The Catlins are one of New Zealand’s most beautiful but underrated destinations. Tucked away at the bottom of the South Island, and on the other side to the incredible Milford Sound, it’s easy for travellers to skip the entire region.
We reckon this is a huge mistake! The Catlin’s have a raw, untouched and rugged beauty that we feel defines travel in New Zealand. With countless epic waterfalls, rare and endangered wildlife and unbelievable landscapes, The Catlin’s should make it onto every South Island itinerary.
Things to Do in The Catlins
1. Visit Nugget Point Lighthouse at Sunrise
The top spot on our list is definitely reserved for Nugget Point Lighthouse. The view here is easily one of the most beautiful in New Zealand, and making your way here for sunrise is both easy and incredibly rewarding.
As the most popular attraction in The Catlins, it’s worth staying nearby to make the sunrise drive easier. Kaka Point is the nearest town (well, it’s closer to a village) and we’d highly recommend staying here – it’s beautiful as well!
Then it’s a short drive and a 15 minute walk to the best viewpoint. You can find it about ¾ along the track looking out over the sea and the lighthouse, directly at the sunrise. It’s literally impossible to miss.
In order to capture the photos you have probably seen, a lot of people jump the fence and climb the hill a bit. I can’t recommend this as it’s probably unsafe (hence the fence) depending how high you climb. But the view is special.
Also, don’t forget to complete the walk by checking out the lighthouse and the view of the ‘Nuggets’ on the other side.
2. See the Aurora from Kaka Point Down to Invercargill
A lot of people don’t realise you can see the South Pole’s version of the Northern Lights – the Aurora Australis – from New Zealand.
A lot of people (ourselves included) don’t have the luxury to plan their south island itinerary around geomagnetic activity. But, if you want to see the Aurora Australis you will need to go when there is a geomagnetic storm.
If the conditions are right, you can see the lights all over The Catlins. They’ll be even better if you have a good camera with a wide aperture and a tripod.
3. Purakaunui Falls
Purakaunui Falls is our favourite waterfall in The Catlins. The water cascades beautifully down the rocks.
To get here, it’s a short drive from Kaka Point and a 20 minute walk – easy. The reward-effort ratio is high for this one.
With that said, we visited when it was relatively dry and the waterfall didn’t look quite as nice as some of the photos we’d seen. If you can go after some heavy rainfall it will only be even more impressive!
4. Cathedral Caves
A 30 minute stroll along the pristine Waipati beach will bring you to the Cathedral Caves. Photos don’t do justice to the sheer magnitude of these caves. They are huuuuge. Measuring 30m high and 200m long,
The Cathedral Caves are best explored as you drive north or south between Kaka Point and Invercargill. Please bear in mind that the Cathedral Caves are only accessible during a 3 hour window about 1-2 hours either side of low tide. Check the tides here to make sure you can reach them.
Also, we were a bit surprised to find the fee for using the carpark is $10 per adult, or $2 per child. Come prepared as the cost is worth it, albeit a bit or a rip off in my opinion.
5. See the Yellow-Eyed Penguins from Roaring Bay
There is a Yellow-Eyed Penguin colony in Roaring Bay, right next to the carpark for the Nugget Point Lighthouse.
Every morning they head out to do their thing (catching fish, eating, being penguins), then in the evening they return home to sleep. This gives you two opportunities to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.
I recommend talking to some locals or contacting the conservation worker to find out the right time to see them. There is a small hut that you must stay inside to look out over the beach. From the hut, if you time it right, you will be able to catch a glimpse of these little animals returning home.
We went around sunset based on a recommendation from our accommodation owner, but weren’t lucky enough to see them. Hopefully next time!
6. Go Kayaking
Bring your own kayak along if you’ve got one, or look at one of the kayaking tours available.
The best way to get up close and personal with the wildlife (like dolphins!) and see the Nugget Point Lighthouse from a different perspective is to get out on the water. Obviously, chartering a boat would be awesome, but for anyone not in the top 1% kayaking is the next best option.
