14 Incredible Things to Do on Stewart Island

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Stewart Island, or Rakiura, is New Zealand’s southern jewel. The smallest of New Zealand’s three main islands, being away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland makes this a very different destination from the usual tourist haunts.

Its 400-odd residents are independent, no-nonsense people, used to making something out of nothing, and fiercely protective of their beautiful island home and the waters and skies surrounding it. 85% of the land on Stewart Island is part of the Rakiura National Park, and it’s also an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, making for spectacular starry nights in winter.

If you’re lucky and the conditions are right, you could even be treated to a glorious natural fireworks display when the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) flares in the night sky. 

Stewart Island is a special place to visit, but don’t go there expecting tropical weather and palm-laden beaches. It’s not that type of island. Instead, be prepared for any conditions: your trip could be wet, windy, sunny, calm and clear, hot or cold, possibly all on the same day.

Stewart Island had been on my must-visit list for years before I took the short ferry ride across Foveaux Strait, and within hours I was berating myself for waiting so long. It’s an incredible destination for hikers and nature lovers in particular, but there are plenty of indoor activities for when the heavens open.

Don’t worry too much about the weather forecast. Pack a raincoat, sunscreen, and a sense of adventure, and check out these 15 Stewart Island delights.

Go Fishing 

As you’d expect, fishing is a big part of island life, and the locals are keen to share the experience with their visitors.

Several companies offer fishing charters, including Rakiura Adventures. The company partners with two local fishermen to provide some unique water-based adventures. Enjoy spectacular seascapes, learn the local history, and listen to a yarn or two while using traditional hand lines to catch your very own Southern Blue Cod for dinner. 

See Extraordinary Birds

Rakiura is famous as a sanctuary for New Zealand’s native land and sea birds, so it’s no surprise that the island offers a range of options for bird lovers. I saw two kiwis in the wild during my time there, and even on an evening walk on the outskirts of Oban, I shared the experience with several kereru, tui, kaka, and other native birds.

Ulva Island

Ulva Island Ferry ticket hand-written on the back of a leaf, with ocean and islands in the background

Covered by ancient temperate rainforest, Ulva is a predator-free island not far from Rakiura. Rats, mice, and other predators present a real danger to New Zealand’s native birds, so pest-free areas like Ulva are essential to their survival.

Before you set foot on the island, your guide or water taxi operator will ask you to search your bag. You’d be amazed at the number of trampers who discover that a mouse has hitched a ride in the bottom of their backpacks.

Ulva Island Ferry runs small water taxis between Stewart and Ulva islands every hour or two throughout the day for $20 return — just buy your ticket (handwritten on a leaf!) on the wharf in Golden Bay, near Oban. Several companies also offer guided tours to the island, including half-day and evening excursions.

On the tours you’ll get to enjoy a leisurely cruise across Paterson Inlet, then walk the well-maintained tracks through lush native forest. Your guide will explain the flora and fauna along the way, some of which you’re unlikely to see anywhere else in the country.

You’ll probably spot anything from cheeky weka on the ground to colourful parakeets, tiny tomtits and grey warblers, and melodious bellbirds and tuis fluttering through the trees. Perhaps, like me, you’ll even see a kiwi running around! 

Seabird Cruise

Rakiura Adventures offers a very different kind of birdwatching experience with its Pelagic Tour in the seas around Stewart Island. 

The actual itinerary depends on the weather and what you’re interested in seeing, with loads of different islands and inlets you might explore. Wherever you go, though, you can expect to see magnificent seabirds. Three types of penguins and four species of mollymawks thrive around Stewart Island, not to mention numerous petrels, terns, and gulls. Even albatrosses roam above these southern seas. 

Thanks to the expert skippers and guides, this is your best chance to see these truly remarkable seabirds in their natural surroundings. 

Kiwi Spotting

Kiwi sign beside a gravel road, near the start of the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island

You’ll find many places elsewhere in the country where you can see kiwi scuffling around in darkened aviaries, but on Stewart Island, you’ve got a good chance of seeing them in their natural habitat. No one can guarantee that you’ll see a wild bird, but Ruggedy Range does its best with the nighttime Kiwi Spotting experience

You’ll take a two or three-hour evening walk with an experienced guide to search for the elusive kiwi. After an informative introductory talk and Q&A, you’ll travel by minivan to the quiet areas around Oban and Halfmoon Bay, where kiwi are known to live. 

Perhaps you’ll hear their shrill call or the sound of them scuffling in the undergrowth. If you’re fortunate, you’ll see one moving through the grass or digging for worms and grubs. 

Whatever you see — or don’t see — you’ll enjoy an excellent, personalised small group tour, and come away knowing a lot more about New Zealand’s rare nocturnal birds. 

Explore by Boat

View from beach out over ocean, Stewart Island, New Zealand

Naturally, many tours explore different aspects of Stewart Island’s ecology and heritage by water. Here are a few of the best of them.

