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23 of the Best Things to Do in the Catlins

23 of the Best Things to Do in the Catlins

If you’re a fan of beaches, waterfalls and stunning coastal viewpoints, you’re going to love the Catlins. The Catlins is in the far southeast of New Zealand’s South Island and it’s the perfect place for a road trip – weather it’s a day trip from Dunedin or part of your journey south to Invercargill / Queenstown and beyond. There are heaps of fun things to do in the Catlins – I’ll help you decide what to see and what to skip!

Waterfalls

One of the best things to do in the Catlins is a waterfall walk. There are some great options, from a 5-minute stroll through the forest to Purakaunui Falls to the half-day walk to Waipohatu Falls.

Purakaunui Falls

Purakaunui Falls is the most popular waterfall in the Catlins, partly because it’s awesome and partly because it’s a very short walk from the car park.

Purakaunui Falls, the Catlins, New Zealand

McLean Falls

McLean Falls takes a bit longer to reach (45-minute round-trip walk) but it’s a more impressive waterfall. It’s surrounded by lush forest and drops down several tiers – such a nice spot on a sunny day and it’s way quieter than Purakaunui Falls.

Best things to do in the Catlins -- McLean Falls

 

Matai Falls

This waterfall is a little more low-key than the first two, but definitely worth seeking out if you love waterfalls. There’s also another waterfall on the Matai Falls track – Horseshoe Falls – and the walk from the car park isn’t too arduous.

Matai Falls, one of the best things to do in the Catlins, New Zealand

Waipohatu Falls

There are two waterfalls on this track, but it’s a lot longer than the others (2-3 hours return). Waipohatu Falls is the perfect place for people wanting a bit more of a hike than the other waterfalls and the falls themselves are stunning. You’ll also likely have them all to yourself.

READ MORE: Where Are the Best Waterfalls in the Catlins?

Waipohatu Falls, the Catlins, New Zealand

Lighthouses and Viewpoints

The Catlins is home to some of the best coastal views in New Zealand, and you don’t usually have to walk far from the car park to see them.

Nugget Point Lighthouse

Nugget Point is one of the things to do in the Catlins that’s on everyone’s list. It’s one of the most interesting coastal views in New Zealand and it’s really dramatic at sunrise. If possible, try and do it for sunrise, but go there anyway if you can’t!

Nugget Point Lighthouse, one of the best things to do in the Catlins

Jack’s Blowhole

A short walk from Jack’s Bay takes you to Jack’s Blowhole. It’s a scenic little track and the blowhole is cool too. You might see some penguins and sea lions in these parts – we saw a penguin from the track and heaps of sea lions at Jack’s Bay.

Jack's Blowhole -- a fun thing to do in the Catlins, New ZealandJack's Blowhole, the Catlins, New Zealand

Florence Hill Lookout

One of the easiest things to do in the Catlins is visit Florence Hill Lookout. It’s just a car park by the side of the road, and the view is amazing. I’d easily put it in my top five coastal viewpoint in New Zealand – you can’t beat that combination of white sand and clear blue water backed by the wild green forest.

Florence Hill Lookout, the Catlins, New Zealand

Slope Point

Slope Point is the southernmost point on the South Island, and it’s worth a look for that fact alone. It’s a nice spot (the lighthouse isn’t up to much though) but if you’ve only got a short time in the Catlins this is one place I’d skip (mostly because it’s a longish drive from the rest of the places of interest).

Slope Point, a fun thing to do in the Catlins, New Zealand

Beaches

There are heaps of stunning beaches in the Catlins and it can be hard to choose which ones to visit. I’ll list my favourites below.

Curio Bay

Great surf and the chance to see yellow-eyed penguins, dolphins and sea lions are the main drawcards of Curio Bay. It’s also just a beautiful beach to look at – the ideal spot for lunch by the beach while you wait to (hopefully) spot dolphins. We’ve seen them once out of our three of four trips there, so hopefully you have some luck!

Curio Bay, the Catlins, New Zealand

Cannibal Bay

This pretty, white sand beach is flanked by emerald green headlands and is probably the most photogenic beach in the Catlins. You can also walk from Cannibal Bay to Surat Bay for more beach views and sea lion spotting.

