the inns along the trail, are excellent, with choices including salmon, mussels, wild venison, rabbit and vegetables, all local.
The second day involves a seven-mile walk through lush landscapes to Punga Cove Resort, where dinner at the resort's hilltop restaurant is a stylish affair; the cellar stocks some of Marlborough's finest wines.
The third day offers a water taxi option for those who want to bypass a long, steep hike to the Portage Resort Hotel, the final night's lodge.
On the final leg of the four-day program, participants are transported by boat to Waterfall Bay where they walk a trail through forests overlooking tantalizingly clear water.
The guided four-day program is $1,350 per person, double. The company pays 10% commission to agents. See www.marlboroughsounds.co.nz.