A few years ago a group of my friends spent a few days on Stewart Island. I was invited too, but was already travelling in the Middle East so I had to content myself with jealously watching their social media updates instead. Finally I recently got to visit for myself and now I can tell you all about the best things to do on Stewart Island, New Zealand, to help with your planning your trip to this little piece of paradise on earth.
But Where is Stewart Island?
Everyone knows about the North Island and the South Island, but New Zealand’s third island is not so well known. It sits about 30km off the south coast of the South Island. The only real town on the island is Oban, which has a population of around 400 people. Stewart Island is one of the best places to see the kiwi in the wild, and thanks to the concerted effort to rid the island of imported species, many other natives are starting to thrive here too. The best time to visit is during the summer for a little more sunshine.
One way to get to Stewart Island is by ferry from Bluff on the South Island. The nearest airport to Bluff is at Invercargill. The one-hour trip can be a wild ride crossing the Foveaux Strait, particularly during winter if the weather is bad. Book your ferry ticket here.
Alternatively you can fly to Stewart Island from Invercargill. Information for flights can be found here.
Things to do on Stewart Island
If you are looking for a party vacation, Stewart Island is not for you. Instead it is a place to enjoy nature, particularly some of the unique New Zealand birdlife, relax and live the simple life. If that suits your style, then you will find plenty of things to do here to keep you busy.
Discover the Raikura Museum
Raikura is the Maori name for Stewart Island, so you will often see that as you visit here. Raikura Museum is located in Oban and showcases local history, from Maori settlement, early industries like whaling and mining, and of course the local wildlife. While we were in Oban we saw that a new museum building was under construction, so I expect this museum will be bigger and better in the coming months. Entry to the museum is $2NZD and it is only open for a couple of hours from 10am depending on the time of the year. This may change with the move to the new building so I suggest confirming with your accommodation before your visit.
Watch “A Local’s Tail”
Every day there are screenings of “A Local’s Tail” at the Bunkhouse Theatre right in the centre of Oban. The short, 40-minute film gives a quirky look at Stewart Island, both in the past and today. The film is narrated by local dog Lola, who is known to make celebrity appearances at some of the showings, ready for her selfie with viewers. She even got to meet Prince Harry when he was in town. The screening costs $10NZD and is shown at 2pm and 4pm. For more details and a trailer, see the website here.
Keep an eye out too for other films that are shown at the Bunkhouse Theatre over the summer season. They will be listed on website, but I am sure asking a local would get you the information too.
Get to Know Stewart Island with a Tour
Take a short minibus tour of the village of Oban and the nearby bays to get your bearings. The tour takes about 90 minutes and stops along the way for photo opportunities and a short walk or two. The local guide will fill in in with all sorts of facts and quirky tales to bring your visit to life. Click here to book your tickets.
Take a Hike
There are literally dozens of hiking/walking trails all over Stewart Island, from family friendly short walks to one of New Zealand’s multi-day Great Walks. Here I’ll tell you about a few of the most popular, but there are plenty of other options too, including much longer loop walks of the island, organised tours, and other short walks around Oban. For more information, go to the Department of Conservation – Rakiura National Park Visitor Centre office on Main Rd and you can pick up a booklet describing all the walks and maps for $2NZD. You can also get lots of other information here on what to do on Stewart Island. You can also find some brief information on the Stewart Island website here.
This short walk starts from right in the middle of town and takes about half an hour. It is uphill, but the path is mostly on the roads until the last short section through the trees, until you emerge onto a rock with a view out to sea towards Ulva Island
Golden Bay Track/Deep Bay Track
It takes about fifteen minutes to walk over the hill to Golden Bay. This is where the local ferry to Ulva Island leaves from. Once there, turn left and follow the well marked path through to Deep Bay. You will mostly walk through bushland, up and down hills along the coast. Keep an eye and ear out for some of the birds, particularly the distinctive sounds of the Tui. Once you reach Deep Bay, turn left again and head back to the centre of Oban via Paterson Hill. The whole walk will take around 1.5 to 2 hours
Ackers Point/Harrold Bay Walk
This walk takes you along the eastern side of Halfmoon Bay right to the tip of the peninsula where you will find the Ackers Point lighthouse. Along the way you will see Ackers Cottage, the oldest building on Stewart Island and one of the oldest in all of New Zealand. If you do this walk late in summer consider going late in the afternoon as you may be lucky to see the Sooty Shearwaters and Little Blue Penguins as they come ashore after their day at sea. The round trip will take about three hours.
Horseshoe Bay/Horseshoe Point
By walking to the left from the general store and over the hill you can make your way to Horseshoe Bay, then for a longer hike continue on to Horseshoe Point for more great views over Foveaux Strait. Mostly this walk is along a road until you get to Horseshoe Bay, although it can be a little hilly. If you decide to only go as far as Horseshoe Bay the return trip will take you around 90 minutes. The full trip to Horseshoe Point will take 3-4 hours return.
This multi-day hike is one of New Zealand’s famed Great Walks. It’s a three day walk, a distance of 36km. While I didn’t do this one myself, I did chat to someone who had done it. She said it was a fairly easy walk, but the track was fairly basic and muddy in some areas (and this was in February, so the peak of summer). I recommend if you would like to do this walk to have a good chat with the people at the DOC office mentioned above to check current conditions.
