During our four day Catlins road trip, we kind of ended up making it our personal mission to tick off as many of the “Things To Do” outlined in the Catlins Coast section of the Southern Scenic Route brochure as we could.
Located right down in the southeastern corner of New Zealand’s South Island, the Catlins Coast is arguably the most spectacular section of the Southern Scenic route in New Zealand. It encompasses the area between Fortrose to the west, and Kaka Point to the east. (Basically, between Invercargill and Balclutha). As such, it straddles across both the Otago and Southland regions.
While we’ve had many “Holy Cow, this feels so much like Ireland!” moments during our time in New Zealand, nowhere was this more true than in the Catlins Coast.
But, that isn’t a bad thing! We love Ireland! (In case you didn’t know – Ireland is normally home for us). And the Catlins Coast is truly beautiful. Rugged coastlines, lush rainforests, rolling green hills, numerous waterfalls, and best of all (and if you’re lucky) some incredible wildlife (think penguins, dolphins, seals and sea lions!). The Catlins’ incredible attractions will keep you constantly in awe of this stunning spot tucked away in the deep south.
The official slogan for the Catlins Coast is “Let The Catlins Captivate You”, and it certainly does that! There are plenty of attractions in the Catlins to keep you going on a multi-day road trip.
For our top picks of the most amazing things to do in the Catlins Coast, read on!
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How Long Will You Need In The Catlins Coast?
With so many things to do in the Catlins Coast, I’d suggest you try to spend about three days here if you can.
I know many people do visit the Catlins on a day trip, but in my humble opinion, two days should be the absolute minimum. You just wouldn’t do this spectacular coastline justice if you rush through it in a single day.
While the Catlins doesn’t cover a massive area (it’s only about 100km of coastline), you’ll be stopping off regularly, and taking a few detours off the main road to get to some of the best attractions along the Catlins Coast. This means the route will become almost twice as long (around 200km of driving), plus the time you’ll spend at each location. Also, don’t forget, driving in New Zealand rarely means hitting 100km/hr so don’t count on this taking only a couple of hours to complete!
More importantly, if you want to try and spot some penguins, you’ll need to plan your visit to some specific spots to coincide with dawn or dusk, as that is when they are usually visible. (More on this below).
As I mentioned, our Catlins itinerary stretched across four days and we really enjoyed being able to take our time to fully explore all that the Catlins have to offer.
Planning a road trip? Check out my comprehensive guide on renting a car in New Zealand!
The Best Things To Do In The Catlins Coast
Slope Point is the Southernmost point on New Zealand’s South Island. But, don’t let a photo of you at the windswept Slope Point be just a ticking-the-box exercise to prove you’ve been there!
This exposed coroner on the edge of New Zealand’s South Island is a pretty spectacular way to start off your road trip down the Catlins Coast.
The brochure promised magnificent views at Slope Point, but it’s really much more than that. The sheer power of the Southern Ocean waves as they beat up against the steep cliffs is a sight to behold. Beware of the salty mist that will spray you (and your camera!) as they pummel the coastline.
It’s an easy and short walk from the car park (about 10mins) across private farmland to the yellow sign indicating the southernmost point.
Please do be careful along the cliff edge as there are no barriers to protect you from the steep drops. The wind here is infamous, so wrap up warm and stay on steady ground. (Also, beware of the sheep poo! 😬)
Make sure you pay attention to the iconic trees on the other side of the road from the Slope Point parking area. The onslaught of a constant and fierce wind here has created a pretty dramatic bend to the trees!
Curio Bay (& Porpoise Bay)
I have to give a special mention to my cousin for suggesting we make time for Curio Bay in particular. (Thanks Linda!)
While we didn’t get to see quite as much wildlife on our visit as she did (nature is unpredictable, after all, and perhaps the season played a part), Curio Bay is still a terrific spot to spend the day.
On a warm sunny day, the beach at Porpoise Bay is a fantastic spot for a swim, while at the headland of Curio Bay itself you’ll once again be amazed by the power of the incredible waves beating up against the rocks.
We were lucky with the weather and took our time exploring the bay, starting with the Petrified Forest just a short walk down from the Curio Bay information centre. This is best viewed at low tide, when the 180 million year old Jurassic forest is revealed. This is one of only three such accessible fossil forests in the world! If you look closely, you’ll realise that what look like rocks are actually fossilised tree stumps! Quite an unusual sight!
