Explore Stewart Island – Like a Local

Vibrant sunrise overlooking Halfmoon Bay and fishing boats

Explore Stewart Island

Vibrant sunrise overlooking Halfmoon Bay and fishing boats

Like a Local

Hello! Olivia here and this post is about how to explore Stewart Island*, New Zealand, like a local. I will be your guide as I have been living here most of my life. I also spent several summers working at a visitor centre here, so listen I know what you’re about to ask and no you can’t walk around the whole island. There's so much to say about this place and I’m going to try and cover it all for you. From the famous Stewart Island Kiwi, the Southland weather, accommodation, and more. Use the titles below to skip through the article, or just read on.

Jump to Any of these sections now:

Where is Stewart Island?

Well, it is south of the South Island and is actually New Zealand's third-largest island. Stewart Island sits at latitude 47 degrees south, surrounded by the south pacific ocean. It is separated from the South Island by a shallow choppy stretch of water called the Foveaux strait. This stretch of water is home to the famous Bluff oysters as well as the Titi/Muttonbird islands which were and still are valuable hunting grounds for local Maori who preserved the birds for food and trading.

The ocean surrounding Stewart Island is one of its most valuable resources. Before colonisation of New Zealand by the British,  sealing and whaling in the southern ocean was a huge industry. Many sealers and whalers from all over the world visited these wild coastlines, and some stayed.

Really the early history of the island is far too interesting for me to do it justice, which brings me to the first on my list of:

What to do on Stewart Island


1. Visit the museum.

It’s always good to get a sense of the history of a place. Rakiura Museum/Te puka o te waka was a huge community effort that resulted in a brand new purpose-built museum. Located on the main road in Oban, the island's only township. Current displays showcase historic items and photographs as well as a beautiful retelling of the island's mythology and lots of local stories. Business hours and more information can be found at Rakiura Museum's Site.

2. Take a fishing charter.

Fishing is a way of life in this little community and there's no better way to feel like a local than with a fishing line in hand, watching the untouched coastline cruise by. Fishing charters can be anywhere between one and four hours, and most will be weather-dependent. There are two local charter boats available, Join either ‘Fluff’ Leask on the ‘Rawhiti’ or ‘Chook’ O’Rourke on the ‘Tequila’. These boats are classic fishing vessels, and the Rawhiti has been working the waters of Stewart island longer than any living islander.

3. Get out on the water!

If fishing isn’t your thing but you still want to get out on the water on a classic boat; take a look at the scenic and overnight boat charters available. We recently celebrated my mum's birthday by going for a scenic tour on the Ranui, and it was a special evening that I won't forget. More information about the Ranui and scenic tours can be found here: https://rakiura.nz/stewart-island-boat-charters/.

4. Visit Ulva Island. Another island?

Yes. keep up. Ulva Island is the jewel in the crown of the Rakiura National Park. Located in Stewart Island Paterson Inlet, Ulva Island is a predator-free wildlife sanctuary with a rich history. On Ulva island, you can hope to see a variety of wildlife including the Stewart Island Kiwi, the native New Zealand cave weta, and Sealions relaxing on the beaches. You can choose to explore Ulva island solo, guided, or as part of a guided tour. Most guided tours will include your boat ride to and from the island, but if you want to explore solo then you’ll need to organise the boat ride yourself. In the summer months, this is easy. Take the Ulva island ferry which runs on a daily schedule throughout the summer months, departing from Golden Bay for only a $20 return. Alternatively, you can organise a water taxi for a similar price point, this is required in winter as there are no scheduled sailings. To organise a water taxi please see the list of operators here: https://www.stewartisland.co.nz/water-taxi/.

5. Check out those stars.

Stewart Island/Rakiura became a registered dark sky sanctuary in 2019. It is the southernmost dark sky sanctuary in the world and has outstanding night sky clarity. The stars really are something to behold and it is because of our lack of light pollution that they are so resplendent. Did you know that 80% of the world has never seen the milky way because they live beneath skies polluted by artificial light? During the winter months on Stewart Island, it is also possible to see the rare ‘southern lights’ or aurora australis. It's important to note that the right weather conditions are required to see aurora, and sometimes the activity may not be visible to the naked eye, and can only be captured through long exposure photography. Local guides at Twinkle dark sky tours can make the whole experience a highlight of your trip. Check out their Facebook page by searching twinkle Dark sky tours.

6. Rent an electric bike.

Easy to find, the electric bike depot is opposite the hotel on the main road. It is a family-owned business with friendly staff who are happy to give recommendations on where to explore. A three and a half-hour bike hire costs fifty-five dollars, making it one of the cheapest ways to explore the island's roads and beaches. On an electric bike, you can get around all the roads in this little township and reach the edge of the Rakiura National Park which preserves 85% of the island's landmass as undeveloped public land.  https://www.stewartisland-electricbike-hire.co.nz

7. Shop around for something special.

There's a gaggle of stores that sell a mixture of souvenirs and locally made goods. Glowing Sky is a shop that sells merino wool garments. There's also the Aurora gift shop which is run by a local artist, and Beaks and Feathers which has gorgeous one-of-a-kind items and doubles as a booking office. Don't forget the jade carving workshop on the foreshore. You can see examples of carving and choose to make your own piece of greenstone jewelry for a rewarding full-day activity.  https://www.glowingsky.co.nz/pages/our-story

8. Do the pub quiz at the South Seas hotel.

This had to be included as it's arguably the best pub quiz in New Zealand and certainly the southernmost. Nab a table early for a 6.30 pm start every Sunday. Whilst you're at the hotel have a good look at the pictures on the walls as they all depict Stewart Island back in the day. 9.  http://www.southseahotel.co.nz/

