Every year, visitors flock to New Zealand in search of landscapes straight out of Middle Earth. They find what they're looking for in Fiordland National Park, on the southwestern coast of the South Island. This stunning 12,000-square-kilometer (4,633-square-mile) park encompasses mountains, lakes, fjords and rain forests. The area was once the home of Maori hunters; later, European whalers established small settlements here. But mostly, this region has seen a notable lack of human activity—the steep peaks and wet landscape deterred all but the hardiest people. That changed around the end of the 19th century, when travelers discovered the beautiful scenery of Fiordland. The national park was formally established in 1952.
Countless plant and animal species find a haven here. Among the park's rare birds is the flightless takahe, thought for decades to be extinct until it was spotted in the area in 1948. The natural wonders continue offshore: Seals, dolphins and whales frequent these waters.