Stewart Island is the last stop before Antarctica and feels like stepping back in time and getting a glimpse of what mainland New Zealand used to be like. Everywhere in New Zealand is friendly but none more so than Stewart island where everyone will stop to say hello.
It's one of the best places to see the national icon - the kiwi, hike several trails and see a truly unique part of the country.
It's somewhere that we had wanted to visit for many years but never quite got round to. When we decided to set ourselves the challenge of walking all 9 Great Walks of New Zealand in 9 weeks, that was about to change.
Despite being on a tight time schedule there was no way we were going to boat in, walk and boat out, so we decided to spend most of the week on the island, and we're very glad that we did.
Here's our top 9 things to do on Stewart Island and why you should plan this beautiful island into your New Zealand itinerary.
1. Spot a kiwi in the wild
Apart from walking the Rakiura Track this was the big draw card for us. With 10,000 kiwis residing on Stewart island, it is known as the best place in New Zealand to spot this iconic bird. Having spent over six months in NZ over several trips and never having encountered one we were keeping all fingers and toes crossed.
There are many places you might be lucky enough to see one, they tend to come out at night, although they are also spotted during the day on Stewart Island. The track back from Ackers Point is a known hotspot, as well as the Rakiura Track itself and occasionally Ulva Island visitors are lucky enough to see them too.
However our top spot, and the place we were over the moon to finally spot one was the rugby pitch just five minutes walk from town. Yes the rugby pitch, strange but true. We'd recommend taking a torch with red light (red light does not disturb the kiwis like white light does) and heading to the outer edges of the pitch which are surrounded by dense bush.
We headed there at around 9.30pm and due to kiwi being large birds you can hear them moving through the undergrowth. Then it is just a matter of keeping quiet and waiting for one to pop out on to the pitch. It was a real New Zealand highlight for us.
If you are not lucky finding one yourself, you can take a guided tour with several operators from the town centre and they can take you to areas that you wouldn't know how to get to yourself.
2. The Rakiura Track
If you are keen to walk one of New Zealand's most remote and wild Great Walks then you can't go past the Rakiura Track. You can read a detailed account of our experience on the track here. The 32km circular track can be walked in two - three days.
The beaches are staggeringly beautiful and you will feel like you have suddenly woken up in the tropics, or maybe even Jurassic Park, such is the feeling of wilderness on the track. The forest is some of the most spectacular we have walked in, and due to the small bunk huts on the track (with just 24 beds) you are likely to find yourself walking in blissful solitude. It's the perfect place to get away from it all, and the track is relatively easy and able to be walked by anyone of average fitness.
If you can't get enough of Stewart Island wilderness then you could also walk the longer north west circuit. Details of which can be found here.
3. Stunning beaches all to yourself
Now the beaches of Stewart Island were a real surprise for us. We weren't expecting them to look like tropical paradise. There are so many stunning options but we enjoyed Bathing Beach, just a 10 minute stroll from town. There was barely a soul on the beach, despite it being a stunning sunny day, and the scenery was spectacular.
When walking back from the beach into town, look out for kaka on the balcony at Rose Cottage. We saw four there and managed to get fairly close for a picture. Apparently they are frequent visitors! Don't feed them though.
4. Fairy penguin spotting, no guide required
There are several places to view fairy penguins on Stewart Island, and not require a guide. The first and easiest place logistically speaking is the Oban jetty. Head to where the white tanks are around dusk, and wait for them to come in from feeding to roost.
The second would be from Ackers Point, a 4km walk from town. There is an observation deck and some interesting penguin facts up on the signs there.
The third and probably most unusual but where we were lucky enough to spot two, was on the ferry ride from Ulva Island. It was a privilege to see them out feeding and when I asked the boat operator if that was common, she said she saw them every day but not every trip, so keep your eyes peeled!
5. Walking with endangered birds on Ulver Island
The cute ferry ticket (a leaf) is reason enough to visit Ulva Island, we found it utterly charming. The short 10 minute boat ride over is very pretty, and as mentioned, where we were lucky enough to spot two fairy penguins.
Ulva Island is predator free and as such a paradise for bird watchers. Walking through Ulva is the experience we wish we had in all New Zealand forests, alive with the sound of birdsong. It really makes for a magical experience.
There are several easy walking tracks, all of which can be walked in a couple of hours, but you might want much longer to sit and take it all in. We spotted the majority of birds when we stopped on the track and just waited for a while.
We were fortunate enough despite not having trained eyes to spot parakeets, kaka, tui, South Island robin, bellbird, wood pigeon, fantail, tomtit, and weka (by the dozen).
Though we didn't, you might also spot sea lions basking on the beaches.
6. Spectacular sunrises that creep up out of nowhere
If you wake up to a seemingly dull grey sky, don't let it deceive you. Spectacular colours lit up the sky not once but twice during our visit, and if you'd have looked at the sky only moments before you'd have never believed it.
To keep it leisurely you can just potter down to the Oban wharf to catch sunrise. One of the owners of our accommodation on the island said she likes to go to the South Sea hotel (village pub) and grab a coffee and watch the sun come up.
7. Catch a sunset at Observation Rock
Observation Rock is a short but steep 10 minute walk from the town centre. After having just walked three of the Great Walks of New Zealand we just smiled when we were told it was steep.
But I can tell you, it is steep. Lucky it is over in 10 minutes, and once you've puffed your way up to the top the view is your reward. It's a lovely vantage point and you can watch the sunset over Paterson Inlet. Perfect.
8. Island strolls to Ackers Point
Much of the easy 4km (each way) track follows the road. Now if you've been following this blog for a while you will know that we are all about wilderness walking. But the roads on Stewart Island are like no other. We only encountered two cars and both stopped and waved, and the track hugs the extremely pretty coastline. It was a great way to get a feel for the area, and meet a few locals whilst also keeping your eyes peeled for fairy penguins and kiwi, both of which are regularly spotted on this trail.
You will pass pretty beaches and bays and stroll a little through the bush before arriving at beautiful Ackers Point. We were particularly keen to look for kiwi on this track and therefore walked under the light of an almost full moon which was incredibly atmospheric. Though we didn't spot kiwi, we were privileged to spend 10 minutes listening to kaka call back and forth to each other (at the time we thought they were kiwi, but the Rakiura hut ranger put us right on hearing our recording!).
9. Slowing the pace down with island life
If like most people you lead a hectic life and are seeking somewhere to slow it down then Stewart Island will do the trick. We were late for our taxi driver taking us to the start of the Rakiura Track and then our water bladder broke and we needed to make a stop for bottled water.
I began apologising profusely for wasting his time and it was waved away with a smile and a sentence I came to associate with this little island gem 'you're on Stewart Island time now'.
It's a place where everyone stops to say hello and the village shop still rents DVDs! There's a lot to be said for simply slowing down and enjoying some island time. The main attractions are all a short amble from the town centre so the only schedule you need to stick to is your own.
How to get to Stewart Island
We travelled to the island by ferry from Bluff which takes one hour, all the details can be found here.
Alternatively you can fly to the island but as it is such a short journey we would recommend taking the ferry.
Where to stay on Stewart Island
There are plenty of accommodation choices ranging from budget options to the height of luxury. We stayed at Stewart Island Backpackers, which was right in the centre of Oban and had a fully stocked kitchen for us to use - perfect for preparing for our tramp. Double rooms with shared bathroom are $75, making it an affordable choice.
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Have you thought about visiting Stewart island? If you have visited did you see a kiwi in the wild? Let us know in the comments below.