The Must-Dos on Stewart Island
You haven’t fully explored New Zealand until you have ventured south to Stewart Island. On an island that is 80% national park and only has one town with a population of 400, life certainly feels different to the rest of the country. Stewart Island is made up of pristine beaches, wetlands and native forest. With that, it’s also one of the best places to see native New Zealand wildlife in the wild, from penguins to kiwi birds. Oh yeah, and it’s one of the best places for stargazing and seeing the Southern Lights too. Ok, Stewart Island is so awesome it’s getting us excited, so let’s move onto this list of incredible things to do on Stewart Island!
After checking out this list, you’ll definitely want to stay awhile in Stewart Island, so head on over to The Complete Guide to Stewart Island to work out logistics.
1. Hike the Rakiura Track
That’s right, you can do one of New Zealand’s Great Walks right at the bottom of New Zealand on Stewart Island. Discover the beaches and wilderness of the Rakiura National Park which covers 80% of Stewart Island on the Rakiura Track. What’s more, it is one of the cheapest Great Walks you can do. Check out more ways to experience the wilderness in the 10 Best Things to Do in Rakiura National Park.
Location: Start from either the Rakiura National Park entrance at Lee Bay, 5km (3 miles) from Oban, or from the Fern Gully car park, 2km (1.2 miles) beyond the Rakiura National Park Visitor Centre.
2. Birdwatch on Ulva Island
One of the best places (and we mean the best places) to see native New Zealand birds in the wild has to be on Ulva Island. A 5-minute ferry from Golden Bay can take you over to the island which is connected with walking trails among ancient forest. The island is pest-free, meaning that bird life thrives here, including parakeets, yellowheads, tui, wood pigeons, kaka, weka, bellbirds and so much more. Go early morning on the island and chances are, you’ll see a kiwi bird in the wild! This activity is also one of the 10 Things to Do on Stewart Island with Kids, as well as something worth doing if you only have a day on Stewart Island.
3. Carve Your Own Greenstone Pendant
Visit Rakiura Jade to carve your own greenstone pendant on Stewart Island. Greenstone is traditionally made into necklace pendants in the Maori culture and you can carve your own greenstone right here on Stewart Island. Rakiura Jade guides you through carving your own design of Toki (see here for an example). What’s more, it’s the perfect rainy day activity because, well, it’s known to rain on Stewart Island – see more of the 10 Things to Do on Stewart Island on a Rainy Day.
Location: Elgin Terrace on the waterfront of Oban.
4. Relax on Bathing Beach
Stewart Island is full of paradise-looking beaches. Clear blue waters, golden sand, uncrowded… You would think you were on a tropical paradise island rather than a subantarctic one. A great beach that is easy to reach from Oban is Bathing Beach. Just follow the walking track over the cliffs on the west side of Oban and you’ll be there in 15 minutes. We consider this one of the 10 Most Romantic Things to Do on Stewart Island for Couples, as well as another experience you can do if you only have a day on Stewart Island.
Location: Access off Kamahi Road, Oban.
5. Take a Scenic Flight Over the Island
One way to marvel at Stewart Island’s beauty is with a scenic flight. Flights can be taken from Invercargill, Bluff or right here on the island! Either fly purely for the scenery or team it up with a drop-off at Mason Bay where you can begin exploring the island on the North West Circuit multi-day hike. Flights are available with Stewart Island Flights and Stewart Island Helicopters (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor). See more activities like this in the 6 Luxury Activities on Stewart Island.
Location: Stewart Island Flights depart from Invercargill Airport, 106 Airport Avenue, Invercargill and Ryans Creek Aerodrom, Airport Road, Oban. Stewart Island Helicopters depart from Ocean Beach Heliport, 250 Ocean Beach Road, Bluff and Fern Gully Heliport, 151 Main Road, Oban.