If seeing rare and endangered wildlife is high up on your to-do list for your Catlins road trip itinerary, Curio Bay is one of the best places to be. After all, it is home to the world’s rarest penguins – The yellow-eyed penguin (Hoiho).
We managed to spot just one penguin as it returned from the sea after a day of feeding. Unfortunately we didn’t get a good photo of it, but I was very happy to have had the opportunity to see it! Apparently only around 300 breeding pairs of these penguins remain on mainland New Zealand.
Top Tip: Penguins are best seen at dusk, just after sunset, when they come back from their day’s feeding at sea.
For additional wildlife viewing, head to the stretch of beach at Porpoise Bay. This is home to fur seals, sea lions and the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin – the Hector’s dolphin.
In the summer the dolphins come in quite close to shore, and may even come up and swim with you if you’re lucky! (Please don’t approach them – they will come to you if they want to). As we experienced though, they tend to disappear from the bay in the winter. Even so, it’s a beautiful stretch of beach which we enjoyed walking along.
The Catlins Coast is home to some spectacular (and even somewhat famous) waterfalls. Having said that, Koropuku Falls isn’t actually in the brochure at all, but well worth a visit in my opinion!
Slow down and keep your eyes peeled for the small wooden sign on the side of the road, or else you’re likely to miss it!
The walk is about 20 minutes each way, taking you through beautiful native bush to this gorgeous little waterfall.
Koropuku Falls isn’t nearly as popular as some of the other waterfalls in the Catlins Coast, and as such, the track isn’t as well maintained. Make sure you wear waterproof shoes with good grip because the path here was very slippery and wet when we visited. The benefit of this lesser known waterfall is that you’re likely to have it all to yourself!
The striking McLean Falls was without a doubt our favourite waterfall in the Catlins Coast. A definite must-see! It’s a lovely walk that’s about 20 minutes each way from the car park. It’s not a challenging walk, and the path is very well maintained.
Top Tip: You’ll have to drive a short stretch of unsealed road to get to the car park for the McLean Falls walk, but it’s in good condition so nothing to worry about.
The iconic 22 meter high McLean Falls is the tallest of the many waterfalls in the Catlins Coast, and cascades over multiple levels in quite an interesting shape.
Although it looks like one large waterfall, McLean Falls is actually separated into an upper and lower waterfall.
At the end of the walk, there’s a viewing area where you can easily admire the whole waterfall. If you’re feeling adventurous, it’s fairly easy to scramble up the rocks on the right hand side of the falls to get to the upper tier. This may not be possible after heavy rainfall, and in any case, make sure you’re careful!
Matai & Horseshoe Falls
Although this one is listed simply as Matai Falls, there are actually two waterfalls on this track, located just a minute or two from each other. While Matai Falls is the one that’s named, the Horeseshoe Fall is arguably slightly more spectacular.
Having said that, these falls are possibly not quite as impressive as some of the others in the Catlins, but it’s a good spot to stop off to stretch the legs.
It’s a short (10 minutes each way) and easy track to Matai Falls, with a final short but steep section taking you up to Horeshoe Falls.
Of all the amazing things to do in the Catlins Coast, this stop probably has the best effort to reward ratio! The walk to Purakaunui Falls is super easy and will only take you a few minutes.
We were a bit unlucky though, as Puraukanui Falls were not at their most spectacular when we visited. A lack of rainfall (you could’ve fooled me! It felt like we had plenty of rain, but apparently not enough) meant that the falls were not up to their full splendour.
Still, they were lovely and I can only imagine how breathtaking they must be after heavy rain!
Puraukanui Falls are 20 meters high, and cascade down over three tiers. But the thing that I personally think makes them so impressive is their width. Make sure you step down off the viewing platform to the left of the falls to get a full view of their grandeur!
Fun Fact: Puraukanui Falls are so photogenic that they’ve featured on a New Zealand postage stamp! In fact, they’re apparently New Zealand’s most photographed falls!
Enjoy hiking? Check out The Best Day Hikes In The South Island!
Tautuku Bay & Isas Cave
Another lovely little walk (10 minutes each way) through native bush will take you to stunning Tautuku Bay on the Catlins Coast.
At the risk of sounding a bit cheesy, I felt like I’d chanced upon Narnia here…! The bush walk suddenly opened up to the most magnificent view of a golden sandy bay, and the sun came out just as we reached the forest fringe.
