STEWART ISLAND, New Zealand — Most of the few foreigners who come to this 20x40-mile island, 15 miles off the south coast of South Island, fly over for the day to say they've been as far south as they can get. And only a small percentage of New Zealanders visit here.
But knowledgeable visitors, be they sightseers or backpackers, can find a surprising variety of natural beauty mixed with simple village tranquillity that makes Stewart Island a distinctive destination.
Picture a quiet Maine coast town with no heavy outside influence. Surround it with a temperate rain forest and 3,000-foot mountains topped with subalpine flora. Throw in such exotic birds as penguins, kiwis and wekas, color it with flaming sunsets and you have an idea of what Stewart Island and its village of Oban on Halfmoon Bay is all about.
Because of its isolation and forest, the island is a sanctuary for exotic birds. In December and January, yellow-eyed penguins nest along its shores while several varieties of shags nest in cliffs and treetops. Ground birds include the kiwis and wekas, and chances of seeing them are better than anywhere else. Bellbirds, tuis, parakeets and kakas are common tree birds, adding mysterious and melodic rings to the dense, verdant forest.
A Quickie Tour
Most visitors choose the quickie tour offered by Stewart Island Travel in its minibus, the one marqueed "Paradise." The tour covers the 18 miles of paved road and includes a running commentary on all the facts and figures you ever wanted to know about Stewart Island. The hour tour costs U.S.$3.50.
After the quickie tour you're on your own on foot, which is all right because the New Zealand Forest Service has laid out several easy walks ranging from minutes to all-day trips. Descriptive pamphlets are available at the forest service office next to the deer park in the small business district of Oban, a small village of about 500 folks. In December and January the forest service also conducts nature programs including free ranger-led hikes and launch cruises for $6-$14.
Backpackers will find well-developed trails with free huts set within a day's hike of each other. The most popular trek is the northwest circuit that can be accomplished in a week to 10 days and offers a good cross-section of forest with many secluded coves and shorelines.
Shorter treks are also established. Details are available from the New Zealand Forest Service, P.O. Box 3, Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island, New Zealand.
Popular Day Trip
A popular day trip operated on an irregular basis is a visit to Ulva Island. Because deer and other grazers were never introduced to Ulva as they were on Stewart Island, Ulva remains in an almost primeval state. The forest service also maintains well-marked trails there, many wood-slabbed for walking ease. Visits cost about $4-$9. Take your own lunch.
The newest and most comprehensive nature and wildlife tour of Stewart Island was begun by Ian Johnson of Stewart Island Charter Service. His ferry, the Acheron, take passengers on three- to five-day cruises, overnighting in forest service huts.
Tours visit birding and fur seal sites and remote trails in the rain forest leading to subalpine heights where dwarf trees grow parallel to the ground. Reservations are advised. Contact Johnson at P.O. Box 24, Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island, New Zealand, phone 53. Rates vary with the number of people on a trip from $20-$50 a day including meals and lodging.
Reservations are also recommended for the only downtown hotel, the South Seas, with 20 bedrooms, hot and cold water in the rooms, showers and toilets down the hall. A sitting room off of the lobby brings guests together around the fireplace and offers a good opportunity to find out who's in town and what's happening. The rate is $30 double; for three large meals add another $20 per person. Address: P.O. Box 91, Stewart Island, New Zealand, phone 6.
Stewart Island can be reached by air daily from Invercargill via Southern Air for $24 each way. A ferry leaves every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from Bluff and charges $13 for the 2 1/2-hour trip and back.
Best months to visit are November through March, their summer season. Come prepared with sun suit, woolens and rain gear.
An old house was converted last August into a luxury lodge. Called Stewart Island Lodge, it has four double-bedded rooms with bath for $65 a day per person, including all meals. Address: P.O. Box 5, Half Moon Bay, Stewart Island, New Zealand.
Stewart Island is included as part of a nature tour of New Zealand by Odyssey Tours, 1831 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 120, Santa Monica, Calif. 90403, phone (213) 453-1042.
For additional information and reservations, contact the New Zealand Government Tourist Office, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90024, phone (213) 477-8241.