Stewart Island is the third largest island of New Zealand after the South Island and the North Island, known for its wild kiwi birds, cute small-island town, backcountry recreation, and Ulva Island rare bird sanctuary. It lies 30 km to the south of the South Island, separated from it by Foveaux Strait. With an area of 1,746 km² (674 mi²), it is far smaller than the two main islands, but is nearly twice the size of the next largest island, Chatham Island with 920 km² (355 mi²), and far bigger than all the other small islands of the temperate New Zealand archipelago.
Its original Maori name, Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, positions Stewart Island firmly at the heart of Maori mythology. Translated as "The Anchor Stone of Maui's Canoe", this refers to the part played by this island in the legend of Maui and his crew who, from their canoe (the South Island), caught and raised the great fish, the North Island. However, the more commonly used name is Rakiura. Translated as "The great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamau", an early Maori chief, it is seen today as the glowing sunrises, sunsets and the aurora australis or Southern Lights.
Most of the remote backcountry of Stewart Island (but not the populated or road-accessible areas) makes up Rakiura National Park.
Most of the island is covered in native forest and virtually the entire population of about 400 is concentrated in the township of Oban (also known as Halfmoon Bay) on the east coast. Commercial fishing and tourism are the two main occupations for residents. The main attractions for visitors are hiking (called tramping in New Zealand), birdwatching, fishing and deer hunting.
Although Stewart Island looks small on a map next to the South Island, it is large: 64 km long, 40 km across (at its widest point), with a 700-km coastline. But there are only 20 km of roads. You can't walk round the island in a day – even ten days tramping only skirts the northern third. Few people have seen anywhere near the whole of the island.
There is much to see, even close to the only settlement of Oban. Come for a daytrip or stay longer, as there is a good range of accommodation. Some visitors from 20 years ago are still living here.
The terrain is rugged. Stewart Island is made of granite, some of the oldest rock in New Zealand. A wide range of minerals are present, though not in commercial quantities. Tin was mined at Port Pegasus for a few years in the 1890s. There's black iron sand on some beaches, others are white with quartz or red with garnet. Most beaches are gold, sparkling in the sun. Don't bother bringing a gold pan though: it's all "fool's gold"!
Paterson Inlet cuts the Island almost in half. This large expanse of water is popular for boat trips and recreational fishing and diving.
The climate is mild, and a bit damp, but without rain, there wouldn't be a rainforest. The eastern lowlands are forest right to the water's edge. A canopy of kamahi is pierced by majestic rimu and miro. Lianes and lush fern growth adorn the bush interior.
The forest is a haven for bird-life, as there are fewer predators than on the mainland. Kaka, parakeets, tui, and bellbird give a wonderful dawn chorus in spring. New Zealand's national bird, the kiwi, is found all around the island. Seabirds abound offshore. Albatross, petrels, cormorants, gulls and blue penguins are common. Rarer species like yellow-eye penguins are also seen often.
Mason Bay, on the island's west coast is much different. It's a 20-km crescent of sandy beach, with huge sand-hills and tussock and scrub in place of forest. This is the place to watch the white-horses charge ashore in a screaming westerly gale.
- Oban Visitor Centre, The Red Shed, 12 Elgin Terr (near the wharf). Visitor info, bookings and car, scooter and bike hire.
Getting there requires crossing Foveaux Strait by boat or plane from Southland on the mainland.
Stewart Island Experience runs a scheduled passenger ferry service from Bluff, near Invercargill, to Oban/Half Moon Bay, with 2-4 departures during the day (dependent on time of year). The crossing is 22 nautical miles or 39 km and takes one hour. Adult $99 each way, children half-price. Long-stay parking is available at the Bluff terminal. From Invercargill, there's a shuttle that will pick you up from the airport or hotel and bring you to the ferry terminal for an extra $30 each way.
Occasionally other boats, usually charter vessels, make the crossing.
1 Stewart Island Flights makes three 20-minute flights a day from Invercargill Airport. $135 one-way, $230 return (amazingly, this is cheaper than a round trip with the ferry and connection shuttles, though it doesn't include pickup at hotels in Invercargill). The same company also operates charter flights to remote areas of Stewart Island.
- Walk, mostly. All of the 20 kilometres of roads are around Oban/Halfmoon Bay, and the rest of the island is a hiker's wilderness paradise.
- Bus tour
- Shuttles, taxi, rental cars, mountain bikes and scooters
- Ulva Island Ferry between Golden Bay and Ulva Island
- Water taxi or charter a fishing or tour boat
- 1 Stewart Island Electric Bike Hire, 4 Main Rd. $55 for 3.5 hours.
- Aurora Cab Company, ☏ . daily 7AM-9PM. Taxis.
