The Catlins is one of New Zealand’s smallest regions, it’s also one of the least-visited. Yet, it’s also the one that best captures the elements visitors expect from New Zealand. Farming, the great outdoors, rugged scenery, memorable wildlife encounters, and a real sense of community are all part and parcel of this hidden gem. In a typically Kiwi way, the destination remains very much under the radar.

Where Are the Catlins?

The Catlins are located in the South Island, approximately 1.5 hours from Dunedin. Despite such close proximity, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was nothing much of interest between the towns of Invercargill and Dunedin based on many New Zealand tourist guides. 

Although there’s only 240km between them, there is actually a coastline teeming with wildlife to explore during that three-hour journey – as well as lakes, rainforests and caves that are well worth visiting further inland and off the Southern Scenic Route

History of The Catlins

The first Polynesians to arrive in New Zealand travelled largely within this region, with the ancestors of today’s Maori using the area as a convenient base to gather food, both from the land and the sea. The significance of the area to the local Iwi (tribes) is evident in the many Maori place names, and it’s a great place to start for getting your tongue around Maori phrases!

The first European visitors to the area were whalers and sealers, though Captain Cook passed by the area completely. We can see why he may have done this though – a high number of shipwrecks in the area were responsible for the construction of the wonderful heritage lighthouses we see along the coast today.  

As numbers of human inhabitants increased, so too did deforestation. Making way for industry and a growing number of sawmills, it eventually allowed for a (now defunct) railway to be built, with key roads following in the 1960s – some of which weren’t actually paved until the 1990s! 

Waipapa Point Lighthouse - Silver Fern Holidays
Waipapa Point Lighthouse

Scenic Highlights of The Catlins

Undoubtedly the most well-known area of the Catlins is its scenic coastline. With fantastic views from places such as Florence Lookout Point and the mighty Jack’s Blowhole, as well as lovely reflections at Lake Wilkie. There’s also some great opportunities for stargazing from the cliff top lighthouse at Nugget Point too. There’s also the lesser known Kaka Point just down the road – which is also home to the Catlins Brewery.  

Slope Point is the most southerly point on the South Island of New Zealand. Here, there’s plenty of photo ops next to the sign that points to the Equator and the South Pole, after a short walk across private farmland. The landscape – windswept trees and crashing ocean – is simply fantastic!

For us, however, a true trip into this wilderness is not complete without ticking off some of the impressive waterfalls in the area. We’d suggest the three tiered Purakaunui Falls as the starting point for your journey inland. It’s one of only a handful to have been featured on a New Zealand postage stamp, and the short stroll to the first of the viewing points is suitable for most abilities, including wheelchair users.  

For good variety, at a minimum you should also take in the majestic McLean Falls. Bagging the title of the region’s highest falls, they’re accessed via a 20-minute bush walk through The Catlins Conservation Area. 

Slope Point Equator Sign - The Catlins - Silver Fern Holidays

What Is There to Do in The Catlins?

Despite its small size, there are a number of things you can do in The Catlins, here are just a handful of things we think you should definitely add to your list:

Nature Walks in The Catlins

For serious trampers, you can’t beat the Catlins River-Wisp Loop. A combination of two 12km walks – with paths over swing bridges, through forest and past waterfalls. There’s plenty of birdwatching opportunities en route, too.

A couple of half day options to consider are the various tracks around the Tahakopa Bay. With trails along the beach and over the river through an area historically known for Moa hunting, and the Waipohatu Falls Track & Recreation Area, where there are several walks taking in some of the lesser-visited waterfalls of The Catlins. 

Shorter options include the 30 minute stroll across the dunes between Surat and Cannibal Bays, with a quick stop off on the Southern Scenic Route near Owaka. There’s the ten minute walk to Barrs Falls, and Tunnel Hill, which takes you through a historic railway tunnel (the most southerly of its kind in the world). Here, you’ll see the remains of the railway that was used to transport timber throughout the region until 1971. We suggest you take a torch to see if you can spot glow-worms. More of the old railway track can be seen at the Matai Falls Rail Trail, south of Owaka.  

McClean Falls - The Catlins - Silver Fern Holidays
McLean Falls

Wildlife Photography in The Catlins

There’s a plethora of opportunities to take stunning wildlife photographs in the Catlins. Fur seals (Kakeno, in Maori) can be seen at various locations, including Roaring Bay, Curio Bay (Tumu Toka) and Purakaunui Bay.  Waipapa and Kaka Points, and Surat and Cannibal Bays are also good spots to see the seals as well as the New Zealand sea lion (the world’s rarest). Nugget Point also offers all these as well as elephant seals, in season. Take care not to get too close to these mammals though! They are incredibly violent if their path to the sea is blocked, and they can move much faster than you would expect! They also blend in well to their surroundings, so be sure to remain vigilant. 

Southern right whales (Tohorā) can sometimes be seen around Tautuku Bay (particularly pretty at sunset). You may also be lucky enough to see sea lions (Whakahao), fernbirds (Mātātā) and the occasional yellow-eyed penguin (Hoiho) – although numbers in the area are decreasing.  

Rare Hector’s dolphins (Upokohue) are frequent visitors to the aptly named Porpoise Bay. It also has a decent surf beach and nests with little blue penguins (Kororā) are often found there too. You may see them returning from their fishing trips if you sit quietly near the beach around dusk.

Sea lion and pup in Jacks Bay - The Catlins - Silver Fern Holidays
Sea lion and pup in Jacks Bay

Other Birdlife in The Catlins

The Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park is a good place for casual observers to spot many of New Zealand’s enchanting birds – such as bellbird (korimako), fantail (pīwakawaka), tomtit (miromiro) and tui. Nugget Point is also an excellent spot for seabirds such as the Sooty Shearwater (Tītī), gannets, albatross and royal spoonbills. 

