- Life Style
Few visitors to New Zealand make it to Stewart Island … their loss
by Fyllis Hockman
Stewart Island, 674 isolated square miles of land to the south of South Island that very few New Zealanders visit, much less anyone else, is the only place in New Zealand where you can spot kiwis, the native bird that few natives ever see.
According to Wendy Hallett, owner of the Greenvale B&B where we stayed, many people first book a kiwi-spotting tour with Smith, then book their trip to New Zealand and Stewart Island.
There is a very lived-on, lived-in feel about the island; everyday life is happening here, albeit probably not your everyday life. As one of the waitresses at the Just Cafe noted: "We have no banks, no doctors, no T-shirt shops (not literally true, but more on that later) and no stress."
Ask anyone how many people live in town, and you might hear something like, "Well, 380 at last count - no, wait - Annie just gave birth to the twins and Rupert died last week, so I guess that makes 381." And that number remained constant despite several efforts on my part to find an alternate answer.
A favorite hike was the Maori Beach Track, a 15-minute water taxi ride from downtown - which, by the way, covers about a one-block area. Captain Ian, a sixth-generation islander, carried me effortlessly across the slippery, moss-covered log he parked the water cab against.
Alternately walking through bush so thick as to be impenetrable or hugging the craggy cliff overlooking the sea, we were bombarded by a new form of surround sound: the thrashing of waves crashing below and the concert cries of birds overhead.
The varying vocals from tuis, bellbirds, kakas and kakarikas were reminiscent of the array of voices one hears in a noisy restaurant: Sometimes individual cries dominated, other times a general din prevailed. Then suddenly the birds were vying for attention once again with the breaking waves. We heard the water before we saw it, as the expanse of coastline made yet another appearance.
The other must-do activity - like the calling of the kiwi - is to board another water taxi for a visit to Ulva Island.
"This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks," begins Walt Whitman's famous poem "Evangeline." He also could have been describing Ulva Island, an untouched ("unmodified" is the technical term), predator-free, primitive slice of New Zealand the way it once was.
And that very nature of the island makes it an unparalleled sanctuary for birds, trees and plants that might otherwise be extinct. The hardwood podacorp forest, literally of pre-historic ancestry, also houses species of plants 350 million years old. Rare birds such as the fernbird, saddleback, rifleman and yellowhead roam the woods with impunity.
And the inhabitants are not the only things special about Ulva Island; there's also Ulva Amos, another sixth-generation Stewart Islander whose breadth and scope of knowledge covers every twig, branch and feather found on Ulva Island. The similarity in names may be coincidental, but it's one hell of a marketing tool. She conducts half- and full-day tours of the island, communicating with the trees and the birds in very personal, intimate terms, distinguishing between every caw, chirp, click, creak, twill or whistle emanating from the treetops.
One of my tour companions likened the sounds to an "avian symphony."
"If I could get them organized, I could take them on tour," my musically inclined friend observed.
Back on the mainland, a stop at the Ship 'n' Shore general store provides another insight into island living. This is the place to pick up groceries, hardware, beer and wine, household goods, fishing and hunting equipment and videos. Videos? But for major food shopping, residents are dependent upon the supermarket in Invercargill, South Island (the real mainland). They pick up their orders at the Halfmoon Bay waterfront every Wednesday evening.
Next to Ship 'n' Shore is the previously-alluded-to T-shirt shop - although the designation is really a misnomer. Dil Belworthy, like so many other islanders, was a fisherman by trade and, like so many of his compatriots, several years ago "saw the writing on the wall." As he tells the story, "I was drinking with some mates one day and we were discussing how the fishing industry was going downhill, and how we saw tourism on the horizon." With tourists as their new prey, the question became: "How do you catch a tourist?" The answer: "You sell them a T-shirt!"
So Dil and his wife, Cath, started hand-printing their art-shirts on their kitchen table in 1997, reproducing native Maori symbols and traditional images. Now, their Glowing Sky Studio sells these individually designed and produced wearable works of beauty for $35 per non-T-shirt T-shirt.
For sure, Stewart Island as a whole has learned well how to catch tourists, but it wouldn't surprise me if the islanders have mixed emotions about just how successful they want their new venture to be.
IF YOU GO
For more information, visit www.stewartisland.co.nz.
When to go: November to March - keep in mind their seasons are reversed. Because Stewart Island is further south (away from the equator) than the rest of New Zealand, it is also cooler and damper. It is said that in New Zealand you can experience all four seasons in a day; on Stewart Island, it can happen in an hour. As usual, think layers.
How to get there: Several 15-minute flights from Invercargill, South Island, to Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island, in a small plane are scheduled throughout the day, every day, weather permitting. Two one-hour ferry crossings are also available daily.
Where to stay: Hotel accommodations range from the more "luxurious" (Stewart Island-style) at the Stewart Island Lodge (summer rates range from $276, double occupancy per night with breakfast, to $380 with breakfast and dinner) to more basic rooms at the South Sea Hotel ($64-$96), but most island lodgings are small cottages and B&Bs.
Greenvale B&B, where we stayed, with its large, comfy living room overlooking Halfmoon Bay, is full of little surprises: biscuits, candies and beverages in the room; cards and books on the shelf; and little hand-knit booties by the front door to put on after a hike. A delicious farm-style breakfast beckons every morning ($178, double, per night).
Where to eat: The options aren't plentiful. Just Cafe is a good place to catch a light breakfast or lunch; Stewart Island's idea of fine dining is limited to the Church Hill Restaurant and Stewart Island Lodge; but the best fish 'n' chips outside England are the province of the South Sea Pub.
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance travel writer.
© Copley News Service