The Milford Track gets all the press - and consequently has the most expensive licence - but there other wondrous ways through New Zealand's wilderness.
The Hollyford Track takes you through beech forest into the true Deep South of New Zealand and onto the West Coast beaches, remote and wild. It was one of my first tramps I took with my Dad, so it's special to me. I had new boots and didn't load my pack correctly so I got blisters all over my feet. But the smell of the beech forests, the untamed West Coast beaches and the amazing clear air of the Deep South - it's got to be the best in the world - made it all worthwhile.
I also loved doing the Abel Tasman at the tip of the South Island, which is easier then the Hollyford. There are plenty of good huts, the beaches are wonderful, and the walking isn't hard. Walking the Abel Tasman is an incredibly popular experience, but for a bit of an alternative spin, you can also kayak alongside the route of the track as the sea is generally calm all year long.
In New Zealand we call it tramping rather than hiking, and most New Zealanders do it by themselves rather than going on guided tramps. However, on the Hollyford it pays to go guided as it's a hard tramp and you need to organise getting to it and out again. Or you can do as I did and go with someone who knows about tramping. The Abel Tasman's a very accessible hike: if you have a reasonable fitness level you'll be fine.
The best time of the year to go tramping is in late spring and summer - that way you'll avoid the worst of the rain and mud (some parts of the Hollyford can get bogged down in winter) and you'll be able to swim the beaches along the Abel Tasman (the West Coast beaches along the Hollyford, however, are pretty wild and woolly even in summer!).
Hollyford Track practicalities
This dramatic track starts in the midst of lowland forest, crossing mountain streams and passing pretty waterfalls as it follows the broad Hollyford River valley all the way to the sea at Martins Bay. The Tasman coast makes a satisfying end point, with dolphins, seals and penguins often greeting hikers on their arrival. However, it does mean backtracking another four days back to your start point unless you take one of the sneaky shortcut options.
The 56km track is graded as a moderate hike, but involves some creek crossings and suffers frequent flash floods that can leave trekkers waiting it out en-route for several days until the trail becomes passable. The trickiest part of the route is the ominously named Demon Trail (10km) alongside Lake McKerrow. It’s imperative that you check with DOC in Te Anau for the latest track and weather conditions and for detailed maps.
Getting there and back
TrackNet has shuttles between the Hollyford Rd turn-off and Te Anau ($47, one hour) and Queenstown ($87, 3¾ hours). Options for reducing the length of the there-and-back journey include hitching a jetboat ride south with Hollyford Track Guided Walks for the length of Lake McKerrow; book in advance. A more-luxurious, three-day guided walk ($1655) includes fancy accommodation, jetboat trips in both directions along Lake McKerrow and a flight back to Milford Sound from the coastal finish line at Martins Bay.
You can also arrange a flight between Martins Bay and civilisation with Air Fiordland (to Milford/Te Anau $580/1160) for up to four people (price is per flight, so you can share the cost). Hollyford Track Guided Walks sometimes has empty seats when it flies from Milford Sound to pick up its walkers at Martins Bay, and can drop you at Martins Bay by plane ($135) or helicopter ($185). Booking these services is essential.
There's more information about Hollyford Track - and nearby Milford Track as well - in Lonely Planet's guide to New Zealand's South Island.