Stewart Island, or Rakiura as the Maori call it, is as off the beaten track as it gets in New Zealand. This pristine piece of nature is a must do for all the outdoorsy people among us and it is without a doubt the best place on earth to spot a wild kiwi bird. We’ll tell you all you need to know before you start exploring so you’re prepared for your own authentic Stewart Island adventure.
Stewart Island? Never heard of it…
Stewart Island is New Zealand’s third Island. It is so small that it doesn’t even find its place on most world maps. It is located 30 km south of the South Island, separated by the Foveaux Strait, and Stewart Island’s only town, Oban, is New Zealand’s southernmost permanently inhabited place. Walking around this charming little fishermen’s town with a permanent population of only 400 people, it feels like you’ve gone back in time a 100 years. Over 85% of the island is covered by the Rakiura National Park and there is only 28 km of drivable road on the island. There is however 245 km of walking tracks on the island, including one of the Great Walks, giving you plenty of options to explore all the island has to offer.
SHORT ON TIME? PIN IT FOR LATER!
How to get to Stewart Island
There are two ways to get to Stewart Island; by ferry or by plane. The ferry takes you from Bluff directly into Oban and takes about an hour to get there. The ferry gets quite busy during peak season so booking in advance is recommended. Alternatively you can fly to Stewart Island in a small plane with Stewart Island Flights. They offer daily flights from Invercargill Airport and land on an airstrip on the outskirts of Oban, where their coach will pick you up and take you to Oban.
We heard that the ferry ride can get quite rough so to avoid sea sickness we chose to fly in. The flight takes 20 minutes and provides incredible views over the Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island. If you’re looking to get the most out of your Stewart Island experience we highly recommend flying as it isn’t much more expensive than taking the ferry and so much more scenic.
First impression of Stewart Island
We flew to Stewart Island on a sunny day with clear skies and as the island came into sight from above we were instantly amazed by its beauty. Seeing bay after bay with stunning golden sand beaches appear, and forest covered hills showing up in the distance, we couldn’t wait to start exploring! Luckily this was already set in motion as we had a tour of Oban and the surrounding area booked. But before the tour started we had to get some fish & chips from the Kai Kart, a little blue shack that serves arguably the best blue cod in New Zealand.
When did bus tours become fun?!
The bus tour takes about 1.5 hours and is guided by John who also works for the Stewart Island depot and post office. During the tour he tells you all about the Island’s history and the island nowadays. He’s also guaranteed to make you laugh your socks off as he knows every funny story about everyone and everything on the island. The tour takes you over all of the 28 km of drivable roads on Stewart Island and afterwards you’ll know knew where to find everything in Oban. It also takes you to cool spots like Observation Rock, which is spectacular during sunset, and Lee Bay; a beautiful sandy beach bay at the end of the drivable road which is also where most of the hiking tracks start.
Bird is the word
Because of its unspoilt nature, Stewart Island is a very good location for bird watching. Even though bird watching isn’t really our thing, we are convinced seeing some of the birds here with our own eyes gives you bragging rights. The island is home to the massive Albatross, Blue Penguins and even the extremely rare Yellow Eyed Penguin and Fiordland Crested Penguin. On top of that there’s an estimated 20.000 Kiwi birds on the island, making Stewart Island the absolute best place to spot one of these funny creatures in the wild.
Ulva Island is a pest free bird sanctuary, and a must do if you’d like to spot some of these feathery fellas, so this is where we went on the second day of our Stewart Island trip. Rakiura Water Taxis took us there in only 7 minutes, and as we decided to take the early morning departure we got to enjoy the last bits of a beautiful sunrise on our way over.
These boots are made for walking - Stewart Island walks
With Stewart Island having about 10 times as much walking tracks as drivable roads, it attracts many avid hikers. Boasting hikes like the Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks), the 10 day and 125 km long North West Circuit and many others, you can’t respectfully leave the island without having done at least one hike. As we only had 4 days on the island doing a big hike wasn’t an option for us, so we opted for the Coast to Coast which is a lot more than just a hike as it includes a scenic flight with a beach landing and a boat ride. We chose to spread it over 2 days and stay overnight in a hut, but you can easily do it in one day.