7. Slope Point
The southernmost point of NZ’s South Island! We don’t really get the hype, but everyone goes there so you should too!
It’s a nice spot accessible via a short 20 minute walk across private farm land. Once there you’ll find a yellow signpost pointing in the direction of the equator and the South Pole.
If you’re looking for a campsite or accommodation try the Slope Point Backpackers or the Weir’s Beach Freedom Camping site.
8. Stay in Kaka Point
Kaka Point is a great thing to do in The Catlins. The beach here is stunning, there’s a fish & chips shop, it’s near Nugget Point, Roaring Bay and Purakaunui Falls – it has everything you need.
For this reason, it’s our favourite place to stay in The Catlins, at least for a night as you make your way North or South.
We decided to stay at Mike & Jenny’s Kaka Point Accommodation and we were super happy we did. The room was clean, spacious and the view was incredible. Jenny was also really lovely.
9. Head up to Dunedin and See the Moeraki Boulders
Making your way up to Dunedin from The Catlins is a couple of hours and is the logical next stop as part of a South Island Itinerary (assuming you drove down the West Coast).
The Moeraki Boulders are incredible. Moeraki is now a popular spot for photographers due to their smooth, huge and aesthetically pleasing boulders.
What I find particularly fascinating is that these boulders originally formed in a roughly circular shape due to a process of calcite concretion (something I won’t pretend to understand). Basically, they were always round. Erosion obviously contributed and helped smooth them, but it isn’t the reason for their round shape.
10. Tunnel Hill
Near the town of Owaka, in The Catlins, you’ll find a historic railway track and tunnel. It is a short 15 minute scenic walk through forest and a tunnel.
Perhaps not the most interesting fact, but Tunnel Hill is the world’s southernmost railway tunnel. It’s something to tick off, but don’t go out of your way.
11. Matai Falls Waterfall
Matai Falls was interesting for us as we hadn’t intended to visit. It didn’t have the same stunning photos as McLean Falls or Purakaunui. However, it came as a recommendation from a friend and professional photographer in Queenstown so we decided to check it out.
We weren’t disappointed! The walk is only about 30 minutes down through native bush to a very quiet waterfall. It was really tranquil and nice to avoid the crowds.
12. Check Out the Petrified Forest at Curio Bay
Make your way to Curio Bay during low tide to see an unusual phenomenon – a fully petrified forest.
This forest was originally fossilised during the Jurassic period. Today you can walk through and view this forest side by side next to its living counterpart.
On top of the cool petrified forest, you may also see some wildlife. From the viewing platforms, you can see Yellow-Eyed Penguins during the evenings.
13. Head Over to Porpoise Bay
Right next to Curio Bay is Porpoise Bay. The main attraction here is a pod of Hector’s dolphins that stay during Summer and Autumn. They are an endangered species and amongst the smallest dolphins in the world.
Porpoise Bay is the only place where dolphins come near the shore without being enticed by humans feeding them. Obviously, remember to observe these beautiful animals and not feed or disturb them.
14. Drive Past Teapot Land
Teapot Land was weird. We were just driving through Owaka and stumbled upon thousands of colourful teapots in someone’s front yard.
We stopped to take a look and it was certainly an impressive collection of teapots. If you’re here it warrants a drive by, but perhaps dont head too far out of your way!
15. Jack’s Blowhole
Blowholes are cool, Jack’s is no exception. It’s not an easy place to photograph, but it’s great to visit to see and hear the roaring, powerful water.
To get here, drive to the carpark then walk to the viewpoint along the 1 hour track. The most unique thing about Jack’s Blowhole is its distance from the sea. Most blowholes are on the shore, but Jack’s Blowhole is found 200m inland.
Papatowai, meaning ‘where the forest meets the sea’, is a tiny town located halfway between Dunedin and Invercargill.
There are a few interesting things to do here, including McLean Falls and The Lost Gypsy Caravan (both on this list), so it’s well worth a stop.
