Stewart Island is the third-largest island in New Zealand. Located just 30km from the bottom of the South Island, it’s relatively easy to get to by ferry or scenic flights, but still somewhat off the well-worn tourist trail. So much so, that most Kiwis haven’t even visited!
Know for its unspoiled scenery and amazing birdlife, Steward Island is a must for nature lovers. And if you don’t mind heading off the beaten track, you’ll find so many fantastic things to do there!
The Best Things to Do on Stewart Island
Whether you’re looking to hike around the island, relax on one of the many beaches, or go birdwatching, Stewart Island has something for everyone.
Let’s take a look at the activities and attractions you should consider for your upcoming visit…
1. Walk the Rakiura Track
If you’ve got plenty of time on the island then we’d recommend tramping the Rakiura Track.
The full track is 32km (20 miles) long and takes a total of three days to hike. The southern-most of all New Zealand’s Great Walks, it covers around 80% of the island, making it a great way to see the sights.
If you’re limited to one or two days, then you can always walk part of the track just to appreciate its beauty.
It’s without a doubt one of the best things to do on Stewart Island, so if you’ve got the chance, make sure you do it!
2. Go Birdwatching on Ulva Island
Whether you’re a keen birder or a self-confessed nature lover, Ulva Island is a must-do.
To reach Ulva Island you’ll need to catch a ferry from Halfmoon Bay or Golden Bay, both of which are found on Stewart Island. The journey takes between 10 and 20 minutes.
Once you get to Ulva you’ll have several self-guided trails to choose from. Some of the most popular walks include Flagstaff Lookout, Boulder Beach, and Westend Beach.
When you come face to face with one of the many native birds on the island, the best thing to do is simply relax, and wait for the birds to come to you.
3. Enjoy a Swim at Bathing Beach
There are plenty of beaches to see on Stewart Island but there’s just something special about Bathing Beach.
We love that it’s only a short walk from the town of Oban and is located within Halfmoon Bay.
Bathing Beach is a popular spot for swimming as it’s so sheltered, and it’s also great for sunbathing too. Though given how far south Stewart Island is, you’ll probably only want to take a dip in the warmer months.
Whatever the time of year though, this beautiful bay is worth visiting. It’s the perfect spot to relax, listen to the beautiful birdsong, and enjoy the scenery. At low tide, you can walk the entire length of the beach.
Though you mightn’t expect a bay as beautiful as Bathing Beach so far south, we promise it is every bit as stunning as it looks in photos.
4. Visit the Rakiura Museum
Located on the island’s main road, the Rakiura Museum is home to an extensive collection of exhibits that are related to the island’s unique history. You’ll get to learn about the history of whaling, mining, boat building, and timber milling during your visit.
The exhibits are very interactive with visual touch screens and audio stories, so you’ll have plenty of fun here – especially with little ones.
What’s more, this museum is particularly affordable, with adults costing just $10 and under 16’s free of charge.
If you’re planning to visit Rakiura Museum (and we recommend you do), allow yourself at least an hour to take it all in.
5. Join on a Kiwi-Spotting Tour
Locals and tourists alike head to Stewart Island in the hopes of spotting a kiwi in the wild. These unique (and surprisingly large) birds have to be one of New Zealand’s most popular endemic species but they’re notoriously tricky to find! First of all, they only come out at the night when it’s dark (apart from the odd day-time sighting that does happen on the island), and they’re known for being shy.
Tours generally last between 2 and 3 hours (depending on which option you choose) and take place within the evening/night.
You have up to a 95% chance of spotting this elusive bird on these tours. Some of them even have exclusive access to private land where kiwis are known to roam at night.
100%, kiwi spotting is a Stewart Island must-do – whether you try by yourself or with a pro.
Pro Tip: If you are planning to head out for some independent kiwi-spotting, be sure to take a red-light torch (or cover your normal torch in red cellophane) – this way the kiwis won’t be disturbed by your light.
6. Carve Your Own Pounamu (Jade Pendant)
If you’ve got a bit of extra time on the island then we’d recommend heading to Raikura Jade.
Pounamu (as jade is known in New Zealand), is the strongest stone in the world so as you can imagine, carving it isn’t an easy task.
However, whilst working under Dave’s supervision, you’ll look like an experienced carver and sculptor in no time. He’ll go through how to carve and polish your piece, so even if you’ve not had any experience, you’ll be set to have a go.
You’ll get to choose a piece of jade that you like and then carve it into whatever you fancy. We think this is the perfect souvenir to remember your trip by.
This is one of the most unique things to do on Stewart Island so we’d recommend including it on your itinerary.
7. Cruise Around the Paterson Inlet & Enjoy a Guided Walk on Ulva Island
Stewart Island is undoubtedly beautiful no matter how you choose to explore it, but there’s something quite special about seeing it from the water.
This 2.5- hour cruise will take you through the scenic Paterson Inlet where you’ll get to see beautiful beaches, hidden coves, and various landmarks. Aside from the stunning scenery, you’ll also want to look out for dolphins, seals, and penguins along the way.
Then you’ll enjoy a 45-minute guided walk of Ulva Island, where you can expect to see a wide variety of native bird life. Keep your eyes peeled for weka (native woodhen), bush robins, rare saddlebacks and yellowheads amongst other species.
This tour combines two activities together, making it perfect if you’re running on a tight schedule and want the best of both worlds.
8. Visit the Bunkhouse Theatre
This is one of the top things to do on Stewart Island – especially if the weather’s packed it in.
The Bunkhouse Theatre is a small cinema that only seats 53 people. It shows several flicks, but the most popular is ‘A Local’s Tail’. This 40-minute film will take you on a journey of the island’s history, following a local dog called Lola who will answer each and every question you have about Stewart Island.
Lola makes frequent appearances at the theatre too, so if you’re lucky you might even get to see this local movie star in the flesh.
Whatever movie you choose to watch, we recommend you stock up on snacks (they sell chocolate, popcorn, and ice cream) and enjoy relaxing for a few hours.
9. Grab Some Fish and Chips
There’s no denying that fish and chips is a Kiwi institution!
You’ll find delicious serves of this favourite kiwi kai, but the cod found in the waters surrounding Stewart Island is renowned for its incredible taste. It really is a must-have meal when in Southland.
If you’re looking for a sit-down meal, we recommend heading to the South Sea Hotel. If takeaways are more your style, make a beeline for Kai Kart. It’s the most southern fish and chippie in the world.
If you’re spending a couple of days on the island you can even head out on a fishing trip and catch your next meal yourself!
10. Go Stargazing (and Look Out for the Aurora Australis)
If you’re planning to stay overnight on the island, then take some time to stargaze.
There’s hardly any light pollution on the island so the area’s dark starry skies are truly something to marvel at. Incredibly, this is the southern-most Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world, offering one of the darkest night skies in Aotearoa.
It’s not just the milky way that attracts stargazers to this amazing island though. Stewart Island is known as ‘Raikura’ (in te reo Māori) which literally translates to ‘glowing skies’. This references the stunning Aurora Australis (or southern lights) that can be spotted on the island – if you’re lucky.
March to September is the best time to see this amazing natural phenomenon, so keep your eyes peeled if you’re visiting then!
Even if you don’t get to spot the southern lights, the stars here are magical enough on their own. We promise you won’t be disappointed.
11. Join a Tour of Stewart Island and Learn From a Local
If you’re looking for a way to see the main land-based sites, we recommend hopping on this tour.
Starting from Oban, this tour will take you to several popular spots including Lee Bay, Observation Rock, and the gateway to Raikura National Park.
You’ll also get to learn all about the island’s history as you head around the island, thanks to your knowledgeable local guide.
This tour includes plenty of stops too, allowing you time to snap photographs and enjoy short walks. It lasts roughly 1.5 hours, so makes for a great (but not time-consuming) start to your trip.
12. Go Cage Diving with Sharks
Though this tour doesn’t leave from Stewart Island, we couldn’t help but share it for the daredevils amongst us.
Departing from Bluff (the gateway to Stewart Island), you’ll cross the Foveaux Strait headed for the waters around Raikura. This part of the country is home to dozens of great white sharks.
Shark Experience offers an awesome cage-diving experience that is both safe and ethical. It’s something you won’t soon forget!
When not in the cage, you’ll also be able to spot the sharks from the top deck of the boat, so there’s never a dull moment on board.
Although seeing a great white is never guaranteed, these cruises sometimes see up to 9 sharks!
Pro Tip: If you don’t have a GoPro, Shark Experience offers the chance to reserve underwater photography equipment so you can get some awesome shots of this bucket list experience.
As you can see there are plenty of fantastic things to do on Stewart Island.
Whether you’re an animal lover or just love the outdoors, there’s something for everyone.
Have you ever been to Stewart Island? If you have – we’d love to hear about your experiences!