Stewart Island's only town is Oban, situated on the picturesquely-named Halfmoon Bay. Named for its Scottish counterpart in the Hebrides, Oban's Gaelic meaning is "many coves" - very appropriate when you consider just how many bays and coves are to be found around Stewart Island's 700 kilometres of coastline.
It's an attractive little place, with its houses scattered on the heavily wooded slopes coming down to the bay where boats bob at their anchors and clusters of painted boatsheds nestle under trees along the shoreline. The red-roofed church overlooking the town is the Presbyterian church - built in 1904. A small museum down by the beach tells the island's story and right on the water the Empress Visitor Centre has a small aquarium featuring local marine life. The town's few (very few!)shops carry a reasonable stock of basic supplies and a small range of souvenirs but no-one could say they came to Stewart Island for a shopping trip!
The South Sea hotel's front verandah's a good place to stop for a cold beer on a warm day with a great view and the passing parade of visitors and locals.
If you want to send a postcard off with a Stewart Island post mark, you'll need to make your way to the post office in the Stewart Island Flights office on the waterfront.
There's a wide variety of accommodation available in Oban. To be sure of getting a bed for the night though, advance booking is strongly advisable - especially in summer and school holiday periods.
The first place to head for when you leave the ferry on arrival on Stewart Island is the Visitor's Centre, just along the dock. This is where you can collect free maps and all the information you need to begin to explore the island and to understand its unique ecosystem and history.
As well as vehicle hire, tour and cruise bookings, excellent track information and weather updates are available. Hikers must report here for their hut passes (charged) and to lodge intent forms. There's a small selection of books on local themes, plus the usual assortment of souvenirs and postcards on sale. There are also storage lockers available.
Boats and islands go together and Stewart Island is no exception. There are any number of opportunities to get back on the water once you've left the ferry - whether you choose to make your way under power, sail or paddle is up to you.
Various outfits offer Paterson's Inlet tours and fishing trips, including evening tours that might include kiwi spotting.
You'll need a water taxi and at least a half a day to get you to Whalers Base, where relics of the days of whaling can be found.
A semi-submersible cruise will show you a whole new world of the kelp forests and sea creatures that inhabit Halfmoon Bay.
Sea kayakers will find DOC-maintained huts that are accessible only by boat but these are isolated waters and only really experienced kayakers should consider making use of them. Organized kayaking trips are available and kayaks can be hired by the hour.
Paterson's Inlet, formed by a drowned river bed, cuts a deep swathe right into the heart of Stewart Island, almost cutting the island in two. Long, low Ulva Island in the middle of the inlet is a bird sanctuary. You'll need to arrange some sort of boat to get you over there, either a water taxi from Golden Bay or with a guided tour. Either way, the island wonderful bird and plant life warrants a leisurely visit, something my post-surgery knee was not really up to, so we decided to put that off to another time and simply wended our way around the inlet as far as the road could take us, enjoying the tranquility and dappled light as we made our way past picturesque old boat sheds, handsome stands of trees, huge clumps of echiums and boats bobbing quietly at their moorings.
The arch that marks the entrance to Stewart Island's Rakiura National Park is actually a link in a giant sculptured chain. It symbolises an ancient Maori legend that tells of how the great Polynesian navigator, Maui, pulled the island up from the sea bed to act as an anchor for the vast war canoe - Te Waka o Aoraki - the South Island of New Zealand. Stewart Island's Maori name is Rakiura, the anchor stone is Te Puka o Maui.
Symbolically now, the chain passes under the waters seperating the two islands, firmly linking the anchor and the canoe together forever. It further symbolizes the ties of history, custom and legend that bind the Maori people of Rakiura to their island home.
Head north out of Oban on Horseshoe Bay Road and after skirting right along the edge of Horseshoe Bay itself, after about 4km you'll reach Lee Bay at the end of the road. From here on it's Shanks's pony, a narrow track the only path through the dense bush that covers most of the island
A beautiful sweep of the coastline opens out before you, the track leads past some information signs, under an arch formed by a rusty-red sculpture into the forest. This is the Rakiura Track, New Zealand's most southerly - and at just 35km long, shortest Great Walk. It takes three days to walk the full circuit to Port William and back around to Halfmoon Bay (there are two huts along the way) but even day visitors with just a few hours on the island should take the time to walk some of it.
Do so and you enter a quiet world of true wilderness. A plaque on the approach path tells us
"The face of the world is changing so rapidly that soon there will be little of primitive nature left. In the Old World it is practically gone forever. Here, then, is Stewart Island's prime advantage and one that is hard to overestimate. It is an actual piece of the primeval world"
Those words were spoken by an English botanists in 1909, and if they were pertinent then, how much more so are they now, 100 years later?
It's a stiff climb up to Oban's Observation Rock which ever way you approach it ( Excelsior Road is particularly steep!) but the views from the top are well worth the puff. Spread out before you is the sweep of Paterson's Inlet and the islands enclosed within its long outer arm.
