A Travel Guide to the Catlins, New Zealand

Last Updated: 23rd August, 2023

The Catlins was, to my surprise, one of my absolute favourite places to travel to on our adventure around the Southland region of New Zealand! It had everything I wanted – incredible coastline with clear blue water (very cold though), hikes through the rainforest to hidden waterfalls, a local brewery (!!), and best of all, it was so quiet! It’s found in quite a remote location, with the bigger touristy regions of Dunedin and Queenstown a few hours away, and so it felt as if we had it all pretty much to ourselves. 

The region spans the southeastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, stretching along the wild coastline from Kaka Point in Otago in the north down to Fortrose in the south. It is known for its rugged natural beauty, formed by millions of years of geological activity, including volcanic eruptions and glaciers. This is definitely visible when you visit the ancient 160-million year old petrified forest in Curio Bay! It was incredible to see so much history in an area that felt largely untouched.

Visiting the Catlins, New Zealand

Although the region is small (you could travel through it in less than 3 hours!), we could quite happily spend a few weeks here. The landscapes in the Catlins vary dramatically, from the rugged coastline and wide stretches of sandy beach to dense, temperate rainforest, through small villages and over areas of farmland. If you enjoy getting into the outdoors and exploring the area by foot, there are heaps of hiking and walking trails, offering up opportunities to take in the scenery and see if you can spot a sea lion or two! 

Seal in the Catlins, New Zealand

If it’s wildlife you’re after, this is one of the best places in New Zealand to experience it! The area is also known for its rich and diverse native wildlife, including dolphins, penguins, seals and sea lions. These incredible animals are one of the highlights of the region, and a must see for any traveller visiting (bring your binoculars!!). There is also a large nature preserve, the Catlins Forest Park, which hosts a number of walks through native silver beech trees and ancient podocarp forests. 

If you need a quick break from adventuring, it is nice to retreat to one of the small coastal villages found throughout the Catlins. With friendly locals, lovely cafes, fresh seafood and local wine, they offer an awesome place to rest and refuel while you are travelling through.  

What is the best time to visit the Catlins?

The best time to visit the Catlins is during the summer months of December through February. This is when the weather is warmest and driest, making it ideal for outdoor activities like hiking and sightseeing. However, if you’re looking to avoid the crowds, consider visiting in the shoulder seasons of March to May or September to November. 

Average Monthly Temperature (°C) and Rainfall in the Catlins!

Temperatures in summer range from around 16-24 degrees celsius, with the occasional 30 degree day! In the winter, the temperature is milder, and generally sits around 8-13 degrees.

Whatever season you go, expect the possibility of some wet weather! The Catlins is known for its heavy average rainfall, and so it’s always best to be prepared. However, I think this adds to the wild nature of the region, and is definitely part of the fun!

Nugget point in the catlins new zealand
Nugget Point, The Catlins

How to get to the Catlins?

Although the Catlins feels like a million miles away from any of the major cities, it is definitely worth the travel time to get here! Dunedin and Invercargill International airports are the main gateway airports to visit the region. Both airports also host regular services from airports around New Zealand, making it easy to get to if you are already in the county. From here, the best option to see the Catlins is to drive, as there are very few buses or public transport options. The drive is around 2-3 hours long, and takes you through some incredibly beautiful scenic sections of the South Island along the way!

A note: the roads around the Catlins can be very narrow and winding, however take it slow and you’ll be sweet! 

Alternatively, you can join a guided tour through the region, including transportation to and from the region from one of the larger cities, as well as accommodation and activities. This can be a good option if you don’t want to worry about driving, yet want to make the most of your time in the region.

The 9 Best things to do in the Catlins!

The Catlins is an outdoor adventure lover’s dream! Whether you are all about golden sandy beaches, hiking through rainforest to hidden waterfalls, or getting out on the water and spotting some cool native wildlife, the Catlins has got you covered! These are the 9 Best things to do in the Catlins:

  1. Enjoy the beach at Kaka Point
  2. Walk up to Nugget Point
  3. Explore the incredible Cathedral Caves
  4. Visit one of the Catlins many Waterfalls!
  5. Search for penguins at Curio Bay
  6. Swim with the dolphins at Purpoise Bay
  7. See the Sea Lions at Surat Bay
  8. Meet the locals at Papatowai
  9. Go to the most southern point of NZ at Slope Point

The region is known for its rugged coastline, which stretches for more than 100 kilometres along the southeastern edge of the South Island. This coastline is characterised by rocky cliffs, long stretches of deserted beach, secluded bays and coves.