9. Walk the Rakiura Track.

This is a family-friendly loop track that takes three days and two nights to complete. It can be done quicker and there is even an event called the Rakiura run, where, you guessed it, contestants run the Rakiura Track. As a hike however it is a great introduction to overnight hiking, with huts and campsites along the way. In summer it is hugely popular as one of DOCs 'great walks' which showcases the natural beauty of Stewart Island/Rakiura. The track can be walked year-round and hikers should be well prepared with warm clothes, sturdy footwear, a cooker, and food for the three days. Hikers can hope to see the Stewart Island Kiwi, other native birds, and sometimes deer visiting the grassy areas beside the huts. More information can be obtained at the Rakiura National Park visitor centre. Bookings are required and you can visit: The Department of Conservation's website to check the availability of the huts/campsites.

10. Do a snorkeling tour.

This is such a great option if you’re visiting the island in summer, and a good activity for families who want to do something adventurous. No experience is required. The company provides wet-suits and all the gear you need, and a boat ride across Patterson Inlet is part of the fun. In the waters around Stewart Island/Rakiura there are giant kelp forests which fish weave in and out of, colourful anemones, and even octopi. To learn more and book a snorkeling tour visit https://stewartislandadventures.co.nz/.

11. Eat at a food truck.

I know you’re hungry after all those activities so you’re going to want to check out the two food trucks in Oban township. The Kai Kart, and Fin and Feather eatery. The Kai Kart is your classic fish and chips, with local blue cod and other goodies. Fin and Feather eatery is opposite the DOC visitor centre on Main road and offers gourmet takeaways in the evening, coffee and donuts during the day. I’m talking seriously good burgers, hearty vegan options and an ever changing dessert menu.

How to get to Stewart Island


Despite being pretty easily accessible by ferry or plane, not that many people have visited Stewart Island/Rakiura.
There are two options to arrive on the island. By boat or by plane. By plane, it is a short journey from the Invercargill airport. It only takes 20 minutes and you have the added bonus of seeing the township by air. However, the plane is small, like, six people maximum. So if you're a nervous flier this might not be the best option for you.
The other way to reach the island is on the Stewart Island ferry. The ferry departs from Bluff on a daily schedule that differs from winter to summer. This ferry is owned by conglomerate Real Journeys who operate all over Southland and Otago. There is a booking terminal in Bluff where you must collect tickets and drop off your luggage. It is best to book ahead of time in the summer months. There is free parking available in Bluff if you have arrived in a vehicle.

Where to stay

There are lots of different accommodation options for those looking to visit the island. There are two backpackers which are tidy and in the centre of the township. There's the South Seas hotel which has stood in the same place on the foreshore for the last hundred years. Plus a plethora of cottages and some more luxury accommodation options. A full list of accommodation can be found here: https://www.stewartisland.co.nz/accommodation/

I would like to heartily discourage people from using air BnB. We have a problem that there aren't enough houses available for the people who actually live on Stewart Island. This is because homeowners are choosing to Air BnB their homes rather than rent them to locals. In turn, rent prices are becoming competitive and people, especially young families are having to leave the island. Please don't be a part of this problem. Choose to support our community by not booking an Air BnB.

Is it always raining?

Sunrise looking at downtown Oban and the South Sea Hotel

Ah yes, the Southland weather. Otherwise known as rain rain and more rain. Expect the weather to change multiple times in a day, and expect extreme weather conditions at any time of year. This is especially important if you are heading out into the Rakiura National Park. There's not much to be done except bring a good raincoat and plan a mixture of indoor and outdoor activities. The summer season runs from November to April and the island is busiest at this time. Personally, I enjoy the winter months most for the clear skies and stunning sunrise and sunsets.

Where can I see the Stewart Island Kiwi?!?!

The million-dollar question which you probably all skipped to first. Let's be straight up. The best thing to do as a visitor is to book a guided kiwi spotting tour. The tour operators work within guidelines that keep the birds safe and as undisturbed as possible. There are several different operators who offer Kiwi spotting tours. Please research what is the best option for you, as the tours will differ in price, time spent, and whether they will take children on the tours. 

Another option is to plan a full day trip to Ulva Island and spend the day walking slowly and softly to spot wildlife. It's not unheard of for people to see Stewart Island Kiwi in the daytime on Ulva island. This is just a matter of luck and we joke that it's usually when you've given up on looking that a kiwi will wander across your path. 

The Stewart Island Kiwi is nocturnal and it is very rare to see one during daylight hours unless you're out on the backcountry trails, where the Kiwi tend to keep different hours. This is another option if you have more time on your hands. The kiwi population is spread all over Stewart Island/Rakiura so you give yourself more of a chance to see one unguided, the further you venture from the township. People often visit Mason Bay for this reason. 

When looking for wildlife you should never approach the animal to a distance less than 3m or attempt to corral it in any way. It is safest to use a red light on your torch when looking for Kiwi as the white light will hurt their eyes. 

Alright, that just about covers it. It is my pleasure to write to you about this special place and hopefully, this encourages you to cross the strait to New Zealand's third-largest island. Any questions please leave them below! 

*Stewart Island/Rakiura has dual names. Rakiura is the Maori name for the island. I would like to acknowledge the original custodians of the land, the Rakiura Maori and their descendants. For the purpose of this article, I am going to use the island's English name and Maori name interchangeably. 

For more on Stewart Island/Rakiura please see our post about The Nothwest Circut.

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