Stewart Island is home to New Zealand's newest national park, Rakiura National Park. The third and most southerly of New Zealand's main islands, Stewart Island is separated from the South Island by the 24-km (15-miles) Foveaux Strait. Its original Māori name, Te Punga O Te Waka a Maui, means "the anchor stone of Maui's canoe." Māori mythology says the island's landmass held the god Maui's canoe secure while he and his crew raised the great fish—the North Island. Today the island is more commonly referred to by its other Māori name, Rakiura, which means "the land of the glowing skies." This refers to the spectacular sunrises and sunsets and to the southern lights, or aurora australis. The European name of Stewart Island dates back to 1809. It memorializes an officer William W. Stewart on an early sealing vessel, the Pegasus, who was the first to chart the island. The island covers some 1,700 square km (650 square miles). It measures about 75 km (46 miles) from north to south and about the same distance across at its widest point. On the coastline, sharp cliffs rise from a succession of sheltered bays and beaches. In the interior, forested hills rise gradually toward the west side of the island. Seals and penguins frequent the coast, and the island's prolific birdlife includes a number of species rarely seen in any other part of the country. In fact, this is the surest place to see a kiwi. The Stewart Island brown kiwi, or tokoeka, is the largest species of this kind of bird. Unlike their mainland cousins, these kiwis can be seen during the day as well as at night. It's a rare and amusing experience to watch these pear-shape birds scampering on a remote beach as they feed on sand hoppers and grubs. Māori have visited Stewart Island for centuries. Archaeologists' studies of 13th-century Māori middens (refuse heaps) indicate that the island was once a rich, seasonal resource for hunting, fishing, and gathering seafood. A commonly eaten delicacy at that time, the titi, also known as the muttonbird, still occasionally appears on menus. In the early 19th century, explorers, sealers, missionaries, and miners settled the island. They were followed by fishermen and sawmillers who established settlements around the edges of Paterson Inlet and Halfmoon and Horseshoe bays. In the 1920s Norwegians set up a whaling enterprise, and many descendants of these seafaring people remain. Fishing, aquaculture, and tourism are now the mainstays of the island's economy. Even by New Zealand standards, Stewart Island is remote, raw, and untouched. The appeal is its seclusion, its relaxed way of life, and its untouched quality. Stewart Island is not for everyone: if you must have shopping malls, casinos, or umbrella drinks on the beach, don't come here. Visitors should be prepared for the fact that Stewart Island can be chilly, windy, and rainy, even in the middle of summer.
Church Hill Restaurant & Oyster Bar
At the heart of the menu is food of the sea, or kai moana. Stewart Island blue cod, salmon, mussels, oysters, and paua (abalone) are all cooked to perfection and accompanied by fresh vegetables from the garden just meters away. An intimate little restaurant with a view out to sea, it is popular with both locals and visitors. There's also gourmet food to take-out in a picnic basket from NZ$35 per person. The restaurant hosts popular themed nights in summer offering a special Asian or Italian menu.
Bird on a Pear
Situated right in the thick of things on Halfmoon Bay Wharf, this popular cafe above the ferry terminal positively bustles from early morning through late afternoon with an eclectic mix of locals and visitors. An impressive menu of breakfast treats, local seafood (try the divine Oyster soup!), huge salads, yummy cakes and muffins all made on-site by owner/operator Jo Leask. Gluten-free and vegetarian options available. Grab a window seat and watch the boats load and unload or spot little blue penguins darting beneath the clear waters below as you sip a tipple from the fully licensed bar. Evening meals available weekends from December through March.
Kiwi French Cafe
American owner Britt Moore makes coffee, a selection of sweet and savoury crepes, salads, and pan-fried fish of the day, making this a great place to stop and watch the world go by. Grab a take-out packed lunch or stay for coffee and cake. Dinner offers either an à la carte or set menu. Britt also owns New Zealand's southernmost spa, offering both massages or soaks in the hot tub, and treatments can be booked at the café.
South Sea Hotel Restaurant
You can have a relaxed meal in the restaurant or an even more relaxed meal in the bar here. Food such as local seafood, pizza, pasta, and steaks offer good value at this little local spot. Seafood chowder is a popular choice, and if you give a 24-hour notice, you can try the crayfish. Reservations are strongly recommended in the busy summer season because there are so few places to eat in these parts. Renowned winter buffets draw the local crowd in on Tuesday night.
The Rakiura Museum has an eclectic collection of Māori artifacts, ambergris, old schoolhouse memorabilia, tools from gold and tinning prospectors, and a china "moustache cup" (there's a story behind every item). The museum also forgivingly showcases an old-world globe that doesn't include Stewart Island!
Rakiura National Park
In spring 2002, about 85% of Stewart Island was designated as Rakiura National Park. The park encompasses areas that were formerly nature reserves and the like. More than 200 walking trails thread through the park, and a dozen huts give shelter for overnight stays. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has more information on its web site.
"A Local's Tail" is a quirky 40-minute movie about life on Stewart Island as told by Lola the dog. At the two daily screenings (2 pm and 4 pm) in this neat 53-seater cinema, you'll be introduced to local characters and learn about island living. Write a review on the blackboard, pose for a photo with Lola herself, and perhaps add your name to the rogues gallery of moviegoers past. Additional screening times can be arranged for groups. On some weekend evenings classic old movies are shown. Get there early on a rainy day and grab a bucket of popcorn from the foyer.
If you're short of time, then hop on a scenic bus tour with the Island Explorer, which is operated by Stewart Island Flights. A great way to see the island is on one of these 90-minute tours. There are no scheduled departure times (it's done on demand), so make sure to book ahead whenever possible.