The museum and Department of Conservation (DoC) in Oban both have excellent displays and are open most days.
Stewart Island is one of the best places to view the aurora australis or Southern Lights, unless you fancy an expensive and uncomfortable sojourn in one of the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands. It's not ideally located for this and travellers should not expect a display every night, but the magnetic pole's offset helps, and it's a lot cheaper than taking a boat into Antarctic waters.
- 1 Rakiura National Park Visitor Centre, 15 Main Rd, ☏ , email@example.com. M-F 8:30AM–4:30PM, Sa Su 10AM–2PM. Department of Conservation (DoC) office in Oban, with a small exhibition and information counter.
- 2 Rakiura Museum, 11 Main Road, firstname.lastname@example.org. Oct-May: daily 10AM-3PM; Jun-Sep: M-F 10AM-noon, Sa 10AM-1:30PM, Su noon-2PM. Volunteer-run museum with an interesting historical and nature collection, which moved to a new bigger building in 2020. $10.
- 3 Moturau Moana Native Gardens. Daylight hours. A park-like area of mostly native garden given to the people by the late Miss Noeline Baker. It is particularly worth visiting if you are not going to explore the native woodland in more detail, and even if you are, the labels on some of the trees may be of interest. Also offers good views looking towards Halfmoon Bay. Free.
- 4 Lee Bay chain sculpture (Te Puka - the anchorstone). Always open. A section of giant anchor chain and some interpretation boards by the beach at Lee Bay. The anchor chain reflects Maori legends that Stewart Island acts as an anchor for the great ancestral canoe Te Waka o Aoraki (the South Island). The chain is at the start of the Rakiura Track. Free.
- 5 Observation Rock (Up the hill across the street from the rugby field). A surprisingly impressive viewpoint close to town, overlooking the southern bays of the Oban area. You can drive to it if you have a vehicle (then go up a few steps and down a very short trail). free.
Stewart Island is one of the only places in New Zealand where you have a good chance of spotting a fully wild kiwi bird, but they're still not exactly easy to find. They come out only after dark, and are most often spotted at the edges of open areas such as roads or lawns (listening for their calls can help). If you plan to go looking on your own, bring a red light or buy the "Kiwi-spotting kitset" (piece of red cellophane and rubber band) from the Four Square market ($0.50); shining a normal white flashlight at a kiwi may disturb it.
You have a decent chance of finding one if you spend a few hours driving the back roads at night, or a few nights poking around on foot on the hiking trails and town rugby field. But your odds are much better if you go with one of the several tour operators (from $100 per person), which can take you their special spots (some go to the town's airstrip, which isn't open to the public).
You will sometimes see Ulva Island sanctuary (see below) advertised as "the only place to see wild kiwis in the daytime", but this is very rare. Even experienced birdwatchers don't usually see any kiwi there. If you do go there, don't mistake the weka – a much more commonly-seen ground bird of a similar size, shape and colour – for a kiwi. Ulva Island is strictly closed to the public at nighttime.
Mason Bay, on the west coast, is probably the easiest place on Stewart Island (and perhaps in the world) to see kiwis in the wild, but is not accessible by road or day hike.
- Kiwi Wilderness Walks offer an all inclusive guided walk that starts in Invercargill, spends a night at Mason Bay then walk and water taxis across the island to Halfmoon Bay.
Other nature watching
The outskirts of Oban village are one of the best places in southern New Zealand to see kaka parrots, and native tui birds are abundant. Penguins may sometimes be seen within the village in the evenings, as can long-tailed bats, seals and sea lions, and occasionally even kiwi. Sooty shearwaters nest on Ackers Point, and can be seen in late evening over the summer. Stewart Island is known for its relative abundance of podocarp tree species, and is also overflowing with a multitude of fern species.
Ulva Island Open Sanctuary (in relative isolation but with easy access from Stewart Island) is a sanctuary for both birds and plants, holding species that are rare or have died out on the mainland of New Zealand. Partially private land and partially national park, Ulva Island is possibly the closest to pristine of any area of New Zealand open to the public. In 1997, the island was declared rat-free, following an eradication program, and extirpated birds have been reintroduced to the island (rats have continued to re=invade and be re-exterminated). Specialty birds include the South Island saddleback (tieke), yellowhead (mohua), red-crowned parakeet (kakariki), and Stewart Island robin (toutouwai). A skilled birder can find all of them within a few hours, and even a non-birder is likely to notice the chicken-like weka, which are particularly common here. In addition to birds the general forest health has improved significantly. Many orchids can now be seen that are difficult to find on mainland Stewart Island. New Zealand sea lions are often seen on the beaches. Water taxis and a ferry service regularly make the short trip from Golden Bay.
