Why You Should Put Rakiura (Stewart Island) on Your List for a Wild Winter Escape
Take a winter holiday with a difference — to this rugged and raw slice of paradise at the bottom of Aotearoa.
July 29, 2022
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Desperate to get off-grid? Looking for some winter sojourn inspiration? We've got an island recommendation a far cry from the hot and crowded ones currently filling your social media feed.
New Zealand's third largest island, Stewart Island or Rakiura (te reo Māori for 'land of the glowing skies') is a popular tourist hotspot in the summer months but empties out during the quieter winter off season — making it the ideal time to book a rugged and remote winter escape.
This largely untapped part of the country offers a deliciously wild winter holiday with incredible scenery and rare wildlife — without skimping on creature comforts.
So, if you've never been to Stewart Island, it's time to change that. With the help of RealNZ, we've put together a guide of where to eat, play and stay on this incredible natural wonder.
Located about 30 kilometres offshore from of the bottom of the South Island, Rakiura Stewart Island can only be accessed via one of the express catamarans. This one-hour journey across Foveaux Strait is a great way to kick off your southern adventure — from the moment you step on board, your winter escape begins. You might spot some of the area's sealife and birdlife including the incredible sight of a mollyhawk (albatross) soaring overhead or a bottlenose dolphin leaping past the boat.
While onboard, you'll be schooled up on some of the area's landmarks, including Dog Island Lighthouse, Ruapuke Island, the Titi Islands and Mount Anglem — Stewart Island's highest point. And yes, there's complimentary tea and coffee to keep your hands warm while you're sightseeing.
A good thing to remember is that you can't bring your car over on the ferry — it's foot traffic only. If you're keen on jamming heaps of activities into your time on the island it might pay to hire a car so you can easily nip around — RealNZ has some well-priced options here.
WHERE TO STAY
Any wild winter holiday needs a warm base so you can rest after a big day of soaking in everything your destination has to offer. If you're looking for peaceful and secluded accommodation on Stewart Island — without skimping on any creature comforts — opt for the Stewart Island Lodge.
A stay at this peaceful bed and breakfast includes a complimentary transfer from the ferry terminal, and once you're settled in your luxe accommodation you'll enjoy breathtaking views over Halfmoon Bay and Foveaux Strait. The lodge is a five-minute walk from the village centre so you're close to everything — and you start your day with a complimentary breakfast so you're appropriately fuelled for your day of adventuring.
RECONNECT WITH NATURE
As soon as you're on Rakiura it's time to switch off and reconnect with nature by taking part in some of the incredible experiences on offer. If you're keen to learn more about the island, book in for one of the Village and Bay tours — a local guide will tour you around giving insights into life on Stewart Island, the history and the environment — with plenty of opportunities for photos and walks amongst the stunning scenery.
Want to discover the island from the water? Opt for the Ulva Island Experience where you'll be taken on a leisurely cruise around the Paterson Inlet. Forget the crowded beaches on your social media feeds, this pristine inlet has crystal-clear waters and golden-sand beaches — you may even spot fur seals, penguins and bottlenose dolphins. When you disembark you'll be taken on a one-hour guided trek through wild bush at Ulva Wildlife Sanctuary. Here, you'll learn more about the abundant birdlife and rare plant species — and hopefully make friends with an inquisitive weka bird or two — before heading back to your accomodation for arvo drinks.
LEARN ABOUT THE HISTORY
Of course, you are on a winter escape so the weather might not play ball. If that's the case, no need to fret as you'll have the incredible Rakiura Museum Te Puka o Te Waka to explore.
Okay, so you might be thinking: "a museum? On my holidays?" But Rakiura's museum is a great space to learn about the island's history and early Māori settlements thanks to its large collection of historical items, photographs and archives. It uses touch screens and audio histories so you'll get to experience an immersive insight into how the island's community has evolved over time.
DO LOOK UP
Once the sun goes down, Rakiura really comes into its own. The night skies are truly breathtaking as the island's remote location means it's virtually free of light pollution. In 2019, Stewart Island was declared an International Dark Sky Sanctuary which means it has exceptional quality of starry nights and nocturnal wildlife. It's so spectacular, in fact, that you can even see the breathtaking Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) on a particularly clear night. How good.
Winter is the ideal time to really experience this as the long, cold and (hopefully) clear nights lend themselves well to soaking in the stars and feeling pretty damn tiny in this corner of the world. Observation Rock is a great stargazing spot and is only ten minutes from the Stewart Island Lodge. Reaching it does involve a short and steep climb so prepare yourself ahead of time — the epic 270 degree views are definitely worth the trek. Lee Bay car park, Moturau Moana Gardens and Ackers Point Lighthouse all also lend themselves beautifully to the night sky experience if one night of stargazing isn't mesmerising enough.
FIND FEATHERED FRIENDS
Once the sun goes down it's also a great time to spot some of the feathered friends for which we're named. Spotting a native kiwi in the wild is something all New Zealanders should experience once in their lives, in our opinion. At this time of year, there aren't the usual guided kiwi spotting tours, but you can still do it off your own back. Grab a torch, and go searching along the beaches at dusk for an unforgettable winter wildlife experience.
FILL UP ON FRESH KAIMOANA
With all that adventuring on the itinerary, you want to make sure you're appropriately fuelled. The island's KFC stands for Kiwi French Creperie and according to locals, this cute and cosy spot is one of the best spots to warm up with a good coffee. Grab a piece of the island-famous carrot cake while you're there.
For evening pub fare, put the South Sea Hotel on your list — it's only a five-minute stroll from your base at the Stewart Island Lodge. Here you'll enjoy world-class views of Halfmoon Bay while you tuck into classic pub fare like pizzas, steaks and nachos. During the summer months, restaurant bookings are essential, but in the quieter winter off season you can simply stroll on in and the friendly team will find you a spot to warm (and fill) up.
If all you're craving is some good kaimoana, you'll find some of the freshest you'll ever taste — we're talking caught that day kinda fresh — at the southern-most fish and chip shop in the world. Head to unassuming food truck Kai Kart Takeaways for freshly caught fish and crunchy golden chips — or try their battered mussels or locally caught venison burgers.
Want to see Rakiura for yourself? For more information and to start planning your wild winter escape to this incredible remote island, visit the website.