Visit Ulva Island
If Stewart Island itself isn’t enough of a wildlife haven, then take a trip over to Ulva Island. This island was declared free of introduced pests and has since had many rare and endangered local species of both birds and plants reintroduced. Some of them this is the only place they remain. There are no people living on Ulva Island and visitors cannot stay overnight. While you can take the local ferry over and visit for yourself, it’s a great idea here to take a guided tour. Your guide will be able to show you things you will not see by yourself and tell you the significance of them too. I recommend looking at the tours provided by Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience. They not only have a range of Ulva Island tours but other Stewart Island tours too. If their tours are too long, try this shorter tour to Ulva Island with another group.
Search for the Elusive Kiwi
The Kiwi is New Zealand’s most famous bird. It is flightless and nocturnal, and typically very difficult to see in the wild (and not so easy in captivity either!), but there are around 20 000 of them on Stewart Island so this is the best place in New Zealand to try to spot one. While it is possible to just come across one during the day, it is very unlikely. Instead I recommend you book a night time tour. The guide will take you to an area that will almost guarantee you can see a kiwi. I again recommend Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience who have a few different tour options to see kiwis, including a 2-day trip to Mason Bay which has some spectacular sand dunes (but is almost impossible to get to on your own) and the highest density of kiwis on the island.
Hire a Bike
If hiking is not your thing or you are short on time how about hiring a bike to get around the island? If you are feeling especially fit then a normal bike will be okay, but I recommend getting an e-bike to make the hilly Stewart Island terrain a lot easier to navigate. There are a few different operators renting out bikes right in the middle of Oban so you should have no trouble finding one. Check out Stewart Island Electric Bikes for an idea of the prices. There’s also a great short clip on the website to give you an idea of what Stewart Island is like.
Go for a Swim
Depending on what part of the world you are from you might not imagine that Stewart Island is a great place to hit the water. With summer temperatures only averaging 16-18C it’s not nearly warm enough for me to swim. But if you have a rare warm day, there are some really nice beaches just perfect for a dip in protected pristine waters. Only half an hours walk from the centre of town is the popular Bathing Beach which is perfect for a quick dip.
Attend an Event
There are multiple one-off events that occur on Stewart Island each year, almost exclusively during the summer months. Look out for local markets during your visit – when we were there there was one in the Community Centre. You could also coincide your visit with the Raikura Challenge Trail Run to test out your fitness.
If you are on Stewart Island on Sunday night, make your way to the South Sea Hotel at 6pm for the weekly pub quiz and pit your knowledge against the locals. It’s a fun night for all.
Hire a Kayak
If you would like to eplore the some of the island via the water, consider hiring a kayak for a few hours. Ruggedy Range (as mentioned above) offer half and full day guided kayak tours. Keep an eye out in town to hire a kayak to paddle around yourself.
Take a Scenic Flight
Since so much of Stewart Island is inaccessible unless you hike there, a great way to see more of the island is to take a scenic flight. There are a variety of options available, but the best thing to do iis to contact Stewart Island Flights to work out the best option for you.
Charter a Boat
There are multiple opportuities to charter a boat on Stewart Island. Maybe you just want to go for a scenic cruise around the island, or perhaps you want to spend a day out on the water catching fish. Both options are available. Tequila Fishing Charters will take you out to try your luck at catching blue cod, or you can hire them for a birdwatching cruise or a Paterson Inlet charter. For more information check out their website here.
Have a Picnic at Moturau Moana Native Gardens
If you are looking for a peaceful location for a picnic, head just out of Oban to the Moturau Moana Native Gardens. Some of the gardens are a little wild, but there are good picnic facilities and a fabulous deck with a view over the sea. There is room here for the kids to have a run and burn off some steam too. We saw a good amount of birdlife here too, so it would also be a good location to spend some time birdwatching.
Spot the Borealis Australis
Unfortunately I missed this on my visit, but since Stewart Island is so far south it makes the ideal location for spotting the elusive Southern Lights. With so few people on the island, it’s also not too difficult to find a dark area for the best viewing. Even though I live in the southern part of Australia I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing the lights, but I have seen the northern lights twice and it’s one of those magical experiences that you should absolutely have on your bucket list. While of course mother nature is fickle and the southern lights can never be guaranteed, download the Aurora app and you can see if the conditions are right.
Stewart Island Accommodation
Here are just a couple of suggestions for where to stay on Stewart Island. For a budget option I suggest the Stewart Island Backpackers, who have both private rooms and dorm accommodation. For a mid-range option, consider the Bay Motel which has basic rooms, rooms with kitchenettes and apartments available. If you would like to really splash out, check out the luxurious Church Hill Boutique Lodge and Restaurant.
Where to Eat on Stewart Island
I particularly recommend looking out for the local Bluff Oysters if they are on the menu at the South Sea Hotel. They are seasonal though, so not always available. For a quick meal grab some fish & chips from the Kai Kart around the corner on Ayr Street – they were some of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world. For a real treat go to the Church Hill Restaurant and taste some of the delicious local seafood.
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.