Pure magic! 🤩
It’s easy to miss the start of the nature trail from the road, so keep your eyes peeled. Park in the small bay opposite to the Outdoor Education Center.
If you walk down to the headland to your left at low tide, you’ll find Isas Cave and some really interesting imprints on the rocks to explore while you’re here.
Top Tip: If you haven’t had quite enough of this pretty bay, stop off briefly at Florence Hill Lookout as you continue on your way for a final photo opportunity.
Surat Bay is a quiet beach where New Zealand Sea Lions often come ashore to rest and socialise. And yes! This is where we finally got to see some sea lions on our Catlins Coast road trip!
After failed attempts at Curio Bay, we were really pleased to get to see two of these rare sea lions lazing on the beach at Surat Bay.
For your own safety, always keep a 20 metre distance from active sea lions, and at least a 10 metre distance from those sleeping.
Nugget Point & Roaring Bay
Nugget Point is the last of our top picks of amazing things to do in the Catlins Coast. And what a sensational spot to end our four day road trip!
It really felt like we were on the edge of the world when we reached the Tokata lighthouse at Nugget Point! At the end of a well maintained path, taking about 20 minutes return, a viewing platform provides you with rather stunning panoramic views out to sea.
The Nugget Point lighthouse is one of the oldest in New Zealand (and still in operation). If you use a bit of imagination, the rocky islets below do look a bit like nuggets of gold sticking out of the sea, which is apparently where they got their name.
Top Tip: There is an abundance of seals down on the rocks below the lighthouse. Keep looking and you’ll spot them before long!
If you have time and you’re here at the end of the day, stop off at Roaring Bay once you’re done at Nugget Point. At dusk, you might get lucky and see the rare yellow-eyed penguin coming to shore for the night. There’s a purpose-built shelter for you to hide in.
Do make sure you bring binoculars and/or a camera with a decent lens. Similar to Curio Bay, you’ll need to keep a decent distance away here too, so as not to frighten the penguins.
What Not To Bother With On The Catlins Coast
Yes, we did stop at almost every single attraction along the way. Overall, the Catlins Coast is beautiful. But, in all honesty, some of the things to do in the Catlins Coast that the brochure listed were mediocre at best…
So, in the spirit of transparency, here are a few of the attractions in the Catlins that we simply didn’t feel were worth stopping for.
Niagara Falls – Not the Canadian one, mind! Those are definitely worth visiting. But, this little joke is just that. A joke. It’s a stream more than a waterfall. So, unless you’re there to get a photo with the sign just for a laugh, it’s not worth the effort.
Tautuku Estuary – This spot really failed to deliver, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure why it features in the Catlins Coast brochure… With a multitude of more spectacular things to see and do in the Catlins Coast, I’d skip the Tautuku Estuary boardwalk and wetlands.
Lake Wilkie – There are so many beautiful lakes in New Zealand, and unfortunately this one didn’t quite hit the mark. It’s small and while the walk through the bush is nice enough, there are plenty of other bush walks to do in the area that have a more impressive end destination… Spend your time at Tautuku Bay just down the road instead (see above).
Cathedral Caves – This might be an unpopular opinion. We met plenty of people along the way who did visit the Cathedral Caves (not to be confused with Cathedral Cove in the Coromandel!!), and who enjoyed it. But, unlike most natural places in New Zealand, you’ll be charged a fee to visit Cathedral Caves. In my opinion, the $10 per person is a bit steep. Especially when there are plenty of other beautiful caves to visit free of charge (for example, Isas Cave just up the road on Tautuku Bay).
Top Tips For Visiting The Catlins Coast
Before you set off on your Catlins Coast road trip, here is some important information!
- Fill up on fuel before you go. There are limited opportunities along the way
- Ditto for food – No big supermarkets here! (You’ll find a Four Square in Owaka but that’s right towards the end of your road trip)
- If you have a dog, you may want to consider alternative arrangements for them… Due to the wildlife (penguins), dogs are often not allowed
- Be prepared to drive on unsealed roads from time to time. Most of them are in good condition though.
- As with so many places in New Zealand, mobile phone coverage comes and goes. Don’t rely entirely on Google Maps for your Catlins road trip! As always, I recommend you download Maps.Me before you go
Have you been to the Catlins Coast? What were your favourite things to do there? What other destinations make for a great road trip?
Let me know in the comments below!
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