Stewart Island lies in the 47th degrees south cirlce of latitude, meaning that it lies closer to the South Pole than to the Equator. This makes for very unpredictable weather (bring a raincoat), but it also makes the island a prime location for a chance to see the Aurora Australis (The Southern Light). If it happens during your stay on Stewart Island, find some high ground, bring your camera and enjoy this incredible phenomenon.
Some of the locations on the island where Kiwi birds are often spotted are actually in Oban. After nightfall they are often seen coming out of the woods surrounding the rugby field on the edge of town. If you want to make sure you spot a Kiwi bird during your stay on Stewart Island we suggest you book a tour with Beaks and Feathers. They offer a Kiwi spotting tour where they take you to the airstrip to which only they have access, and with their 99,5% success rate spotting one is a pretty safe bet.
South Sea Hotel
When you get tired from all the hiking and sightseeing, head to the South Sea Hotel. Besides a hotel this place is also the only pub on the island and it becomes a pretty lively place every night. They have plenty of beers on tap, serve good food and host a hilarious pub quiz every Sunday night which you absolutely should not miss.
Things to do on Stewart Island on a leisure day
Oban has its very own cinema called the Bunkhouse Theatre where it shows the locally produced film ‘A Local’s Tail’. This quirky 40 minute film shows you Stewart Island from a local dog’s perspective.
After eating your fill of popcorn at the movies, rent a kayak and spend an afternoon exploring the stunning bays around Oban where you’ll have a good chance of seeing marine life like penguins, seals and even small sharks. Don’t worry, while great white sharks do swim in the Foveaux Strait waters, they are rarely seen in the bays surrounding Oban.
Head to the wharf during sunset. Not to watch the sunset, you’d be facing the wrong way, but because this is where the unbelievably cute little Blue Penguin often come out in the evening. They wait untill it is dark and only come out when they feel it is safe. So keep noise to a minimum and don’t shine any bright lights at them.
What are you waiting for?!
Although Stewart Island doesn’t show up on many New Zealand travel itineraries due to it’s remoteness, we think it should absolutely be on yours and we hope we convinced you to go here. Stewart Island’s natural beauty will make you feel rejuvenated and with it’s beautiful bays, crystal clear waters, lush native forests and extraordinary wildlife it promises an amazing off the beaten track adventure for anyone!
We’d love to know everything about your Stewart Island experience so let us know in the comments below. We’re happy to help with any questions you might have, just ask away!
Where to eat
Kai Kart: This little blue shack can’t be missed and the blue cod fish & chips they serve are a real treat!
KFC: Nope, this isn’t one of the Coronel’s fast food chicken franchises, here KFC stands for Kiwi French Crepery. They mix French crepes and typical New Zealand ingredients into some delicious creations, and serve a range of cakes for all the sweettooths among us. We recommend trying the omelette with salmon.
South Sea Hotel: You’re bound to visit this place sooner or later during your Stewart Island trip. For eating in their restaurant making a reservation is advised, alternatively they serve food in their pub, although from a more primitive menu.
Church Hill Restaurant: This place won’t be an option if you’re on a tight budget, but if you have money to spare we’ve been told that their crayfish is the best you can find. Combined with the view from their terrace it makes for a real fine dining experience.
Where to stay
Stewart Island Backpackers: The biggest of the island’s two hostels and a great place to meet fellow travelers. They also offer tent sites for when you’re on a tight budget or just prefer sleeping in a tent.
Bunkers Backpackers: A smal but very cosy and homey hostel that provides all the comfort you’ll need during your stay on Stewart Island.
South Sea Hotel: With its restaurant and the island’s only pub you could say that the South Sea Hotel is the heart of Oban. Rooms available starting at $ 70,- per night.
There are plenty of private homes available for rent on the island. Ranging from simple and reasonably priced baches to big and expensive seafront villas. They are listed on AirBnB and Booking.com and if you sign up through these links you’ll get a discount on your first booking!