Stewart Island, off the south coast of New Zealand, is just 67 square miles and has only 300 to 400 year-round residents, most around the township of Oban, pictured here.
updated 10/7/2011 2:12:02 PM ET 2011-10-07T18:12:02

Pilot Raymond Hector banks his nine-passenger Britten-Norman Islander wide over the Southern Ocean heading for a beach landing at Mason Bay on rugged Stewart Island, a 20-minute flight from New Zealand's southernmost city, Invercargill, and a cornerstone of the Southland tourism district.

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, and perhaps one of the best of their lifetime.

"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 rainforests 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."

Not too crowded
Stewart Island is just 67 square miles, about the same geographically as Singapore. But Singapore has a population of 5 million. Stewart Island has 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.

But it's a finite population in the peak season around Christmas, with Hector and the local ferries from Invercargill having to cut incoming service to the island. "We can get them there, but there won't be anywhere for them to stay once we do," says Hector.

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 the main 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, 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.

A back-room visit to the boutique Invercargill Brewery shows six large tanks representing the company's line of beers. Brewmaster Steve Nally explains that it's a never-ending battle to withstand takeover attempts from the two biggest multinational breweries in Australasia.

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"We want to call our own shots," says Nally.

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."

If you go
Flights to Stewart Island from Invercargill depart three times a day, with extra flights during peak periods. Round-trip airfare: Adults, $145 (NZ$190), seniors $130 (NZ$170), children under 15 $84 (NZ$110). Ferries from Bluff to Stewart Island are $50 (NZ$66) one way. Guest houses, bed and breakfasts and lodges on the island include the iconic South Sea Hotel at Half Moon Bay. The island has no banks or ATMs, though most establishments accept credit cards.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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