Originally published Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Getting away from it all at lush New Zealand island

Pilot Raymond Hector banks his nine-passenger plane wide over the ocean, heading for a beach landing on rugged Stewart Island in southern...

Associated Press

If You Go

Stewart Island

Getting there

Flights to Stewart Island from Invercargill depart three times a day, with extra flights during peak periods ( There also are ferries from the town of Bluff.

Where to stay

Guesthouses, bed-and-breakfasts and lodges on the island include the iconic South Sea Hotel ( at Half Moon Bay.

More information

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Pilot Raymond Hector banks his nine-passenger plane wide over the ocean, heading for a beach landing on rugged Stewart Island in southern New Zealand.

. Minutes later, skimming only 50 feet above the sand, traveling at 120 miles per hour, with a rocky outcrop on the left and sea surf pounding on the right, the plane appears to be running out of room for a landing. Suddenly Hector pulls up a sharp left, cascades over a coastal range, and does another circuit of the beach before making a spectacular sandy touchdown a few minutes later.

It's only just after 7 a.m., but the passengers have had their first adrenaline rush of the day.

"All part of the experience, just a gentle pull-up," says the former Air New Zealand pilot, smiling and realizing that it's somewhat of an understatement. "We do a beach inspection, just to see what shape the sand is in. We can tell by the color whether it's soft or hard, and most people get a bit of a kick out of it."

The same could be said for the entire experience on the Jurassic Park-like island which also features a combination of fossilized and lush rain forests and clear, pristine bays. In 2002, 85 percent of the island was designated as Rakiura National Park, named for an indigenous Maori word meaning "Land of the Glowing Skies."

Stewart Island is just 67 square miles in size, with only 300 to 400 year-round residents, most around the township of Oban. The number swells to more than 3,000 in the Southern Hemisphere summer.

The island is known, among other things, as home to the highest per capita number of millionaires in New Zealand, most of whom remain low-key and mix with the locals as if they had no money in their pockets. One, in retirement, started up an island spring water business which is thriving on the mainland. Its profits help support local environmental projects like Ulva Island, an eight-minute water taxi ride from Stewart Island. Ulva has been predator-free since 1997, allowing for a wide range of native birds such as brown kiwi and fernbirds to flourish.

Locally caught fish is also part of the island experience. Hector, speaking outside the quaint South Sea Hotel, recalled catching some blue cod and taking them into the restaurant there. "They battered them, threw in a few chips and a bit of lemon and we sat down to eat. It was like 40 minutes from the time the fish were minding their own business until we were having them for lunch," he said.

Back on the nearby mainland around Invercargill, the southern coastline offers great hiking, or tramping, as it is often called in New Zealand. For the serious enthusiasts, the Tuatapere Hump Ridge track offers a three-day walk from beach to mountaintop. The town of Bluff is known for its plump oysters, and Invercargill, a city of 50,000, also known as "The Friendly City," offers heritage buildings, museums and the Queen's Park botanical gardens.

Hector flies several times a day between Invercargill and Stewart Island, and as he swoops over the island's interior, he points out areas that look positively untouched.

"I've been down here for many, many years, and nobody has ever set foot in some of these remote areas," Hector says. "This area is positively Jurassic. You get the sun in the right place and if a dinosaur was to poke his head out, it wouldn't surprise me."

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