You can take yourself around Ulva or take a guided tour. If you don't stop much, it takes about 2 hours to walk all the trails, which actually only cover the northern quarter of the island (the rest is inaccessible to the public). If you like to take it slow or expect to be doing a lot of birdwatching, give yourself much more than that.
- 1 Ulva Island ferry. Weather dependent, closed in winter.. Departs from Golden Bay at 9AM, noon, and 2PM. Departs from Ulva Island at 12:15, 2:15PM, and 4:15PM. Don't forget to hold onto your eco-friendly "leaf ticket" for the journey back. $25 round-trip per person if paying with cash, $27 with card.
- Sails Ulva Island Tours, 11 View St, ☏ . Four hours exploration of Ulva Island. The guide was one-time Ranger in Charge of Stewart Island, and has over 40 years Ulva Island experience. Party size is usually less than 7, and tour includes all transfers. $175.
- Ulva's Guided Walks, The Fernery, Main Road, ☏ . Departures: Oct-Apr 8:30AM and 1PM, May-Sep 9:30AM. Explore Ulva Island. This guiding company was named by the owner, Ulva Goodwillie, who is named after the island. Ulva is a direct descendant of the first Maori peoples of Stewart Island and is passionate and very knowledgeable about this special place. Departs from Golden Bay Wharf. $125.
Walking and hiking
Walking is a popular activity and walks range from a few minutes and easy (Fuchsia Walk) to several days and challenging (Northwest Circuit). For hikes that you can do in a day or less, check out the official [Stewart Island Short Walks brochure https://www.doc.govt.nz/documents/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/southland/stewart-island-rakiura-short-walks-brochure.pdf], which includes a map and descriptions of each trail.
- Rakiura Track. 36 km and takes 3 days
- North-West Circuit. 125 km and takes 7-12 days.
- Southern Circuit. 71.5 km and takes 4-6 days.
- Coast to Coast. Fly to Mason Bay and land on the beach, walk to the Freshwater Hut (4 hours), then take a ferry back to town. $230 per person.
White-tailed deer may be found in moderate numbers all over Stewart Island/Rakiura. Red deer are found in moderate numbers in the Northwest. Permits are required for all hunting on Stewart Island/Rakiura and must be applied for in advance from the Department of Conservation or the Rakiura Maori Land Trust. Hunting blocks can be booked via the DOC Website or the Rakiura Maori Land Trust.
Stewart Island has a rich cold-water marine environment dominated by kelp forests. If you want to go by yourself, bring your own gear and try the north end of Sydney Cove on Ulva Island. The water is 8-12 °C year-round (aka super cold), so you almost certainly will need a wetsuit. Tours from [Stewart Island Adventures https://stewartislandadventures.co.nz/[dead link]] come highly recommended and include thick wetsuits that will keep you nice and warm.
- Lo Loma Fishing Charters (boat leaves from Halfmoon Bay Wharf), ☏ , LoLoma_charters@hotmail.com. Learn to fish the traditional way with handlines; no rods here! It's a lot easier and tourists are always surprised at how quick it is to catch some Blue Cod! Richard "Squizzy" Squires' family has always lived on Stewart Island and he knows the waters here like the back of his hand. If there are fish to be caught, he will take you there! Also a great chance to see seabirds in their natural environment; albatrosses, mollymawks, muttonbirds etc etc. $75 for a half-day fishing trip.
2 A Local's Tail, 10 Main Rd (opposite the DOC office), ☏ , email@example.com. Daily 11AM, 2PM, 4PM. "A Local's Tail" is a quirky 40-minute movie about Stewart Island produced by Stewart Island Bunkhouse Theatre. Narrated and shown from the eyes of a dog, it gives you a fascinating insight into the Island's history and heritage as well as more up-to-date footage. Don't forget a $2 coin for the popcorn machine and you can purchase a small range of drinks, snacks and ice-cream. $10.
- 2 Jade Rakiura, 45 Elgin Terrace, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Make your own jade jewellery in an interactive workshop.
- 1 Glowing Sky. T-shirts and Merino clothing
- Stewart Island Experience. Souvenirs and postcards.
- 2 Department of Conservation. Souvenirs and postcards
- 3 Stewart Island Flights. Souvenirs and postcards
There are only a few places to get food on the island. Most, if not all, of them are listed here:
- 1 Church Hill Restaurant and Oyster Bar, 36 Kamahi Rd, ☏ , email@example.com. Try local Southern Glory Oysters, grown and harvested on Stewart Island.
- 2 Kai Kart, Ayr St. (near the Rakiura Museum). Open W-Su (seasonal). Caravan serving good fish and chips (and great coleslaw). Some outdoor seats if you don't want to take away.