Paterson Inlet Tour

Paterson Inlet is a large natural harbour close to the town of Oban on the eastern coast of Stewart Island. You’ll cruise close to the shoreline to see the hidden beauty spots and wildlife around this sheltered spot.

Freshwater River 

At the far end of Paterson Inlet lies Freshwater River, the longest navigable river on Rakiura. Boats can only enter the tannin-stained waters at high tide, cruising along the winding curves to the jetty at Freshwater Landing. The riverbanks are lush with reeds and manuka, flax and ferns, the perfect home for wildlife including cormorants, kingfishers, eels, and tiny freshwater crayfish.  

Freshwater River/Mason Bay (cruise/hike/fly)

If you’re feeling fit and looking to up the level of adventure, this cruise/hike/fly tour could be right up your alley. 

This multi-experience tour sees you cruising up Freshwater River to the landing, where you leave the boat and head off on an independent four-hour hike along a flat track. The trail weaves through the scrub, over wetlands (it does get muddy in places), past historic buildings and sand dunes, and down to Mason Bay.

There, you’ll meet your pilot for a wonderful flight along the beach and dunes, with plenty of opportunity to capture some spectacular photos along the way. Finally, head back to Oban for a well-deserved dinner at the local pub.

Norwegian Whalers Base (cruise and walk)

People have been sailing to Stewart Island for centuries, with first the Maori and later European whalers making a home here. The Ruggedy Range whalers cruise sails to Prices Inlet, where Norwegian whalers set up camp in the 1920s. This was the sailors’ winter camp, a place to repair boats and gear and shelter from southern storms between whaling seasons.

The base is now reverting to native bush. Still, a short walk takes you past the many artefacts and interpretation panels that give visitors a glimpse into the daily life of the rugged men who lived and worked here.   

Multi-Day Cruise  

Finally, if one day on the sea isn’t enough, why not take a six-day expedition on the Milford Wanderer? This old-world vessel is designed like a traditional sailing ship, but with all the modern comforts you could want. 

The Real NZ travel company offers these unique excursions in the winter months of July and August, giving passengers a unique way to discover the delights of New Zealand’s southern coast in relative comfort. 

Starting and ending in Bluff on the mainland, the days are spent cruising along the Rakiura coast, with lots of opportunity for onshore excursions to wander through rainforests and along deserted beaches only accessible by boat. Evenings are filled with food and social activity, plus informative talks that provide even more insight into the history and ecology of the area. 

Take a Hike

Dave with backpack on, walking across bridge on Rakiura Great Walk on Stewart Island

For many visitors, a trip to Stewart Island is all about the hiking. Whether you feel like taking a gentle stroll or a multi-day hike, there’s plenty of opportunity to lace up your boots. 

For a start, there’s the famous Rakiura Track. The 36km hike along the coast and into the island’s forest is one of New Zealand’s ten Great Walks and is usually completed in 2-3 days. I walked it in early 2020, and it was a fantastic experience. Despite the mud (which is pretty much a given, even in summer), it’s not difficult if you do it over three days.

At 105kms, the Southern Circuit is a much longer trek — and if even that’s not far enough, the 125km North West Circuit will really test your fitness. Both walks are suitable for experienced trampers (hikers) only, and shouldn’t be underestimated.

You’ll need plenty of food, clothes and camping gear to cope with these 9-12 day hikes, but the chance to get right into the wilderness still lures many people to try these challenging tracks. 

Swim with Great Whites

What could be more thrilling — or terrifying — than getting up close and personal with a Great White shark? 

The Shark Experience cage diving tour gives you that chance in relative safety. Marvel as the experienced instructors take you diving among the sharks, fish, and other sea life off the coast of the Northern Titi Islands, between Stewart Island and the mainland. This is an incredible chance to see the magnificent creatures that roam the cold, clear waters of this area.

Not everyone in your group has to cage dive. Non-divers can still join the excursion by taking the cruise-only option, which still gets them close to penguins, seals, birds, and other wildlife along the way.

This tour leaves from Bluff on the mainland, so strictly speaking, it’s not a Stewart Island activity. However, if meeting a shark is at the top of your bucket list, consider combining this activity with the beginning or end of your Stewart Island holiday.

Take a Photography Tour

Locally-owned tour operator Ruggedy Range has a number of great excursions on offer, including three dedicated to helping keen photographers capture images around Rakiura.  

Visitors with a day to spare can choose between the three-hour seabird tour or the all-day Ulva Island tour, but if you’ve got the time, go for the overnight excursion to Mason Bay and try to capture a shot of a wild kiwi.

Even if you don’t find one of the elusive birds, you’ll still photograph incredible scenery and many other unique island birds. The journey alone has got to be worth the effort, with a plane flight in and a hike and boat ride back down Freshwater River and across Paterson Inlet at the end. 

Tour on Two or Four Wheels

Road outside Oban on Stewart Island, with beach and ocean in background

Stewart Island doesn’t have many roads: most of the island is accessible by plane, boat, or foot only. There are 30km of roads in and around Oban, though, so those who aren’t so keen on walking have two options to see the sights: hire an electric bike or take a scenic road tour.  

