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The Catlins: New Zealand's rugged southern coastline

In the remote south-east of New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country: The Catlins. The rugged coastal landscape impressed us so much that the Catlins are one of our favorite regions in New Zealand. In this blog article we tell you about our highlights and the most beautiful sights in the Catlins.

1. What to expect in the Catlins The Catlins (often called “The Catlins” or alternatively “Catlins Coast”) is an unspoilt and remote region in the far south of New Zealand. The region begins about an hour’s drive south of Dunedin between Balclutha and Invercargill/Bluff. In the Catlins, the focus is on impressive nature. The climate is rough, the waves are strong and the coast is rugged. If you want to witness the fascinating wildlife of New Zealand, then the Catlins are the place for you: Here the seals roll in the sand and at sunset the penguins waddle to their nests.

The Catlins are on the Southern Scenic Route – the long stretch of road that runs along the south coast of New Zealand from Dunedin to Queenstown leads and has plenty of scenic highlights ready. Although we are personally particularly impressed by the wild coastal landscape in the Catlins, the region also includes land areas in the interior: there it is above all the waterfalls that attract visitors.

How much time should you allow for the Catlins The actual driving time along the Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins (from Balclutha to Bluff) is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. So you see: The region is rather manageable in terms of area . So theoretically you can leave Dunedin in the morning, visit a few destinations in the Catlins and continue to Te Anau or Queenstown in the late afternoon.

However, we cannot recommend this stressful route to you. So if you want to get a nice and more relaxed insight into the fascinating region of the Catlins, then definitely plan at least one night here. We have stayed at the Catlins twice and stayed one night each time. Two nights are of course even more ideal, but you can also experience a lot with one night, because the distances are not too far, as I said.

The Best Season for the Catlins You can travel the Catlins Coast all year round. You have to be prepared for the fact that the climate is pretty rough all year round. Drizzle and strong winds are part of the Catlins even in midsummer.

The New Zealand summer (December, January, February) is the warmest – although still rather cool compared to the rest of the country. In addition, the temperatures are quite fluctuating: while we were at 25 degrees Celsius with short clothes, it was very windy and fresh the next day.

The New Zealand winter (June, July, August) is significantly cooler, but comparatively mild. The daytime temperatures here are usually around 04 Centigrade.

Driving in the Catlins Most of the way through the Catlins you will travel along the Southern Scenic Route. The road is paved and in very good condition. However, there are also some gravel roads, in the Catlins, including those to Cannibal Bay. If you drive slowly, that’s no problem.

There are only few gas stations in the Catlins (including in Owaka). The best thing to do is fill up the tank before you set off for the Catlins.

To best explore the Catlins, we strongly recommend your own vehicle. We booked a car through Sunny Cars for our New Zealand trip. Important when booking a rental car: Make sure that you do not have to pay a deductible in the event of damage. This is also one of the advantages of Sunny Cars, since the deductible is taken over here.

2. Activities and sights in the Catlins Here we tell you about our highlights in the Catlins. All destinations listed are listed from north to south. At the end of the article you will also find a map where we have marked the exact location.

Nugget Point The lighthouse at Nugget Point is probably the most famous and most visited photo spot along the Catlins. You can enjoy the white lighthouse at the tip of the cape a breathtaking panoramic view of the ocean including the towering rocks, the “Nuggets”. If you can make it in time and the weather cooperates, we can recommend a sunrise visit.

Arrival at Nugget Point Coming from the North (from Dunedin) then Nugget Point is the first major highlight in the Catlins. Take State Highway 1 to Balclutha. Then follow Owaka Highway and Kaka Point Road to the Nugget Point Lighthouse parking lot. Only a comfortable one separates you from the parking lot, 10-minute walk from the lighthouse. The lighthouse itself cannot be entered.

Cannibal Bay Cannibal Bay is a lonely, very rough beach, where you can, with a bit of luck , watch wild seals. If you can’t spot the seals right away, don’t give up – they often hide in the sand and are mistaken for rocks.

Note: Hold always keep a generous distance of at least from seals meters. Sleeping seals should never be awakened. Also, don’t block their way to the sea.

Getting to Cannibal Bay From the Southern Scenic Route, a gravel road (Cannibal Bay Road) leads approx. 15 Minutes to a small parking lot from which you are just a few steps from Cannibal Bay.

Purakaunui Falls There are three well-known waterfalls in the Catlins that are worth visiting: the McLean Falls, the Purakaunui Falls and the Matai Falls. The McLean Falls are said to be the most spectacular. Unfortunately we have no comparison, because we only visited the Purakaunui Falls due to lack of time.

These cascade-like waterfalls are very idyllic in the middle of a forest and are Supposedly the most photographed falls in the Catlins. The Purakaunui Falls are definitely worth seeing, but to be honest we find the wild coastal landscape just a little bit more fascinating. Maybe it was because the waterfalls had very little water when we visited.

