We had 3 nights and 4 days on Stewart Island in January 2014. Many New Zealanders have never even visited there, but we knew we wanted to experience it – we had heard so many wonderful things about the clear waters and stunning native bush and birdlife. It is different again from both the North Island and South Island. And like stepping back in time and “pace” – untouched, prehistoric, beautiful. A very simple, nature lover’s paradise and I highly recommend it as a special lifetime experience.
A day trip to Ulva Island (10 minutes by water taxi) is a must. We had a wonderful guide (Matt from Ulva’s Guided Tours – Ulva is a lovely lady who was named after the island and also takes the tours). We can confirm that having a guide is totally worth it – you have a much richer experience learning all about the history of the island and the native birds and plants/trees, and being able to ask questions and tailor the trip to what you want to do and see. We had a gorgeous little family of robins all around us for about 10 minutes or more – totally unafraid. The mother was feeding the baby right beside us and even flying close to sit on my husband’s foot while we stood watching.
The native kaka birds are real characters – we had a few that came to visit us at our accommodation every day near Horseshoe Bay (Rakiura Retreat – simple but adequate self contained units with a complimentary car to use). They would swoop down to come to our doorstep for peanuts and apples and sit there and eat them, play around, puff up and dance, and carry on for ages giving us a great show. Stewart Island is also a place to see native kiwi in their own habitat. We couldn’t go out on the night trip to find them because our kids were too young, but we drove around late one night and my 11 year old was absolutely thrilled to see the back of a kiwi disappearing off into the bush from the side of the little dirt road leading down to Lee Bay.
The crayfish, blue cod, oysters and other delicious seafood at the South Sea Hotel right down at the waterfront in the Oban Village is fabulous – be sure to book to get a table so you can be right by the front windows looking out at the bay. The quirky movie about the locals is not to be missed and part of the character. We also all bought beautiful merino tops from the Glowing Sky shop – great quality merino and really well priced. “The Fernery” also has some lovely NZ gifts, books, art and other treasures.
There are amazing hikes and boat/helicopter/plane trips you can do to get to more remote parts of the island. The flight over to Mason Bay to land on the beach, then hike 4 hours inland to then be picked by boat to come back down the inlet looked amazing. Shame our kids were too young/not keen to do a 4 hour hike – we will definitely be back when they are older to experience it. I did a hike from Braggs Beach round to Horseshoe Bay that was amazing – only 1.5 hours – from the start about 3 minutes along the track past Braggs Beach is a stunning tiny bay with a steep track to get down to the beach but absolutely crystal clear water and interesting rocky coves that would be great to explore. It wasn’t a very warm day but even so after my great hike I was hot (and brave) enough to have a swim at Braggs Beach when I got back. I can still remember the absolute exhilaration of the fresh clean sparkling waters with every inch of my skin and nerves tingling and zinging. Wow! It’s such a sensation! You know you are really alive!!!
Other tips – it is quite far south and the weather can be variable and quite cold. Make sure you have gear for cold and wet weather so you can still go out and enjoy it all. Also we highly recommend catching a plane over with Stewart Island flights – a real experience and a gorgeous way to see the island from above. The ferry is not much cheaper and long – it can be a bit unpleasant and choppy in the water. You have to be prepared for a few bumps and thrills in the plane as well, but we all loved it, and it is only a 15 minute ride.