The Insider’s Guide to Stewart Island: What to do, where to eat and where to stay
Words: Cheree Morrison Additional research: Mikaela Wilkes
Stewart Island is a flawless microcosm where the fish is fresh, seeing a kiwi is likely and the genuine welcome also makes it special. What follows is a special extract from the 2018 Insider’s Guide to New Zealand.
The small, isolated community of Stewart Island is fueled by the energy of its people. In Oban, its only town, birthdays are announced on a chalkboard outside the Four
Square store where there is also a raffle fundraising to buy firewood to keep elderly residents warm as the weather turns from brisk to biting, and a box of pre-loved books is “free to a good home”.
New Zealand’s third-largest island has 380 permanent human residents and approximately 13,000 Stewart Island kiwi (tokoeka). More than two thirds of it is national park (Rakiura) and walking tracks flow like ribbons through the bush.
With all that greenness and emptiness, with just birds for company and drizzle on 200 days of the year, it’s a near-paradise for nature lovers who don’t mind using their feet – and getting them wet.
Many families are fourth or fifth-generation islanders, a testament to the lure of the place. Ask if they’ve ever thought of moving and be met with furrowed brows: “Why on Earth would you leave all of this?”
They have a secret though, and that is that most islanders are in fact more widely traveled than the average New Zealander. From November to April, the locals work, and work hard.
The same person may serve in the pub, again in the café, and then be spotted cleaning the accommodation. During the tourist season they knuckle down from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.
But come Easter weekend, the doors shut, the ‘closed’ signs go up and they disappear into the horizon on cruise ships and aeroplanes, only to appear again at Labour Weekend, refreshed and ready.
WHAT TO DO:
PICK UP A PADDLE
New Zealanders have a love affair with sea kayaking. The country’s craggy coastline cries out for exploration, and there’s no better way to conduct a thorough survey than bobbing along in a narrow fibreglass vessel. Golden beaches, underwater kelp forests, glass-clear waters and fiery sunsets are the everyday landscape for locals.
Tour operator Phil Dove is happy to hit the water any time, but the afternoons are his preference. “Stewart Island is never better than in the late afternoon. There’s no motor noise, just a chorus of birds, and the sunsets are incredible.”
Half-day and whole-day tours can be customized to suit the experience and interests of the paddler.
Tours are weather dependent, and should be booked in advance. Everything is included: just bring shoes, warm clothes and a camera.
7 Leonard Street, Oban, 027 444 2323, facebook.com/Phils-Sea-Kayak-Stewart-Island
DAY TRIP TO ULVA ISLAND/ TE WHARAWHARA
The silence is deafening on Ulva Island. It blankets the island like sea fog – thick and almost impermeable. The odd noise sneaks through; the crunch of footsteps on gravel, the flutter of wings as a pair of saddlebacks have a lovers’ tiff over a juicy snack and, every now and then, a muffled squawk from a tourist.
That tourist squawk means only one thing: they’ve been startled by a resident kiwi.
New Zealand passports should come with a free pass to Ulva Island. This is how our country once was and should be: pure, clean and pristine. Blindingly green. Wildlife is both lazy and lively.
The birds have mischievous charm, all of them: kiwi, saddlebacks, robins, tūī, kererū, Stewart Island weka, tomtits, fantails, bellbirds, blue penguins.
New Zealand sea lions and fur seals are often found lolling on the beach. But, like teenagers, wild animals follow their own rules so there’s no money-back guarantee should they decide to sleep in.
LOOK OUT FOR THE LOOKOUT
If the sun is waking or preparing to sleep, go to Observation Rock for box-office views. With the right weather conditions, at night look south for the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). Looking out over Paterson Inlet and Mount Anglem is the perfect place for a holiday snap.
From Oban, walk along the waterfront then follow either the signs to Excelsior Road to the top, or Ayr Street, then left into Dundee.
HOW TO GET TO ULVA ISLAND
Ulva Island is in Paterson Inlet, a short boat trip away. The ferry departs from Golden Bay several times a day (may vary in winter) and bookings are not required.
WHERE TO EAT:
BRAINS, BEER & BLACKBOARD SPECIALS
Sunday night is pub-quiz night at the South Sea Hotel. Like quizzes in classic pubs all over the country, the beer flows, whispered debates take place and rules are rules even when the guest is royalty.
Prince Harry and his team ‘Ginger Ninjas’ found out the hard way – they came second to a team made up of his security detail.
The South Sea Hotel (open year-round) is as Stewart Island as it comes. All are welcome, there’s always a yarn to be told, the beer is cold and there are kākā hanging around in the hope of stealing a chip.
