Fiordland Experience: Martins Bay Flight and Hike

Duration: Full day from Queenstown
Distance: 9km return, fairly flat 3- to 4-hour hike to the coast
Rating: Easy/Moderate

If personal service and access to unique places and experiences are at the heart of luxury travel for you, this Fiordland wilderness experience in Martins Bay should knock your merino socks off! I’ll fly us amongst golden tussock hills and snow-capped mountains into the remote World Heritage area. There we’ll embark on a relaxed walk through ancient podocarp forests to a New Zealand fur seal colony, where we’ll also have a chance to see rare Fiordland crested penguins depending on the time of year.

I’ll pick you up this morning and we’ll head to the airport and load up the 4-seater Cessna by 9 o’clock with our supplies for the day. I’ll take care of our hearty lunch and snacks, bottled water, sunscreen, insect repellant and walking poles. You’ll just need to bring a sense of adventure, a fully charged battery for your camera and lots of room on the memory card.

Keep your eyes glued to the window as the landscape changes rapidly throughout the short flight over the Southern Alps to Martins Bay, a tiny West Coast settlement in the Hollyford Valley north of Milford Sound. The no-frills airstrip where we’ll touch down was originally cut out of the dense bush for the deer trade back in the 70s.

Today the tranquility of Martins Bay, nestled in one of the most remote pockets of coastline remaining in the country, is in sharp contrast to the packaged thrills and modern comforts we left behind in Queenstown little more than half an hour ago. But you can’t get here directly by road. It’s a 4-hour drive to the start of a 2-day trek on the Hollyford Track to get to this same spot, so you’re well off the beaten track.

From here, we have a fairly flat 4.5km walk out to Long Reef Point, which takes about 2 hours at a relaxed pace. We’ll hike through an ancient Podocarp forest that is, simply put: magical. Podocarps are relics of a time when New Zealand was attached to the supercontinent of Gondwana. Only a few small pockets of this unique collection of vegetation survived once the continents began to drift apart, with the largest here on New Zealand’s West Coast and the rest scattered as far away as South America.

View more photos from the Martins Bay image gallery here.

As the chorus of native birdlife gives way to the roar of the ocean, we emerge from the windshorn forest out onto the coast. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the brightness of the sun from the dappled light of the forest, but if you listen carefully, you might hear some strange squeaks coming from the undergrowth. With a bit of luck and some patience, a Fiordland Crested penguin will waddle into plain sight for us from amidst the boulders. (They are most often seen close to shore from July through November.)

We’ll continue walking down to a colony of New Zealand fur seals on the beachfront, easily tracking them by their pungent scent. They are surprisingly awkward as they clamber around the rock pools, in search of just the right spot to sunbathe on the rocks before diving gracefully back into the sea to cool off and begin all over again.

Before we can hear our stomachs rumbling over the grunts of the seals, we’ll head back along the track a short way to Martins Bay Hut, where we’ll dive into our picnic lunch. We’ll relax here in this amazing location overlooking the sandbar between Lake McKerrow and the sea before returning to the airstrip for another breathtaking flight back to Queenstown.

If you only had one day to see New Zealand, I don’t think you’d be disappointed spending it like this.

Fiordland Experience: Martins Bay Flight and Hike