1. Kaka Point

Kaka Point is a small coastal village located at the northern point of the Catlins region, as is a lovely place to begin your adventure! It is a popular destination for visitors who are looking to explore the stunning natural beauty of the area and experience a peaceful and relaxed coastal lifestyle.

One of the main attractions of Kaka Point is its beautiful beach, which is a popular spot for swimming, surfing, and fishing. The beach is also home to a resident population of yellow-eyed penguins (Hoiho), which can often be seen coming ashore at dusk to nest. 

In addition to its natural attractions, Kaka Point also offers a range of amenities and activities for visitors. These include a local pub, a cafe, and several restaurants offering fresh seafood and other local specialties.

Kākā Point Beach in the Catlins, New Zealand
Kaka Point Beach, The Catlins

For visitors looking to explore the surrounding area, there are several hiking trails in the nearby hills and forests, including the Kaka Point Coastal Track, which offers stunning views of the coastline and surrounding landscapes.

2. Nugget Point

15-minutes drive along the coast from Kaka Point village is the iconic Nugget Point, a definite must-see for visitors to the area! 

Getting to Nugget Point

An easy 20 minute walk along a well-formed track takes you along the cliffs to the Tokata lighthouse. From here, you have incredible panoramic views of the coastline and the ‘nuggets’ rising from the sea, as well as the chance to spot some of the fur seals, sea lions or elephant seals that inhabit the rocks below! When we visited, we were lucky enough to see a pregnant elephant seal swimming in one of the pools, definitely a highlight of our trip!

As you wander back to the car, you can take a small path down to Roaring Bay, found just to the south of Nugget Point. This rugged beach is home to one of the world’s rarest penguins, the Hoiho (or yellow-eyed penguins). There is a small viewing platform nestled in the scrub overlooking the beach, where you can try and spot these amazing penguins as they come in to nest from a day of feeding at sea. The best time of day to see them is at dawn or dusk, so  make sure to rug up warm and be prepared to wait!

Yellow eyed penguin in the Catlins, New Zealand

3. Cathedral Caves

The Cathedral Caves are a highlight to both international and local visitors to the Catlins, and for good reason! They are a stunning sea cave system located at the northern end of Waipati Beach, and consist of two caves: Cathedral Cave and the smaller Cave of Tombs, which together are almost 200 metres in length and up to 30 metres tall!. The caves are aptly named as inside it resembles the grand interior of a cathedral, complete with towering ceilings, natural arches, and a sandy floor. The cave system was formed over millions of years through wave erosion, sedimentation, and tectonic activity.

Visiting the Caves:

If you’re planning a trip to the Cathedral Caves, it is important to note that the cave system is only accessible at low-tide, meaning timing your visit is important. It is also only open to visitors in the summer months, from October to May, and opening hours depend on the tides. 

To check the tide timetable for Cathedral Caves, click here!

From the car park, you have a small walk down the hill through a native podocarp and kamahi forest and then along the vast Waipati beach. The walk takes about 30-minutes, and is good for all fitness levels.

4. The Catlin’s many waterfalls!

The Catlins is known for its numerous waterfalls that are found throughout the region, and these are a must-see on every visitor’s list! The most famous of the waterfalls are the Purakaunui Falls and the Matai Falls, which are some of the most iconic and photographed waterfalls in the country! However if you are wanting to branch off the beaten track and escape the crowds, there are many other incredible waterfalls to explore!

For a more detailed look and list of some of the other wonderful falls you can see while in the area, please check out my post on Waterfalls in the Catlins! Enjoy!

waterfalls in the catlins new zealand

5. Curio Bay

Curio Bay is a beautiful bay located about an hour’s drive south from Owaka, and a definite must-see for people travelling the area! It is known for its stunning natural beauty, amazing wildlife, and the ancient petrified forest. 

The highlight of Curio Bay is watching the outgoing tide reveal the 180-million year old Jurassic fossil forest – which is one of only 3 accessible forests like this in the world! Millions of years ago, Curio Bay was a part of the eastern margin of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. The forests that covered this region were destroyed many times by massive sheet floods of volcanic debris. At low-tide, you can wander around this old, petrified forest, marvelling at the exposed tree stumps, logs, and other fascinating fossils.