Getting to Purakaunui Falls The Purakaunui Falls are very easy to access. At Catlins Lake you leave the Southern Scenic Route and continue on the Purakaunui Falls Road. This will take you straight to the falls parking lot. Only a 5- separates you from the parking lot minute leisurely stroll from Purakaunui Falls.

Florence Hill Lookout On the way from Purakaunui Falls to Cathedral Caves you will pass Florence Hill Lookout. A short stopover is definitely worthwhile here. The view of the wild coastal landscape is quite spectacular.

Arrival at Florence Hill Lookout The lookout is located directly on the Southern Scenic Route. So you can easily park your car and enjoy the view.

Cathedral Caves These giant caves on the beach are only accessible at low tide. With their impressive height, they are reminiscent of a cathedral on the inside and have therefore received their name. It’s pretty bizarre to enter these caves and know that they were flooded a few hours later.

Get there Cathedral Caves The Cathedral Caves parking lot is just a short hop off the Southern Scenic Route. From the parking lot an approx. 04-minute walk downhill through the forest to the beach. Arrived at the beach you reach the caves on the left after another 5 minutes.

Note: The Cathedral Caves can only be visited from two hours before low tide and up to one hour after low tide be visited between 7: 15 o’clock in the morning as well as 20: 15 o’clock in the evening. Access is controlled and no exception will be made. Admission is NZ$5 for adults.

For up-to-date visit information, check the Cathedral Caves official website.

Curio Bay Fairly south of the Catlins is Curio Bay. This bay is famous for its petrified forest from the Jurassic period. You can admire it at low tide. At first glance, the fossilized tree trunks appear to be just normal rocks, but upon closer inspection you can see the grain of the petrified wood.

That alone was pretty impressive to us. But we could see something else in Curio Bay: A lot of penguins gathered here in the early evening. Here, however, we really regretted for the first time that we didn’t have binoculars with us. The little dwarfs were pretty far away. By the way, right next to Curio Bay is Porpoise Bay. If you’re lucky, you can also see yellow-eyed penguins and even Hector’s dolphins here.

Getting to Curio Bay Curio Bay is located in the very south of the Catlins, just off the Southern Scenic Route. You can easily park at the parking lot and reach both bays (Curio Bay and Purpoise Bay) after a short walk.

3. Staying the night in the Catlins: our tips We have been to the Catlins twice by car so we have two tips for accommodation to you. Both properties are located in Owaka, a town in the north of the Catlins not far from Nugget Point Lighthouse.

Catlins Area Motel The Catlins Area Motel is a classic motel in Owaka. The furnishings may be a bit “old-fashioned”, but the apartments (all with kitchen) are very large and the beds are comfortable. The wooden table in front of our apartment was also the perfect breakfast spot. We would recommend the motel especially to couples. The price-performance ratio is very good!

You can book the motel here: Catlins Area Motel

Thomas’s Approx tlins – Lodge & Holiday Park On our first trip through New Zealand in 2013 we stayed here. We had booked a double room with a private bathroom and were very satisfied. However, there are also beds in dormitories.

We would recommend this accommodation especially for young people. With the common areas and the very nice garden area (with Barbecue facilities) it is aimed at backpackers. During our visit we met some young people there.

You can book the lodge here: Thomas’s Catlins – Lodge & Holiday Park

Camping in the Catlins Probably the most beautiful campsite in the Catlins is located at Purakaunui Bay. Although we were driving and staying at the motel, we wanted to check out the campsite. The beach is beautiful and the campground is very idyllic.

But that comes at a price: We were at Purakaunui Bay in the high season and the campground was already overcrowded in the early evening. We never expected so many people in this lonely place. So it’s probably worth it if you secure a place in time.

4. Our travel guides for New Zealand We used these two travel guides on our last trip through New Zealand:

Lonely Planet New Zealand This Lonely Planet Travel Guide New Zealand (English) covers the North and South Islands of New Zealand. In some places we would have expected detailed information, but all in all we were very satisfied.

You can also buy the travel guide in German: Lonely Planet Travel Guide New Zealand

Lonely Planet Best of New Zealand Same brand, different concept: The Lonely Planet Best of New Zealand (English) is all about the big highlights in New Zealand. This means: Some places are not represented at all, including the Catlins. So we cannot recommend this guide for a trip to the Catlins.

5. More New Zealand travel reports from us Our route through New Zealand The most beautiful day hikes in New Zealand Christchurch: Sights & Tips Lake Tekapo: Our Tips Dunedin & Otago Peninsula: Sights & Excursions Transparency: This blog article contains our personal recommendations in the form of so-called affiliate links. If you book or buy something through the links, we will receive a small commission. For you, this does not change the price at all. cool thing right? For our rental car in New Zealand we have from Sunny Cars got a discount – thank you very much! Nothing changes in our opinion at all. We have booked privately with Sunny Cars several times (i.e. paid the full price) and have always had good experiences.

Have you been to the Catlins before and have any other tips? Or are you traveling to New Zealand soon and still have questions? We look forward to your comment!