Photo 1, taken looking to the southwest shows Thule Bayand Vaia Voe Bay, with the island's highest point, Mount Anglem in the far distance.
Photo 2, taken looking south, shows Iona Island in the lower left with Ulva Island in the middle distance.
Photo 3 looks straight down into Golden Bay, way below the rock.
Ulva Island is one of several island sanctuaries run by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation in an attempt to prevent the extinction of some of New Zealand’s rarest plants and animals. Man and introduced predators on New Zealand’s main islands have had a devastating effect on native wildlife. While it is impossible to eradicate and extremely difficult to control the introduced predators on the mainland, it is possible to do so on the smaller, uninhabited islands. Like most of the other DOC island sanctuaries, Ulva Island has been a tremendous success both in preserving the flora and fauna and in providing an open laboratory for scientific study and public education. In addition to some of the more common birds you are likely to see on a visit to Ulva Island (such as Tui, Weka, and Kaka), you also should see otherwise rare species such as Yellowhead, Stewart Island Robin, and South Island Saddleback. The island is easily reached by short water taxi from Stewart Island and takes a good five or six hours to fully explore.
Introduced predators have yet to ravage Stewart Island bird populations like they have on the North and South Islands. As a result, Stewart Island is a refuge for some native birds otherwise difficult to see on the “mainland.” And many species found in respectable numbers on the main islands thrive on Stewart Island. Among the most common are Kaka, New Zealand Pigeon, Tui, Bellbird, Tomtit, Grey Fantail, and New Zealand Robin, most of which can be encountered on any of the short walks in and around Oban.
Although not the most eco-friendly of activities, a heli-hike does allow you to see more than you otherwise could when your time is limited. It also allows you to see Stewart Island from above, which is worth it in and of itself. There are several potential heli-hikes available, but the most popular involves a helicopter ride from Oban to Mason Bay, followed by a 15-kilometer hike to Freshwater Landing, followed by a water taxi ride from Freshwater Landing back to Oban. The helicopter will drop you off at Mason Bay at approximately 10:00 am, and the water taxi (although tide dependent) will pick you up sometime mid-afternoon. This should give you five or six hours to complete the hike along a sometimes muddy trail through the bush and swamp.
Among other things, Stewart Island is the best place in New Zealand to see wild Kiwi. One of six recognized species of Kiwi, Stewart Island Kiwis are the only ones active during the day. Mason Bay on the island’s west coast offers the best chance to see a Kiwi during the day, as the birds are known to forage on the beach and in the bush near the Mason Bay Hut. Seeing the birds during the day is still a longshot, and Mason Bay can only be reached by helicopter or hiking, with the minimum hike being roughly 16 kilometers one-way from Freshwater Landing. As a result, many people opt instead to go Kiwi-spotting with Bravo Adventure Cruises. These highly professional cruises (cruising is a misnomer, as the trip also includes a night bush and beach walk) go out every other night and virtually guarantee you will see a Kiwi. Tromping through the bush in a line of fifteen other people in search of an odd-looking flightless bird isn’t for everyone, but seeing a wild Kiwi probing for food on the beach or in the bush truly is a magical experience for anyone interested in nature. Unfortunately, flash photography is not permitted, so you’ll have to visit a Kiwi house if you want a photo (or just take a photo of the stuffed Kiwis on sale at the ubiquitous souvenir shops).
In addition to tramping and birdwatching (and Kiwi-spotting in particular), Stewart Island is renown for its fishing. A half-day fishing trip will set you back $75 or so, but it is money and time well spent. In addition to catching enough Blue Cod to feed a small army, you’ll see scores of seabirds of several different species at close range while the captain fillets your catch. It is virtually non-stop action for the 3-hours or so you are on the boat and an absolute must-do if you enjoy fishing and/or bird watching.
For anyone seeking perfect peace and tranquillity, Stewart Island is the ultimate spot.
Stewart Island has a range of walks that lead you to the amazing flora and fauna of the Island - as short as 15 minutes or as long as 12 days
Sea-kayaking is an excellent way to explore the unspoiled bush coastline and discover the local sealife
Visit the bird sanctuary at Ulva Island.
Kiwi spotting tours are available on alternate nights, overnight tours are also an option- you’ll need to book in advance.
Take a scenic, fishing or diving trip from Halfmoon or Golden Bay. Excursions may include viewing the mussel and salmon farms in Big Glory Bay. You can also visit seal colonies and shag rookeries
We are unique in that in just one day, with a pelagic cruise, a visit to Ulva Island Bird Sanctuary, followed by a Kiwi Spotting Trip, one can usually access over 30 species. Truly, Stewart Island deserves to be termed ‘The Birding Capital of New Zealand”Stewart Island - if you wish to see the Native Bird List...look in travelogue
9 Dundee Street, Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island, 9846, New Zealand
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Elgin Terrace, Stewart Island, 9846, New Zealand
Good for: Business
PO Box 143, Stewart Island, New Zealand
Good for: Families