Often overlooked by tourists, the Catlins offers stunning scenery without the crowds of many of South Island’s other must-do locations. But what it lacks in campervan traffic, it certainly makes up for in views.
We spent one day driving along the southernmost coast of New Zealand and we loved it so much that we went back again during our move from Dunedin to Queenstown. If you have the time, you could easily spend two nights here. We highly recommend at least two days.
Here are our top picks for things to see and do in the Catlins (ordered from most favorite to least, though all recommended):
This is our favorite New Zealand beach by far. Coming at low tide means you can wade through tons of tide pools in the rocks and watch little waterfalls form from the waves.
If you get lucky, you’ll even spot a few dolphins playing in the surf. This is the one spot in the Catlins we knew we had to come back to, so on our second go-around, we contacted Nick at Catlins Surf and arranged for a wetsuit and boogie board rental. Unlike in Kaikoura where dolphin swimming tours are expensive and crowded, in Porpoise Bay you simply wade out with a few other adventurous souls and wait to get lucky. We got very very lucky indeed and spent about two hours being surrounded by a pod of 25 Hector’s dolphins.
It was one of the most amazing wildlife encounters we’ve ever experienced and that fact that the dolphins were there simply because it was their daytime playpen made it even more special. (If you want to surf at Porpoise Bay, Nick can arrange that too, but make sure you're there in time for high tide!)
It may not look like much, but this Jurassic era forest is full of petrified forest fossils that are 170-180 million years old. If you’re here two hours before sunset, you can also see the rare yellow-eyed penguin come ashore.
What makes Curio Bay particularly special in New Zealand is that the penguins here aren’t as shy as elsewhere, which means you don’t need to be in a far away hide to see them and can be right on the beach observing their comings and goings.
A 15-minute walk through a forest brings you to this cascading waterfall. Driving in on the bumpy road is the hardest part!
Roaring Bay at Nugget Point
We didn’t make it to the lighthouse or Nugget Point per say because we stopped at Roaring Bay to watch the yellow-eyed penguins come home to their nests. We saw at least 12 of these little guys pop out of the water and head to their babies. It was amazing, but unfortunately for you and us, the camera battery died leaving us with blurry iPhone photos! (Unlike at Curio Bay, you have to watch the penguins from a hide, which means you’re much farther away.)
We never actually found the track leading to this beach, but the viewpoint from the road high above was striking.
Beautiful multi tiered waterfall about 5 minutes from the road. So worth it!
Not sure whether it’s worth the NZ$5 per person, but these walk through sea caves are pretty stellar. The gate is only open for two hours either side of low tide, so plan your stop using the tide charts. A flashlight and insect repellent might be worth it, as the sand flies are pretty brutal.
If you find a way to visit during high tide, it would be worth it to see this canyon 200m in from the sea. We visited during mid tide, and so there wasn’t much a blowhole, but the ocean views were awesome.
Disclosure: Nick at Catlins Surf gave us a two-for-one discount on the wetsuit rentals. The dolphins, however, had no part in the deal and were magnificent nonetheless.
Have you been to the Catlins?
What was your favorite stop? Leave your tips for the top things to see in the comments.