Ultimate Guide to Stewart Island (Rakiura Island)

Stewart Island

blog authorBy Johanna Hansen shield verification Verified Expert

    Stewart Island, a gem nestled south of New Zealand's South Island, is a haven of untouched beauty and rich cultural heritage. Often overshadowed by its larger counterparts, this island offers a unique blend of wilderness adventures, abundant wildlife, and deep-rooted Maori traditions. 

    Whether you're an avid hiker, a wildlife enthusiast, or a history buff, Stewart Island promises an experience unlike any other. Dive into this guide to discover the island's secrets, from its iconic kiwi inhabitants to its serene fishing spots, and learn why it's a must-visit destination on any New Zealand itinerary.

    What is Stewart Island? 

    Stewart Island, also known as Rakiura Island, is the third-largest island of New Zealand, located south of the South Island. With an area of approximately 1,746 square kilometers, it's a haven for nature lovers and those seeking a serene escape. 

    The island is often referred to by various names such as stewart island nz, stuart island, steward island, and stewart.island, among others. Its Maori name, Rakiura, translates to "Glowing Skies", a nod to the mesmerizing southern lights that can be witnessed here.

    Rakiura Island


    Stewart Island, also known by its Māori name, Rakiura, holds a special place in the annals of New Zealand's history. The name "Rakiura" translates to "Glowing Skies", a poetic nod to the mesmerizing southern lights that often grace the island's horizons.

    The island's significance in Māori culture cannot be understated. According to Māori legends, the island is known as "Te Punga o Te Waka a Māui", which means "The Anchor Stone of Māui's Canoe". This refers to the demigod Māui, who is believed to have fished up the North Island. 

    Stewart Island, in this context, represents the anchor stone of his canoe, further emphasizing its importance in Māori mythology.

    How to get to Stewart Island 

    Traveling to Stewart Island is an adventure in itself. The most common route is via a ferry ride across the strait between South Island and Stewart Island. Alternatively, for those looking for a quicker option, there are flights available from Invercargill. Once you're on the island, the town of Oban serves as the main hub for travelers.

    Things to do in Stewart Island

    Enjoy Rakiura National Park

    Rakiura National Park covers about 85% of Stewart Island, making it a significant testament to the island's untouched nature. The park is home to New Zealand's third-largest island's pristine landscapes, including dense forests, hilly terrains, and a rich variety of fauna. 

    Flightless birds, such as the iconic Stewart Island kiwi and penguins, thrive in this environment due to the absence of introduced predators. The park is a testament to New Zealand's commitment to preserving its natural heritage, with over 80% of Stewart Island designated as Rakiura National Park.

    Rakiura National Park

    Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara

    Ulva Island, also known as Te Wharawhara, is a predator-free sanctuary located near Stewart Island. This island is a haven for nature enthusiasts, offering a glimpse of New Zealand's unique flora and fauna in their natural habitat. The dense forests of Ulva Island are home to various bird species, making it a popular spot for birdwatching. 

    As a predator-free zone, the island has successfully preserved its native species, ensuring that visitors get an authentic experience of New Zealand's biodiversity.

    Ulva Island

    Visit Stewart Island Museum

    The Stewart Island Museum offers a deep dive into the island's rich history and its Maori heritage. Visitors can learn about the island's early settlers, its significance in Maori mythology, and its role in New Zealand's broader history. 

    The museum houses various artifacts, photographs, and exhibits that provide insights into the island's past and the lives of its inhabitants.

    Go to Oban Village

    Oban Village is the primary settlement on Stewart Island and offers a unique blend of local culture and scenic beauty. Visitors can experience the laid-back lifestyle of the islanders, explore local shops, and indulge in delicious seafood delicacies. 

    The village provides a glimpse into the daily lives of the island's residents and offers a chance to interact with the local community.

    Oban Village in Stewart Island

    Paterson Inlet

    Paterson Inlet is a picturesque water body on Stewart Island, known for its serene beauty and abundant marine life. The inlet is perfect for boat rides, allowing visitors to explore its calm waters and spot various marine species. 

    The deeply creased coastline of the inlet, combined with the surrounding lush greenery, makes it a popular spot for photography and relaxation.