Cannibal Bay, the Catlins, New Zealand

Purakaunui Bay

This beach is a slight detour from the main road but it’s worth a look if you’re beached out by that point. Purakaunui Bay is a scenic beach with a dramatic headland, and there’s also a DOC camping ground there if you’re keen to stay the night.

Purakaunui Bay, the Catlins, New Zealand

Papatowai Beach

There’s a big camping ground at Papatowai Beach as well as a shop and a café nearby. It’s a great place to stop for lunch and if you’re planning on spending a night or two in the Catlins it’d be a good option for that. The beach is nice too!

Papatowai Beach, the Catlins, New Zealand

Tautuku Bay

Tautuku Bay is the beach you see from Florence Hill Lookout. It’s nice at beach level too, and there are a couple of short walks nearby – one over a wetlands boardwalk and one to Lake Wilkie, which has good reflections on calm days.

READ MORE: 10 of the Best Beaches in the Catlins

Tautuku Bay, the Catlins, New Zealand

Other Things to Do in the Catlins

Check out some of the other things to do in the Catlins, including historic spots, unique tourist attractions and short walks.

Cathedral Caves

This is another popular tourist attraction in the Catlins, but you’ll have to time you visit with the tides if you want to visit. A trip to the Cathedral Caves involves a short walk through the bush, followed by a walk along a nice stretch of beach to the caves. Walking through the caves is fun — just don’t stress too much if you miss this place as it’s often closed.

Things to do in the Catlins, New Zealand -- Cathedral Caves

Lost Gypsy Gallery

The Lost Gypsy Gallery is one of the most unique tourist attractions in New Zealand. It’s great for kids and adults alike and there’s a small café there too.

Lost Gypsy Gallery, the Catlins, New Zealand

This place, created by artist Blair Somerville, houses hundreds of automata and other gadgets and he encourages you to play with them. The bus / café area is free to enter, and there’s also a paid bit which has heaps of cool contraptions – try walking around this place without a smile on your face!

Things to do in the Catlins, New Zealand -- Lost Gypsy Gallery

Penguin Watching

Yellow-eyed penguins are found throughout the Catlins. The best time to see them is close to sunset, but we saw one waddling up the beach at Curio Bay in the mid-afternoon once. We’ve also seen them at Jacks Bay and apparently Roaring Bay (right next to Nugget Point) is another good place to see them.

Penguin watching -- one of the best things to do in the Catlins, New Zealand

Sea Lion Spotting

You’ll also see heaps of sea lions (and the occasional elephant seal) in the Catlins. They’re always entertaining to see, but make sure to keep your distance!

Sea lions in the Catlins, New Zealand

Waipapa Point Lighthouse

A lot of people will skip Waipapa Point Lighthouse as it’s at the far southern end of the Catlins, but it’s a good spot if you’re in the area. The lighthouse looks good in photos and the coastline stretching in both directions is nice.

Tunnel Hill Track

You can get a glimpse of the Catlins’ past on the Tunnel Hill Track. It’s a short walk to an old railway tunnel – an interesting spot and I’m guessing the kids will love it.

Tunnel Hill, the Catlins, New Zealand

The Whistling Frog

There aren’t many cafes and restaurants of note in the Catlins, so if you’re hungry I’d suggest a trip to the Whistling Frog. You can also camp there and grab a beer after a long travel day. It’s close to McLean Falls and there isn’t much else nearby.

The Whistling Frog, New Zealand

Exploring Owaka

Owaka is the main town in the Catlins. Most people drive straight through, but there are few good places to eat and drink there as well as motels etc. There aren’t any other proper towns in the Catlins so if you need to stock up on supplies you should do it there.

Owaka, New Zealand

Waikawa

This small village has an interesting museum, an old church and a fish and chip shop – three great reasons to stop!

Waikawa Museum, a fun thing to do in the Catlins, New Zealand

Fortrose

Fortrose is at the far southern end of the Catlins and is probably only worth a visit if you’re continuing on to Invercargill. There’s a good beach there and at low tide you can see the wreck of the ship Ino.

Fortrose, New Zealand

Are you planning a trip to New Zealand’s South Island? Check out our travel guide!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who has just returned home after 6 years abroad. Join me as I see as much of the South Island as I can.