An Adventurer’s Paradise: Everything to Know About New Zealand’s Stewart Island

Those that brave the trek across an oft-choppy southerly passage are rewarded with a heaping portion of untouched natural grandeur, even by New Zealand’s outsized standards. 

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wildlife and scenery in Rakiura, New Zealand

New Zealand is an adventurer’s paradise. It crams rain forests, glaciers, alpine lakes, geysers and volcanoes into a country roughly the size of Colorado. A dynamic landscape, as rugged as it is remote, the sheep outnumber the people here five to one. If you’re ever fortunate enough to plan your adventure here, you’ll likely spend time divvying up your itinerary between the North Island and the South. The two plainly titled landmasses encompass virtually the entirety of the country and its population—but there is a third. 

Only the most passionate of international adventurers have even heard of Stewart Island (known to the native Māori people as Rakiura), let alone visited the far-flung destination. Those that brave the trek across an oft-choppy southerly passage are rewarded with a heaping portion of untouched natural grandeur, even by New Zealand’s outsized standards. 

There are great walks, hugging hundreds of miles of crenelated coastlines, an abundance of aquatic and avian wildlife seldom seen elsewhere, charming bed and breakfasts, and probably the best fish and chips you’ll ever eat. Have we got your attention yet? Good, because we’ve got your ultimate guide to Rakiura right here. Read on to access a region of New Zealand that few New Zealanders have even explored. 

Tonia Kraakman/Unsplash

How to Get There

When Captain James Cook first surveyed this part of the world for the British in 1770, he erroneously identified Rakiura as a mountainous peninsula jutting off the edge of the South Island. In reality, Stewart Island is separated from the mainland port of Bluff by the 16-mile-long Foveaux Strait. Today, getting here typically involves a 60-minute ferry ride across that passage, or a 15-minute flight on a small prop plane from the Southland “city” of Invercargill (about a 30-minute drive north of Bluff). Both are surprisingly comparable in price: around $150 round trip. But the boat ride can be treacherous even on clear days, and downright impassable in inclement weather—15-foot swells are not uncommon. 

Brad Japhe Oban.

Either way, you’ll arrive in Stewart by way of Oban, the only major population center to be found throughout the 675-square-mile archipelago. We use the term “population center” quite loosely; it’s a town of some 300 people, seated at the heart of tranquil Halfmoon Bay—directly above the Paterson Inlet, along the northeastern corner of the island.

Unless you go the bespoke route, that is. Travelers with deep pockets may be best served by splurging on a private helicopter or private plane transport, to avoid the potentially precarious boat ride. 

Real NZ Village Bay.

What to Do 

Blink and you might miss the three-block-long stretch of Main Road. But it holds some important springboards into the surrounding scenery, including an E-Bike rental station, a center for booking birdwatching tours and the unmistakably modern Rakiura Museum. Opened in late 2020, the building boasts an impressive collection of cultural artifacts dating back to the days of the earliest indigenous inhabitants. Its official name, Te Puka o Te Waka, refers to the anchor of Māui’s canoe—which is what original Māori travelers here considered this island to be. 

Brad Japhe The start of the Rakiura Track.

Hikers have been coming to the island for decades to traverse the iconic Rakiura Track. This 20-mile path pierces a podocarp forest, tracing the edge of a serene coastline for most of that way. The Department of Conservation named it one of the country’s Great Walks back in 1992. Hiking it in its entirety requires pre-booking, which will run up to $30 in the high season between October and April, but it can include overnights at well-maintained backcountry huts along the way.

If you’re more specifically interested in wildlife, Rakiura is perhaps your ultimate Kiwi fantasy. Tour company Real NZ is a trusted outfitter that operates a handful of unforgettable excursions in this part of the world, including a day cruise to the predator-protected Ulva Island.

“It is one of the most accessible open bird sanctuaries in the country,” Karen Davis, a nature guide for Real NZ, told Observer. “On a two-hour guided walk across Ulva you can see rare and endangered birds like the Tieke (South Island Saddleback) and Mohua (Yellow Head).” The sunsets from the island are commonly a near-supernatural affair; filled with filaments of pink, purple, and orange.

Real NZ Ulva Island.

Adventures to Ulva are among the most popular tours on Rakiura, and will cost you $72 per person. For twice the price, you can also enjoy the island’s most famous attraction: the Wild Kiwi Encounter. The iconic flightless bird is indigenous to New Zealand, but is frustratingly rare to find on the mainland. Rakiura is one of the best places to spot them in the wild, as the region protects some 20,000 of the endangered species. A 4.5-hour tour includes a sunset boat ride to a sheltered beach, where the nocturnal creatures are known to frolic under the stars. 

"One of the first times I was out kiwi-spotting as a guide, I was walking up a path from the boat and suddenly saw one racing straight towards me,” Davis said. “I was not expecting it at all, and stopped dead in my tracks. Then I realized it was getting chased by another one. When they got about two meters from my group, they ran into the ferns and started having a fight.”

Miles Holden

Each and every night out in the bush comes with the opportunity for an unforgettable scene such as this—one which can’t be observed anywhere else on earth.

Stewart Island Lodge Stewart Island Lodge.

Where to Stay

The Stewart Island Lodge, operated by Real NZ, consists of six well-appointed guest rooms overlooking all of Halfmoon Bay. It’s just a short five-minute walk up from the center of Oban, but complimentary shuttle rides are provided from the ferry terminal. You can book a stay here starting at $285 per night—just make sure to do so well in advance, as it can fill up weeks or even months ahead of time. 

If you prefer your interiors a touch cozier, the Observation Rock Lodge is a luxury boutique property affording unparalleled vantage points over the surrounding terrain. It’s tucked into a rainforest-like setting on a hilltop over town and positioned towards the southern sky so that during precious instances of Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights), you can enjoy a front row seat from the comfort of your own quarters. Rates here start at $270 for a twin room and include home-cooked breakfast from the proprietor. 

Brad Japhe Kai Kart.

What to Eat 

Seafood is the staple item on any menu in Oban. And when it comes to options, quality is prioritized over quantity. There aren’t more than a handful of restaurants in Oban, but each one offers something special. At the South Sea Hotel, you can savor perfectly seared salmon for dinner, while watching the evening sky evolve into pink, purple and orange over the cerulean bay. Reserve your seat early, as it’s a popular suppertime setting—though you can still access pub grub from the adjoining bar as a walk-in.

NEW ZEALAND - 2008/12/18: New Zealand, South Island, Stewart Island, Oban Village, Hotel. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
LightRocket via Getty Images South Sea Hotel.

For breakfast and daytime cafe vibes, consider perking yourself up over at the Snuggery. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t set sail for the mainland without first lunching at the Kai Kart. Freshly caught blue cod is fried to order from the celebrated street side eatery, and paired alongside gut-busting portions of British-style chips. Unwrap it piping hot, pour some vinegar atop it all and try your best to make this magical moment on Rakiura last. You’ll be looking back on it fondly for years to come.

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