The iconic building was a boarding house for forestry workers until 1967. These days it’s a pub, café, hotel and restaurant right in the heart of Oban, a few hundred metres from the ferry terminal. Pull up a bench seat outside and spot pods of dolphins playing in the bay.
Manager Sue Graham recommends the daily blackboard specials.
“That’s when the chefs really shine; they have the best seasonal and local produce and create some fantastic dishes.” The seafood chowder is legendary. Made with blue cod and mussels, homemade fish stock and accompanied by oven-warm ciabatta, it’s the hotel’s most popular dish.
The hotel is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Walk-ins are welcome for breakfast and lunch but do book for dinner. Quiz night starts Sunday at 6.30pm.
26 Elgin Terrace, Oban, (03) 219 1059, stewart-island.co.nz
Deanne and Chris Sara may not have started their Stewart Island adventure together, but since 2012 they’ve been cooking up a storm from their restaurant, Church Hill, on top of the bay.
Chef Deanne bought the early-1900s holiday home in 1999 but it took more than a decade (and meeting Chris) before her dream of running a restaurant became a possibility.
“We’d been going back and forward between the island and Christchurch before deciding to take it on together. We bought an old van, packed our lives up and moved down. Nothing else mattered – we were together, starting an adventure and we would make it work.”
And they have. Honouring home-grown and homemade ingredients is the key. Blue cod, muttonbird (tītī), whitebait, green-lipped mussels, salmon and pāua – if it’s in season, it’s probably on the menu. “The produce here is fantastic,” says Chris, “and buying local means we can make the most of it.”
Church Hill Boutique Lodge & Restaurant reopens on 22 September this season and now offers accommodation. The restaurant is open for dinner only and bookings are essential.
36 Kamahi Road, Oban, (03) 219 1123, churchhill.co.nz
WHERE TO STAY ON STEWART ISLAND
OBSERVATION ROCK LODGE
High above Paterson Inlet is the home of a former German theatre manager and a registered nurse turned salmon farmer, Annett Eiselt.
Owning a lodge wasn’t really in the plans for Annett, but she fell in love with the property and, after moving in, decided the view deserved to be shared. So, she turned one of the buildings into cosy accommodation.
The lodge has three bedrooms, all with views and one even has a bath on the deck. There is a fully equipped kitchen but, once guests try some of Annett’s home-cooking, it tends to go unused.
Book in advance and enjoy a multi-course dining experience, prepared onsite and served as the sun goes down over the inlet.
And while you’re there, say hello to Hoppy the kākā, who hangs around in the hope of charming his favourite apple treats off admiring guests.
One thing soon becomes apparent when hanging out on Stewart Island: there are many ‘good sorts’ living here.
Raylene Waddell is one of them. It takes a special person to open their home to visitors, cook breakfasts, share stories, help with transport and allow guests to wander through a prized garden.
Guests at Glendaruel, the 100-year-old home that Raylene and her late-husband, Ronnie, developed from their holiday home to a three-bedroom B&B, are treated like family.
Raylene knows the island inside out, and her home is in a perfect location to enjoy the highlights. It’s a short downhill walk to both Golden Bay and Halfmoon Bay, but garden lovers may not want to venture too far.
Her garden has starred in several magazines and will entertain green-fingered guests. They’ll be sure to have company, too – it teems with birdlife, from weka to kererū and the occasional kiwi.
Breakfast is included in the room rate, and Raylene is always on hand to provide recommendations for food, walks or activities.
Heading out with rod in hand? Bring back a catch of the day and she’ll cook it up free of charge.
The Bay Motel: A family-friendly option in the middle of town. 9 Dundee Street, (03) 219 1119, baymotel.co.nz
Stewart Island Lodge: To boast of sleeping in a room fit for a prince. 14 Nichol Road, freephone within New Zealand 0800 000 511, stewartislandlodge.co.nz
Stewart Island Backpackers: For campsites, dorm rooms or shared options. 18 Ayr Street, (03) 219 1114, stewartislandbackpackers.co.nz
This is an excerpt from the 2018 edition of The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand. For the full chapter on Stewart Island and further recommendations, buy it online for $19.90* at shop.thisnzlife.co.nz
THE 2019 EDITION IS AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER FOR THE SPECIAL PRICE OF $15.
The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand is the country’s leading, independent travel guide specializing in six new regions. This collector’s annual introduces readers to interesting people to meet, things to do, places to go and food to eat; don’t leave home without seeing the country.
The 2019 edition visits Whanganui City, Queenstown & Glenorchy, Kaiapoi to Arthur’s Pass, The Catlins, Waihi & Whangamata and Bream Bay. On sale 26 November 2018. Save $4.90 by purchasing early. Books will be shipped in the last week of November in time for Christmas gifts.
Or pre-order the 2019 edition,* Includes free delivery.