6. Hike in the Rakiura National Park
We mentioned the Rakiura Track before, which is the perfect introduction to multi-day hiking. However, if you are looking for a cheaper, yet more challenging option in the Rakiura National Park, then consider the North West or Southern Circuits! More information is outlined in the 10 Best Things to Do in Rakiura National Park.
Location: See the specific locations for Stewart Island’s walks in the links above.
7. Stargaze (and Watch Out for the Southern Lights)
Stewart Island is known as “Rakiura” in te reo Maori, translating to “glowing skies”, thanks to Stewart Island being one of the best places in New Zealand to see the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis. Even if you don’t catch the pink hues in the skies, Stewart Island is also incredible for stargazing on a clear night, backed by its International Dark Sky Sanctuary status.
Location: Stargazing is incredible anywhere on Stewart Island but the best places include Lee Bay car park, Moturau Moana Gardens, Observation Rock and Ackers Point Lighthouse.
8. Grab Some Fish and Chips
We know; you can grab some fish and chips anywhere in New Zealand, so why would you get some on Stewart Island? Well, locals will tell you that the blue cod from the waters in Stewart Island is better than anywhere else in the world! Try some at the South Sea Hotel (the pub) or the Kai Kart. You can even catch some yourself on fishing charters.
Location: South Sea Hotel – Opposite the Oban wharf on Oban waterfront. Kai Kart – Ayr Street.
9. Fish for Blue Cod
If you have more time on Stewart Island, why not take your fish tasting to another level by catching it yourself? There are plenty of fishing charters available with all the gear included, such as Tequila Fishing and Bird Watching Charters using traditional hand line fishing methods and cod pots. Plus, you never know what other wildlife you’ll see! Get a guide to NZ fishing experiences in What You Need to Know About Fishing in New Zealand.
Location: Tequila Fishing and Bird Watching Charters office – 28 Main Road, Oban.
10. Dive with Great White Sharks
Yes, just off the coast of Stewart Island, get mingling with the great white sharks! This thrilling experience with Shark Experience allows divers to get super close to these majestic predators. While this unique activity in New Zealand is typically associated with Stewart Island, trips actually depart from Bluff. Tours are available from December through to June.
Location: 64 Gore Street, Bluff (a ferry ride from Stewart Island).
11. Watch a Local’s Tail
Sure, there are many ways to learn about life on Stewart Island: the museum, stay there as part of your working holiday, Wikipedia… But the most entertaining way is to watch A Local’s Tail at the Bunkhouse Theatre. The quaint cinema shows the pretty hilarious movie of Stewart Island from a dog’s perspective. At only NZ$10, it’s definitely worth checking out. See more experiences like this in the 10 Free & Cheap Things to Do in Stewart Island.
Location: 10 Main Road, Oban
12. Hit the Highlights on a Driving Tour
To see more of Stewart Island’s sights on land, take a guided driving tour of the island. Get an entertaining insight into the history, environment, wildlife and today’s culture on the island on tours with RealNZ (more info on Viator, Tripadvisor and Klook), Sails Ashore, Island Explorer, Aurora Cab Co. and Ruggedy Range.
Location: Pick-ups available from local accommodations and the ferry terminal.
13. Enjoy a Scenic Stewart Island Cruise
Another way to explore Stewart Island is from the water aboard one of its fantastic scenic cruises. For instance, Rakiura Charters & Water Taxi offer an array of tour options from their two modern custom-built vessels. Whether your interest is exploring Ulva Island and its surrounding waters, spotting pelagic seabirds or land birds, learning about Stewart Island’s aquaculture industries or the history of a whaler’s base, witnessing the diverse scenery of the Freshwater River, or something else, the team will have something to suit.
Other boat tours on Stewart Island offering similar experiences (with a few twists) include Rakiura Charters & Water Taxi, Aihe Eco Charters & Water Taxi, Bravo Adventure Cruises and Tequila Fishing and Bird Watching Charters. See more experiences like these in the 6 Best Luxury Experiences on Stewart Island.