There are some steep inclines around the island, so if you’re keen to explore independently, hiring an e-bike will definitely help you explore all the nooks and crannies more quickly and easily than you can on foot. 

If you’d rather see the sights and learn some history in more comfort, then the Island Culture Scenic Road Tour is the one for you. Oban is the only settlement on Stewart Island these days, and the tour takes you all around the village before heading out to Observation Rock and the entrance to Rakiura National Park. 

Swim at Bathing Beach

Most Stewart Island trips involve being on the water rather than in it. When the locals want to go swimming, however, they usually head to Bathing Beach, a lovely sheltered and sandy beach not far from Oban.  

It’s a great place to take a dip, relax and listen to the birds, or simply sit and enjoy incredible sea views. If your legs get restless, you can walk along the whole beach at low tide. Check out the Mill Creek estuary to see the still-visible remnants of the Island’s bygone timber industry. 

When the Weather Turns Bad 

While most visitors come to Rakiura to see the abundant wildlife and experience the great outdoors, sometimes the weather gives you little option but to stay inside. Here are some of your indoor options for entertainment on Stewart Island.

Learn to Carve with Rakiura Jade

Pounamu — or greenstone — is New Zealand’s version of jade. It’s precious, especially to the Maori, and you’ll find it in intricate carvings and jewellery shops up and down the country. 

It’s gorgeous stuff, so how about learning to carve some pounamu yourself? You’ll get that chance at Rakiura Jade, where Master carver Dave Goodwin offers one-day carving workshops to budding artists. 

Get To Know the Locals at the Movies

There’s one tiny movie theatre in Oban, and that’s the Bunkhouse Theatre. It’s easy to find since it’s right opposite the Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre, which for many people is the first port of call when they arrive on the island. 

Now, you can’t meet all the local characters in person, but you can find out all about them in Stewart Island’s very own movie, A Locals Tail. The quirky 40-minute film shows the island, its people, and history through the eyes of one of the local dogs. It’s a great way to while away a rainy hour and get all your questions answered at the same time.

Enjoy a Pub Quiz

Locals and visitors get together at the South Sea Hotel for the weekly pub quiz every Sunday night. Get to the pub before 6pm to register your team or if you’re on your own, come along to see if another team has a spare spot.

The South Sea restaurant takes up the entire first floor of this iconic Stewart Island building on the Oban waterfront, and is a great place to enjoy fresh seafood any day of the week. 

Visit the Museum

Finally, you can learn about Stewart Island’s colourful past in the modern Rakiura Museum on Main Road in Oban. You can easily spend an hour or two in this small but interesting building.

The museum has an extensive collection of artefacts and memorabilia documenting the Island and its people, past and present. It includes Maori taonga (treasures) and tools, plus tales and photographs of the traditional muttonbird (sooty shearwater) harvest on the Titi Islands, European settlers, whalers, the timber industry, farming, and much more. 

Getting There

Boats in the harbour at sunset outside Oban on Stewart Island, New Zealand

You’re probably longing to take a trip to this unique part of New Zealand by now, but how do you get there? Not by road, obviously.

In fact, unless you charter a private boat, there are only two ways to get to Stewart Island: take the passenger ferry or catch a plane.

RealNZ offers the only ferry option to Rakiura. Weather permitting, the fast catamaran makes four daily crossings from Bluff to Oban and back, with the option of coach transfers to the ferry terminal from Invercargill.

Secure car parking is available alongside the terminal in Bluff, at the cost of roughly $10/day for the first two days, and $5/day thereafter. You may also be able to park on the street for free elsewhere in town, although it’s obviously at your own risk.

The boat isn’t particularly large, so luggage is limited to two pieces per person (one hand, one stowed). Be warned: if the weather’s rough, seasickness is a real possibility. Still, most of the 30,000 or so travellers who visit Rakiura every year cross their fingers for calm seas and brave the ferry crossing.

For what its worth, I had a near dead-flat crossing on the way to Stewart Island, and only a small swell on the way back. Hopefully you’ll get the same!

If you’d prefer a 20-minute flight to a one-hour boat ride, then Stewart Island Flights is the only commercial company offering regular flights from Invercargill. 

Although the scheduled times vary between summer and winter, the company offers three flights a day in their 9-seater Britten Norman Islanders. They’ve also been known to put on extra flights when demand is high. 

Again, you’re travelling in a small vehicle with limited baggage space, so need to travel light. You can’t take more than 15kg on board, so if your backpack’s heavier than that, take the ferry instead.  

As you’ve probably gathered by now, travelling to Stewart Island is a bit of an adventure in itself. Whether you go by air or sea, though, you take your sense of fun and proper clothing along, and you’re sure to have a fabulous time. I know I did.


Main image via Harvepino/Shutterstock.com, other images via author

One Response to “14 Incredible Things to Do on Stewart Island

  • Stewart Island reminded me so much of La Digue island in Seychelles.

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