9 Incredible Experiences on Stewart Island, New Zealand

Juliette Siversten shares her favorite experiences on Stewart Island, from the best hiking trails to cage-diving with Great White Sharks, kiwi bird spotting, and a visit to predator-free Ulva Island.


Photo © iStock

Hailed for a real sense of isolation, New Zealand’s Stewart Island is ideal for nature lovers and adventure seekers. It’s tucked away at the southernmost end of the country, inhabited by only 400 people.

Hiking and Tramping

Stewart Island has numerous hiking trails, but the flagship track is through Rakiura National Park. It’s a 20mi (32km) loop along coastline, through dense forests and past historical sites.

Algae cover a swamp in Rakiura National Park, Stewart Island. Photo credit: iStock

Kiwi Spotting and Bird Watching

Stewart Island is the only place in New Zealand where Kiwi birds – the endangered national icon of the country – outnumber human residents (the human population is around 400). You might hear these nocturnal birds calling at night, but join a Kiwi spotting adventure with a local guide to try to see one in the flesh.

Stewart Island is a healthy habitat for our winged friends. Expect to share most of your moments with the curious Kaka, and listen out for the Bellbird, Tui and Grey Warbler among other species native to the region.

Scuba Diving

Stewart Island enjoys a diverse marine eco-system, thanks to a warm current from the Australian Great Barrier Reef. Temperatures range between 46–57ºF (8–14ºC), but visibility is outstanding and marine species thrive. The Paterson Inlet Marine Reserve has 170 species of seaweed and over 50 species of fish.

Ulva Island

One of New Zealand’s few predator-free sanctuaries, Ulva Island, is a 269-hectare island in the Paterson Inlet. Native bird species include the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi, South Island Saddleback, and the Stewart Island Robin.

Sunset Kayaking

Kayak along Stewart Island’s peaceful and pristine bays at dusk. The island’s southerly position means late, lingering sunsets in summer.

Cage Diving

Protected in New Zealand waters, Great White Sharks are frequent between the stretch of water separating Stewart Island from the South Island.

Get up close and personal with these predators by taking a tour out into the heart of shark territory, and get dropped into a cage underwater to come face to face with the oceans’ second deadliest creature (contrary to popular belief, Killer Whales are the apex predator).

Regulation: Shark cage-diving operators were not regulated until 2014, after fears that operators using bait were changing the shark’s behavior.

Rakiura Museum

Visit New Zealand’s smallest museum, run entirely by volunteers. The Rakiura Museum is modest, to say the least but offers a unique insight into the history of Stewart Island, the early whaling community, muttonbirding, and Maori history.

A Local’s Tail

Hear and watch the history of Stewart Island through a quirky and dated 40-minute film, narrated by a dog on screen. It’s light watching, but a fun and cheesy insight into the island in a tiny theatre.

Horseshoe Bay, Stewart Island. Photo credit: Juliette Siversten

Local Delicacies

The most famous local delicacy is muttonbird, or tītī. Stewart Island Maori have rights to gather muttonbird on 36 nearby islands, between April 1 and May 31 each year. The meat has a slightly salty taste to it, due to the bird’s fish diet and habitat.

Another New Zealand local seafood is paua, which has a brightly-colored blue and green shell. Try them both at Church Hill, which only serves locally produced food. 

Know Before You Go

  • You won’t find shopping malls or a raging nightlife on Stewart Island, so be prepared for a relaxed stay.
  • The local Four Square is well-stocked, but you can bring food over from the South Island.
  • Weather can be unpredictable, with rainy days common in the middle of summer, so pack for all conditions.

Tips on Getting to Stewart Island

Get to Stewart Island by a 20-minute flight from Invercargill or one-hour ferry from Bluff. A flight will cost a little more than the ferry.

It’s worth checking out flights into Dunedin as well as Invercargill to see what is cheaper. Be aware you’ll still have to drive about three hours to Bluff from Dunedin.

Accommodation on Stewart Island

Accommodation books out quickly during the peak summer holiday season, between December–February. 

There are several lodges and one pub-hotel in the sole township of Oban, but a bach or crib – local terms for a modest holiday home or beach house – may be more affordable. You can find them through Airbnb or New Zealand’s Bookabach website.

Want to know more about New Zealand? Check out our podcast. We talk world-class diving, blood-pumping adrenalin, and road-tripping in a camper van.

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