Our third island offers friendly locals (both human and feathered) and an array of adventures, discovers Louise Richardson.
Morning, Halfmoon Bay. Just past sunrise. The sky is a rich, warm, pinkish amethyst. Fishing boats bob on the harbour. In an hour, the first of three daily ferries and three scheduled flights will arrive from Bluff, visitors eager for a few days of living close to nature in a place Maori settled almost 1000 years ago, and which remains essentially as the first people found it.
Stewart Island/Rakiura is home to not-quite 400 people. In summer that number swells many times and the seaside village of Oban, where 80 per cent of the locals live, booms. Its handful of shops fill with browsers and the tearooms do a roaring trade.
Many who make the short flight or voyage — it's been unkindly and usually unfairly described as a choice between "10 minutes of terror or an hour of torture" — are from overseas. Most New Zealanders have never or will never go to their country's "third island".
Yet this is one place where visitors from "the Mainland" or far further afield will get a warm welcome from local kiwi and the local Kiwis. It's arguably the best place to see our shy, feathered icon in the wild, and the close-knit community are relaxed hosts, especially over a beer in the South Sea, the island's only hotel, as the sun goes down on Half Moon Bay.
Maori named this place Rakiura. Translated, "glowing skies".
This is a relatively small island but you can cover a lot of ground. A sightseeing flight is a good way to get bearings, above the forests and dunes, sheltered inlets and swamps. Back on terra firma, there are several easy walking tracks around Oban, from 10 minutes to three hours.
With few predators, bird life flourishes. The hundreds of species in this internationally renowned haven include penguins, albatross, ducks and dotterel, petrel, shags and the estimated 25,000 kiwi.
As one writer has noted, "even the most amateur of spotters are likely to be distracted by the constant — and utterly glorious — squawking, singing and flitting of feathery flocks".
The best place to appreciate the birds is Ulva Island sanctuary, a seven-minute water-taxi ride from Oban, which has been described as "New Zealand at its most pristine; a place of natural, primeval beauty, where the sounds of ancient birdsong still ring today".
Since 85 per cent of the island is protected as the Rakiura National Park, it's heaven on earth for serious trampers. Rakiura Track takes a 32km loop around the coast, ducking in and out of the forested interior. The tramp is best enjoyed over three days, stopping at huts at Port William and Paterson Inlet or camping, but you can do it in a shorter time. This is a no-frills affair; bring everything you'll need from cooking equipment to toilet paper.
The Northwest and Southern circuits offer similarly rewarding experiences over a few full-on days. It helps if you don't mind getting muddy.
Much of the island's history and economy centres around fishing, so prospects of landing an impressive catch are good. There's almost always a handful of youngsters on wharves and jetties dangling a line in the water, catching yabbies. For a more serious day out, FV Tequila offers four-hour trips in search of the island's famous blue cod and other species.
Divers can explore beneath the sea in Paterson Inlet, where fish and crustaceans abound, or snorkel. The water is crystal clear and you might encounter a penguin or two. If you want to encounter something a little more feisty, the island's waters are home to more than 100 great white sharks; you can cage-dive with the predators.
Kayak enthusiasts will soon get to know the name Phil. He's the bloke who shares his passion for the island and its surrounding waters, hiring double and single kayaks, guiding you on a half- or full-day tour through waters where canoes have paddled for more than 1000 years.
Maori legend names this place Te Punga o Te Waka a Maui, "the anchor stone of Maui's canoe".
Back to Oban to catch that boat or plane. Locals will tell you the best seafood chowder in the world is served at the South Sea. They say much the same about the blue cod, beer-battered or baked with a parmesan and herb crust. Right now it's oyster season: plump, juicy and fresh. They're pretty good raw with lemon, balsamic vinegar and crusty ciabatta. Or in a Bloody Mary oyster shot.
If you're lucky, you'll hit the South Sea on any Sunday and catch its world-famous pub quiz night. And not just world-famous in Stewart Island, either: it made headlines and clicks around the globe last year when Prince Harry dropped in to play. They rigged the questions but he couldn't break the locals.
Charming Rakiura Museum offers more than 5000 treasures celebrating the island's colourful past: early Maori history, relics from the 19th century whaling and sealing days, long gone but not forgotten boat-builders and a huge collection of photographs and written material. Staffed by volunteers, it's open every day in summer but only a few hours each week during winter.
For an "only on Stewart Island" experience, you can't go past the Bunkhouse, the comfy, quirky 53-seat cinema that offers, as every good Kiwi movie theatre should, Jaffas, icecreams and popcorn (make your own at the machine). Catch a showing of A Local's Tail, the delightful 40-minute documentary that introduces local characters, community colour and the pioneers' struggles and triumphs. You may meet a star — Lola, the Bunkhouse dog, the tail of the movie.
It might be the smallest member of the "Pacific's triple star" in the national anthem, but our southernmost island packs plenty of adventure, wildlife and local flavour into its 1570sq km. Little wonder ...
Maori also knew this place as Motunui, or "big island".
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Invercargill via Wellington or Christchurch.
Further information: See southlandnz.com.