Top 5 things to do on Stewart Island
The third and smallest of New Zealand’s three main islands, Stewart Island is a hidden gem that even many Kiwis have not yet had the chance to visit. Named Rakiura by Māori, the island got its name from the “glowing skies” of the Aurora Australis (commonly known as the Southern Lights). Rakiura National Park comprises 85% of the island’s total area, making it a safe haven for some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable species, and the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy the natural beauty and simplicity of the New Zealand wilderness. If you are wondering what to do on the island, look no further. Below are our top five picks of the best things to do on Stewart Island.
How to get to Stewart Island/Rakiura
Stewart Island is accessed either by ferry or by plane. The ferry journey across Foveaux Strait from Bluff takes you past the small offshore Muttonbird Islands, the breeding ground for hundreds of thousands of Titi (muttonbird or sooty shearwaters). During the hour-long journey keep an eye out for wildlife, including dolphins, seals and numerous seabirds.
Alternatively, take to the skies for a birds-eye view as you take a scenic 20-minute flight from Invercargill. Take in the views of the Fiordland mountains to the west, Stewart Island and its surrounding Muttonbird islands.
Stewart Island weather
The weather on Stewart Island, like much of New Zealand, can be quite unpredictable and it is not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day. While the winters on Stewart Island are milder and calmer than those on the mainland and offer long nights to enjoy the night sky, if you prefer warmer weather then the best time to visit is during the summer months. With temperatures from October to April usually ranging between mid-teens to mid-twenties Celsius, it is the goldilocks climate to enjoy a pleasant hike or a relaxing afternoon on the beach.
Best Time to Visit Stewart Island
Stewart Island can be visited and enjoyed year-round but here at New Zealand Trails we reckon the best times to visit are during Spring (October through November) or early Autumn (March through April). During these times you'll enjoy the best of both worlds, avoiding the crowds of peak summer and enjoying quieter trails while still making the most of the warmer temperatures and more settled conditions.
5 Best things to do on Stewart Island
1. Rakiura Track
The Rakiura Track is New Zealand’s most remote and therefore least trafficked Great Walk. Tucked away on Stewart Island, it offers the perfect opportunity to escape the crowds while still enjoying the high standard of walking experience that the Great Walks are known for.
At 32km long with two huts to break up the journey, the Rakiura Track is one of the more accessible Great Walks to hikers of all experience levels and ages. The walk provides a diverse range of natural scenery and interesting human history, traversing a mixture of golden sandy beaches and dense podocarp forests while also exploring the relics of old Māori settlements and timber mills of early European settlers. Due to the extensive predator control on the island, the birdlife is plentiful and it is one of the few places in New Zealand where the nocturnal tokoeka (kiwi) are brave enough to venture out during the daytime. If you’re lucky, you may just be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of one wandering down the track!
Though the Rakiura Track is one of the most welcoming and accessible of our Great Walks it's always important to be prepared, especially if travelling alone or unguided and when it comes to staying safe on the trails NZ Mountain Safety Council are the ultimate resource. Check out there guide to the Rakiura Track.
However, if you prefer your creature comforts and like to finish a day’s walking with a nice wine, delicious meal, and a comfy bed it's still possible to enjoy this spectacular location. If you fancy a Stewart Island tour, join us on The New Zealand Great Walk Adventure, which includes a guided day walk on the Rakiura Track. We spend the day on what we believe is the best snippet of the track, exploring the remains of the once-bustling Māori Beach settlement, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the lush forest, and enjoying sweeping views of the Stewart Island coastline before finishing the day by crossing Foveaux Strait to the South Island.
2. Ulva Island
Ulva Island, situated a short 5-minute boat ride from Stewart Island, is a unique open sanctuary that is home to a wide range of native and endangered wildlife. A small pest-free paradise of native rainforest unspoiled by human influence, it is the avid bird watcher and nature enthusiast’s dream. Native bird species whose populations have been in decline in mainland New Zealand for some time are thriving on the island thanks to diligent pest control. They are both abundant and unafraid of humans, creating the perfect environment to get up close and personal with birds such as the saddleback, mohua, kaka and kakariki.
The best way to experience Ulva Island is with an experienced and knowledgeable guide, who will help you find and identify the many native species that live on the island.
3. Kiwi spotting
As New Zealanders, we fondly refer to ourselves as “Kiwis”. Yet most Kiwis have never had the opportunity to see our namesakes in person, much less in the wild. If you weren’t fortunate enough to see a Stewart Island tokoeka (brown kiwi) while taking a stroll along the Rakiura Track, you might like to join a Kiwi Spotting Tour instead.
Departing after dark, the tour will take you into locally-known habitats where kiwi are frequently sighted, to very quietly search for kiwi and listen for their distinctive shrill calls. With exceptionally high success rates for finding kiwi, this is the best way to learn about our special bird’s characteristics, behaviour and habitat, and observe it in its natural environment.
If you are joining us on The New Zealand Great Walk Adventure, we highly recommend joining our Kiwi Spotting Tour while we are on Stewart Island.
4. Stargazing in the Stewart Island/Rakiura Dark Sky Sanctuary
Stewart Island is the newest Dark Sky Sanctuary to be awarded by the International Dark Sky Association. As well as providing it with protected status to ensure that the minimal levels of light pollution on the island are preserved, receiving this Sanctuary status acknowledges the incredible night sky that naturally exists on Rakiura, far from significant civilisation or light pollution.
While the Aurora Australis (or Southern Lights) may be less well-known than its Northern Hemisphere equivalent, it is no less spectacular. It is this light show in the night sky that gave Rakiura its name, translating to “glowing skies.” Enjoying and experiencing the Dark Sky Sanctuary is as easy as just walking outside on a clear night and looking up!
Embarking on a nighttime Kiwi Spotting Tour is a great way to combine these two special features Stewart Island has to offer. Spend a few hours out after dark surrounded by spectacular native bush, observing our special little kiwi and taking in the mighty Milky Way and Southern Lights.
5. The local pub - South Sea Hotel
No trip to Stewart Island would be complete without a visit to their iconic pub, the South Sea Hotel. Known for their delicious, freshly-caught seafood, infamous pub quizzes, and friendly locals, the pub is the ideal place to chow down on some good old fashioned Kiwi tucker and treat yourself to a glass of Speights or local wine after a rewarding day of exploring the local trails and getting to know the wildlife.