Stewart Island's prettiest spots that only the locals know – New Zealand Herald

Matt Jones is a freelance bird watching guide, photographer and Stewart Island resident. His home since leaving the UK in 2007, there’s no Stewart Island stone he’s left unturned
Stewart Island enchants because it’s far from touristy – and the people are genuine, helpful and friendly. Life is exactly how it used to be here and the “laid-backness” is addictive – and I don’t mean that it hasn’t moved forward at all.
We have one pub, one supermarket, one cop, not much traffic, nature on our doorstep, bird watching, tramping and little to no crime. The great kiwi sense of humour is alive and well – I recall a local (sadly no longer with us) saying that we are a drinking village with a fishing problem. If you’re looking for shopping malls or coffee culture, this island isn’t for you – but we do have great coffee.
Visitors always rave about seeing kiwi, the aurora australis and the fact we have the internet. But there are far more surprises than Wi-Fi, and birds far rarer than kiwi: Stewart Island weka, southern NZ dotterel and the South Island saddleback.
Don’t miss Ulva Island. An open sanctuary where native birds and plants thrive and rats were eradicated in 1997. It’s just how New Zealand used to be and a short water taxi ride from Stewart Island. You can walk around it with or without a guide but I’d recommend the former because there’s nothing like a local’s passionate knowledge.
Mason Bay sits on the west coast of Stewart Island and is a stunning place, not least for its incredible sand dune system and coastal wetlands. The dunes provide a habitat for the endangered Southern New Zealand dotterel and the area has a significant population of Stewart Island brown kiwi (tokoeka). Fly in, land on the beach, walk to Freshwater Landing in 4-5 hours and catch a water taxi back to Golden Bay.
I’d argue remote Port Pegasus is the island’s most stunning area. The secret bays and coves are like something from a lost world. It’s logistically challenging to get to (charter a boat or walk the Tin Range) but it’s worth the effort.
Sunrise and sunset can be very special and even the locals stop to take a photo. Stewart Island Rakiura is known as the land of glowing skies which comes from Te raki ura o Te Rakitamau (shortened to Rakiura) – the “great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamau”, an early Māori chief who blushed when his marriage proposal was declined.
If you’re a history buff, Rakiura Museum opened in December 2021 after much fundraising for a new building. As well as displaying relics from early Māori settlement, muttonbirding, whaling and timber milling, the building itself recently won a public architecture award.
Most importantly, stay for longer than a day trip, do your homework and book ahead. Check out what the small local operators have to offer and you won’t regret it.
When Matt isn’t working, he enjoys photography, the fruits of which can be seen on his website
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