- 3 South Sea Hotel, Elgin Terrace (on the waterfront), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. 7AM–8PM although maybe longer or shorter hours depending on the season. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner you have the choice of dining in the restaurant or the bar. During summer hours the kitchen also offers a short cafe menu during the afternoon. Bookings are strongly recommended in the summer months. $10-40.
- 4 Stewart Island Four Square, Elgin Terrace, ☏ . Winter: 7:30AM–6:30PM, summer: 7:30AM–7PM. A very small but more-or-less fully stocked supermarket is great for people wishing to cater for themselves and they also offer a great range of home-made sandwiches, hot pies, ice-creams etc $2-10.
- 1 South Sea Hotel, Elgin Terrace (on the waterfront), ☏ , email@example.com. Licensed 11AM–3AM although the bar closes earlier on quieter nights. This is the only pub in town and is the hub of the community. Drink prices are reasonable compared to the mainland; in a lot of cases cheaper, with tap beer priced $4.50 from upwards. The bar has a Happy Hour Tu 17:00–18:30 and bar food is always available, or you can get a meal from the restaurant. Friday night is a great night to meet the locals and listen to their yarns. Sunday night is Quiz Night, starting at 6:30PM promptly. It has been featured on TV, radio and in many newspapers. Registrations start at 6PM, but in the summer months the pub fills up rapidly, so it's recommended to go in about an hour before that to get a seat!
There are a variety of accommodation options on Stewart Island - ranging from backpackers, motels, and bed and breakfasts to self catering/contained houses and lodges.
Backcountry DOC huts are theoretically the island's cheapest roof over your head - only $5 per night - but are all located at least two days' walk from town, unless you take a water taxi, private boat, or aircraft. The two DOC huts on the Rakiura Track, each of which is within a one-day walk of town, are $56 per night for foreign citizens (more expensive than the hostel in town).
Campsites on the Rakiura Track, also all about a day's walk out of town, are $24 per person for foreign citizens, and must be booked in advance. Private campsites are available in town at the backpacker's hostel, and outside town at Allan's Base Camp, for about the same price.
- 1 Stewart Island Backpackers, 18 Ayr Street. Apparently the only proper backpackers hostel still operating on the island, located right in Oban. Bed $45, room $96, tent site $25.
- 2 Allan's Base Camp, 163 Main Road (Past the helicopter pad, on the right), ☏ (talk loud as Allan is hard of hearing). Rustic, off-grid hilltop camp outside of town (about 30 minutes' walk), near one end of the Rakiura Track and other hikes. Quirky and cutely decorated, run entirely by its 80-year-old owner. Includes simple kitchen (no electrical appliances) and one shared shower and toilet. Bring your own sleeping bag and towel, but the beds in the huts do have mattresses and pillows. No Wifi, but our Vodafone cell service worked great there. A bit run-down and disorganized, but more than suitable for rough-and-tumble backpacker types, and probably the cheapest beds around. Good for visitors who prefer being out in nature over the comforts of normal accommodations. Wild kiwi birds are sometimes seen in the camp at night. Bed in camp hut $45, tent site $35 per person, cabins $105-135 (all cash only).
- 3 A Grand View Backpackers, 23 Nichol Rd. The very few reviews online for this establishment say it's not much of a backpackers hostel, without a common area or real kitchen.
- 4 Kaka Retreat, 7-9 Miro Crescent, ☏ . Check-in: available from 2PM, check-out: 10AM. Nestled amongst native bush and birds. Accommodations range from studio apartments to group bookings for up to 24 people. from $230.
- Kowhai Lane Lodge, 6 Kowhai Lane (guests are met on arrival), ☏ . Check-in: on arrival, check-out: 10AM. All 4 guest rooms are centrally heated and en suite, with shared kitchen, dining and lounge. It has a harbour view. $270 per room.
- 5 Bay Motel, 9 Dundee St, Halfmoon Bay, ☏ . Twelve rooms. From $175.
- 6 South Sea Hotel. The main building has traditional (historic) hotel rooms upstairs, which have a washbasin in the room and shared bathrooms along the corridor. There are ensuite motel units with their own kitchen in a building behind. The atmosphere and welcome make up for the older facilities (which are well maintained). from $80.
Spark and Vodafone provide mobile phone coverage around Oban.
Free WiFi is available throughout Ayr Street (APNK, password 88 88 88 88), and Elgin Terrace (beachfrontwifi password tokoeka).
- Bluff – if returning to the South Island by boat, you will probably land here
- New Zealand Subantarctic Islands – to the south and east (although you wouldn't generally leave from Stewart Island to get to them)
- Chatham Islands – if you want to visit more remote and rugged islands, these lie to the east of the South Island (though you wouldn't leave from Stewart Island to get there)