For serious bird watching enthusiasts, the Waituna Lagoon and Awarua Wetlands, officially recognised as Wetlands of International Importance for their diverse ecosystems, are unmissable. Here, birders can encounter several rare species including the Southern New Zealand dotterel. The Pounawea Reserve is also recommended for bird watchers, with its mix of pristine forest, estuary and saltmarsh. Yellow-eyed penguins may also be seen at Curio Bay and Roaring Bay, where there are dedicated hides to watch them from. 

Yellow-eyes penguins in Curio Bay - The Catlins - Silver Fern Holidays
Yellow-eyes penguins in Curio Bay

Marvel at Nature’s Beauty

Cathedral Caves are a great option for the adventurous, and those who have time on their hands to plan around the tides. There is a lovely walk from the carpark (where you pay the entrance fee) through native rainforest and along the beach to get to the caves themselves, which are only accessible at low tide. Even when visiting at low tide, you can expect your feet to get wet, and you’ll need a torch to explore inside. The caves were created by the power of the sea eroding the ancient sandstone cliffs, and the name reflects their fantastic acoustics.

Curio Bay is not only a safe bet for spotting wildlife, but is also home to a petrified forest dating back to the Jurassic Period, when New Zealand was merely a small part of the super-continent Gondwanaland. The tree fossils are related to New Zealand native Kauri trees, and the stretch is one of the largest and least disturbed sites in the world. The forest can only be seen at low tide, however. So, if the water is covering the fossils, you can learn about them on the nearby Living Forest Walkway and the Curioscape museum next door.

Cathedral Caves - The Catlins - Silver Fern Holidays
The majestic Cathedral Caves

Learn More About the Local Heritage of The Catlins

Some of the most fiercely cared for small museums we’ve ever visited are based here. In Owaka (also known as “Wahi Kahuika: The Meeting Place – A Rest on Your Journey”) and Waikawa, they double up as important hubs for the local community – as does the newer Curioscape, based in Curio Bay.

Catlin Lighthouses

Waipapa Point Lighthouse is a short walk from the carpark, where there are information panels about the various shipwrecks in the area. The lighthouse was completed in 1884 – making it one of the last wooden lighthouses to be built in New Zealand – and is still a working site today.  

Nugget Point (Tokata) Lighthouse pre-dates the one at Waipapa, with its name taken from the nugget-like rock formations just off-shore.

For a predetermined route, we recommend downloading the Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail leaflet to learn more about the gold mining, whaling and timber industries. You’ll also find out how Owaka township has moved location throughout the years!

Get Active in The Catlins

Kayaking in the Awarua Wetlands is available for those who want to get even closer to the birdlife, and Catlins Kayak and Adventure offer sea kayaking trips out amongst the seals at Nugget Point. Fishing can also be arranged at various rivers throughout the region. If you fancy a New Zealand golfing holiday, the Tokanui Golf Club serves as the New Zealand mainland’s southernmost course.  

Nugget Point Lighthouse - The Catlins - Silver Fern Holidays
Nugget Point Lighthouse

Insider Tips for The Catlins

Not all of the guides will highlight the finer details when it comes to visiting The Catlins, so here are a few insider tips from our own travels around the area:

When is the Best Time to Visit The Catlins? 

November to March is an excellent period to visit The Catlins. In spring, the waterfalls are likely to be at their finest after the winter rains and the extra hours of summer sunlight means you’ll be able to fit more into each day, as well as avoiding journeys out to restaurants in the dark. 

Visiting during the colder months will certainly ensure even less people are around. But it’s worth remembering some attractions (including galleries and Cathedral Caves) may be closed and you may have to be more flexible about what and when you eat, as local restaurants reduce their hours. 

Avoiding the colder weather also means there will be more birdlife on offer. You may see elephant seals at Nugget Point, and although the September-November lambing season may make for some adorable photo opportunities, trails such as those to Jack’s Blowhole and to Slope Point, are closed to the public.

Best Places to Stay in The Catlins

Whistling Frog is one of the better value places in the area if you’re on a budget and looking to self-cater – with comfortable chalets, tidy motel units and an onsite café. We love the remote Catlins Mohua Park, which has 4 eco-friendly cottages set back into private patches of bushland. Another favourite is the Catlins Farmstay B&B. It’s close to the (tongue-in-cheek-titled) Niagara Falls and boasts beautiful landscaped gardens and friendly animals. All of these accommodations give you the option to hide away from the world, or the opportunity to get to know locals with a huge passion for the region. 

The Gardens of The Catlins Farmstay B&B - Silver Fern Holidays
The gardens of the Catlins Farmstay B&B

How Long Do You Need to Spend in The Catlins?

The highlights of The Catlins can be covered in a couple of days if you’re visiting in the summer months and are willing to put in long hours. Those who have more time to spare, and are embracing the notion of go-slow travel, will be rewarded with an abundance of empty beaches, local insights and deserted walking tracks.

Is It Really Worth the Effort?

In short, absolutely yes. This is a rural, small community South Island, and will suit travellers looking for peace and quiet, great open spaces and fresh air. Be sure you top up your petrol tank when you can, as there are only a handful of pumps across the region. We recommend pre-planning your route around dining options if you don’t want to carry food with you. Wifi and mobile phone signal is patchier here than elsewhere, so it is the perfect place to escape the real world and get away from it all!

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Visitors to the South Island can easily incorporate The Catlins in their tailor-made itinerary.  So, if you fancy making The Catlins a part of your 2022 or 2023 New Zealand Holiday, do get in touch!