The bay is also home to a couple of breeding pairs of the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Hoiho). At dawn or dusk, you can sit at one of the sheltered viewing platforms and see if you can spot one of these awesome creatures as the head out to see for a long day of fishing! Or, if you’re like me, you can miss the penguin entirely as it walks right past your campground!

Although Curio Bay is popular with visitors, it has limited shops and cafes, so make sure you come prepared when visiting this area!

6. Porpoise Bay

Just on the other side of the headland from Curio Bay is the beautiful Porpoise Bay. This bay was one of my favourite places in the Catlins, and i’ll tell you why! The bay is renowned for its incredible natural beauty, with a long stretch of golden beach leading into the sheltered bay. 

The star attraction of Porpoise Bay is the Hector’s dolphin! This is one of the world’s rarest and most unique species of dolphins, and are in residence year-round. Climb along the rocks near the headland, or stroll along the beach, and you should be almost guaranteed to spot this incredible pod feeding and playing in the waves close to shore. 

Hector's dolphins at Porpoise Bay in the Catlins New zealand

Note: If you’re feeling like a cold plunge, it is definitely worth going for a swim! We stayed in the area for about 3 days, and were lucky enough to be able to swim with these incredible animals twice during that time! They are generally quite curious animals, and so will come over to see what you’re up to. 

Porpoise Bay is also an awesome day out for the family on a hot summer’s day. There are plenty of things to do; spot the local dolphins and have a swim in the crystal-clear waters, have a go at surfing, or try your luck fishing off the rocks around the headland!

7. Surat Bay and Cannibal Bay

A great place for sea lion watching in the Catlins is Surat Bay Beach! Surat Bay is found 5 kms from the town of Owaka, and offers a beautiful walkway through the sand dunes or along the sandy beach towards Cannibal Bay (don’t worry, no cannibals in sight!), with beautiful views of the Pounawea Inlet. The walk is about a 1-hour return trip, however give yourself a little more time as you’ll be constantly stopping to take photos!

view over surat bay in the catlins new zealand

This stretch of coastline is home to a colony of sea lions, and they are often spotted sunbathing on the sand or swimming in the inlet. Be wary when walking – they can quite often be hidden among the dunes, and stumbling across one can give it and ourselves a bit of a fright! 

8. Papatowai

Papatowai is a small town in the heart of the Catlins region, and is a great place to stop and visit. The town is surrounded by lush forests, rolling hills, and is on the banks of the Tahakopa river bay, and so it is a perfect place to stop for a picnic and to take in the views!

There are two lovely walking tracks leading from Papatowai and another hidden gem in the town:

The Old Coach Track Walkway

This track follows the original route that horse-drawn coaches took after coming off the beach at Tahakopa Bay, and parts of this road formation can be seen as it passes beneath a canopy of tree fern, silver beech and totara. Near the tracks end you can experience some of the Maori history in the area, with a view of an old Moa hunter archaeological site.

The walk is mostly flat and follows along the tidal river, and so it is a very pleasant walk for all ages and abilities.

view from papatowai in the catlins new zealand
View of Old Coach Road Walkway from Papatowai

Kings Rock Track

This walk starts at the parking lot on Cross Street, and travels along the coast through dense native bush. After around half an hour, the track passes into privately owned farmland, which is okay to walk through as long as you stick to the markers! The walk is best at low-tide, and takes you down to landmark rock known as King’s Rock.

The Lost Gypsy Caravan

If you have a bit of extra time in Papatowai, a good rainy-day activity is to visit the Lost Gypsy Caravan. The Lost Gypsy caravan and the Winding Thoughts Theatre is the creation of Blair Somerville, a NZ artist who is critically acclaimed for his automata art. It is an adults playground! 

Start your tour with a visit to the green house bus, filled with incredible moving trains, light shows, weird and wonderful wind-up gadgets – all made from found objects such as shells, toys, coins, wire, and wood. It’s delightful to enter a space so filled with mystery objects and be encouraged to touch them all!

From here, you can grab a coffee at his yellow coffee cart, and head on down the path to the Winding Thoughts Theatre, his masterpiece.