Location: Meeting points arranged with tour operators.
14. Visit the Rakiura Museum
While the architecture of the Rakiura Museum adds a bit of “new” to Stewart Island, what the museum contains is a bit of the “old”, with relics on Stewart Island’s Maori history, as well as history on muttonbirding, whaling, fishing, timber milling, boat building, mining and the island’s schools, churches and transport. They also have a cool display of Stewart Island’s shells and crustacea. The Rakiura Museum is open 10am-4pm in summer and 10am-3pm on weekends, public holidays and in winter. There is a small admission fee to this museum.
Location: 11 Main Road, Oban.
15. Get Some Stunning Views from Observation Rock
If your kids can handle a 15-minute climb, then make Observation Rock an item on the itinerary. Start with an uphill walk up Excelsior Road where you’ll reach a sign for the Observation Rock track. From there, it’s a short walk through the forest to an exposed rock that forms the lookout over the Paterson Inlet (where Ulva Island is). It’s particularly special at sunset!
Location: Excelsior Road, Oban.
16. Do a Day Hike on the Garden Mound Track
You don’t have to over-exert yourself on a multi-day hike to experience hiking in the Rakiura National Park; do a day walk on the Garden Mound Track instead! The walk takes you among huge native trees reaching up to 160m (525ft) on the way to Little River. You can return on the trail of the Rakiura Track to complete a loop where you’ll find the link chain sculpture entrance to the Rakiura National Park. The trail is about four to five hours return. See more free day hikes like this in the 10 Best Things to Do in Rakiura National Park.
Location: Along Lee Bay Road, approximately 4.7km (2.9 miles) north of Oban.
17. See a Wild Kiwi Bird
Stewart Island is your best chance for seeing kiwi birds in the wild. Stewart Island kiwi are mostly seen after dark or in the morning (even all the way until noon unlike other species of kiwi). Triall Park on Golden Bay Road is a likely place to see them for free. Otherwise, kiwi spotting tours with Ruggedy Range, Beaks and Feathers and RealNZ or a trip to Ulva Island (see point #2) are your best bet.
Location: Triall Park, Golden Bay Road, Oban.
18. Play Giant Chess on the Waterfront
On the shores of Oban, by the giant chess board is a popular place to relax while waiting for the ferry or enjoying some fish and chips. These once humble traffic cones have been transformed into kings, queens and pawns for visitors to enjoy a brain-teasing game.
Location: Elgin Terrace, Oban.
19. Do the Easy-Going Fuchsia Walk and Raroa Reserve Track
A good walk for families or those who just want to take it easy, the Fuchsia Walk and Raroa Reserve Track is signposted off Dundee Street in Oban. The 30-minute one-way track takes you through beautiful fuchsia forest where it’s possible to spot a variety of native birds. Once you reach Traill Park, continue on the Raroa Reserve Track at the opposite end of the park which takes you through native forest until you reach Watercress Bay. Either return the same way or turn left to return to town via the quiet roads.
Location: Dundee Street, Oban.
20. Hang Out with a Kaka
Finally on our mammoth list of the best things to do on Stewart Island, hang out with the friendly locals. We’re, of course, talking about the kaka – a native bush parrot – that are everywhere in Oban and Stewart Island’s bushy areas. They’re not shy, so it’s common that they’ll come and join you on the deck of your Stewart Island accommodation.
Location: Any forested area on Stewart Island including Oban.
More About Stewart Island
That’s it for our list of Stewart Island must-dos. Get more advice on planning the perfect trip to the island by following our guides:
- The Complete Guide to Stewart Island
- The Travel Guide to Stewart Island on a Budget
- The Travel Guide to Stewart Island for Families
- The Luxury Travel Guide to Stewart Island
- The Honeymoon & Romantic Getaway Guide to Stewart Island
And be inspired for more experiences on your travels by checking out the 101 Things to Do in New Zealand: The Ultimate List!