The Complete Guide to New Zealand's Stewart Island

Stewart Island

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Stewart Island / Rakiura

Stewart Island / Rakiura, Southland, New Zealand

Off the southern coast of the South Island, Stewart Island (also known as Rakiura) is New Zealand's third-largest island. It's wild, natural, and remote, and understandably (though unfortunately for them!), few foreign tourists make it down this far. But with fantastic hiking and bird-watching opportunities, it's an excellent option for travelers in the south who want to go somewhere a little bit different.

Around 85 percent of Stewart Island is reserved as a national park, home to penguins, kiwis, and seals. It's not the place to go for a warm summer vacation in the sun (the temperatures are generally pretty cool this far south!), but the beaches are empty and as pretty as any further north. The population of the island is small, at just around 400 inhabitants, but the capital, Oban, is welcoming and serves up excellent seafood. Stewart Island's Maori name, Rakiura, means "glowing skies," a reference to the beautiful sunsets as well as the Aurora Australis, which can sometimes be seen from here. Here are some essential things to know before visiting Stewart Island.

Things to Do

Most people come to Stewart Island for the bird watching and hiking in the Rakiura National Park. As the national park comprises most of the island, this is easy to accomplish! The bird-watching opportunities here are especially good, as the birdlife is more abundant than in many parts of the North or South Islands. Native species that live here include the kakariki, kereru, tui, bellbird, weka, kakapo, South Island kaka, and the Stewart Island kiwi.

Whether you're after a long or a short hike, it's a good idea to spend some time hiking along Stewart Island's trails: there are only 17 miles of road on the island, but 174 miles of walking trails! The Rakiura Track is a 20-mile, intermediate-level hiking trail that circles the park. It takes between two and four days to hike the entire length. While this is the island's most famous hiking trail (designated one of the Department of Conservation's Great Walks), there are also other long-distance options, such as the 9-11 day North West Circuit, or the 4-6 day Southern Circuit. Both of these longer walks are considered 'advanced,' so should only be attempted by people with long-distance hiking experience.

To visit an island-off-an-island, head to Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara, a small wildlife sanctuary that's part of the Rakiura National Park. It's just a couple of miles offshore from Oban and can be reached by water taxi or on a private tour. Ulva Island has never been milled for its timber and has been pest-free for more than two decades, so the native flora and fauna flourish on Ulva Island. (Keep it pest-free by checking your shoes and other outdoor gear before arriving, and washing it if necessary). There are smooth walking tracks around the island, suitable for a range of ages and abilities, so this is an excellent destination if you have kids or aren't up for the full Rakiura Track! You cannot stay on Ulva Island overnight.

Although they're very elusive, kiwis can be spotted on Stewart Island. New Zealand's national bird is nocturnal, so your best chance of seeing one is either to camp and hope for the best or to join a guided evening/night walk. There are also chances of spotting them in daylight hours at the freshwater wetland area.

The best time of year to see the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, is between March and September, the cooler time of year, with the longest nights. As there is little-to-no light pollution at Stewart Island, when the skies are clear in these months, it's an excellent place to see the natural light show. Although there's no guarantee that you'll be able to see them on a particular day, the Service Aurora Hourly Aurora Forecast uses NASA technology to predict with reasonable accuracy where the aurora can be seen on the day you check and on the following three days.

How to Get There

There are two ways to get to Stewart Island: by ferry or by air.

Daily passenger ferries cross the Foveaux Strait from Bluff (17 miles south of Invercargill, and mainland New Zealand's southernmost point) to Oban, the largest town on the island. You can't take your car on these ferries. Shuttles run between Invercargill and Bluff, in case you don't have your own vehicle to get to the boat, or if you'd prefer to leave your car in Invercargill. In the summer and autumn, ferries run three or four times a day. The rest of the year, they run two or three times per day. The crossing takes about an hour.

Flights on small, fixed-wing airplanes leave Invercargill Airport for Oban three times a day, operating on different summer and winter schedules. They take about 20 minutes.

Where to Stay

All residents of Stewart Island (around 400) live in Halfmoon Bay, in or around the town of Oban. There are a variety of accommodation options here to suit various budgets. Stewart Island Lodge is private and secluded and has fantastic views of Oban and out to sea. Rakiura Retreat solves your transportation problem, as all of their apartments come with a complimentary vehicle for use during your stay. Gas is included!

When hiking in the national park, it's necessary to stay in Department of Conservation-administered huts and campgrounds. These are bookable online and should be booked in advance during peak season (summer).

Where to Eat and Drink

Aside from tourism, fishing and seafood collecting is the most significant industry on Stewart Island, so there are plenty of chances to try delicious, fresh fish and seafood straight out of the ocean. Cod, paua (like abalone), crayfish, salmon, and mussels are all either gathered or farmed at Stewart Island.

The South Sea Hotel is New Zealand's southernmost pub, and sits right on the waterfront at Oban, with some outdoor seating. The blue cod fish and chips are a must-try. They host a famous Sunday night pub quiz, which is very entertaining. They also offer accommodation.

Tips for Visiting

When to Visit

With average January (mid-summer) temperatures of 56 degrees and average July (mid-winter) temperatures of 40 degrees, most travelers will feel more comfortable visiting in summer. Being located right at the bottom of New Zealand, Stewart Island never gets very warm, but if you're looking to hike or camp, summer can be quite comfortable. However, mid-summer is also the wettest time, with mid-winter being the driest, and the colder months (March-September) are the best time to see the Aurora Australis.

Getting Around

The ferries to Stewart Island are passenger-only, so once you arrive, you'll either need to rent a car, scooter, or bike or walk. You can also charter boats or book a ride in the island's limited taxis.

How Long to Stay

Although Stewart Island could be visited on a day trip from Invercargill, this would be quite limiting, as you wouldn't be able to fully appreciate the hiking trails or remote beaches in such a short time. Most visitors stay at least overnight or for a few days.

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The Complete Guide to New Zealand's Stewart Island