When I first stepped foot on Rakiura/Stewart Island years ago, I knew I would love it there. I didn’t know how much of a mark it would have on me.
New Zealand’s third island is known as a haven for wildlife lovers. Unlike the rest of New Zealand, stoats, goats, mice, or pigs were never introduced to Stewart Island, which allowed the rare bird life to carry on while it was decimated in other places. That being said, it is still declining, thanks to things like feral cats (the worst).
However, Rakiura/Stewart Island still ranks high as one of the best places in New Zealand to get up close and personal with the wildlife. It’s also one of the best places to have the chance to see kiwi in the wild. Home to only a couple hundred people, Rakiura very much feels like a different era, perhaps even a glimpse of what New Zealand used to look like or could even look like again.
As someone who feels inherently connected to the land, Rakiura spoke to my soul the first time I was here.
And then it left an indelible mark on me when I stumbled across hundreds of stranded pilot whales on a remote beach tramping. Days from help and entirely off the grid, this traumatic experience changed my life. At the time, I thought I would never return to Stewart Island. But in the end, I made peace with it.
Part of Southland, Stewart Island is absolutely magical no two ways about it. It’s far too special to ignore.
I spend at least a week here once a year, and last summer was no exception. I flew over and back from Invercargill for the first time instead of boating across, which offered a different experience. Here are some of my favorite snaps from my Stewart Island travel – enjoy!
Visit Ulva Island and get your bird nerd on
One of the highlights of any visit to Rakiura/Stewart Island is embracing all of the birdlife. And one of the best places on Stewart Island is a little island a short boat ride away from the main town, Oban, in the Paterson Inlet. Most of our predator-free offshore islands that are bird sanctuaries are closed to the public and require a permit to access. Ulva Island is one of the few exceptions.
There are various ways to experience Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara, but I always find a lot of value in guided wildlife trips – and Ulva’s Guided Walks is no exception. Started by local Ulva in 2000, it’s an incredible experience. Following along behind Ulva like her shadow, her energy and passion were infectious; I learned a lot from the experience (and I already know a lot about birds).
Pest-free since 1997, Ulva Island offers a glimpse of what New Zealand’s incredible nature and birdlife could look like without predators. Amongst pristine rainforests and stunning beaches, you’ll find many of our rarest birds, such as kiwi, tīeke/saddleback, and mohua/yellowhead.
Fly out to Mason Bay and go tramping
In the past, with Stewart Island travel, I’ve always taken the ferry or a boat across the famous Foveaux Strait from Bluff (and one time a helicopter, but that’s a story for another time). Only an hour, it’s an easy way to access the island.
Stewart Island Flights operates small places from Invercargill to Stewart Island a few times per day, and it’s an epic way to hop across quickly with some great views. But a little-known secret is that they can also land their small planes on the long sandy beaches around Stewart Island. Remote and wild, these beaches generally sit on the famous North West Circuit Track. By flying in, you can get supplies dropped off. You can start and finish tramping wherever you want, shortening a long track.
If you’re keen to see a remote part of Stewart Island, here’s my best tip. Catch a flight to Mason Bay and stay at the Mason Bay backcountry DOC hut for a night or two. Drop your pack and explore all around the area – it’s epic! I always see kiwi here too. Then walk out to Freshwater Landing and catch the water taxi back to town with Rakiura Charters. You’ll get the best of everything in a short period of time.
Get out on the water and look for seabirds
While staying on Stewart Island, it’s an absolute must to get out on the water and explore the island. If you have a boat, your best bet is hopping on one of the many guided boat tours. Stewart Island is one of the few places in the world where you can easily see some of the most magnificent seabirds, like albatross.
Ulva’s Guided Walks and Rakiura Charters run a land and sea bird full-day excursion. This will get you out onto the water and also a guided trip around Ulva Island for the day. Both are must-dos!
Eat at Fin and Feather
Stewart Island travel requires some planning in advance. It is small, and you’re limited in terms of accommodation and eateries. I was so stoked to see a new place pop up in time for my visit last summer – Fin and Feather Eatery – a gourmet food truck right in the middle of town. Their menu changes all the time, and their hours vary a lot, but whatever they have is fantastic.
I ate there three different times. And would have gone back for more.
Look for kiwi after dark
If you find yourself on Stewart Island after dark, it’s an absolute must to look for kiwi. There’s always a chance you can stumble across kiwi anywhere on the island. But if you aren’t a massive bird nerd and are unfamiliar with their calls and looking for them, then your best bet is to hop on a kiwi spotting tour.
I spent an evening with locals Beaks and Feathers as we wandered around private land looking for kiwi. We saw 10, including babies. When you’re bird searching at night, you need to use a red light so that you don’t bother or shock the kiwi, and it allows you to see better in low light, which is why I don’t have photos. It’s a great way just to sit back and enjoy a fantastic experience.
The Rakiura tokoeka/Stweart Island kiwi is a subspecies of the southern brown kiwi, and they are unusual in several ways. A little more common than the rest of our kiwi, it’s estimated that around 20,000 of them are still on Rakiura. They’re also famous for being active during the daytime, and they are big. The largest of the kiwi, with big girls almost reaching to your knees. They also aren’t solitary, and they live in family groups.
Stay at Argyle Apartments
Finding a place to stay on Stewart Island has long been challenging – you need to book places well in advance because there’s limited accommodation. This time around, I got to stay in a brand new build – the Argyle Apartments, right in town. Flash, cozy, and close by, the views out over Half Moon Bay and the surrounding bush were just magical. And they had houseplants. 10/10.
Check out the Rakiura Museum/Te Puka o Te Waka
I love small-town museums, and the Rakiura Museum doesn’t disappoint. Housing an extensive collection showcasing the early history here, from muttonbirding to Māori and whaling settlements, Rakiura was very much a fascinating wild west. The stories are wild, and I often imagine what life would have been like back then.
An avid reader and writer, I always pick up a few books from museum gift shops that share more in-depth stories about the place. Often the books there are hard to find, small print run or self-published, making them even more unique.
Have you been to Rakiura/Stewart Island before? Have any Stewart Island travel tips? Share!
Many thanks to Great South for hosting me on Stewart Island; like always, I’m keeping it real – like you could expect less from me!
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