Stewart Island is an unspoiled naturally beautiful oasis, and only a 1-hour ferry ride from Bluff, the southernmost edge of New Zealand’s South Island, 30 km south of New Zealand’s South Island across the Foveaux strait.
As the closest land mass to Antarctica, it is quite remote and far to travel; most people never visit Stewart Island, including New Zealanders. Stewart Island, and the nearby Ulva Island, are famous for rare birding opportunities, hiking and fishing. Maoris named Stewart Island ‘The land of the glowing skies’ or Rakiura, for the sunsets or the southern aurora lights. Stewart Island is 85% National Park.
From its coastal beaches and views to its lush forests, Stewart Island has gorgeous bays, golden sand beaches, and hills with dense forests creating spectacular scenery. This hilly, wet island is home to about 400 residents, mostly in the settlement of Oban. In summer tourists and vacationers frequent the island. Stewart Island can be chilly and can get into the 80s F; it was in the 60s F most of the time we were there in the summer. Visitors cannot bring cars, so most people walk or hike when on the island. There are taxis and some rental cars available. We rented an apartment that came with a car, so we were able to see most of the island by car and hiking.
Since the island is remote with few inhabitants, it does not have any industry other than tourism and fisheries. All provisions are imported to the island. Food is available in the single supermarket in Oban, and at restaurants and inns. For any major healthcare needs, people are flown to the South Island. If you are cooking in, make sure you know the limited hours of the grocery store.
Why go to Stewart Island?
Stewart Island offers a rare opportunity to see the brown kiwi in the wild. At night visitors are often out in the fields near wooded areas with red flashlights hoping to get a glimpse of a Kiwi feeding. At times kiwis can be seen during the day on Ulva Island.
Birds of Stewart Island include weka, kākā, albatross, the flightless Stewart Island kiwi, silvereyes, fantails, kererū, and the blue penguin. The endangered yellow-eyed penguin has a significant number of breeding sites here and large colonies of sooty shearwaters offshore. Sunset is the best time to watch for penguins coming ashore after a day of fishing.
Stewart Island is known for the world’s southernmost dense forest of podocarps (southern conifers) and hardwoods, with mānuka shrubland or evergreen tea tree, at higher elevations. It is believed that these trees grew here since the last ice age, almost 12,000 years ago from seeds brought across the strait by seabirds and dispersed by the wind.
A special treat is a visit to Ulva Island, accessed only from Stewart Island and a predator free sanctuary that allows the extensive New Zealand birdlife to thrive. Either go with a guide or on your own by water taxi. We saw:
- Grey Warbler
- Red Crested Parakeet
- Yellow Crowned Parakeet
- Kaka (parrots)
- Stewart Island Robin (quite different from the North American Robin)
- Brown Creeper
The only way we could have seen all of these birds is with a tour guide. We went to Ulva Island with Ruggedy Range.
While I was an invited guest (Tom, the photographer, paid for the trip) by Ruggedy Range, this is a totally independent and honest review based on our experience.
Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience
Upon arrival on Ulva Island, Furhana, owner of Ruggedy Range, briefed us on the island history and ownership, and asked about the group’s preferences for learning about the trees and plants or birds. We wanted both, so she spoke about both.
Furhana is an ecologist in natural biology, which is historical and natural geology, birds, plants and trees. She is a wealth of knowledge, and at the same time an attuned and attentive guide who is always looking and listening for a rare sighting opportunity. She is an extremely knowledgeable guide. Furhana stops mid-sentence when she hears a sound that none of us heard, and points out a rare bird, like the Mohua. She makes certain everyone has a good look at the specimen and ample photo opportunities. The birds can be a bit less cooperative in posing for pictures. However, we got a good look at many birds we had never seen before. Furhana is focused on the customer experience, ensuring her group sees as many native birds as possible.
Furhana stopped to describe the plant specimens, like this unusual hen and chick fern, as well as its history.
While you can go by yourself on a water taxi, there is no way you will get the full experience and knowledge provided by Ruggedy Range. Go with Furhana, you will be happy you did! We were thrilled with great the walk we had on Ulva with Furhana!
What else to do or see on Stewart Island?
Plenty of outdoor activities are available on Stewart Island. A famous Great Walk of New Zealand is here, Rakiura Track. Take the moderate 3-day tramp, or hike a portion of the track as we did to take in the bay views, forest textures and scents in just a couple of hours. Birding, hunting, fishing, kayaking, walking, swimming, diving, and hiking keep visitors busy.
We explored many of the shorter hiking trails both on the coast and in the forests. For example:
- Observation Rock is a short walk just outside the center of town with a beautiful lookout of Paterson Inlet.
- Fuschsia Walk is also just outside of town and goes into the forest; it is short walk presenting opportunities to see native birds.
- Harrold Bay and Acker Point – A half-day walk we enjoyed that starts with waterfront views, Ackers old stone cottage – one of New Zealand’s oldest buildings, and continues to the lighthouse for views of the islands and Foveaux Strait.
- Apparently at dusk, Little Blue Penguins can be seen here, but I was afraid of tripping hazards hiking at night so we saw Little Blue Penguins at night elsewhere in New Zealand.
- Horseshoe Point is another half-day walk, but we drove most of it due to limited time. Horseshoe Bay is a great spot to view the Foveaux Strait activity.
- Rakiura Track – While it is a 3-4 day tramp from the coast inland through the forest, we chose to hike from the coastal start point and turn around making it a shorter hike. The trees along the coast are permanently reshaped due to the wind.
- There are restaurants, but we ate in since I could buy local salmon. One night we took out local fish and chips from Kaikart Takeaway, an icon in town. A treat is the locally caught and smoked salmon. On two different days, we drove up to the barn store on the salmon farm to buy our salmon for dinner. Buying directly from the smoking facility provides insight into life on the island, and it is interesting talking to the locals.
Hints and Tips for Stewart Island Trips
There are some things to remember when going to Stewart Island.
- Stewart Island has limited accommodations; don’t go without reservations, especially in high season
- Everything is more expensive on Stewart Island
- You can only access it by ferry or plane
- There is not much shopping, especially in terms of food – Make sure you know the limited hours of the grocery store
- Little healthcare exists on the island
- Schedule Ulva Island trips in advance in summer; they fill fast
- No cars can be taken on the ferry
We spent 3 nights on Stewart Island, arriving and leaving by Ferry. We left our car in the lot at the Bluff Ferry Terminal, with our extra luggage out of sight in the trunk. Our host picked us up and oriented us to the island. Upon arrival at our apartment, we received car keys. Having a car enabled us to see most of the island, and it gave us lots of flexibility for taking multiple hikes since we could drive to the start instead of walk. Three nights/3 days was enough time to see everything we planned on seeing. Hiking along the coast and in the forests, walks amongst the wild flora, birding and eating seafood – heaven!
Our hike with Ruggedy Range on Ulva Island was the highlight of our trip to Steward Island. When hiking, a knowledgeable, experienced guide will make your experience so much more rewarding and interesting. Furhana from Ruggedy Range was the most knowledgeable and attentive guide that we had in our 4 month trip! We are so pleased that she was our guide on Ulva Island.
For more information about what New Zealand’s South Island offers, check out:
- New Zealand Great Walk – Routeburn Track from Glenorchy
- Franz Josef Glacier – Activities on the Glacier
- Karamea New Zealand – Natural Beauty of the North West Coast