It’s location is quite convenient if you’re looking for a mid-way spot to spend a night, but we’d definitely recommend Kaka Point instead – particularly due to its proximity to Nugget Point. Those nuggies are far too enticing.
With that said, you can also enjoy nature walks and a beach nearby, so Papatowai is a nice place to at least drive through.
17. McLean Falls
The Catlins has no shortage of great waterfalls (or bad ones – make sure to skip the ironically named Niagara Falls). McLean Falls is described on DOC as ‘the most spectacular in the region’.
We reckon it’s close between Mclean, Purakaunui and Matai Falls, but we’d probably pencil McLean Falls as a close number 3. But why choose? Go visit them all and decide for yourself.
Standing 22m tall, McLean Falls is incredible. From the carpark, you can reach the waterfall via a short 30 minute track.
18. See the Ino Steamship in Fortrose
Head to the very South of The Catlins and you’ll find the town of Fortrose, about 35 minutes from Invercargill.
Historically, Fortrose was European settlement. Now you can find an estuary, places to eat, accommodation, Waipapa lighthouse and a shipwreck of the Ino steamship.
19. The Lost Gypsy Gallery
The Lost Gypsy Gallery is super cool. When we were planning our itinerary it didn’t make the cut – it looked a bit weird and not really our thing. We like epic views, waterfalls, hikes and good food.
But a friend of ours highly recommended it so we figured we’d better give it a shot – and she was right!
An artist called Blair had over his life collected what is essentially junk and turned it into eccentric contraptions that do all sorts of quirky things.
When you arrive there is a caravan out front and a cafe. The caravan is free and filled with fun little things to play with. We grabbed a coffee (we were surprised to find the coffee was actually good!) then bought tickets to head out back.
The tickets are $8 and give you entry to an intriguing world of automata. These are essentially cool mechanical contraptions / toys…or something like this.
Give The Lost Gypsy Gallery a shot as you drive through The Catlins. It’s a great way to spend an hour and grab a coffee.
20. Waipapa Point
If you’re visiting Fortrose, also take the time to head out to Waipapa Point and visit the lighthouse here. It’s not as impressive as Nugget Point lighthouse, but this also means it’s less popular.
It’s still super cool and gets some incredible sunrises. Similar to Nugget Point, you can often see wildlife near along the shoreline, including sea lions and fur seals.
21. Walk the Catlin’s River Wisp Loop
The Wisp Loop Walk is a 4-5 hour walk along the Catlins River. This is the river the region was named after. The walk is mostly bush and river, with access to good fishing if that’s your thing.
Avid hikers can turn this into a 2 day walk by adding on the Catlins River track and returning via the Wisp Loop.
How to Get to The Catlins?
You won’t be able to fly directly to The Catlins, the only way to get there is by car.
You can access The Catlins from Dunedin via a relatively short 2-hour drive south along the coast.
If you’re visiting from Queenstown, then the drive is a bit longer and less scenic as it’s inland. This will take about 3-hours.
Other options include flying to Invercargill and driving up the coast (we’d highly recommend this) or flying to Christchurch and making your way down.
Where to Stay in The Catlins?
We stayed in Kaka Point and we think it’s the best spot to set up a base. It’s a short drive from some of our favourite activities in The Catlins. It’s especially handy if you’re planning a sunrise drive up to Nugget Point (which you should 100% do).
We stayed in an AirBnB in The Catlins which we highly recommend called Mike & Jenny’s Kaka Point Accommodation.
Are The Catlins Worth Visiting?
The Catlins are one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand, with incredible, rugged landscapes. Everyone should include the region as part of their New Zealand itinerary.
Best Time to Visit The Catlins
The best time to visit The Catlins is during the Summer when the weather is more reliable and the temperatures are warmer. If you’re interested in seeing or photographing the Aurora Australis, then you’ll need to keep an eye out for geomagnetic storms and time your arrival around that.