9. Slope Point

Slope Point is the southernmost point of New Zealand’s South Island, and so, if only for that reason, you should make this a point to check off on your Catlins bucket list! It is located 30kms from the town of Waikawa, and offers breathtaking views of the dramatic coastline, steep cliffs, and the wild southern ocean.

slope point in the catlins new zealand

Where to eat and drink in the Catlins?

As the Catlins is quite a remote region of New Zealand, there are limited options for grocery shopping, so it’s important to be prepared and stock up on food for the next step of the journey!

The last big supermarket you will come across on your drive south from Dunedin is located in Balclutha, which is about a 20-minute drive from Kaka Point. Once you are in the Catlins, there are a few options for grocery shopping, although these can be a little more expensive. Also remember to check the opening times of these stores, as they often have shorter opening times than the bigger supermarkets. 

  • Four Square, Owaka
  • Papatowai Country Store
  • Tokanui Food Centre

If you are looking for an opportunity to eat out, there are a few lovely cafes and pubs found in the small towns throughout the Catlins.  

1. The Point Cafe | Kaka Point

Open from lunchtime until 7:30 everyday except Monday, the Point cafe has delicious lunch and dinner options, including lots of local seafood and beer! 

Location: 58 Esplanade, Kaka Point, Catlins, New Zealand

2. Lumberjack Bar and Cafe | Owaka

An awesome pub found in Owaka that serves up delicious, classic New Zealand dishes. Banging burgers, fish n’ chips, racks of lamb… good hearty food that will hit the spot!

Location: 3 Saunders Street, Owaka, Catlins, New Zealand

3. The Orange Roughy | New Haven

This is a small coffee caravan found in the secluded spot of Newhaven, right by Surat Bay! Delicious coffee with incredible views of the beach. An absolute hidden gem!

Location: 19 Surat Bay Road, New Haven 9585, New Zealand

4. Peake’s Kitchen Food Truck | Papatowai

An awesome food truck found in the heart of Papatowai, this is the place to go after a morning spent exploring! The menu is pretty simple, but the food is incredible! Enjoy a  classic burger, or go for the chef’s surprise – a changing dish with local ingredients and freshly caught seafood! Yum!

Location: Papatowai Country Store, 2501 Papatowai- Chaslands Hwy

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions about the Catlins!

What is the Catlins known for?

The Catlins, located in the southeastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island, is known for its rugged coastal landscapes, lush forests, and abundant wildlife. It’s particularly renowned for its pristine beaches, waterfalls, and unique geological formations.

Are the Catlins worth visiting?

100%! This is one of the coolest areas of New Zealand! It’s a relatively unspoiled and remote region, offering a peaceful escape for nature enthusiasts.

What beaches are near the Catlins?

Some of the notable beaches near the Catlins include Curio Bay, Porpoise Bay, and Cannibal Bay.

What is the best time to visit the Catlins?

The best time to visit the Catlins is during the summer months (December to February) when the weather is mild and conducive to outdoor activities. However, it can be visited year-round, each season offering its unique charm.

Where is the best base to explore the Catlins?

Owaka is often considered a good base for exploring the Catlins, as it offers accommodations and amenities, and it’s centrally located within the region.

Why is Curio Bay famous?

Curio Bay is famous for its petrified forest, which dates back to the Jurassic period and is one of the best-preserved in the world. It’s also known for its resident population of Hector’s dolphins.

What is the main town in the Catlins?

Owaka is often considered the main town in the Catlins.

How big is the Catlins?

The Catlins is a region that covers roughly 1,900 square kilometers (about 730 square miles).

How long is the drive from Invercargill to Dunedin via Catlins?

The drive from Invercargill to Dunedin via the Catlins can take approximately 4 to 5 hours, depending on stops and road conditions.

What is the history of the Catlins?

The Catlins has a history of Māori occupation dating back centuries. European settlement in the area began in the 19th century, primarily for farming and logging.

What does Owaka mean?

The name “Owaka” is of Māori origin and is thought to mean “place of canoes.”

What is the history of Cannibal Bay?

Cannibal Bay is associated with a dark history of possible cannibalism among Māori tribes in pre-European times. The name reflects this historical aspect, but it’s important to note that it’s now a peaceful and beautiful coastal area known for its wildlife and natural beauty.

Thanks for reading my post on travelling to the Catlins, New Zealand! Our trip to the Catlins was very spontaneous, and I didn’t really know what to expect. However, what we did find took my breath away! I hope this helps you get inspired to start planning your own Catlins adventure!

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