This Remote Island Has Ancient Rainforests, Rare Wildlife, and Stunning Southern Lights Views

Spot wild kiwi by day and watch the neon Aurora Australis by night on Stewart Island.

Rakiura (the Maori name for Stewart Island) translates to "land of the glowing skies." It's quite literal, given the remote island is one of the few places on Earth where you can observe the Aurora Australis, otherwise known as the Southern Lights.

Visit at the right time, and you can encounter enchantingly beautiful night skies, illuminated with a rainbow of neon colors and sparkling stars. Stewart Island can seem like another galaxy and another century, with native wildlife and primeval landscapes that have remained unchanged for millennia. It has plant life predating the dinosaurs, and it's this untouched natural beauty that makes it so uniquely charming.

Aurora Australis over Stewart Island, New Zealand
Nicola M Mora/Getty Images

Located at New Zealand's southernmost point (19 miles from the South Island), the isolated isle is almost completely occupied by Rakiura National Park, with 85% of its land protected within its boundaries. There are ancient rainforests, pristine beaches, waterfalls, an incredible hiking trail, and birdlife that you can't find anywhere else, including New Zealand's national symbol, the kiwi (a species known to outnumber the human population on the island, which is around 400).

There is one tiny village, Oban, where you can find the bare necessities: a general store, a school, a cinema, a couple of boutique bed and breakfasts, and a pub-come-restaurant where the Sunday quiz counts as nightlife. You'll also be able to find some of the freshest seafood around, sourced from the surrounding oceans — and likely caught by a friendly fisherman sitting at the bar.

Crystal clear water and rocky islet in Halfmoon Bay Near Oban, Southland, Stewart Island,
Craig Pershouse/Getty Images

As you might expect, there is virtually no pollution here — light or otherwise — providing the perfect conditions for the Southern Lights to shine through. "It is the southernmost Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world," said Sarah Handley, general manager of Tourism New Zealand in the Americas and Europe.

Seeing the Northern Lights is a common bucket-list item that draws many travelers to Iceland, Norway, and Finland each year. But the Southern Lights are undoubtedly just as beautiful, and on Stewart Island, you can experience them in a secluded setting, surrounded by the serene soundtrack of birdsong and crashing waves.

Scenic View Of Sea Against Sky in Stewart Island, New Zealand
Toni Caldwell/Getty Images

"One of the best spots to view the Southern Lights is the viewing area at Observation Rock," said Aaron Joy, chairman of Stewart Island Promotions. "From March to September, when the nights are longer, the Southern Lights are most visible," he added. "Dark, clear nights, like their northern counterparts, are essential for catching the most vibrant sightings."

A kiwi warning sign in Stewart island, New Zealand
Lea Bjorn/Getty Images

Beyond the mesmerizing night skies, Stewart Island is an excellent destination for avid hikers, with a 20-mile, multi-day hike leading through the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks. Here you can see the island's natural beauty in all its glory and encounter some of the unique wildlife up close, including the elusive kiwi and some of the rarest penguin species in the world.

Kiwi at the Wellington Zoo in New Zealand, Wellington, North Island,
Oliver Strewe/Getty Images

To get to Stewart Island, you can take a one-hour ferry from Bluff or a 20-minute flight from Invercargill, and once you're there, the accommodation options include cozy Airbnbs or a handful of boutique B&Bs, including Stewart Island Lodge or Churchill Lodge. Serious hikers who are embarking on the full Rakiura Track usually stay in one of the 25 hikers' huts, all of which are managed by the Department of Conservation.

If you want to escape modern civilization and truly disconnect, Stewart Island is an idyllic place to consider. It's one of the most undiscovered ecotourism destinations in New Zealand, and as of May 1, it will be open to international travelers (vaccinated travelers from visa waiver countries, that is).

According to Handley, "It is a must-see destination for any traveler wanting to experience something special and off the beaten path." And after two years of lockdowns and restrictions, doesn't a remote paradise where you can become attuned to nature sound like an enticing escape?

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles