It was only a few years ago that backpackers would never have considered visiting Stewart Island, in fact, many would not be able to point it out on a map. Now, Stewart Island is fast becoming a must-see destination for backpackers in New Zealand. Located at the very end of New Zealand's South Island, and often called New Zealand's third island, you really do have a bit of a travel to get there, but then again, it's New Zealand so there is plenty to see along the way and the end result is well worth the mileage.
85% of this Island is Rakiura National Park which should immediately tell you that there is something pretty spectacular to see. In short, Stewart Island may only be an hour's ferry ride away, but once you are on the Island you will feel like you have landed somewhere in the middle of the ocean and secretly hope you never get found.
For diver's, hiker's, wildlife buffs, and girls with a boyfriend whose idol is Bill Oddie, this place is unavoidable. Diving is top class here thanks to the warm current from the Great Barrier Reef which journeys round Stewart Island bringing a diverse range of marine life with it. The Paterson Inlet, is that good for diving that it was established as a marine reserve in 2004.
Walking and hiking tracks around this Island are plentiful. For most the many 1 -3 hour walks are filled with unique wildlife and views but for the more adventurous there is the 3 day Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand's "Great Walks" covering 36km. For the really mental traveller you can try one of the circuits, North-West or Southern, both will take you more than a week to complete. The North-West circuit is affectionately described as 'challenging' which can also be defined as 'seriously hard-core, you have got to be out of your mind to try'.
However, what attracts most people to the Island is hiking your way to see a kiwi in the wild. Birds are on this Island, on mass, making Stewart Island a bird watchers paradise, from Stewart Island Brown Kiwi's to blue penguins and Albatross. For a real bird experience head to Ulva Island, found in the Paterson Inlet, which acts as a sanctuary for rare and endangered birds. Just be careful with what you're carrying though as this island is predator free and it would be good to keep it that way.
If marine and bird life aren't your cup of tea it really doesn't mean that Stewart Island isn't worth the visit. Mason Bay is a 12mile golden sand beach, perfect if you want to feel like a castaway, like the only person on the planet. Stewart Island is littered with both black and gold sand beaches and with 20km of road to help you out you can hire a bike or scooter and explore the beaches for yourself.
Getting to Stewart Island requires a one hour ferry journey or a 15 minute scenic plane ride and it isn't the cheapest place to get to with the ferry costing around $60 one way from Bluff, so a day trip can be costly for a backpacker. However, there are some quaint and reasonably priced Bed & Breakfasts on the Island so make the most of it and stick around for a few days. The walks and beaches are free so why not enjoy them? New Zealand is full of unique experiences and ever-changing landscapes but Stewart Island tops them all with it's one of a kind blend of rainforest, pristine beaches, diverse marine life and tropical bird paradise. Without fail, Stewart Island is a backpacker must-see destination.