    Hiking and Walking

    Stewart Island is a haven for those who love to explore on foot. With a myriad of trails crisscrossing the island, hikers can immerse themselves in the island's natural beauty. The tracks cater to all levels of fitness and experience:

    • Short walks: For those looking for a leisurely stroll, there are numerous short walks that take you through lush forests, along pristine beaches, and offer panoramic views of the island.
    • Multi-day hikes: For the more adventurous, there are multi-day hikes that allow you to delve deeper into the island's wilderness. The Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks, is a popular choice, taking hikers on a three-day journey through the heart of the island.

    Hiking in Stewart Island


    The waters surrounding Stewart Island are a treasure trove for fishing enthusiasts. Rich in marine life, anglers can expect to catch a variety of fish, including blue cod, grouper, and snapper. 

    Whether you're fishing from the shore or venturing out into deeper waters on a chartered boat, the experience is bound to be rewarding. Local guides are available to provide insider tips and ensure a fruitful fishing expedition.

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    Kayaking and Canoeing

    Kayaking and canoeing around Stewart Island offer a unique perspective of its rugged coastline. Paddle through calm inlets, discover hidden coves, and get up close with marine life. 

    The crystal-clear waters provide excellent visibility, allowing you to spot starfish, seals, and even dolphins as you glide along. For those without equipment, local operators offer kayak rentals and guided tours.

    Kayaking in Stewart Island

    Wildlife Watching

    Stewart Island's diverse ecosystems make it a hotspot for wildlife enthusiasts. From the dense forests to the expansive coastline, the island is teeming with unique species. 

    The famous Stewart Island kiwi can often be spotted during nighttime walks. Other notable species include seals, sea lions, and the occasional visiting whale. Guided tours are available to enhance the wildlife-watching experience.


    With over 240 bird species calling Stewart Island home, it's no wonder that birdwatchers from around the world flock here. The island's isolation and predator-free status have made it a sanctuary for many native bird species. 

    Notable species include the kākā, bellbird, and the rare yellow-eyed penguin. Ulva Island, a short boat ride away, is a renowned birdwatching spot, offering the chance to see rare and endangered birds in their natural habitat.

    Birdwatching in Stewart Island


    Stewart Island's isolation from the mainland has allowed it to preserve a unique ecosystem that is both diverse and rich.


    The Stewart Island kiwi is one of the iconic species of the island. Unlike their mainland counterparts, these kiwis are often active during the day, making Stewart Island one of the best places to spot these elusive birds in their natural habitat.

    Kiwi in Stewart Island


    The island is a birdwatcher's paradise. With over 240 bird species, including the rare yellow-eyed penguin and the kākā, it offers unparalleled opportunities for ornithologists and nature enthusiasts. The absence of many introduced predators has allowed bird populations to thrive.

    Marine Life

    The waters surrounding Stewart Island are teeming with marine life. Playful dolphins, seals, and even the occasional whale can be spotted off the coast. The rich marine biodiversity is a testament to the pristine nature of the island's environment.


    The dense forests of Stewart Island are home to a myriad of flora and fauna. These forests, largely untouched by human activity, provide a sanctuary for many species and are integral to the island's biodiversity.

    Forest in Stewart Island in New Zealand

    What to pack 

    Given the island's unpredictable weather, it's essential to pack layers. Waterproof clothing, sturdy hiking boots, and a good quality raincoat are must-haves. Don't forget your camera to capture the island's breathtaking beauty!

    When to visit Stewart Island

    The best time to visit Stewart Island is during the summer months, from December to February. The weather is pleasant, and it's the perfect time for outdoor activities. However, if you're keen on witnessing the southern lights, consider visiting during the winter months.


    Stewart Island, or Rakiura Stewart Island as some might call it, is a treasure trove of natural beauty and cultural heritage. Whether you're an avid hiker, a wildlife enthusiast, or someone looking to unwind, the island has something to offer for everyone. 

    And if you're considering exploring New Zealand in a unique way, why not rent a carava? It's a fantastic way to experience the beauty of Stewart Island and the surrounding regions at your own pace. Dive into the magic of Stewart Island and create memories that will last a lifetime!

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